He had the uncomfortable feeling that something large and hungry was staring at his back.
GrOnCh! crck. SsSSsSssSsssssss.
Phurba in one hand and Tulwar in the other, Bujilli eased to the side in an almost slouching manner to assume the posture of a strong defense against attempted sneak attacks from behind. He had been taught how to fight as a child back in the cold mountains by grizzled veterans, old almas who had served as clandestine guerrilla fighters in more than one covert and politically-deniable war. Almas were good at keeping secrets. They were better at fighting things most other people never noticed or ever saw coming.
Bujilli relaxed. He nearly laughed. Instead of some vicious Unseen Beast or Horla or even some stupid masked assassin from the low-land clans, all he saw were some snails. Big snails. Nasty snails with softly luminous shells swirling in hypnotic patterns that almost made him miss the multiple rows of very un-snail-like serrated teeth dripping with saliva as the things came after him with gaping maws.
But they were moving slowly. Too slowly. As if he were seeing them through a backwards spy-glass. They were coming out of the Oneiric Vortex. They were still making the transition from wherever they once were to where they now would be. Here. Soon. And they had already spotted him. At least they seemed to like him. If only as a possible food-source. It was something.
GlAaaAAaackkkkkkk - SsSsssssSSSSSssssssssss POP!
Bujilli shook himself and stood up straight. The Vortex was messing with his brain and mind. He could feel the ripples of its influence washing over him. If there were more time he might try to study it a bit. If only he had learned more about the fine art of dreaming, but his Uncle had only glossed-over the rudiments and basics of oneiristry. His Uncle had insisted that Bujilli focus on more practical forms of sorcery. Divination, locating things, dowsing, all sorts of tasks that served his Uncle's schemes and ambitions, but not one spell that might actually save Bujilli's life. No. Those sorts of spells he had to study in secret. He had 'borrowed' several of his Uncle's grimoires, journals, scrolls and sutras in order to learn more dramatic, more aggressive forms of magic...but the best he'd been able to manage was a lowly Damage-Cast, what the low-landers called a 'magic missile' in order to make it sound more impressive than it really was. Bujilli could do more damage with a well-tossed rock.
Again he shook himself. The effects of the Vortex were insidious. He was dithering and day-dreaming while the snails were emerging and would soon be upon him. He took three quick steps backwards then spun slowly around to take in his surroundings, making sure that he noticed everything clearly, just like he had been taught as a child. His life had depended on his sharp perceptions and memory then, it relied upon it even more now.
There were two alcoves. One on either side of the corridor. Both had jumbled masses of broken statuary and rubble mounded-up within them. Neither looked to offer much in the way of any real cover, not like the one he had used to ambush the spawnlings. The idols that had once filled these alcoves all seem to have gotten larger as they got closer to Area 8. It was a progression, maybe symbolizing power or status. Maybe that meant something useful, but it was not important right now.
There was a sort passage leading to another pair of rooms, again one on each side of the corridor. The one on his left as he faced the Vortex (Area 7) was dark and the dust around the entrance looked undisturbed.
The chamber off to the right (Area 6) drew his attention slightly. A faint ophidian stink wafted from within the room. He took a few steps to position himself so as to better look into the room, but not present too much of a target to anyone within. He could barely make out the mounded dirt and debris that had been pushed up and into the room from a gaping hole just at the juncture of the back wall and the floor. The smell was obnoxious. For a moment Bujilli considered trying to lure the snails into this room, perhaps by using Ventriloquism. But he had no idea what sort of sounds would best appeal to the snails. There was no sense in stirring-up whatever was lurking back in that burrow--if it did come forth, odds were that it would attack Bujilli before it would bother with the toothy Dreamsnails. Hardly an improvement in the overall situation.
He withdrew from the doorway and looked at the archway ahead of him. Away from the Vortex and the snails. There were carved glyphs along the arch. They looked intriguing. But there was no time to dilly-dally. The snails---
GrIinkkkkkkkkk. sSsSSssskkkkkkkkkkkk. Splosh!
The dreamsnails were finally through the Vortex, or at least some of them were. Bujilli stopped counting after a dozen. There were probably more than twice that many slithering towards him. For a brief moment he wished he had been born among Oni instead of puny almas. He cursed his absentee father for his predilection for bearded women for the ten thousand and ninth time. Once again his sire's bad taste left him ill equipped to act against the outrageous vicissitudes of life.
