War Bells reverberated from down the opposite sloping passage. They could be a mile or more away, or much closer. The heavy, sonorous things were intended to vibrate deeply and carry far underground. Grunters were an unsubtle folk.
Bujilli looked at the half-lowered Portcullis. He considered their situation. This was supposed to be a simple, easy job. A lucrative side-trek that wouldn't take more than a day or two at most. Ha!
He consulted his Counsel, the machine-spirit etched into his bones by another machine called a Transveyance. It helped him. It could tell him many things. He closed his eyes and communed with the Counsel, allowing it to operate more quickly, more intuitively in anticipation of his needs and requirements. It showed him how the Grunters had split into three groups at the Domed Chamber in order to explore the sloping passages. It also showed him Bortho's mate. She went down one of the passages only hours before the Grunter scouts. He could see the sparkling motes of a minute trail left behind the...pregnant...girl.
Bujilli snapped out of the light trance. Things were getting complicated. It was supposed to be a quick little job. Nothing to it. Ha!
Leeja examined one of the Grunters' crude black-iron javelins she'd recovered from where it had fallen after Bortho had flung it away in disgust. It was coated in the boy's blood.
Bortho groaned and began to struggle back up on his feet. The bandage on his left leg, where the javelin had pierced him, was soaked with blood. It had been a vicious wound. The javelins had multiple sets of blade-like fins and vanes set randomly around the shaft. No two produced similar wounds, for whatever that was worth.
"You think that you have an idea?" Leeja swung the javelin like a shortened staff or jabbing spear. She seemed to know what she was doing. She was trying hard to not sound too petulant. For now.
"Yes." Bujilli went over to Bortho. The boy refused his help.
"Can you walk?" Bujilli stared into Bortho's eyes. The boy grew just a shade paler. He wavered for a second then nodded vigorously. He had no intention of being left behind, not that Bujilli planned anything of the sort.
"Wound closing. I fight." Bortho gritted his teeth. Sweat poured from his forehead and bare skin. His hair was damp with it. Fever. A side-effect of the boy's mutated metabolism. He was healing rapidly. The blood-soaked bandage slid down his thigh and he promptly drew out a knife and cut it away. The wound in his leg was a pinkish patch surrounded by deep purple bruising. Like all his people, the boy healed incredibly fast.
"Good." Bujilli shook his head. Whatever or whomever had given Bortho's people this accelerated healing capacity, and it was clear to him that they were in fact a designed, manipulated people, this 'gift' was something they were intended to put to use, or perhaps it was deemed necessary for them to carry out whatever aims or schemes they were intended to accomplish. That bothered Bujilli. These people were living weapons. Pawns on a game-board. And he didn't recognize the rules, who the players were, nor even what his role might ultimately be; however the stakes were fairly obvious. But even so, there were too many uncomfortable questions and disturbing implications. He wanted some answers. Answers his Counsel could not give him. He wondered how they might get Idvard to confide in them more fully. The devious old Triloo librarian knew a lot more than he'd shared with them so far. Which was to be expected.
"Your Plan?" Leeja prodded.
"There were Grunter scouts sent down each of the other three sloping passages that run off from the Domed Chamber. We've eliminated one group. We can cut-off the scouts that went down the other two passages by dropping and locking the Portcullis at those Stations. The War Bells will cover the noise, I think. Then we can either try to lock the Grunter Horde out or we can head back and warn Idvard that things are far from safe down here."
"I'm not thrilled with leaving the place open to that Horde. Especially when they could send more scouts or skirmishers through at any moment. Behind us. Not a good option."
"FOOLS!" burbled the severed head on the floor.
All three turned to stare at the thing. It regarded them with baleful, piggish eyes and snorted derisively.
"YOU HAVE RUINED EVERYTHING!"
"We don't have time--"
"KILL THE SCOUTS! I WILL DEAL WITH THE HORDE!"
"What?!" Leeja stepped up before the sizzling Grunter-head.
"GO! KILL SCOUTS! MY PLAN STILL GOOD! BEHOLD!"
A headless Grunter shambled past the half-lowered Portcullis. Livid purple growths protruded from gaping splits in its horribly abused flesh even as orange pus dribbled down to leave a fetid trail back to where it and its companions had been abandoned.
Another, then another of the fungi-infested corpses staggered past the Porcullis. Bortho stood dumbfounded.
"GO! NOW!" howled the head as its skin flaked away in ashes. It's eyes ruptured. A lambent green flame flickered out from the back of it where the skull split asunder due to the intense heat and pressure from the burning brain. In seconds the talking head was reduced to ashes.
Bujilli looked into Leeja's simmering gold-green eyes. She smiled sweetly. He nodded. They began to jog back to the Domed Chamber. Bujilli grabbed Bortho by the arm and got him to follow along.
