"I'm going to kill Bortho." Leeja hissed. Her white hair lashed and slashed about her like the tails of a dozen angry cats.
"Run!" barked Bujilli--they had to get past the threshold before the heavy portcullis dropped or else they'd be locked out of Idvard's Keep.
They ran through the mud, the blood and the muck. They raced one another to the Portcullis Station. They arrived just in time to watch the ponderous portal descend past the half-way point.
Bujilli gauged the distance and his chances of getting past the thing before it crushed him.
She cast a spell.
He could feel the aethyric vibrations of the thing as it swooped past him. Then he jumped for all he was worth and prayed that his legs didn't get mangled behind him.
The Portcullis stopped.
Bortho grunted in frustration.
Bujilli got back up on his feet and drew his tulwar.
Bortho was stuck. Sticky strands of dimly luminous fibers held him to the wheel-like control mechanism for the Portcullis.
Leeja hissed. She had caught-up to Bujilli.
It was time for some answers.
Bortho struggled against the glutinous strands of Leeja's spell. His nose was running with blood. His eyes were wild with terror.
Bujilli looked at Leeja. They both turned back to the struggling youth caught in the act of trying to lock them out. The Web held him as securely as it fouled up the control mechanism. The wheel would not turn.
"Was this all part of Idvard's plan? Some scheme to eliminate us now that we know too much?" Leeja flexed her claws and began walking towards Bortho.
"Bortho!" Shouted Bujilli.
The boy continued to struggle against the Web. His fingers were bleeding. He made strange gurgling noises as he tried to tear himself free. No. Not free. He wasn't trying to escape; he was hell-bent to bring the Portcullis down.
Bujilli closed his eyes. There. Almost immediately he could sense the aethyric current flowing past him towards Bortho. It was powerful, but diffuse enough so as not to arouse immediate suspicion. But it was unmistakable. Someone, or something, was exerting a strong sorcerous influence Bortho.
He considered using the Voorish Sign...but that would hurt Leeja and for that alone he preferred to find an alternative. Then it occurred to him. The Gem once taught him a spell that it said was an Essential Protection for those seeking to venture unto some plane or place called Zalchis. It was a spell that blocked all aethyric intrusions.
"Wait." He jogged up to Leeja and touched her arm. Her eyes were slits of smoldering gold-green malice. She intended to carry through, to kill Bortho for what she saw as a clear case of cowardice-motivated treachery and betrayal. She didn't handle betrayal very well.
"There's something back there," He gestured to the sloping passage they had just returned from, "Something that is manipulating the boy. I can stop it, but I need you to keep watch. The spell I need to use is not as fast to cast as your Web."
She glared at him. Her lip quivered oh so slightly. For an absurd moment it looked as though she might actually pout.
Leeja sighed and turned back to keep an eye on whatever was out there past the Portcullis.
Bujilli nodded, if only to himself. It could not have been easy for Leeja to turn aside from her deeply ingrained instincts. She was only partly human, like himself. Part of her was driven by a rawer, ferocious nature that scared her almost as much as it terrified her opponents. It would be so very easy to just give in to such a thing. To become something other. It was a path to power. Liberation. Free of rules, devoid of conscience, outside the bounds of civilization...to abandon one's humanity...to become some sort of monster or demon.
Bujilli had faced just such a temptation himself.
It was a difficult thing to reject.
But growing up in the yurt of a sorcerer Bujilli learned early-on the truth about such creatures. They were never ever truly free. If anything they were slaves to their own desires and those of others. For a brief instant the scar over his heart throbbed with the memory of a final, bittersweet kiss.
He scowled. He took a deep breath. He centered himself and cast Auric Sheath over Bortho. Tiny violet streaks of lightning crackled across the floor from Bujilli to the young boy caught in Leeja's Web. The little lightnings swirled and criss-crossed and formed a flickering egg-shaped shell of bioelectrical energy around Bortho. Bujilli tightened the spell's area of effect. The shell hardened, closed-up all the gaps, became a solid violet ovoid glow surrounding the boy.
The connection was severed.
Bortho sagged in the Web, disoriented and confused.
Then the current of will splashed across Bujilli. The impact upon his aura was heavy, dense, viscous. He knew that Auric Sheath would not be enough. He began to cast the Protection spell.
The spell conformed to the space of the Portcullis Station. The embedded wards shaped it like soft wax. Something within the place reinforced the spell. The current of will was completely cut off. Blocked.
