He remembered falling. A stone had struck him in the head. Rotten kids.
Bujilli winced in pain. Blood was matting the hair along the side of his head. The rock that had struck him had hit harder than he had at first thought. He knew from experience that he was lucky to not have a fractured skull. then again there was no guarantee that he didn't. sling-stones are grossly under-estimated weapons. He'd seen an expert cave-in the breast-plates of Jalvani invaders one after another, but that was long ago and a world away.
He tried to sit up. Nausea disabused him of that notion. Dizziness. The impact to his head was worse than he'd hoped. Something wet spattered across his back. Blood. It wasn't his, not this time.
The ringing in his ears subsided enough for him to hear the screaming all around them. Leeja was hissing, her white-flame hair lashing out to slash, to rip, to sting and to strike one after another of their young antagonists. She ducked and dodged, twisted and turned, avoiding the stones slamming down into the pavement all around her. He gold-green eyes smoldered in the dark as she went after the Feral Children like a fury from their wildest nightmares.
She was buying him some time. He knew that. Sitting up took more effort, but he managed it. Eventually. Every movement took longer than it ought to, but he forced himself to rise. He fell back on his right knee. Twice. Then he stood. Wobbly, but standing. He looked down at his hand-axe. No way was he going to try to bend down and pick it up. He'd use a spell instead. Even with head trauma, it beat falling face-first into the pavement.
Something hot was pressing into his chest. Bujilli swatted at his armor, pulled open his collar. Hedrard's amulet. It was glowing deep red. The hair on his chest was singed and curled. The pain cut through the haze he'd been settling into. It grew worse. More intense. His skin blistered. He grabbed hold of the flexible-metal cord and pulled it away from his skin and called upon his Counsel.
///Machine! Help me! Why is the amulet burning me?///
Flash Analysis Indicates Deliberate Third-Party Interference
There. Counsel overlaid a soft yellow glow over the form of his adversary that only Bujilli could see.
Not three steps away from Shael was a dirty girl wreathed in rags, her face streaked with tears of rage. She clutched a rusty length of reinforcing bar taken from the rubble of some fallen building as a staff of sorts. She needed it--her left foot was twisted at a bad angle. The girl glared at Bujilli, virulent sorcery flowing from her eyes in a shimmering, spiraling stream that clutched his amulet and sought to sever his connection to Hedrard.
///Machine. Can you neutralize the pain long enough for me to deal with this matter?///
Counsel responded by causing the intense pain to quickly fade away. His hair and skin were still singed badly, but for now it would not hinder him.
Bujilli took a deep breath. Loosened up his shoulders. Stopped himself from shaking his head--that would be a bad idea right now--and flexed his fingers. He looked at the girl, past her clumsy auric defenses, the cluttered and unstructured jumble of her innermost self. She knew a few spells, but she was no sorcerer, not really, not yet. Self-taught and unguided, she considered herself far more clever than she really was, which was a common failing for those caught-up in ignorance. He smiled; this girl had a lot of potential. She might become somebody with a capital S...someday...but not today.
He quickly jammed the girl's flawed defenses into a swirling vortex of feedback and flux. A push here, a tug there, everything was so imbalanced and out of order that it was all too damn easy to disrupt things and make an even worse mess of it all. For a moment he felt almost guilty for crashing her internal processes but then he smelled burnt hair and his injured flesh twinged. For a moment he considered completely extinguishing her mind. It wouldn't take very much effort. He could strip her of the little power she had accumulated unto herself...but no...such a thing was beneath him.
His Uncle's cruelty toward him began to make a twisted sort of sense to him. Standing there looking directly into the soul of this young girl Bujilli realized the full extent of what he could do to her and it made him ill. Or perhaps it was the blow to his head. In either case he felt nauseous. The girl was a Cuckoo whose mental powers had developed far too rapidly, too quickly for her to adapt. She had sought to sever his amulet's connection out of some instinctual awareness that it held a type of power she desperately wanted but would likely never have. She was jealous. Spiteful. She intended to ruin the amulet in order to deny it to him, knowing full well that she could never use it, never wield it for herself. She wanted to spoil the thing she could never have.
