The light beyond the dungeon is not opulent mansion, as Shyan had expected. Instead, they emerge into a long hallway, lit by flickering torches. The air is much drier here, the wooden struts petrified. Their boots crunch over sand and pebbles, each scrape magnified by the echoing corridor.
Barred doors line the hallway, too, between the doors. Cang is careful to peer into each one, his ears alert for more of the foul, damp man-things that seem to this place likened to pests. He sees none.
Near the end of the corridor, which is set with an iron-banded door, the gang begins to hear a faint, rasping breathing. Cang follows the sound to a cell and peers in. Shyan grabs a torch to aid him, and they find an emaciated old man curled up against a cell wall. He wears rags, his hair is long and coarse, his beard bedraggled. He stirs some at their approach, but even the sudden incursion of torchlight seems to agitate him.
“Grandfather,” Shyan says. “What brings you here?”
He groans and tries to roll over.
Abia stands when the creature enters her cell. Beyond the gate, Shyan secures the taller creature with a length of rope. Its moaning continues unabated, but its shambling ceases, even though its feet continue seeking purchase on the stone floor.
The other lumbers towards Abia. She raises a hand as though to welcome it, to embrace it, but when it moves within striking distance, she lays her fingertips upon the cold, wet flesh of the man-thing. She channels a change in her molecular structure that slows the vibrations of the creature’s atoms. It manifests as a biting cold, an icy wind sweeping through the fabric of one’s being. Ordinary folk couldn’t stand more than a moment before their lips turned blue.
But this thing — this is no ordinary folk. A look of alarm washes over Abia’s face when she realizes that it isn’t working. The creature wraps its damp arms over her robes before it’s brought down with a harsh exhalation of foul air. Riding its back on the way down is Cang, a tiny knife pressed into its neck.
“You have knife?” Abia asks.
Cang pulls it out. It’s no longer or thicker than a woman’s finger. “For emergencies,” he says.
The gang pulls together in the darkness. A rectangle of hazy yellow light glows above. Shyan leads the way up.
“Be silent for once in your life,” Cang snaps, but his anger has got the best of him. He’s raised his voice, too. Meanwhile Fassn is still eagerly shuffling his feet, trying to contain his excitement.
The door above squeaks open, and more shuffling feet descend the stairs.
“Look at what you have wrought,” Cang sneers.
“There’s no rot,” Fassn says. He pulls a grotesque smile. “See?” he asks through clenced teeth. “The witch fixed them for me.”
Two more of the lich’s shambling man-things lumber into view. They pass without glancing their imprisoned compatriot. Shyan steps up to block their way, but they push past her, unthinking. She’s shoved aside without a fuss. The creatures continue moving, and seem uninterested in the fact that half their prisoners are free of their cells.
Abia watches from her space on the floor as the creatures approach her. One of them bears a key, and sloppily inserts it into the lock. When the taller man-thing swings open the gate, Shyan tackles him to the floor.
“Perhaps you could use your brute strength to force the bars?” Cang whispers as he slides his lockpick into the iron lock. “As you did on the grounds, above.”
“You saw that?” Shyan whispers back.
“The lich did,” is Cang’s sad, quiet reply.
“Guess he sees a lot.” Shyan catches a glint off a murky eyeball. The man-thing Cang trapped stares at her. It walks into the bars implacably but can make no progress. It just whines and grunts.
“Think it’ll bring others?” Shyan asks.
“Were I the wretch, I would not come down alone.”
A gentle tink sound signals to Cang that his work is done. “Marvelous,” he mutters, without joy. Turning the handle, the cell door swings open with a grating creak, and Shyan is free.
“Thanks, Cang,” she says, a hand on his shoulder. “Wish I could be of more help.”
“Just keep an eye for the beasts and you’ll have done plenty,” Cang says.
Seeing the two moving in the gloom, Fassn springs to his feet, shouting, “Oh, me, me!”
The rank stench that follows is clue enough for Cang to know the footsteps belong to one of the lich’s man-things. Its dragging feet move slowly, and Cang believes it to be alone. “So be it,” he thinks. “Far less formidable when singled out from the pack.”
The rest of the gang has hushed, too, listening closely to the rasping breath of the creature.
A few barren stars twinkle through cracks in the masonry. When the creature steps into murky view, it lays its empty eyes on Cang. Alarmed, he circles back into his cell, keeping his back away from the man-thing. It follows implacably, but its dexterity can’t match Cang’s. He dances past the creature, which can only pivot and wobble, then slips out the gate. As the man-thing grumbles, he closes and locks it.
“One down,” he whispers to his friends in the darkness. A chill crawls up him when no reply comes. “I suppose I shall merely continue on then.”
Two whispered words break the silence. Without seeing her, Cang can tell it’s Shyan. “Careful, Cang,” she says.
Cang pads onto the damp, grimy cobblestones, careful to keep his soft leather boots from raising any noise. He hears the trademarked sound of the grunting creatures above, and wonders briefly what horrible sorcery the lich might be up to in his private chambers. What fiendish magics Ulxurix’s form might have given him. What the lich might have taken from Cang, when he rode around in his body. Cang shakes his head to dispell the dark thoughts, but cannot.
Squinting into the blackness, he whispers, “Am I perhaps near somebody’s cell?”
“Mine,” Abia whispers back.
Cang counts out the ridges of his lockpick with his fingertips, then feels around for the iron lock. Like everything else down here, it’s aged and filthy. He inserts the lockpick but it doesn’t slide home. It’s stuck midway through. He tries to withdraw it but it’s snagged there, too. He yanks at it madly, creating a tinny, clanking metal sound that rings throughout the dungeon.
Cang gets hold of himself, breathes deeply. He’s about to try again when he hears a sound from above: the opening of a door, the descent of footsteps.