The amulet slipped over his head smoothly as he began walking. The voucher. That he clutched like a fiery sword. Fees would be waived. He had the right to claim a private locker. Access. He could go freely about the Academy. For the most part. He had definitely made an impression on Hedrard. It would be foolish to discount that. A hag would make a terrifying enemy, but perhaps she'd be an even more terrifying ally. Perhaps.
He touched the amulet. It seemed to slowly be dissolving from direct view. Still solid, still warm, but much less obvious. It was becoming discrete. Unobtrusive.
Bujilli smiled. No one need to know about his arrangement with the hag.
The corridor widened, turned, then opened out into platform overlooking cells, pens, pits and cages--the holding-pens for the Arena. Musk permeated the air. Thickly. Bujilli's hair bristled across his back and arms. He dropped into a crouch, one hand on his tulwar, even before he realized there were other people present.
Old habits die hard. Especially the ones that tended to keep you alive.
Four or five handlers or workers ignored him as they went abut their various tasks. Feeding beasts. Washing-out stalls. Shoveling. Sweeping. Dragging-out the carcass of a dead manticore.
Bujilli watched the handlers wrestle the bulky beast out of its cell and onto a flat-bed cart. It took two handlers. One of them had four arms. Both wore heavily scratched partial lamellar armor that reminded him of the horse-tribes who dominated the vast grasslands he had crossed...years...ago.
He turned away from the railing. Memories churned through him with hot pincers.
There was no way to know how long it had been since he'd left his uncle's yurt. He didn't even know what year it was here in this place. It was Spring. Yes. He knew that much. But it was clear from the plaque beside the statue of some old warlord that he'd passed on his way to Room 101, that the calendar they used here in Wermspittle was clearly not the one he used to take for granted.
Miles and miles. Hundreds, thousands, so many he no longer bothered to keep track. How far had he come through the aperture opened by the Transveyance? Bujilli had crossed more than half a world to reach the ruins of Zormur's old palace. How far had he come from there? He had no idea.
Distance was meaningless now. So was the old calendar, the old way of marking time. He was here. Now. It was a good place to learn many new things, new ways, new tricks, new spells. Knowledge. Resources. Options. Tools. Techniques.
He recalled his moment of terror as his body transformed into a hideous, bestial caricature of his already homely features. Horns, claws, fangs--none of that disturbed him very much. It was becoming like unto his image of his father. Grasping. Power-mad. Obsessed with sorcerous secrets and hairy women. A monster. Not in the sense of what he would do, not in terms of his actions or violence or fearsome displays. No. It was his appetite, his ambition, the things that he held-back and denied to others that made his father monstrous. Raised among the Almas, Bujilli knew keenly that selfishness killed the weak and vulnerable. Sharing was not a virtue to his mother's people, it was a matter of survival. Cooperation was a necessary evil--it was needed all too often to be appreciated, and left those involved exposed to one another. It opened the door to betrayal. And worse.
Bujilli spat. Enough. He looked around the platform. The cart with the dead manticore was long gone. someone with coarsely-chopped white hair poking out form under a muchly-patched green toque was clearing out the pen. He decided to do something that he never did before. The railing felt rough, but steady. A quick jump. Balance. Shift the weight. Extend. Drop. Land softly, rolling then rising onto the balls of his feet. Ready.
Bujilli took three steps towards the white-haired handler. This one wore shoddy iron-studded leather armor, a sort of breast-plate with shoulder guards and a loin-flap, over filthy denims and thigh-high but shabby boots. The left shoulder pauldron was chewed into a misshapen lump that barely seemed serviceable. They continued to swamp-out the pen.
"Hello." Bujilli stood just on the edge of the muck.
"Ahem. I said; 'hello.'"
Hmmmm. "Well. I guess you're busy. I just wanted to ask a few questions..."
"You! Get out of the pen. Now!" Barked a very large, very angry looking man standing just outside the door to the former manticore's pen.
"I meant no--"
"Out! Now!" the large man snapped the words off like salt-jerky. He wore chain-mail sleeves over a padded torso, but no shoulder-guards, and some sort of heavy apron hung down past his well-rounded belly. There was a wicked-looking barbed whip coiled and dangling from his belt.
Bujilli looked once more at the white-haired handler. They did not look up. But they had stopped working. They were paying attention. Curious. Bujilli moved to the door. His hands flexed. It took an effort not to draw his tulwar.
"I'm new here. I meant no trouble. Just looking around--"
"Shut it. You're in my world now. These are my pens." He growled as he gestured expansively at the fetid domain he laid claim to, a look of pride shining from his scarred and pitted face.
"--a Voucher. I was told it gave me free access to all non-restricted areas."
The big man's jaw clicked. He considered the matter for a brief moment then bellowed;
"I don't care about any stinking scrap of paper--"
Everything went preternaturally still.
The big man took a deep breath. He gripped the side of the pen's entrance with his filthy, gauntleted hands. A look of fear fluttered across his face like a flock of starlings that have only just now noticed the fox sneaking up on them.
"Why didn't you say so in the first place?! Welcome to the pens. Feel free to look around. Leeja can show you around--I'll be in my office if you need anything." He swung around and stalked off, trying vainly not to show how unsettled he was by Bujilli's revelation.
The air, though no less burdened with musk, blood, and all the other mingled animal scents somehow felt clearer now.
"You shouldn't lie about such things. It's funny now, I admit, but when Unfred finds out--"
"I really do have the voucher." Bujilli showed it to the white-haired handler.
"Good thing you spoke up when you did then." Leeja set their rake against the bars of the pen, then walked out, not once looking up.
Leeja went over to a large trough and hosed-off their hands. Delicate hands. Pale. A girl's hands.
"So what do you want? A tour of the pens? The menagerie? Have you had your orientation yet?"
"No. I only just arrived and passed my Entrance Exam. I haven't--"
"Good. Skip the formal tour. It's worthless. I can show you around instead. Unfred did say that I was granted permission to show you around, and since you hold a voucher from Hedrard, he won't make any trouble for either of us. So what do you say? Want me to show you around the pens, or do you want to get out of this stinky place and get a real look around?"