Cang steals over to the trunk. Its construction is tough, clearly constructed for a considerable fee by a skilled professional. Undetected, he runs his fingers over the planed wood, takes in the rivets holding tight the iron.
Of course, a heavy padlock hangs from the front. Its keyhole is clean, undisturbed, as though this trunk is not often used. Cang draws a couple lengths of wire from a pouch sewn into his vest, and expertly fans them out with his fingers. Squinting askance, he selects a wire and inserts it carefully into the lock. Twisting and turning, he chooses another, puts it in too.
As guards move about outside the princess’ chamber, Cang hears the soft click of the lock popping open.
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.