The amulet went cold. Her link to the amulet was broken. Bujilli caught the flashing, flaring tendril of her magical link and directed the severed end of her spell to collide with her makeshift staff. The steel flared red-hot. She screamed. Dropped the thing. Fell to her knees. Collapsed onto the street. Unconscious. The pain had been too much for her.
Bujilli turned slowly to survey the other children that had ambushed him and his friends. Leeja was disarming them or scourging them with her hair as it writhed and flared and flashed about her like a cloud of angry cats in the dark.
He closed his eyes and drew upon another spell. Wrathful Facade. It proved to be the last straw; the Feral Children broke off their attack. Two or three turned and ran away. Then another five or six. Soon all of them were gone, except for their leader who remained face-down and passed-out.
Bujilli grinned. He hadn't cast that spell in a while. It really did the trick. Then it popped into oblivion far more quickly than it should have done. Then he dropped. His knees weren't working right any more. He wasn't sure but he might have vomited as he collapsed. It certainly smelled bad, over and above the burnt hair on his chest. He wondered if the amulet would leave a mark where it had burned him.
Bujilli couldn't sit up. Something held him down. He opened his eyes. He was in a bed. It smelled like fresh-cut rhododendrons and apple blossoms. White hair was wound about his torso and shoulders. Leeja's hair.
"He's awake." She sat up from beside him.
"Excellent." A man wearing a much-patched old suit came over to the bed-side and examined Bujilli.
"Happened? Ah. Well, you have suffered a nasty injury to your head my young friend. A concussion, slight fracture, some bleeding; the usual sort of thing in these cases."
"Relax. Doktor Niemann is here to help." Leeja placed one hand on his shoulder and slowly, carefully, delicately withdrew her hair from around him.
"You are most fortunate to have such a good friend alongside you in such endeavors. Her hair made a much more effective restraint than any jacket or truss I have on-hand. It was most essential that you remain still during the surgery." Doktor Niemann unwound some sort of wrapping...a bandage...from around Bujilli's head.
"Surgery?" Bujilli closed his eyes and examined his aura, his repertoire of spells, his defenses. There were some lingering traces of the Doktor's intrusion into his head, but it made him slightly sick to try to examine them too closely. Like most sorcerers, he had grave reservations regarding anyone cutting into his skull. He knew all too well how a simple flick of a scalpel could be used to strip him of his power, of his very identity. He hated the thought that he had been vulnerable to this surgeon.
"Yes. Nothing much, mostly alleviating some pressure in order to give your own body the chance to rectify things for itself. By now your skull has settled back into place nicely. Yes. Indeed it has." The Doktor felt along the side of his head just back of the temple; "Very good. Excellent progress. You should be able to resume your usual escapades in two or three weeks. Possibly sooner, if you take care not to re-injure yourself."
"Weeks?" Bujilli croaked. The idea that he had been much more severely injured than he had imagined coming as quite a shock.
"It's okay. Idvard has been more than gracious in receiving us both. This room is yours to use whenever you like, for as long as you want." Leeja's hand grew warm on his shoulder. Comfortable. Comforting.
"Can I get out of bed then?" He had things to do...
"But of course. Do go slowly at first. No need to rush anything right now. You need to heal." The Doktor nodded his farewell and left the room.
Bujilli sat up. There was a funny bare-patch on his chest where the amulet had burned him. The wound was mostly healed underneath a glossy greenish coating of some sort of salve. It smelled of roasted olives. The scent made him hungry.
"My clothes? Armor? Other things?" He looked at Leeja.
She smiled. Stood up from the bed and walked over to a heavily-carved antique wardrobe. The doors snicked open. She stepped back and he could see all his gear carefully stored in there. Except his hand-axe. That was lying on the floor, on a rug, next to the bed. Like a faithful hound watching over its master.
"It would not leave you. they gave up trying to put it away after it nearly sliced off one of the attendant's fingers. Very loyal."
"Yes. We've been through a lot together." He tried to picture Stril...what she would have looked like now...if she had lived.
