"LEEJA!" Bujilli forced himself to go faster. His back was horribly bruised and stiff. He was lucky to be intact after the Grunter's axe struck him from behind. But none of that mattered any more.
Wreckage and debris rained down. Smoke billowed outwards from where the boat had been only moments before. Echoes of the explosion reverberated through the cavern.
Bujilli reached the pier. His armor scratched his back, lacerating it, adding insult to injury. He considered discarding it, but didn't want to take the time to do so, not just yet. He had to find Leeja.
Coughing. Sputtering. The distinctive hissing, yowling noises he knew oh so well came to him from the water just past one of the listing, mold-shrouded old boats that had foundered at anchor in the fortified cove.
She was alive.
Bujilli set down his bow and dug out a length of good climbing rope. He knotted the end into a loop as he made his way onto the awkwardly tilted boat's deck. Leeja caught it on the third attempt.
He watched her struggle towards the boat as he pulled on the rope.
She did not know how to swim. Only her frantic flailing about had kept her from drowning. Just barely.
Heave. Hold steady. The rope went slack. Fell to the deck. She was safe. Sputtering and spitting and cursing, but no longer drowning.
Bujilli wrung-out the rope and rewound it good and tight so it could hang on his belt to continue drying. He appreciated good rope. His life had depended on a reliable length of rope more than once.
"Thank you." Leeja croaked as she rose from the deck. She busied herself adjusting her clothing, her shabby armor, her boots--anything just so as not to look at Bujilli. "There was a flash of light. I lost my footing just as I jumped. Next thing I knew, I was in the water. Filthy, stagnant stuff. I hope I don't catch anything..."
Bujilli looked back across the water. There was a clear trail of darker, clearer water leading back to the boat that marked Leeja's course through the space between the boats. A crust of gray-green scum, almost scabrous looking stuff, rose and fell sluggishly in response to the ripples she'd made in her struggles. He wasn't sure, but something might have moved down there. In the water. It turned, undulated back beneath the scum.
"We need to get off of this thing." He went back along the listing rail to a rickety plank that led back onto the pier. It held his weight, despite sagging and creaking in protest. His back spasmed. He tottered. Wobbled. Righted himself mostly be force of will. Even so, he nearly fell into the water between the moored hulk and the stone pilings. Leeja leaped to steady him. she hissed in surprise when her hands came into contact with his broken armor.
They got back across without further incident. Bujilli bent down to retrieve his bow. He spat gravel out of his mouth. He'd fallen. Again. The damage to his back was worse than he'd thought. He lay there for a moment. Disoriented. Disconnected. Then the pain came back. It cut through the grogginess like a bucket of knives splashed across his back.
Leeja was examining his armor. He felt her deft hands tugging at lacings and shifting the ribs that supported the heavy, overlapping layers of felt and brocade. She worked on his armor, prying the broken portions apart where the overlapping panels were mangled, the support-struts snapped or splintered by the heavy axe blow they had only just barely stopped.
He grunted in pain as she lifted the broken sections along his back free and then re-did the ties to keep what was salvageable in-place as best she could. They were in potentially hostile territory. Whatever defense they could muster was better than nothing. As long as it didn't impede movement or restrict motion. That would be worse than foolish. It could potentially get them killed. Leeja wasn't a fool. She also had no intention of dying. Not down here. Not ever. If she could help it.
"You're badly bruised. I'm amazed you can even walk." Leeja tied the broken portions of his armor into a bundle. She had no intention of leaving it behind.
"We need to find Bortho..."
"And his mate. I know. But you're in no condition--"
"I can still fight." He levered himself back onto his feet, using the bow as a crutch. He knocked an arrow and stared at her, daring her to defy him.
"I can't swim..."
"I noticed. Neither can I, really. I grew up in the mountains. Forests. High, dry plateaus. Never had much chance to swim, except for cold, dark underground rivers or lake-grottoes...places best not to go swimming."
"So what do we do now?"
"We go down the pier until we're parallel with where the boat was when it blew up. Then we look for bodies."
Leeja nodded. No point in arguing.
They went less than three hundred feet along the pier before they heard the splashing and the gasping.
There were bodies in the water. Seven of eight of them. Three were moving. Wrestling. Fighting.
Bujilli drew back on his bow and tried to pick out a likely looking target.
"It's Bortho." Leeja whispered.
He nodded. But who were the other two?
"Take the rope." Bujilli shifted position to give himself the best vantage point he could get.
"Climb out on this boat," he gestured to the one nearest them; "Toss the rope out to them. Get their attention. Pull Bortho out of there."
Leeja nodded. She took the already wet rope from Bujilli's belt. Then she was off. He watched her go. His back ached terribly. He hoped he could stay alert long enough to be of some help.
The rope flew out into the midst of the thrashing, splashing bodies.