They went back along their trail and stopped to watch the shambling cadavers move past them and down the sloping passage towards the War Bells and the Grunter Horde. The grotesque things moved far more quickly than any of them were comfortable with, and they left behind a foul trail of smeared fluids certain to be rife with toxic spores. But somethings can't be helped.
"Which way do we go?" Leeja watched the last of the fungi-possessed corpses go down the passage back to its people. A scout bearing far worse than bad news.
Bujilli waited for the last headless Grunter to move past. He considered dropping the Portcullis to block off the fungus colony...but what good was a bunch of heavy metal bars against something that could spew a cloud of spores--he froze. Ventilation. Why didn't the fungi make use of the Keep's ventilation system to by-pass the Portcullis? He ran back into the Station. There. Along the ceiling, at even intervals all along the upper surface of the walls were gill-like slits. All of them closed tightly. He focused on the Portcullis itself. It was hardened against spells and blocked aethyrial and other forms of intrusion. He could discern layer upon layer of embedded and immersed ward and guarding protocol. Then he saw it. It only made sense.
"What are you doing?" Leeja whispered harshly in his ear.
"What needs to be done." He dropped the Portcullis the rest of the way. It locked into place. The vent-slits above flared open and fresh air streamed into the space.
Leeja looked up at the source of the sudden breeze. She smiled in approval. The fungus was locked out, at least the main-mass was--the infected corpses had left behind a sickening trail that would need to be dealt with, but that was far less hazardous than a full-blown Fungal Tyrant having free and full access to the place while they were busy dealing with the Grunter scouts.
Bortho scowled at them both. He resented their doing what they had stopped him from doing. no matter he might well have trapped them both on the wrong side of the barrier.
"We hunt." nodded Bortho.
"See if you can keep up." Leeja taunted them both.
"This way." Bujilli barked. He knew that they needed to reach Bortho's mate, but she had a lead of several hours. He also knew from his Counsel that she had not been abducted. She had passed through this place on her own. That made him nervous. It smelled like a trap.
They reached the next Portcullis Station and dropped the barrier to the outer passage. It locked down cleanly.
They moved on to the next Station, the one where the sloping outer passage led to the Grunter Horde. The War Bells vibrated through the floor. Bortho struggled to stick with them and not run away. They dropped the Portcullis. It locked. The War Bells became a faint background noise.
Leeja led the way to the last Station. She went to the Control Pedestal. Paused.
Bujilli drew out his hand-axe. She grinned at him. Bortho barreled past at full-speed down the sloping passage. He was going to rescue his mate.
The passage ran on and on for more than a mile.
Bortho slackened his pace.
The air grew humid. Warm. Pungent with strange smells, not just rot and mold.
They heard the rumble of waterfalls ahead.
A cavern opened-up before them. The passage debouched onto a walled and fortified platform. Three overturned carts were shoved up against the left wall, just visible in the soft gloom of the place. Off to the right a cluster of angular crystals gave off a sharp blue light. Grunter tracks went off past the crystal-cluster. So did the trail of Bortho's mate.
The fortified platform was some sort of depot. It was arranged as a set of three nested octagons. Each narrow-topped gate was wide open before them. More clusters of the angular blue crystals flanked each gate and were spaced along each wall at regular intervals. There was a skeleton embedded on barbed spikes incompletely withdrawn into the wall before the second gate. The place was deserted. Abandoned.
Bortho grabbed-up a section of one of the crystal-clusters as they went past. It came away easily. A translucent blue metal shaft was mounted at the base of the thing. A torch of sorts. He grinned as he pulled two more torches from their resting place and handed them to his companions.
The blue light was sharp. Actinic. Cold. It seemed hot at first, but the crystals were cold. The light provided no warmth. It lit up the immediate area as well as any smoldering stick, but without wavering or using up precious oxygen. Or igniting pockets of volatile gas.
A rounded plaza-like space awaited them past the outermost gate. Three switchback roads wound their way down the steep sides of the cavern.
The right one led down about half-way to the oily black river below before it passed behind a gate-house set into the side of the cavern.
The left road led down less far than the one on the right and continued along a ridge for a considerable distance, possibly half a mile or more until it disappeared at what might be another gate-house. It was too far to see clearly in the gloom.
The middle road led down to the river and what looked like a modest set of three stone piers that jutted out into a cove set off from the river proper. Four or five old hulks, boats that had once plied the dark waters of this river long ago, sat jumbled together, scuttled or their bottoms rotted-out. Except for one.
Bujilli squatted down and brought his crystal-torch close to the ground. He counted six Grunters, two went down along each of the three roads. His Counsel showed the faint sparkly trail left behind by Bortho's mate. It led down to the cove. The piers. The boat.
A squeal of shock came from below. It was cut short abruptly.
A splash. A second splash.
The boat was leaving...