Fassn clutches his iron bar as the gang makes their way out of the rain. They step up a set of ornate stairs, worked by a master craftsperson, to huddle by the massive double doors of the castle. The wood is engraved with stylized depictions of a looming figure standing tall above a frightened populace. Ordinary people flee and hide as the figure triumphs above them. At the centre of each door is a brass knocker, cut into the shape of a predatory bird’s head.
Fassn reaches up and knocks.
Nothing but the thunder and rain returns their greeting, until Shyan spots a flash of movement at a first storey window. Another moment later and the ornate doors slowly swing inward, revealing a dark, dank foyer with creeping mists along the floor.
“Come in, honoured guests,” comes a voice. It’s familiar, yet eerie and alien. The gang can’t place where it’s coming from.
Suddenly, Cang materializes from the mists before them. He smiles, his mouth full of glowing purple fangs. “So good of you to join me.”
The creak of the bars sends a chill down Abia’s back, worse yet than the rain pounding down. Shyan groans and grunts as the wrought iron bars are wrenched away from their place in the gate.
With a sudden give, her efforts are rewarded. She stumbles back, her fists still curled around two bars. She clears her throat, spits, and throws them to the ground.
Fassn grabs one, inspects the broken end, and sucks upon it like a lollipop.
Shyan, her breath still ragged, gestures through the newly opened hole in the gate. Abia passes her rucksack through, then slips easily in behind it. She watches from the castle grounds as Fassn struggles through the narrow opening, his paunch getting caught. He keeps hold of the bar, though, and eventually slides in, but not before moaning about the pain in his wings — which of course have long been gone.
Shyan throws her things over to Abia, then climbs in herself. Setting foot on the castle grounds seems to stoke the weather above, and a mighty crash of thunder rings around them.
The castle stands, silhouetted against the mist.
“Not very friendly,” says Fassn, kicking the dirt.
“We do owe her some money,” Shyan says.
“For my teeth,” he replies, smiling.
“Cang in castle,” Abia says.
Lightning cracks. The gang huddles under a tiny overhang outside the lighthouse. The castle is shrouded in black wisps. Shyan glimpses the occasional flash of unnatural purple light from one of its many windows. She says a single word, then sets out into the rain.
The castle’s gates are iron wrought, taller than a person. Shyan grabs a couple of the bars, gives them a preliminary shake. She steps back, sizes them up, then sets her feet and takes hold of two of the bars. She begins to pull.
Abia holds a length of her robes outstretched to keep the rain from pouring into Shyan’s face as she struggles with the bars.
Shyan’s blood boils as she strains. The creak of metal slowly giving is soon swallowed by another burst of thunder and lightning.
One of the bars begins to crack.
“Okay, the circle is drawn. Now bring your friend to it.” Shyan and Abia share a look while Fassn walks into the circle.
Ulxurix grabs him by his burlap poncho with remarkable strength. He feels the magic particles popping in the circle, wants to feel them burst upon his skin. “Come on, let me, witch,” he says.
“No,” she replies. “This circle is for your little friend.”
“But he’s sick from that fang,” Shyan says.
“Aye, sicker by the day,” says the witch. She holds Shyan’s gaze. “The lich will eat him up, minute by minute. Your little friend is still in there, I daresay, but it’ll be hard to get him out.”
“Get him out?”
“Your tall friend, here, she’s strong. It should’ve been her. Her, we could have dealt with.” Ulxurix looks at Abia and sighs. “Well, we almost got there,” she says, trailing off. A moment later, she claps, the sorrow drained from her expression. “Well, time to go,” and she ushers them out the door.
Ulxurix has cleared out a bunch of her dentistry equipment from the centre of the room. Tools, books, objects arcane and mundane clutter the perimeter, making way for a sacred circle drawn within.
“I suppose your little friend enjoyed his souvenir,” Ulxurix says over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” is all Shyan can say. She gives a look to Abia, who remains stone-faced. “Look, can you help us, or not?”
Ulxurix whirls around, her tattoos alight with pulsing anger. “Have I not helped you enough? Did not I mend your friend’s mouth?”
Fassn grins and chomps happily at the air.
“Well, yeah, but this is bigger than that,” Shyan says. “Sorry Fassn.”
“Cang lich,” Abia says sadly.
Ulxurix falls silent, hangs her head. After a beat, she looks back to Abia, her eyes edged with tears. “It was supposed to be you.”
Townsfolk flee the storm. As Shyan, Fassn, and Abia emerge into the rain, doors and shutters slam around them. The gang hears fearful shouts, but the words are swallowed and crashes of thunder.
For a moment, lightning illuminates Ulxurix’s lighthouse, and across from it, the lich’s twisted castle. Shyan imagines Cang jauntily strolling up to it, ignorant of his withered body. She shakes the image away and leads her friends to the lighthouse, where she pounds upon the door with a gloved fist.
They wait a long time, trying not to jump at every crack of lightning. At last, the door swings inward of its own accord, and they step, dripping, into the tiny receiving room.
Ulxurix, her tattoos swirling about every inch of her flesh, and glowing with a serene yellow light, sits in a rattan chair, her fingers tented, patient. When her eyes land upon Abia, her face goes pale, and the light in her tattoos dims.
She stands, moves towards them, squinting. She says to Abia, “It was supposed to be you.”
“Where’s Cang?” Fassn asks, blinking away the drops cascading through his stringy hair. He’s allowed himself to be pulled back into the smithy with Abia and Shyan.
Shyan stares at him in open disbelief. “You saw him transform, right? And walk out the door?”
“Yeah,” Fassn says, with a drawn-out aspect, as though he’s trying his best to remember.
“His skin turned grey. He got new teeth, just like you. He touched the purple fang.”
Fassn reaches around to gently dab at his shoulder blades. “I miss my wings.”
“Not relevant. We’re going to see Ulxurix, the witch.”
He brightens. “Oh yeah! She did my teeth. Did we ever pay her?”
Blushing, Shyan says, “Well, no, but we were working on it. Still are.”
Abia signals to Shyan to move things along.
“Right. Fassn, get ready. We’re going back into the rain.”
Lightning strikes, and in that flashing instant, written across the faces of the three is pure terror.