"If you like, we can join the others for a late breakfast. Shael is doing much better--"
"Damned Right she is!" A rude woman in rough clothes barged through a side-door.
"Mildred. I told you--"
"You insisted that I wait until the quack was gone before I came in to check on the boy and make sure the old swindler didn't remove his thumbs or some other form of grievous malpractice. He's gone. So I'm here. Let's take a look at you then." Mildred waddled over to Bujilli and began to poke and prod his head where the surgeon had done his work.
"Ach! You'll need to be repairing that hole in your aura, but even so, it's filling-in much more smoothly and cleanly than most folks manage, so that's some good news. You must have had a good teacher."
Bujilli snorted. "No. Not good. My Uncle taught me quite a lot, but only in the course of terrorizing me until I could stand up to the old bastard."
"And did you?"
"Yes." He had fought with his Uncle the night he left. It had gotten ugly as much verbally and emotionally as physically. He won. Finally. Releasing one of the little demons trapped in a seven-metal cage had been a dirty trick, but it had worked. He'd enjoyed flying off into the sunset on a stolen carpet while his uncle was distracted...too bad the damned thing frayed away before he had reached the Sea of Tears. He was only just able to get the thing low enough so as not to break his neck when it finally fell into dust and shreds. The scratches and scars had been worth it.
Mildred fixed him with her stern left eye; "These knife-jugglers and organ-grinders don't know squat about matters of the soul. They can re-attach a limb, sometimes, or fix some broken bones and such, but even so a Seamstress is far better for stitchery and you'd be a damned fool to let those uppity snot-weasels at the Medical College try to cure your aches and pains. They rely entirely too much on White Powder derivatives and solutions to deal with everything."
"Mildred. Is...will he be..." Leeja seemed nervous.
"The burns are mostly healed. No lasting damage there. That little girl pulled quite a stunt there. Quite clever. Might have caught nearly anyone with that one."
"I know that much. It's the other injury that I'm concerned about."
"You've been nothing but a bother all this time, so I know full well you're 'concerned' about the boy's head. As it happens, I have some friends who are quite gifted in brewing-up curatives and cure-alls far superior to the poisonous scheiss those--"
"Did you bring it?" Insisted Leeja near frantically.
"Of course I brung it girl." Mildred pulled a small vial on a tiny golden chain out from beneath her fish-scale corset.
"Here. Drink this boy." She held out the vial to Bujilli. It smelled horrible.
"What is it?"
"If you don't want to be wasting the next couple of weeks lying around being useless then you'd best drink it." She pushed it toward him more insistently.
"I don't know..."
"Drink it." She scowled at him.
He took the vial and drank down the contents. Thankfully there was as little of the stuff as it was nasty-tasting.
"What was it? Or don't I dare ask?"
"It'll fix you up right as rain in a jiffy. No need to thank me. Your...ahem...this one...she pestered me night and day until I was finally able to get my hands on it."
"Oh don't thank me. Not at all. You can thank her. Leeja. She can be thanking me."
"And I will. Later. Once Bujilli is fully recovered and we've had a chance to talk."
"Talk? All you want to do is talk? Coulda fooled me--ACK!" Leeja forcibly escorted Mildred back through the side-door.
Leeja closed the door and locked it. She held the key in her hand. A silver key. It was ornately carved and seemed to almost flow in the late morning light streaming through the window.
Bujilli slipped out of the bed and walked over to the window. Four steps. It wasn't much, but it felt good. He looked out on a garden surrounded by hedges, a maze of sorts, which was in turn surrounded by trees. Beyond the trees...a wall...and ruins that stretched on and on for as far as the eye could see. It was like an oasis in the midst of a cold, dead landscape.
They had made it to Idvard's Keep after all.
Leeja was there beside him.
He turned to look at her.
"Yes," she turned to look out the window at the gardens below.
Sirens shrieked. The window rattled. Something exploded down below.
Smoke filled the garden.
Dozens of Grunters* charged out of the smoke...
What should Bujilli & Leeja do next?
* We saw the Grunters beneath Idvard's Keep in Episode 41 to Episode 45. We also learned more about Grunters in this post.