Bujilli vomited. Coughed. Shivered violently. His skin felt wet, clammy, his hair was damp, clingy. He felt like he'd just clawed his way out of another cave-in. His head felt fuzzy on the inside.
He tried to sit up. Couldn't. Didn't. Groaning in discomfort he blinked his eyes. Tried to remove the scummy, crumbly bits. His left hand wouldn't respond. The right hand worked fine. He wiped off is face. Eyes came into focus a bit more. There was a weird keening, a vaguely malevolent sing-song sort of chant or something. He wasn't sure what it was, nor where. He wasn't sure where he was.
Feeling trickled back into his limbs. Pins and needles. Muscles clenched and pulled, released and quivered as though he were packed within the gullet of a large python. Again. But no. They were just spasming. After-effects.
Good. He didn't relish the thought of cutting his way out of a big snake. He just wasn't strong enough right now. He was exhausted. Weak. Disoriented.
_ _ _
What? "What was that?" Bujilli croaked. Hacked up more blood and yellowish stuff.
System Reconfiguration Complete
"Hello?" he wheezed. Then he remembered. His Counsel. Hedrard. The boy. Bujilli remembered everything.
"Rest now, Bujilli. You've been through a lot..." There was a hand on his shoulder. Long fingers. Cool. Talon-like. A hag's claws. Hedrard.
"Lem--" Bujilli coughed. More blood, only pinkish now. White clumpy bits. A taste like salted honey. His body shook violently.
"The boy is...resting. I... I've done what I can do, for now. He was already far gone when you brought him to me. Nearly too far. Farther than anyone else who've survived the Vile Transformation so far. If it is honestly a case of surviving. Remains to be seen..."
Bujilli collapsed. Muscles jerked. Milky fluid oozed from his pores. He crashed into blackness.
Emptiness. Void. Bujilli knew this sensation well. It was like when his uncle beat him or the time he was trapped by an avalanche. It was a way to side-step pain. To collect himself while under assault. Endure the inevitable. Get past the unavoidable.
But this time he wasn't alone.
Oneiromorphic Interface Initiated
The machine in his bones. The gift of the Transveyance. What it called his 'Inheritance.' His Counsel.
"Machine," he whispered; "Can you hear me?"
Query: Assistance Required
Preliminary Analysis Indicates Extreme Immunological Collapse
"What? What does that mean?"
Biological Integrity Compromised
"What are you saying?"
Query: Selective Adaptation Protocol
"Adapt? Do you mean change? I should let you change me somehow? How would you change me?"
Floating in the blackness, Bujilli faced himself. A reflection. An image that responded to his perceptions, shifted and reformed itself in response to his choices and reactions. He could see claws sprout from his hands like the hag's, or his eyes grow larger and almost insect-like. His skin toughened, then became sleek like an eel, and then heavily banded with metallic deposits. His bones stretched or shrank. He had gills. Horns. He screamed.
He was a monster.
He was himself. His reflection was restored to his normal appearance. Even the hairless left-hand. The old violet scars. He was back to normal.
As he watched, Bujilli saw colors swirl across his reflection and pools of white light drained out of the image. A subtle gold light flickered along his bones and illuminated him from within.
He felt better.
His breathing didn't hurt any more.
His muscles responded to him, not to some insane and invisible puppet-master.
Bujilli sat up. He was on a rude cot. A rough bandage fell away squealing softly. It had been covering his hand. There was sticky white goo spattered across the cot and along the floor. The goo was hardening, crumbling into a dry, white powder.
Bujilli swung his feet over the side, avoiding the worst of the white goo and got out of the cot.
He had things to do.
"What do you think you're do--" Hedrard froze. Stared at him.
"I got better."
"Yes. You did." The hag was visibly shaken. Bujilli's recovery had surprised her. Disturbed her.
"I need to take care of a few errands before Gnosiomandus gets back from his trip. I believe that he mentioned that you were interested in acquiring some of my samples, the bits dreamsnail shell, that sort of thing. Are you still interested?" Bujilli looked right into Hedrard's amber eyes. He didn't blink. she looked down at the mess on her floor.