Then Bujilli remembered the Green Gem and the spells it had taught him. One in particular might help him gather his wits, such as they were, and either fight the damn snails or at least give him a chance to drive them off. He had no intention of being anyone's easy meal. He had killed his first purple centipede before he had been allowed to hold a knife. It had left some wicked scars across his back and chest, but he had killed the horrid thing. In the dark. Alone. With his two mis-matched hands. His Uncle had been furious, at first. Especially since he was then required to gift his nephew with a suitable weapon and everyone knew that Bujilli's father had left behind a Tulwar that refused to allow the Uncle to wield it. It was Bujilli's Tulwar. He'd earned it. No snail was going to take it away from him.
Bujilli moved quickly, quietly, carefully to the center of the corridor, just a couple of steps out from the big archway leading into Area 8. He gripped his Tulwar in his other off-hand and cast the Thought Wall spell he'd learned from the Green Gem that whispered still in his belt-pouch.
A shimmering heat-haze spread outwards from Bujilli's brain. It flowed and roiled and boiled into place to form a glistening barrier of half-formed thoughts, mistaken impressions, and false memories. It was a fabric of lies and mis-impressions, and it sealed off the corridor nicely.
Bujilli lowered his Tulwar. He felt clean. His brain was no longer fuzzy, foggy and distracted.
The Dreamsnails started to act strangely, as though they were confused.
Then one of the Miasmagaster Spawnlings squirmed past the Vortex.
The Dreamsnails lunged savagely, if slowly at the bewildered Spawnling.
As usual, everyone had forgotten all about Bujilli. This time he was rather grateful for that.
He tore his eyes away from the Dreamsnails' feeding frenzy and turned back to the archway. Those glyphs. They looked similar to some of the symbols and ideographic markings he had learned from his Uncle and his Uncle's old books. There was something of Naacal or even the Sotrixic Tesserglyphs to the look of them, but they were more animistic in their overall aesthetic, with animals and humanoid figures integrated into the designs in oddly contorted ways.
Bujilli's training reasserted itself. Before he even consciously knew what he was doing, he had unpacked his notes that he had bundled with the four Little Brown Journals that he had stolen from his Uncle and quickly pulled out one sheet after another to make a rubbing of each of the glyphs that he could reach. After the sixth glyph he knew that he was pushing his luck, so with a cautious glance back to see how the Dreamsnails and Spawnlings were doing--two more spawnlings had entered the uneven fray and were now being torn to gory bits by the voracious snails--he quickly re-loaded his rubbings with the notes and Journals back into his pack and got moving. But not before he reinforced the Thought Wall. It seemed to reflect enough of the confusion emanating from the Vortex that it served as a good distraction. It certainly had kept the Dreamsnails from doing to him what they were doing to the Spawnlings. For now.
The big chamber ahead, just through the archway, was both colder and a bit wetter than the area behind him. He could see his breath in the dimness. The floor was heavily covered with a dark mud, what had once been accumulated dust. The moisture was a recent thing. The cold seemed unnatural. It certainly wasn't the bracing sort of cold he was used to in the high mountains, nor the bone-cracking cold of the deep ravines and chasms or barrow-cairns where his Uncle had sent him to go gather 'relics' as a child.
He had always dreamed of becoming more than just another grave robber. But here he was again. In someone's tomb. Looting.
With a sigh of existential disgust, Bujilli padded over to the left and started to follow the wall around the outer edge of the room. It was a large space. The wall pulsed. No. Not pulsed. It throbbed. Languidly, like some weird sort of architectural sigh. Bujilli could feel the sorcerous tensions saturating the wall. If he only adjusted his vision a slight bit towards the Yelgic Axis, he could see that the walls extended outwards, much like a tesseract. But they were closed. Sealed. He shook his head and brought his awareness sharply back into focus.
There was a very large object in the center of this room. It was set upon a dais of corroded metal and a shimmering field of criss-crossing slow-motion lightning bolts arced all around the bloated figure of some larval-like mass of glutinous folds and many, many limbs surmounted by a greenish orb. It was extremely silent, but then such things usually were, when they had a pocket of absolute vacuum surrounding them.
Bujilli made one of the casual wards his people often made when confronted by something oh so much bigger and oh so much more dangerous than a simple snow leopard or a hungry yeren.
He had the disconcerting impression that the large green orb was some kind of ocular organ and that it was looking right at him...