Everything was red. It reminded Bujilli of the inside of Mazimir's yurt after the demon got loose from its elegant brass cage that he'd brought back all the way from Pao Tharim.
Something spattered Bujilli.Wet. Warm. Viscous. It was a globby fragment of what used to be the boy's left hand. There was a puckering hole distending in what looked like a sickening parody a gargly scream where the boy's mouth should have been. His bones writhed like eels beneath the translucent skin.
Bujilli could feel his skin crawl. It was beginning to move of its own accord. The small bones in his hands began to slide, just enough to cause him discomfort and to give him some idea of what was to come.
He glanced back to the hag and the woman in black. The hag was screaming at him, but he could not hear her screeching voice through the increasingly overwhelming throb of his own blood crashing in his ear drums like surf on jagged rocks. He was hot. Perspiration drenched him. The swollen mass of flesh on the table surged upwards like a gelatinous tide of rancid lard.
In that moment all doubt evaporated. He knew that he could not do this alone. Something was going on here that was still outside his ken, beyond the ability of his Counsel to clearly sort out for him.
Bujilli reached out for the hag's proffered hand.
The fleshy mass enveloped Bujilli's other hand. His left one. Why was it always the left one? He wondered for a brief instant as everything seemed to hang suspended in time.
Someone was screaming.
Bujilli heard it clearly.
System Warning: Unsustainable Feedback
Bujilli felt his flesh begin to melt. Even through the dense red light and the pain. Oh gods and goddesses what pain!
System Warning: Biological Contamination
Initiating Immunological Counter-Measures
Then it got worse.
System Overload: Fail--
Bujilli ruptured his vocal cords. Blood choked him. Fever burst through him like a terrible sunrise and he saw.
He saw terrible things.
The hag interposed herself between him and those things.
She held his hand, even as he held on to Lemuel's hand, paw, tentacle, sloppy mess of protoplasm.
Bujilli collapsed to his knees.
The wriggling mass vomited forth a cloud of pink moth-things.
It was pretty. For a moment.
Then the moths began to eat Bujilli's face.
Hedrard tugged again, only much harder this time.
Bujilli felt his muscles turning to jelly. His bones were warping slightly.
The moths were chewing on his face.
Bujilli tugged on what was left of Lemuel.
The hag tugged a third time.
Bujilli sprawled on the dirty floor.
Something twisted in his left hand. A serpent?
"You did what could be done. More. You damned fool." Hedrard crouched beside him and began to wipe off his face with some vaguely clean rags.
"What happened?" Bujilli croaked painfully.
"You've salvaged what can be salvaged from the wreckage of a poor boy's folly and a father's inexcusable stupidity. I'll be having words with him. In due time."
Bujilli struggled to sit up, but couldn't. He was exhausted. Weak. his muscles worked...weirdly...unnaturally. He felt heavy. His skin was tight, hot, swollen like a balloon full of pus. His eyes felt blistered. His face was still bleeding from dozens of small bites.
"Don't try to speak just yet. You're in a bad way. No one does what you did. None that have ever survived. So far. Fool of a boy. Two fools on my floor. Try to lie still. I'll do what I can. For both of you."
The woman in black stared down at Bujilli. Her eyes glistened darkly. Dangerously.
But Bujilli was well past fear. He'd grown up in an abusive environment, survived the worst that his uncle could do to him. He'd confronted terrors in the deep, dark places armed only with his wits and a table knife he'd stolen from the age of three. He'd begun his career as bait for monsters. To his uncle's shame and chagrin, he'd survived. Which made his uncle beat him all the harder. But Bujilli endured. He got through it. Past it. More; he'd thrived. Grown stronger. Better. He learned a great deal about himself. His uncle. His people; no--his Mother's people. He had no people. He was alone. Practically an orphan. Abandoned by his father. Unwanted. Unwelcome. He'd developed determination. He would learn everything he could, master every skill, trick or technique his uncle had to offer so that he could protect himself, provide for himself, defend and take care of himself. He'd risen from the dismal delves again and again after witnessing horrible things, only to return to his uncle's yurt where he was beaten and screamed at and punished even more severely for his successes than his failures. But he got through it. One way or another. The beatings didn't matter. The pain didn't matter. The words carried no weight. Bujilli had grown up absent from much of his own life. Removed from the day-to-day degradation and despair. Even the worst stings of the centipedes didn't mark him, even when they left him poisoned and criss-crossed with violet scars. None of that ever really touched him.
