"To business then." Idvard rose gently into the air and began to rotate slowly so as to take in the large armor-reinforced observatory dome above them. He positioned himself so that one eye was focused on each of them with the third one staring out at the angry, black and purple clouds overhead.
The storm outside was raging fiercely. Lightning shuddered and splintered through the heavy downpour. It was green. Toxic-looking. The clouds boiled with a vasty rage that radiated menace through the tortured darkness. For all of the view the great window might have afforded them, it showed very little of this version of Wermspittle. A few burned-out buildings. A mound of rubble. Jagged outlines of broken walls. All of it scored, scorched and notched from many terrible weapons in a war that really did end all wars...at least for a while.
"For some time now, it has been my intention to establish a private library based here on this Adjacent World. This domicile is in far better repair than my humble abode back there in the Burned Over District. Better repair and much more private. Once Urmigan's work-crew have completed repairing things back there," he pointed back through the Weak-Point to the attic rooms and the workers busily fixing a caved-in roof and floor section. The workers looked more like insects than humans. Tall, thin, long-limbed. They made little, if any noise. Aside from the constant banging of hammers or the sounds of other tools.
"To anticipate your question; no, they are not human. Urmigan's workers are drones, very skilled and talented at their respective crafts and trades, but entirely devoid of ego. Their minds, such as they can be said to possess such a thing, are extremely narrow in their focus and exceptionally transparent to most forms of telepathy or other such psychic perception. They have a high order of intuition, the better to help them carry out their instructions. They live to work and when they complete their assigned tasks, they simply shrivel into sterile husks. Very discrete. Quite disposable."
"But how do they know to do their tasks, or where to go?" Leeja scowled in disbelief. It didn't sound right to her.
"The drones are automatically imprinted with a wide-range of useful skills. Whomever wishes to hire the drones must provide a guide to lead them to the work-site. Their bodies constantly eliminate of all spoor or trace, so there is no way to track them to a work-site. This particular capability stems from their need to evade very vicious, extremely sensitive predators, possibly Horla, or so says Urmigan. He discovered them and acts as their agent in Wermspittle. No one else has been able to look into the matter very effectively. The drones tend to wither into sterile husks when someone looks too closely into how they function. The fines imposed under the standard contract are severe enough to dissuade most such inquiries, the 'informal penalties' for this sort of unwarranted investigation are rumored to be substantial as well. The one instance that I am fairly certain of remains something of an unsolvable mystery as one of my all-too-curious colleagues disappeared suddenly and quite completely after attempting to dissect a drone. We'll never find the body. Not if Urmigan has disposed of it--he also provides a 'removal service' that he guarantees can make unwanted things go away permanently. But that is quite expensive and requires even the client to have all memory of the item in question removed from them by some unsavory insect process." Idvard shivered in disgust. Possibly from memory.
"So these things just go out, work, die and leave no real trace of their having passed other than the fruits of their labors?" Leeja pushed herself back from the table. Her lip quivered in disgust.
"Yes. Beautiful, is it not?"
"Grotesque. In the extreme." The tiny Slasher on Leeja's shoulder snicked it's sharp legs in response to her agitation.
"Ah, but you are looking at this from the viewpoint of a mammal. Your emotions are getting in the way--"
Bujilli laughed; "These things really are tools then, not people?" He knew he needed to get things going in a different direction. Before Leeja got too much more worked-up. He could sense her agitation. It fairly boiled in his own guts.
"Exactly. They are not sentient, not really."
"But this is still slavery--"
"But of course it is; as is nearly all forms of biologically enforced specialization among insects. It is their nature." Idvard sounded as though he were lecturing at the Academy.
Leeja looked down at the floor. Suddenly quiet. Even her hair went still.
"You mentioned that you wanted to talk to us about a business arrangement. Let's discuss that." Bujilli considered going over and placing a hand on Leeja's shoulder. But the little Slasher perched there might slice off a finger or two if he tried it.
