"Are they still out there?" Leeja hissed incredulously.
"Oh yes. They'll wait there for as long as they know you're inside." Morquin leaned back on his cushions. Impassive. Implacable.
"Then we'd appreciate it if you might point out another route we can take to return to our, to my room." Bujilli sighed. He had no interest in confronting the three killers waiting outside for them both. for all he knew there were three more such 'representatives' waiting for them out there, seeking to drag them off to meet with yet more of the secret masters or behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who've now taken a very real interest in them both. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn't always all that good to be wanted.
"Certainly," Morquin nodded; You can take a stroll through the catacombs, take your chances poling a raft along the Buried Canal, or you could take to the roofs, if that appeals to you, though it is raining."
They looked at each other. Leeja nodded. "We'll take to the roofs."
"Despite the rain?" Morquin rose to his feet.
"Yes." Leeja was adamant. Bujilli wasn't sure why, but he would back her in this, certain that she had a reason.
"Personally, I would have opted for the Buried Canal, but then I'm not much of one for the heights. Have you some plan for hauling your...friend? Captive? Prisoner there along with you?"
Bujilli looked down on Ahven's still form. Disarmed, bound and under the influence of a Sleep spell. He wasn't terribly keen on hauling the boy across the rooftops. He also wasn't prepared to abandon him to the tender mercies of Master Morquin and his mate Yushgra.
"Ah. I see that this a delicate matter, perhaps you would appreciate something to help maintain your current position, prolong the situation, as it were, with a bit more discretion than what you are faced with at the moment?"
"Husband! No. We do not know these two--"
"Quite right. But a small gesture on my part might go a long way toward overcoming some of the unfortunate social awkwardness and reticence that festers in this place. If I make a small gist to you, and thereby make your current efforts a bit more bearable, then you'd be inclined to think a bit more favorably towards myself, yes?"
Bujilli nodded before he realized what he was doing. "That sounds fair..."
"What are you offering us?" Leeja's eyes were slitted with suspicion.
"A minor serum that I managed to salvage from certain burned-out pharmacological labs. It was banned almost as soon as it was first tested. So it is obscure, very rare."
"What does it do?"
"Once injected it reduces the subject's size substantially."
"It shrinks them?"
"One could be excused for describing it that way...the truth is a bit more involved...but the end result is what matters and that is what it will do for you; reduce your burden so it will fit easily into your belt-pouch."
Leeja placed her hand on Bujilli's arm. She was visibly uncomfortable with Morquin's offer, but did not utter a word; it was to be his decision.
"Are there any side-effects?"
"A few. Nothing too serious. It is, in many respects, fairly similar to the serums employed by the ancestors of my wife's people, as well as some of the other, more commonly available formulae still in-use among the Hyden and the like."
"Does it require an antidote?"
"No. Not at all. A small injection, say with a five percent solution, will be more than enough to give you a couple of hours to make your way back home. Once the formula wears off, his body will reacquire its mass, grow back to its normal size and so forth. Of course it will be painful, but such cannot be avoided..."
"Painful? How bad would it be?"
"Terrible. He will not thank you for it." Yushgra dropped her veils and began stripping-off her gloves. It resembled peeling skin back, only it revealed nothing. Her innate invisibility disturbed Bujilli. It was unnatural, for all that it was an inherited condition.
"I thank you for the offer, and it might have made things easier, but I must decline..."
"As you wish. It is refreshing to encounter someone who still retains some principles." Morquin grinned broadly. Too broadly.
"You care about this one?" Yushgra kicked Ahven's slumbering form, just enough to make him move.
"I...there are some things I want to get sorted out between us. He may have been misled or manipulated into attacking us--"
"So he is an enemy then. A sorcerer. Not a terribly good one, but a spell-caster none the less. He has the taint of old, bad things upon him. Poisonous things...but then you know about some of that already..."
"Yes. He used some sort of femur-bone to throw poisonous green flames at us...when...we...fought." Bujilli had not intended to discuss the matter with Morquin, let alone his wife Yushgra. But now...
"You did well to disarm him. Whomever he is, he is not entitled to wield such a thing. He takes much upon himself out of misplaced hubris. He deludes himself, making him that much easier to be manipulated in turn." Yushgra's voice moved past them as she opened a teak armoire and began to select something from the clothes stored there.
"How do you know this?" Leeja asked softly.
"I can see things. It is the way of my people; we see much that you do not, even as you cannot see us." She wrapped a strangely pleated skirt about her unseen hips.
