Bujilli fished Leeja out of the stagnant water of the cove, before whatever lurked beneath the scummy-moldy crust extending out from all the defunct boats was able to latch onto her. They moved down the crumbling pier and intervened in time to extract Bortho from the clutches of pallid, humanoid assailants...just as his mate gave birth right there on a listing derelict hulk of an old boat. All the blood and noise attracted those things Bujilli had noticed moving about under the foul water. Whatever it was finished off the last attacker. Then it dragged the other bodies underneath the scum. They left. Quickly. Before whatever it was realized that there was more meat available. They headed back to the fortified depot, got some rest, then headed back to Idvard's Keep. They met a group of drones wielding a random selection of pointy-pokey-type weapons as they re-entered the Keep. A pale-skinned man in a strange get-up, not quite a robe nor armor exactly, something of both, greeted them. He knew they were coming. They were expected. Now he was accompanying them to go somewhere...
"If you would be so good as to come along quietly we can all get some much desired answers."
Bujilli glanced at Leeja. She was scowling, shaking with barely suppressed anger or hatred. Her claws were extended. But she was quiet. For now.
He got the distinct impression that she knew something of the nature of the tall, pallid man who had been waiting for them to return.
Waiting. Fore-warned. Bujilli looked around the space they were in, right there at the head of the spiral ramp way leading down to the level below. Those drones with their spears were the same worker-drones Idvard was ordering about when they left. They could stand there, maybe even try to fight somewhat, but it was clear that they were not trained as spear fighters. Which was odd...
Idvard had clearly said that he would be receiving a consignment of combat-oriented drones to help secure the Keep. Those drones were supposed to arrive well before this...
Bujilli Considered the options. He looked at Bortho, who was quickly healing from all his recent wounds. Bortho's mate--they still did not know her name. And his newborn daughter.
This was not the time nor the place to fight. Too many unanswered questions and a dozen guards who did appear competent with their strange fork-glaive-hybrid weapons. They moved with military precision. Soldiers. Infantry used to fighting in close-quarters, like restricted passages or tunnels...
"Answers would be welcome." Bujilli nodded to the pallid man and gestured that he should lead on. for a moment Bujilli considered trying some sort of ruse to grab hold of the amulet the pallid sub-leader was wearing. It was the amulet that Idvard wore. The one that allowed him to command and control the drones.
But he held back.
He could feel the pressure of the pallid's extra-sensory perceptions impinging upon his consciousness. This was not just some officer. He was also psychic. Bujilli stretched his neck, his back, letting the pain wash through him, letting it radiate outwards, discouraging casual contact. He began to recall all the abusive things he had experienced growing up with his Uncle. If the pain didn't rebuff their empathy, the memories he shared like a recited litany would give him some distance. It had worked fairly well before. Most mind-readers were prone to making mistakes like thinking that they really knew whom they were dealing with once they pried away some secret or other, as if they could analyze such things out of context and come up with an accurate idea of who or what their targets were or were capable of doing. In Bujilli's experience it quite the opposite, usually. Lacking context, one was more likely to make faulty assumptions. He grinned. Let them rush to judgement. He preferred to be under-estimated by possible opponents.
A quick touch on Leeja's shivering arm quieted her down. She looked into his eyes. Something wordless passed between them. They really were developing a rapport. It scared them both equally. And that made it the worse, yet neither one would abandon it for anything.
The pallid gestured to his troops and the drones took up position at the entrance. They would be staying in-place. Perhaps whomever had taken over the place in their absence didn't really appreciate just what was going on own there. That might give them some leverage. Something to barter with perhaps.
They might need it.
They were led through the Main Hall, past where Bortho's people ought to have been busily working on their defenses. the place was empty, deserted. Up the spiral ramp they went. Retracing their original path. Back to the Observatory Chamber where Idvard had set-up his personal command center. Where the Weak Point leading back to Wermspittle was located.
But three was no Weak Point. Only a section of dingy Yellow Wallpaper flanked by some rickety, worm-riddled bookshelves could be seen where the Weak Point should have been. Pulsing green stones and a set of peculiar effigies or scrimshaw idols were haphazardly jumbled on the shelves completely at random. It looked bizarre. Out of character. Not the sort of thing he would expect from Idvard.