"Yes. Indeed. I know that you were on your way to a curio shop. You wished to dispose of some properties. Perfectly understandable. All those gonnes make for an unwieldy burden, no doubt."
"My friend here seemed to be managing well enough. Before the roof caved in."
"Certainly. As you say. But I would hazard a tiny bit of speculation that whatever you were intending to off-load at this so-far unidentified pawn-broker or whomever, it would go even better for you were you to have even more valuable things to exchange with them? Yes?"
Bujilli began to voice his agreement only to freeze in-place. Leeja was staring at him. She grinned ever so slightly. He nodded. She smiled. Sweetly. Sinisterly.
"Let me guess; you want us to go muck about you new-found digs here. Clear and secure the tower we're in, maybe go check out what might be lurking down below the place? Right?"
"Ah...er...um...yes. Yes. If you would be interested in such a thing--"
"We keep anything we find. This is salvage and you haven't filed any claim on this location, have you?"
"Good enough. When will your new minions arrive?"
"Bucephigon promised to have the first batch delivered in twenty-four hours after I placed my order..."
"And that means that they'll be on-site when exactly?" Leeja's voice took on a strange lilt.
"In roughly eighteen hours." Idvard sighed nervously. He was vulnerable. Going forward with his long gestating plan was risky. It could all go disastrously wrong very easily.
"What sort of defensive capabilities will they have?" Leeja nodded as though Idvard was only confirming what she already suspected.
"Standard resistances, self-repair capabilities, infantry tactics and basic weapons."
"What do you mean by 'basic'?"
"Crossbows, springers, blades and bludgeons. That sort of thing. Something of a mix. But nothing powered. No Galvanics," he glanced at the torch-weapon next to Bujilli's chair, "just in case such things would attract attention."
"And aside from a few wards, what have you got already in-place?" Leeja continued before Bujilli could respond. If there was any doubt in his mind about possibly holding onto the contraband weapon it was gone now. He stared down at the thing. It was clunky. Ungainly. Not the sort of thing he preferred to carry. But it might come in handy in special circumstances, such as what it was intended for. There were those creatures and things that were extremely susceptible to concentrated ultraviolet radiation. Most forms of vampirism were now extinct thanks to the proliferation of such devices.
"Mostly wards. I've kept things quiet. No one has noticed anything, yet. I've tried to avoid stirring anything up. I'd prefer to keep it that way. It's a war zone out there. Dead Worlds can hide a lot of bad things..."
"What can you tell us about this place, this Adjacent World?" Bujilli interrupted. He needed to know what to expect before heading downstairs into whatever had decided to make the place its lair or burial ground or whatever. He had grown-up exploring old pits, caverns and tombs for his uncle. First as bait, then as a free-climbing scavenger. A very good one.
"This Adjacent World was devastated by forces situated upon the moon. Until someone broke the moon. Now it's a ring of debris. But it came too late. Every major city was pulverized by the unrelenting bombardment of colossal masses of stone and iron. Only a few place, such as this section of Wermspittle, escaped being hammered into craters. When the smoke and dust finally cleared, at least enough to continue the fighting, what had been a very technical civilization was quickly reduced to a few sickly survivors who threw much smaller rocks at one another, first by dropping them on one another from airships, then by trebuchets and other such medieval engines, then simply lobbing them by personal muscle-power. Whatever war machines survived the lunar bombardment in any sort of operational condition were prone to malfunction or going rogue--there is something pernicious in this this place that interferes with complex machinery. But whatever this effect is, it has diminished drastically over the decades since the initial onset of hostilities. It is sporadic, fluctuating, irregular. My theory is that it is running down. It is so tenuous, so diminished now that it constitutes only a minor annoyance."
"And the survivors?"
"Very few. A succession of plagues wiped out most of those who made it through the lunar bombardment and the Ice Age that brought on."