"Yes. I may be able to use some of those fragments to help repair Lemuel."
"Gnosiomandus mentioned that you had discussed a tentative offer for the shell fragments?"
"I can offer you seven hundred..."
"Ducats or silver Marks?"
"And you feel that these things might help Lemuel somehow?"
"Possibly. I have a feeling, nothing definite..."
"Good enough. We have a deal. Four hundred Marks and you try to help Lemuel with the dreamsnail shell-bits. Agreed?"
"Agreed. You are not like..."
"I did not crawl out of hell to be like anyone else." Bujilli offered the hag his hand. She stared at it for a moment. As though it were a poisoned gladius pointed at her belly. She grasped his hand in her talon-like claw.
"No. I don't imagine you did." She relinquished her grip. Took a step backwards. Looked down at the floor. Sighed. Went over to her desk and counted-out a stack of well-worn banknotes.
"Do you wish to count it yourself?"
"No. I trust you."
They looked at one another in silence.
Hedrard laughed. She slid the wad of money into a dirty pouch, tied it shut and handed it over to Bujilli.
"You're an interesting young man, Bujilli. It has been a long, long time since anyone trusted me, and no one has ever trusted me, ever, quite like you are doing."
"Perhaps you think I am naieve--"
"No. I've seen something of your soul. You're many things, conflicted, driven, lonely, well intentioned, but not naieve. Not that." She handed him the pouch; "I will do what I can, to the extent of my skills and powers, to help the boy...but..."
"What?" Bujilli asked as he slipped the money into his belt pouch.
"Do not expect him to thank you for your efforts."
"Gratitude is scarcer than honesty. I did not help the boy expecting anything. It was the right thing to do. so I did it."
"What will you do now?"
"I have an appointment with someone named 'Sprague,' or possibly their assistant, in the East Wing--"
"The Oneirical Studies Section?"
"Hmmm...and you are selling more of your dreamsnail shell-pieces to Sprague then? As well as to me?"
"That was what Gnosiomandus suggested and arranged."
"What did Sprague offer you for them?"
"There's a voucher in Room 303..."
"Aha! The scoundrel! If you accept that voucher, you accept his terms and there'll be no more to say about the matter. You're new here. Unaware of the nuances and subtle shenanigans and Tomfoolery that takes place on a regular basis. If you expect to get anythings worthwhile from Sprague, you'll need to see him face-to-face and make sure you cross his palm with cold iron first. A voucher! The conniving cheap-skate." Hedrard went back to her desk. she sorted through some papers, scribbled on something then handed it to Bujilli.
"It's a voucher. It waives your Library fees, waives your first year's lab fees, entitles you to a private locker, and grants you free access to all non-restricted areas. Show it to Sprague when you meet with him. he'll have to make you a much better offer than he was counting on. I'd dearly love to see the look on his face. In fact..." She moved a few things and produced a small violet gem set within a silver hoop criss-crossed with gold filaments. "Here. If you'd consent to wear this for a while, just until you meet with Sprague, I'll be able to see his face as though I was present. you can return it to me later. Once you've made your deal and you have a few moments to spare."
"No. Thank You. I get the feeling that things are going to get a lot more interesting around here. If you survive."
Bujilli took the amulet into his hand. It was slightly warm to touch. The chain was exquisitely fine, the links so small as to be nearly translucent. He pulled it over his head and adjusted it on his chest. It was surprisingly unobtrusive. Barely noticeable.
"Yes. Time to go. But remember; you are welcome here. Any time. for any reason. It's good to have allies in this place. Your life can depend on it. spring is here. now. But Winter always returns." Hedrard shivered at the recollection of some disturbing memories.
Bujilli smiled once more. Turned. Walked to the door and started walking.
The door shut softly. Locked.
Bujilli paused for one heart-beat, then he started walking.
One way being as good as any other, he went...