"And can you--"
"Can I tell you who sent him after you? Why? Yes. I think that I could. But I won't. Not today. We've only just met and I am inclined to wait and see how you respond to things. There is a lot in motion currently and I do not know if we are to be allies...or something else..." Yushgra snapped herself into an immaculately-white ermine girdle that overlapped the skirt.
"We are not your enem--"
"Hush girl. None of us know what we are to each other, save only that I am with my mate even as you are bonded to yours."
"Ahem." Morquin folded his heavily muscled arms across his chest; "My wife and I shall answer the summons of the Headmistress. Would you like for us to deliver a message to those waiting for you outside our front doors?"
"No. No message. We have far too many questions to get answered first..."
"Alas, there are many answers here within the Athenaeum, if you but had time to avail yourselves of what we have to offer here..."
It was tempting to stay. Very tempting. But they needed to deal with Ahven, and they needed to check in with Gnosiomandus...and Hedrard, if only to find out how Sprague was doing.
"Thank you, but we really must be going." Leeja was growing anxious. It was time to go.
"Yes. There is something in the air tonight." Yushgra had pulled on a pair of spiked bracers, two criss-crossing belts, and a cloak of rich, black seal-skin. Bujilli found it impossible to keep an exact count of how many blades were sheathed and hanging from Yushgra's belts. More than four. He left it at that.
"Very well," Morquin stalked over to the armoire next to his wife and pulled out a heavily scaled cloak of lustrous black reptile-hide, which he held draped over his left forearm while Yushgra clasped a pitted and blackened cuirass over his mid-section. "We'll accompany you to the roof before we set out. It is dark--"
"And stormy." Yushgra helped her husband settle the heavy cloak into place, then handed him a pair of gloves riveted with dark gray oval plates that he pulled past his elbows.
"We've run through the rain before..." Leeja began.
"No doubt. And we are well past the Killing Rains now, but there are things that travel behind the rain..."
"...things that are best avoided." Yushgra pulled her hood up over her head.
Bujilli scooped-up Ahven and slung him across his shoulder. He adjusted his hold. Then Leeja bent the boy's knees forwards, pushed down and tied a fresh length of rope around the boy's legs, pulling it across Bujilli's chest, under the boy's arm-pits and tied it off. It would have to work.
"They are determined my dear." Morquin smiled. took Yushgra's hand and led the way to the ramp that led up to the roof.
Rain sprayed in through the opening in the roof, despite the overhanging edges and overlapping sections meant to minimize such things. It was dark out there. Massive clouds loomed overhead. Thunder boomed and rolled through the night.
"Good luck!" Morquin yelled to be herd through the pelting rain.
Bujilli nodded. Leeja smiled sweetly, then set off across the rooftop. Bujilli followed close behind.
They followed the spine of the massive peaked roof. The eaves were flooded and over-flowing. Leeja swung down onto a half-hidden catwalk below the main roof. This led them to a set of iron stairs. four flights down they were able to run across an elevated walkway connecting the main part of the Athenaeum to another building. The wind and rain made stopping more dangerous than staying in motion. They kept going. Up the crenellated facade of the next-door building, across a red-tiled roof, down a sloping section of half-collapsed wall, following the broken-up center-posts of a massively overgrown arbor; they kept going on through the storm, not taking time to examine their surroundings beyond what was available for hand-holds, foot-holds or climbable surfaces.
It was exhilirating. Reckless. Fool-hardy. Bujilli nearly lost his grip twice. But he kept going.
The rain was cold. The night was dark. They ran across roof-tops, avoiding lightning rods, dodging weather-cocks, vents and chimneys. A balcony. A door. Leeja let them into a chamber near the top of a burned-out building. The glass was still intact on this corner of the place. Dust swirled into mud as they dripped across the ancient carpets and hard wood floors.
"Why?" Bujilli slumped against the heavy pillar of a baroque bed-frame bereft of all linens.
"We're out of that place. No one knows where we're at right now. We can deal with this--" she slapped Ahven; "--burden once and for all. then we can catch our breath before we dive back into things. Maybe you can contact Gnosiomandus and see what has been going on since we were sent off on this errand of Shael's..."
"Your aunt Shael..."
"I didn't pick the bitch, any more than you picked your uncle." Her eyes flared gold-green in the darkness. Lightning rumbled across the night sky outside the tall windows. This chamber was fairly large. Mostly stripped. What furniture was left in-place was covered with shrouds or had collapsed into fire wood. The fireplace looked like it was still serviceable. If they felt like taking a chance on it.
"Your plan makes sense." He gestured to the rope so Leeja would give him a hand getting things un-tied.
They laid Ahven on the carpet. Re-tied his hands.