"Yes. All the dirt, dust and debris thrown up by the lunar bombardment created a dense cloud cover over most of the world for decades. The world grew colder. The oceans are full of ice bergs. The polar ice-caps extend well past the tropics. It's a Dead World--"
"Not Dead!" growled a shabby youth clutching a heavy wooden gladius-moringstar sort of weapon, all four edges of the almost obelisk-like blade were set with flaked stone, possibly obsidian alternating with flint or chert. He shook his weapon at Idvard accusingly.
"Ah yes, Bortho, do please some in. would you care for something to eat?" Idvard gestured to the table.
Bortho rushed to the table, his weapon dangling from a strap, and proceeded to gorge himself.
"I took the liberty of arranging for a native guide, such as is available. Bortho here is part of a local tribe of less than a dozen descendants from the survivors of the Great War. I discovered his people on my first foray into this world. Since I have extended to them an offer of refuge within my Keep they have been helping with the removal of vermin, clearing debris, and generally securing the above-ground sections of this tower."
"So why would you need us then?"
"These people categorically refuse to go below-ground for any reason whatsoever. They are afraid of the..." Idvard paused, unsure how best to continue. It was dawning on him just how vulnerable he had allowed himself to become by moving too quickly after all. It galled him intensely to have finally moved forward with his plans, after all this time, only to have done so precipitously after all. Perhaps this effort had fallen under a bad aspect? He resolved to consult with a Midwife for a Katarchic Chart when there was time to spare for such things.
"Yes? What--or who--are they afraid of then?"
"Something they call 'Grunters'--"
"Grunters Bad!" Bortho dropped his food and took up his weapon; "Where Grunters?"
"No Grunters, Bortho. Not here. You eat."
The boy snorted in disdain before resuming his messy repast.
Bujilli had a bad feeling about these 'Grunters.' He recalled the language Idvard had used to muter profanity earlier. The guttural language of the obscene pig-things who prowled the Blade-Maze deep below Kalkendru. If ever there were creatures who deserved to be called 'Grunters,' it would be them.
"What good is this 'guide,' if he won't go down-below? I am of course assuming that you want us to examine the basements and so forth below this place. Or do you want us to go take a walk outside for a bit and see what we can stir up?" Leeja studiously ignored Bortho.
"Oh he'll go where you need him to go--the Grunters have taken his mate. He's the one member of his tribe who will lead you to them."
"And abandon us once we find her, right?"
"Finding your way back shouldn't be anywhere near as difficult as penetrating their lair in the first place..."
Bujilli laughed; "Spoken like a true academic. If we do get into this place with some measure of stealth--which I highly doubt will be possible with this guide--we might find ourselves being followed back by a war party or worse, perhaps a whole army of these things. You're not ready for that sort of thing."
"Neither are you. Better you misdirect them and not lead them back here. I assumed you were both professionals--"
"We are." Leeja glared at Idvard. Her eyes shone hotly green-gold with challenge.
"So why even bother going after this kid's partner? Why are you interested in having us do this?"
"I need to know how these things are getting in so I can seal that point of access. Once you've determined how they are getting in, I can take measures to keep them out, one way or another. It is simply untenable to have these horrid things wandering into my new tower willy-nilly without so much as a by your leave."
"Understandable. But these things...they aren't native to this world, are they?" Bujilli stared hard at Idvard.
Idvard stared at Bujilli. Idvard looked away first.
"Are they or aren't they?" hissed Leeja.
"No. They're not native to this place, any more than you or I." Idvard nearly choked in making the admission.
"That means they have--" Leeja started.
"Another Weak-Point." Bujilli finished.
"Yes. Or a gate, or a portal, or some other sort of means of moving from one world to another." Idvard slumped his head to his chest.
"That means they have--" Leeja started.
"Potentially more reinforcements than a few minions are likely going to be able to handle." Bujilli finished.
"Possibly." Idvard nodded.
"They are invading, aren't they?" Bujilli cracked his knuckles.
"Most likely." Idvard lowered himself back down to the table.
Bujilli looked into Leeja's green-gold eyes. She began to smile. So did he. Without a doubt they both were in agreement. They were going to--