One of them grabbed the rope. Lean, lanky, almost fish-belly white; it clearly was not Bortho. Bujilli put an arrow in their hand. He had been aiming for their fore-arm. Either way they let go and slipped back into the foul water with a yowp of pain.
Another figure tried their luck with the rope. It was a woman. Bortho waved once, then resumed his fight with the pallid assailant. Leeja hauled the woman up onto the sharply tilted boat. She perched atop the slanted railing and undid the rope so it could be thrown to Bortho next.
Both figures were under the water. Ripples and bubbles troubled the surface. The fight was still going on.
The woman cried out in pain.
Bujilli could smell blood. Fresh blood.
She was giving birth. Right there. Right now.
Bortho sputtered and splashed his way toward the side of the boat. He was dragging the limp form of his attacker with him.
The woman cried out once more.
Bortho abandoned his opponent.
He climbed up to the railing.
By the time he reached the railing, he was a father.
Something moved in the turbid water. Another something. Another.
Blood ran from the precarious perch atop the tilted railing right into the foul water below.
"You cannot stay there! Get them back here, to the pier. There's something in the water. The blood is attracting it!"
Leeja handed the new born infant to Bortho. She pointed to Bujilli and slapped him on the shoulder. Then she helped the mother onto her feet and got her moving. She was unsteady. Weak. Feverish.
Bortho looked up at Bujilli as he made his way toward the pier. He was wounded. Badly.
The child was quiet. Too quiet.
He was all but certain that the mother would fall, taking Leeja with her into the churning water below.
He knocked an arrow.
Bortho heaved himself onto the pier. He came up to Bujilli. Blood streamed from a dozen or more slashes, cuts or contusions. But he smiled. Proudly. He held the child out to Bujilli so he could see. It was a girl. Still crusted with her mother's blood. Her eyes bright, icy-gray and far more alert and focused than any child he'd ever seen previously.
"My child." Bortho coughed. Blood. He sank to one knee. It had been quite a fight.
Leeja helped the mother onto the pier.
She collapsed next to Bortho. They were both breathing heavily. She was still bleeding.
Bujilli scanned the perimeter. They seemed to be all alone in the cove. Except for whatever was down there in the water.
They needed rest. A chance to heal. It wasn't going to happen out in the open. Not with all the blood attracting whatever was down there splashing around.
The splashing noises grew louder. There was definitely more than one thing swimming, swarming down there. And they were rapidly becoming more agitated, aggressive, far less furtive than they had been originally.
"We need to get out of here." Bujilli slung his bow over his shoulder and started to help Bortho onto his feet.
"Now." Leeja assisted Bortho's mate back onto her feet. She reached out for her baby.
Somehow they managed to waddle, stumble and limp back to the fortified depot. Leeja shut the doors and set the bars and secured the place as best she could. Bujilli leaned against the cool wall and tried not to pass out. She gathered up the crystal torches and busied herself examining the depot while everyone else rested.
Bujilli woke up with a start.
Leeja was crouching down next to him. Her hand on his shoulder.
"Can you walk?" She tilted her head to the side so he could see Bortho and his family readying themselves for the trek back to Idvard's Keep.
He nodded. Getting back up from the cool gravel was harder than expected but he managed. One of the crystal torches made a reasonable crutch. Bortho was using one the same way.
They smiled at each other.
Then they got moving.
The sloping passage echoed with their foot-steps and heavy breathing as they made their way back to the Domed Chamber.
The three other Portcullises were locked in-place and secure. Leeja dropped the fourth Portcullis behind them once they were through. She wasn't taking any chances.
They made their way up along the spiraling ramp-way, past the stacked weapons Bortho had laid aside for his people. The weapons were still undisturbed.
Bujilli wasn't surprised.
Bortho's people hated going underground. They were afraid of...the Grunters...that was what they claimed. But the Grunters had only recently arrived down below. They were only now sending out scouts. Bujilli knew something of how Grunters operated. He'd run into them before. Had fought them. He knew then that something wasn't right about the story that Idvard had told them. Either the librarian was trying to deceive them, or he was in turn being misled by Bortho's people. But which? Why?
It wasn't Grunters that they were afraid of; that much he was sure about.
Six tall, thin, long-limbed insectile-looking figures stood before them. Urmigan's worker-drones. Only these drones wielded spears and shields. The drones stared at them. Impassive. Uncaring.
"Stand aside." Barked Bujilli. He was tired, hurting and not in any mood for stupid games.
"Ah. You must be the intrepid mercenaries our erstwhile host mentioned. Please, do come along. We have a great deal to discuss."
Leeja hissed. Her claws extended.
Bortho growled. His right hand clutching a spear of his own, retrieved from the stock-pile they had just passed.
The person addressing them from behind the armed drones was tall. Lean and lanky. Their face and hands were fish-belly white. There was nothing whatsoever reassuring about their predatory smile. Maybe it was all those pointed teeth. More likely it was the dozen or so armed guards behind them...