Bujilli went over and examined the fireplace. There was a draft. Water dripped down the back. He'd seen worse. Rummaging about the chamber, he was able to collect some fairly dry pieces of furniture and some scraps of old drapes and a section of rug that fell into a mass of loose fibers when he touched it. Getting a fire started was easy. He adjusted the flue. The fire grew bright and hot. It felt good.
He slumped down onto the floor. More tired than he had realized. Also more drenched. He began to remove some of his armor and clothes, setting things on the bricks before the fireplace to dry out.
Leeja returned from examining the rest of the floor. She was carrying some candles and cardboard box.
She lit a pair of heavy, old candles. Set them on a taboret dragged over from beside the bed-frame.
The box contained three cans of brown bread. The labels fell off when they lifted the cans. Neither of them read the language they were printed in, so they ignored the words. The picture was enough. A little careful knife-work and the cans were opened. The stuff smelled good, not spoiled, so they set each can close to the fire to let them warm up a bit.
"So what do you think we ought to do with this asshole?" Leeja retrieved her can, picked-out morsels with her stilletto.
Bujilli pried-out a mouth-ful from his own can. It was heavy with molasses, raisins, some sort of nuts. Not what he was expecting. It was good, but very, very sweet. He mulled over the matter while he chewed.
"Ilzinna was supposed to be the nice one, according to the walls. This one, Ahven, is a real piece of work. He wouldn't cooperate. Cast Voorish--"
"The Hateful Sign. Yes. His hands are incapable of making any sort of sign for now. I made sure of it."
"Good. So do we try to interrogate him again? Last time didn't go so well."
"He's part Umbri. The Umbri are..."
"They are a Deep People, one of the groups who live beneath the surface of the worlds. They trade with the morlocks and my father's people. They hunt my mother's folk."
"This one is part morlock. As was his sister. But the mask she was wearing, that wasn't Umbri, was it?"
"No. The mask was older, deeper. Those tombs are supposed to have been sealed away for centuries. Not counting when Niobe and I..."
"Yes? your sister and you...what?"
"We broke into the tombs beneath Zurugossa. I saw masks there. Like the one worn by Ilzinna. Before the floor collapsed from under us and we were separated."
"Niobe went back to your father. you went on to Wermspittle."
"Essentially. Yes. After I escaped from the Cnidarri and got past the Trading Post at Lussettrin where someone poisoned the water-supply with White Powder." She shivered in recollection of the Loathsome Masses that had once been merchants, fishers, and other people just trying to make a living in the dim reaches.
"So these masks are very old?"
"Yes. I was raised with folk-tales about the things. They hold the souls of ancient beings that hate all humans..."
"Yes. Their definition is a great deal more inclusive than most other people. My sister and I, for instance, we were both considered human by the masks."
"So who else would have had access to these things, after your sister and you left that place?"
"Anyone daring to go into the place. The old wards were feeble. We'd wrecked several of the traps on our way in. After the floor collapsed...the place was ripe for the looting..."
"I wonder if Gudrun would know anything?"
"Gudrun dealt with Ilzinna, back when she was being manipulated by Sprague, or was it Not-Sprague, his simulacrum? Whichever, she might know something."
"I doubt it. I have the distinct impression that whatever was behind Gudrun's impromptu feud with you, it wasn't something that left a lot of lingering traces."
"So you don't think it was entirely Sprague/Not-Sprague either?"
"No. Sprague was an opportunity. A convenient. cats' paw."
"Ilzinna was doing what her grandfather had asked her to do, as some sort of test."
"But were Ahven and Ilzinna sent to kill you before they were caught-up in the feud, or did they only receive those orders--"
"Not orders. She said it had been a request."
"Request then. I don't think Ahven here is likely to cooperate with us any more than he did before. But..."
"We don't need his cooperation. For one thing he's a liar."
"What do you mean?"
"I've been thinking about his claim to have been raised among the Umbri. Half-breed or not. The few Umbri who have some into Wermpsittle came through the East Gate of the Inner Ramparts three winters ago. They settled in the shanty-camps on the north-side of things, as far away from the Unter-Rail as possible. Their elders were all suffering from some kind of poison, some sort of purple gas they encountered on their way across the borderlands coming out from the dead worlds..."
"How do you know all this?"
"I read the papers."
"So you think that Ahven here is lying about being from the Umbri?"
"Yes. Did you see his sister's eyes?"
"No." He had only briefly glanced at her face in the course of dealing with the mask. The damned thing had been in the middle of casting a spell. After she was already dead.
"Her eyes were a very distinctive oily-purple..."
"I'm sorry, that means nothing to me."
"I think that Ahven here was really only her half-brother, or maybe he took after their morlock ancestors more strongly than she did. Whatever the case, she definitely took after the other side of their family tree."