They were escorted to the big, heavy table. It was cleared and covered in a clean cloth of finest gossamer. four thick blue candles set in holders cast to look like squatting frog-things occupied the center of the table.
Seated at the head of the table was another pallid. A woman. Her hair was thicker, longer, more lustrous and somehow even more unruly and wild than Leeja's own snow-white tresses. The resemblance was striking.
He glanced at Leeja. She was livid. But silent.
The troops arrayed themselves around the table. Every other one collapsed the shaft and then slung their fighting glaive-fork weapon across their backs in order to draw out a slender black poniard-like wand as they assumed an observant stance. There was twenty of the troops in all. Plus the Sub-Leader...and the woman.
The Sub-Leader stood next to Bujilli, as if to personally present him to his mistress. It made Bujilli think of a cat dropping off a half-eaten rat in front of it's so-called owner.
"What a wonderful surprise Ajjmae..." She purred from her very comfortable looking, heavily over-stuffed and expertly upholstered chair. It reminded Bujilli of the chair in Gnosiomandus' personal study.
"You recognize these mercenaries Milady?" The Pallid Sub-Leader looked troubled. Disturbed. As if a carefully conceived plan had just fallen apart before his very eyes. But he was a professional. He soldiered on.
"MILADY?!?" shrieked Leeja.
The woman laughed. Cackled really. Then she stood up. Elegantly attired in expensive-looking sculpted armor. Richly jeweled. Inlaid. A black-metal gladius hung at her hip in a yellow metal frame or cage that served as a scabbard. She moved with cat-like grace and stood before Leeja before Bujilli was sure that she was moving.
"Yes." She glared into Leeja's eyes, smoldering green-gold facing smoldering green-gold.
"Since when?" Leeja snarled.
"After I killed father, of course."
"You bitch!" Leeja hissed.
"No dear. You take after our mother far more than I do." she looked at Bujilli disapprovingly; "Is it bestiality or are you simply playing with your food? I wonder..."
Leeja slashed the air where her sister had been standing. Claws came out. Yowling. Hissing. Spitting hatred. Blood spattered across the table cloth. The floor. Bujilli's face.
Almost as quickly as it exploded into violence, the fight came to a stand-still, a stand-off. They were too evenly matched. They knew one another too well.
They stood there glaring at one another. Breathing heavily. Thwarted. Frustrated. Bloody but unbowed.
A precarious moment.
Bujilli saw his chance. He grabbed the amulet and twisted the chain into an impromptu garrote.
The troops hesitated. Caught between conflicting orders and a secret betrayal gone completely awry. They quickly took up a neutral position, keeping everyone in the room at arm's length and waiting to see how it would all sort out. These were veterans of a score or more such internal disputes. They knew the drill.
Ajjmae slumped into unconsciousness. Bujilli could feel it happen. Another reason not to be so persistently prying with psychism. He removed the amulet and pulled it over his own head. He could feel the connection to the drones reset. Recalibrate. There were three dozen worker-drones in the Keep. Twelve guarded the ramp way entrance. The rest were...
"So your pet has some talents besides keeping you amused in the bed. Well done little Almas mongrel." The usurper clapped her slender hands in mock salute.
"Shut up Niobe."
"Ah but these are my troops surrounding you--"
"And I command these drones..." Bujilli drawled as two dozen randomly armed worker-drones came into the Observatory Chamber, each one carrying a hammer, mace, axe or club--weapons that any competent carpenter could wield effectively.
And the worker-drones were very good carpenters.
Niobe laughed cruelly.
"I'm not impressed--"
"I didn't think you would be. Not by these worker-drones. However these are not the only drones you need to consider."
The Yellow Wallpaper ripped apart into shreds as Idvard ordered his combat-drones into the room.
Will it be a stand-off or a full-on battle?
Should Bujilli play the diplomat?
Should he act decisively and eliminate a clear and present threat?
What was Niobe doing here in the first place?
Why was Ajjmae scheming to assassinate her?
Can Idvard and his allies secure the Keep once and for all?
Or is there even more going on here than any of them suspect...