He looked down at the boy.
Writhing. Sweaty. Feverish. Bloodied.
It was hard to take any satisfaction from the sight. If anything Bujilli felt profoundly sad. The boy was acting out of fear. Sometimes the most terrible demons of all came from within. Whatever this boy was afraid of, it rode him hard.
"I have an arrangement with someone called Hedrard...there is money involved. Perhaps enough?"
Bujilli looked up at the tall, gaunt woman in the cold, black fighting gown.
She returned his gaze. Her eyes were translucent amber. He could feel her appraising his soul with those weird eyes.
"Yes. You seem to have sufficient means lined up, don't you? That's not precisely what I meant, nor will it be likely to secure the assistance of a healer. Not during the Revels. But no matter. You are certain that you wish to attempt to heal this child?"
"Even though they attacked you?"
"Wh--" Bujilli's stomach heaved. Once. He kept standing. Barely.
The woman in black smiled. A ruthless slash of a smirk. Her skirts rustled like a nest of sharp swords as she turned on her heel and stalked back into her office.
Bujilli stood and watched her leave for the space of two heart-beats before it sunk in; she meant for him to follow, and to bring along the boy.
So he knelt down and picked-up the boy. Sweet, sticky nastiness exuded from the kid like a toxic miasma. Just touching him made Bujilli's skin crawl. Even through his armor. He tried to not look at how much skin the boy left behind. Melted to the floor.
Setting his shoulders, adjusting the strangely gurgling mass in his arms, Bujilli quickly followed after the woman in black.
The door slammed shut with authority.
He was going down a hallway. There wasn't time to look at all the strange objects or paintings hanging on the walls. He hustled to catch up with the woman. She seemed to always be just that much farther ahead of him. He increased his pace. She remained well out in front. He began to run, as best he could with the oddly soft load he was carrying.
Door. Door. Another door. Another. Still another. They turned a corner. Stairs. Bujilli's breathing was becoming labored. The boy was getting heavier. The scent of many different animals in confined spaces punched him in the nose; it was an unpleasant, pungent mixture of musk, manure and misery.
The woman stood next to an open door. He carried the boy inside.
"Whose this then?" coughed an old hag squatting on a stool next to a table piled with offal. She was in mid-stitch. Sewing together veins and arteries and masses of bruised looking flesh that still wriggled in slow-motion.
"A client. Bujilli here would like to ask you for a favor." The woman in black stepped back and motioned for Bujilli to come forward.
"Bujilli?" The hag put down her knitting and leaned forward to squint in his direction. Her left eye was milky. The right one was worse. She smiled, after a fashion, as only a woman with three good teeth can do.
"Yes. This boy. He needs help. Urgently."
"Ah. Lemuel. tch tch. I knew his father. And his grandfathers, though they were not so great, nor so smart. Ah, but that was when I was still young. And stupid, myself. Bah. Let me take a look at the boy. Let me see what there is to be done, what can be done."
She pushed the grotesque mass of flesh to one side of the table and patted it.
Bujilli set the boy down on the bloody, messy table.
There were wet strings of pinkish flesh stuck to him as he stepped back. The smell of corruption was horrible. He nearly choked. Gagged. The scent was repulsive in the extreme.
There was a hand on his shoulder. Hard, cold, talon-like. The woman in black. Oddly, it felt almost comforting.
"Ach. He's near gone. Hard Candy. The damned fool. As though his father hadn't warned him of the filthy business. Poor lad."
"Can you help him?" Blood ran down Bujilli's arm again. He looked at the rag he had used to bind his wound. It was flaking away in a fine gray ash. He felt feverish. A bit wobbly.
"To a point," the hag gestured morbidly with her over-long, thin fingers; "After a fashion. Some cures are worse than what they alleviate, just as some solutions are far more bitter than the problems they solve. Yes. I can help him. The question is how should I address his predicament?"
"What do you mean?"
"Look at him."
The boy was barely recognizable as anything human. He looked more like a pink and white grub, wiggling slowly, feverishly, covered in a milky froth that stank sweetly. Again, Bujilli nearly vomited. He felt cold.
"Ah. It's a filthy, terrible thing, is it not? Yet it continues. Every Spring they hand out the stuff to the incoming children. It's a vicious cycle. We're all caught-up in it. all." She looked down at the floor. Guilt weighed heavily on her warped frame.
"What can you do for him?"
"I can put him out of his misery. That'd be easiest. Possibly the best. Or..."
"Or what? He's...melting. You have to do something--"
"No. I do not have to do anything. You want me to do something. Why? Who is he to you?" The hag demanded. She seemed almost angry at Bujilli. But why?
"Please. Help the boy. I will pay you."
"Ach. Yes, you would, wouldn't you?" She scrutinized him more intently for a moment then sat back on her stool as though baffled by something.
The hag turned away from Bujilli and started really examining the boy. Her hands looked like crow's feet, only with pronounced varicose veins. The woman in black reminded him of a raven, this hag was more like a crow or a magpie. Or a starling.
She did something, he wasn't sure what.
"He's far gone, but I've stabilized his descent. You've acted from kindness, as you know it, I can see that, but know that you've locked this child into a hellish existence. He's trapped now, caught in mid-transformation. Of course that does mean that his flesh, such as it is, will be quite pliable, moldable, after a fashion."
"Can he be restored, or has ...this... gone too far?"
"Restored? No. Look at him. Barely a face, his skin is mostly liquid, his bones are beginning to bend. No. He's been using the Hard Candy for too long, in too large a dose, like a greedy sweet-pig. I can stitch him a new skin. It'd only be a temporary fix, really, but I have some good wormhide on-hand. but that'd be a bit of bother. He's practically a Gelbore now."
"Bone-thieves. Wicked, misshapen wretches like the boy here, their flesh is reduced to a gelatinous mess, but for some reason they don't entirely deliquesce, at least not right away. They slither around catacombs and ossuaries trying to scavenge bones. They eat bones. Absorb them, really. It forestalls the inevitable. Damned pains in the ass. They've ruined any number of shrines, churches or reliquaries and only the Bone guard ever really do anything about them. It's no life for this one. Kinder if you killed him."
"There's nothing else you might do?"
"Well...there is one other thing that I could try. It's dangerous. It'd hurt. But it wouldn't hurt me. It'd be you who'd have to make the contribution. but you look young and strong enough to manage it."
"What do you mean?"
"I could transfer some of your blood, a bit of your flesh, and a portion of your vitality over to the boy. It'd give him a fighting chance to recover at least some of his humanity from the transformation process. No guarantees just how much, no promises that it'll even work, but I will tell you now that it'll hurt like hell, for you both, and it'd be wicked dangerous. for you both."