This touched him.
Perhaps she saw this in his eyes.
Maybe she could see it all inscribed on his soul. He imagined her eyes could see right through him. Past all his defenses. His secrets.
He felt stripped bare before her black gaze. Naked. Bereft. Alone.
But that was something that he was used to, something that he knew all too well. If anything that seemed to give him some measure of strength. A bit of his old nature reasserted itself. He'd grown up with everything he ever cared about or tried to hide for himself taken away from him at any moment. If his uncle didn't take things away from him, the other children would steal them, often just because he wasn't really one of them.
Outsider. Half-breed. Bujilli was never welcome. Barely tolerated. Grudgingly accepted.
He'd seen plenty of things before coming to this place. Bad things. Hurtful, hungry, even spiteful and wretched things. Living, dead, distorted or undead. None of it meant a damn any more.
Bujilli teetered on a steep precipice. His soul was shuddering in a cold, empty wind even as his mind attempted to reform itself after being mauled and mutilated nearly as badly as his body had been violated.
"You cannot expect to come out of this unchanged..." rasped the hag's voice from behind his head. she was doing something. His hand flexed painfully. The right one. It spasmed. His left hand jerked. Hard. It was still clenching something soft. Wet. Physically ambiguous.
"Let go." The raven-like Woman in Black nearly whispered; "It's over, as much as it'll ever really be 'over,' for either of you, but it is time to let go now. You've done all you can do. It's time to see to yourself now. You'll have done no one any service if you throw away your own life after all this..."
Bujilli tried to turn his head. To look at the fleshy mass that was once a nervous, desperate boy. But his neck didn't work right. His mouth was bloody. His throat raw and painful. He closed his eyes. Everything felt bruised from the inside out. He let go.
"Damn. It's as I suspected; I'll need to cut them apart now. Damn fools."
"Wait. Bujilli; Hedrard will need to surgically separate you from Lemuel. Do you understand what I'm telling you?" The woman in black scrutinized him even more intently.
"Bujilli tried to say 'cut,' only to have his throat constrict and blood to dribble from his cracked lips. He shook his head.
"Yes. Cut. The only question is where do you end and poor Lemuel begin...and..."
"Damn fools. Bujilli; I can cut you both apart, but a part of each of you is now inextricably caught-up within each other. You've been co-mingled. In your case, I suspect that the things that dwell in your bones will flush out most of the contamination. You'll have a fever for a while. It'll hurt. but it will pass. However..."
"He needs to know old hag. Tell him. Now."
"Lemuel. He's weak. He won't be able to make it without your help. You've already done so much...but...even if we save his body, rebuild him physically, his mind is broken..."
"He is no longer eligible for admission to the Academy. He forfeited his rather low ranking when he was defeated by you before my door," explained the woman Bujilli now knew had to be Administrator Eberhard; "Now...he has lost even more than just his chance to undergo the Entrance Exams. He's little more than an animal now. By the old laws, he's yours now. Property. To dispose of as you see fit."
"I can remove his flesh from you with a bit of time and effort, that's demanding enough, but I can manage it well and fine. But what of the boy? Do you wish to dispose of the remains, or do I rebuild his body? And then there's the matter of his fractured mind. Poor Lemuel. I could give him a pen here, in the menagerie. Maybe, eventually...dare any of us hope...he might recover some semblance of his psyche."
Bujilli looked at the hag. There were tears in her eyes. He shuddered, not so much in revulsion, as in realization. Lemuel was her own son. It didn't make sense. He didn't know how he knew it. But he did.
"What is your decision Bujilli? Do you consent to Hedrard attempting to rebuild the boy, or do we let him die once and for all? You've done all that you could do for this child...far more than most would have tried."
"And at a high cost to yourself."
Bujilli nodded. He grunted 'Do It,' which came out garbled, but the two women seemed to understand him well enough.
Hedrard began to slice into the conjoined mass of intertwining flesh.
Beatrice Eberhard looked down on Bujilli with her smooth, unblinking black eyes.
"Welcome to the Academy Bujilli. you've passed your Entrance Exam. Should you survive the next few hours, you'll do well here. If you still intend to pursue your studies as Gnosiomandus outlined to me before he left for his trip to Karmazikan. So. Will you be staying on with us then?"