"And who would that be?"
"The Purple Horde."
"Ilzinna was 'asked' to kill you by her 'grandfather.' The Desert Fathers, the elders of the Purple Horde never issue orders, they make requests. It's a mark of the loyalty of their offspring."
"But he's at least half morlock..."
"The Desert Fathers take a wide array of concubines, all the better to re-populate the dead worlds..."
"But why would these people have any sort of grudge against me? I never heard of them before this?"
"They obviously know about you. These two were sent to prove themselves to their elder; killing you is some sort of test for them both."
"Well, Ilzinna failed the test. I don't plan on letting Ahven succeed either."
"So that brings us back. Do we kill him? Or do we try to learn something more? Or do we just let him go?"
"I'm loathe to release him just to have him come back at an inopportune moment. I'm also not keen on killing the kid just because he's a pain. Once we start doing that...it'll just get messier and nastier as we go along. I don't trust him, but we do need to know more. I want answers, not more questions."
"We get what we get. We can confront him with what I just told you, maybe he'll slip up, especially if we keep him off-balance..." Leja smiled.
"You have an idea?"
"Let me show you." Leeja went over to the far wall, unhitched the chain for the chandelier and lowered it. Then she tied Ahven to the chandelier, feet-first and raised it so he was hanging only a few inches from the musty, damp carpet.
"Now, if you'd release your Sleep spell..."
Bujilli snapped the outer shell of the spell and it faded into a soft vrillic cascade of immaterial threads.
Leeja poked him in the belly with her finger; "Grandfather is disappointed with you, Ahven."
The boy thrashed about, swinging back and forth, upside down, hands bound, trapped.
"Kill. Now. No--"
"Yes, yes, we heard it before; 'no talk.' You like to present yourself as an ignorant refugee, but we know better."
"You know nothing."
"Wrong again. We know that your sister didn't get those gorgeous purple eyes from your morlock ancestors."
Ahven went rigid. His face radiated a determined defiance.
"We also know that you're no Umbri...you might have come through the East Gate with them, but you're not one of them. Are you?"
"Your sister, if Ilzinna really was your sister, failed your grandfather's test. You're not doing so well either. In fact, I bet you don't even recollect just how much you've already told us while you were under the influence of our spells..."
Ahven fought his bonds, growling like an animal. She let him wear himself out. Then Leeja took a handful of his shaggy hair and lifted Ahven's face up to about waist high. She stared into his eyes with her gold-green gaze. Softly, simply, she cast her Charm Person spell. Ahven spasmed, briefly, but found himself unable to resist. He was too worn down. Confused and uncertain, not sure what had taken place while he was under their control, he wasn't able to fight off the charm.
"There. That didn't hurt a bit. Now tell us about your grandfather."
Ahven choked. Whispered hoarsely.
Leeja leaned closer.
A scent like rotten peaches.
Bujilli yanked Leeja away from Ahven as thick purplish smoke curled up from the boy's nostrils and mouth. His eyes were solid purple now. Leeja's throat was raw. Her nose bled.
The purple gas continued to flow forth from Ahven's twitching body. Dark, sweet and deadly; the vapor was spreading out to fill the room. The reek of spoiled peaches was overpowering.
Bujilli pulled Leeja away. They both gathered their gear as quickly as they could and got moving. Once out of the chamber they paused long enough to get fully dressed. Then they took the stairs down to the fifth floor. There was a three-floor gap at that point.
"Most of my rope is back upstairs." Leeja hissed in anger.
"So we improvise. Or we--"
"We improvise. It's not safe to stay here. Not with that..." She coughed. Blood spattering her hand as she tried to cover her mouth.
Bujilli had no more rope, no more cord, not even a piece of string. He looked around the place. At first he considered trying to tie together some drapes or something, but most of them were too dry and rotten. The carpet was useless in this regard as well.
He pushed the window open. Rain poured in. The storm was going in full force outside. This way wasn't going to work. So he tried another window. No. Another. No. Another. A balcony. He went to the railing and looked down. There; on the left was a set of stairs leading down to an elevated mezzanine or patio.
Thunder crashed overhead. He grabbed Leeja by the hand and led her out into the rain. Down the stairs. Across the patio. The way down from there came in the form of a slope made-up of the bricks and stonework from the neighboring building that had collapsed against this one. Water rushing off of the patio made the way slippery, but it was better than falling three stories.
They made their way down the irregular slope. Ducked under a half-intact awning. This place was boarded-up. Advertising flyers for Lear's Soap and Hard Candy were haphazardly pasted over everything. Leeja coughed up more blood. Bujilli considered breaking into this place. Or...
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To be Continued...