"Good." Bujilli released the spell. It would persist for a considerable time with the benefit of whatever it was that was reinforcing it. Not only was this place hardened, it was set up to boost any defensive efforts the long gone guardians were likely to use.
"You've ruined everything." Muttered Bortho.
A black-iron javelin arced into the room from the direction of the sloping passage. It clattered across the floor.
"We have company." whispered Leeja.
"You not know..." growled the en-webbed boy.
"Drop your spell." Bujilli went to the wheel of the obstructed control mechanism.
Leeja glared at him for a moment. She made a curt gesture. The Web dissolved back into so much diffuse and indistinct aethyrial matter just on the verge of materialization where it would drift until it finally dissipated back into the interplanar stratum her spell had pulled it from.
Bujilli reached out to the wheel.
Bortho grabbed his hand.
"No. Don't. We dead if you do."
"What?!" Bujilli shrugged off the boy's bloody hand. His heavy suede and coiled-bronze vambrace was freshly stained with more red that'd turn to flaky brown.
"Grunters she killed--they scouts. Coming back..."
"You mean that those things were on their way back here? Why?" Bujilli quickly looked around for some sort of cover, an exit, anything that might be useful. He spotted the smaller wheel-shaped control mechanism that appeared to control a smaller valve-like door. It hadn't been very interesting before. One more distraction or time-wasting tangent. Now it might come in handy.
"They come back. To others. Rest of Grunters. Many Grunters." Bortho struggled to articulate what he knew. Bujilli wondered how the boy knew any of this--
"To rejoin the main force." Leeja whirled around. She'd been watching the wrong direction. Maybe.
From behind them. Past the Domed Chamber. Someone was rhythmically beating heavy tubular bells with random bits of scrap-metal. It was a horrible racket. Incredibly loud.
It vibrated through the floor.
The sound was jarring, unsettling, discordant and disturbing.
It was also familiar.
Bujilli had last heard it deep within the Blade Maze of Kalkendru.
Another javelin flew out of the sloping passage. This time it struck Bortho. He crumpled.
Bujilli knelt to examine the boy. He was already bloodied from fighting against the current of will and Leeja's Web. The javelin was lodged in his left leg. Bujilli began to help the boy only to be pushed away.
"You go. Kill Grunters. I fix this--" he jerked the javelin free and threw it across the floor. Blood gushed from the jagged wound. Bujilli drew out a wad of clean wool and some rags and placed it over the wound. He had it all bound into place and the bleeding stopped in short order. But the boy had fainted.
Bujilli propped the boy against the side of the Control Mechanism's pedestal.
Leeja was standing next to him looking down at his impromptu handiwork.
She dropped something heavy that spattered blood where it landed.
Another Grunter head.
"While you were busy with the boy here. I took care of the last scout. this one..." She nudged the snouted head with the toe of her filthy boot, "...was not infected by the fungus. I believe he was trying to get back and warn his people."
Bujilli rose. He stretched his arms and nodded. It made sense. They had picked the wrong passage.
"Idiot here took us down the wrong way." Leeja flexed her claws. Her hair shimmered like white hot flames.
"Or maybe he chose better than he knew."
"What do you mean?"
"We know that there is a larger force of these things down here. We also know that they are scouting down the lateral passages. We also know that there is a Fungal Tyrant down this particular passage. One that fears the Grunters."
"How do you know this?"
"The fungus that oozed off of the dead Grunter back along the passage. I've seen that before. It might only be a small opportunistic growth or it could be a massive cluster of the things. They infect or enslave anyone they can capture and convert them into their puppets. Like what they did to Bortho--he was vulnerable and close enough for the thing to dominate him. The fungi saw its chance and it took it. I bet it was counting on sending back those scouts to spread spores all through the Grunter horde. If it could do so so without anyone spotting it or noticing until it was too late...well...it wouldn't be the first time a would be conquering host found itself conquered instead."
"And this thing fears the Grunters? How are you so sure about that?"
"I was watching Bortho when I cast Auric Sheath over him. He was struggling against being taken-over and dominated by the fungi. The terror that was driving him to drop the portcullis wasn't his, but that of the thing controlling him. I knows that a large group of soldiers is a real threat to it--there's no way it can infect or enslave enough of them quickly enough before they burn it out or destroy it. These things need to work from stealth, attacking from ambush or infiltrating from within.They're not built for face-to-face confrontation, not with an entire army... "
"So do we drop the portcullis? Head back upstairs and warn Idvard that there's pigs in the pantry? What do we do now?" Leeja kicked the Grunter-head in disgust.
"I have an idea..."