Dark. Stormy. These were the good, clean rains of late Spring. Not the killing rains of early Winter. He hadn't seen those yet. Deep down Bujilli wondered if he wanted to stick around long enough to experience Winter in Wermspittle. What little he knew made his skin crawl. A shiver ran up his spine like a tiny Slasher. Like Leeja's little Slasher pet. The thing still weirded him out a little. It didn't really have a face. But somehow it still devoured rats. Roaches. Other little things. At least it seemed to confine its hunting to vermin. For now.
He'd heard stories, in passing. Slashers could grow fairly large. They were dangerous creatures. Then so was Leeja.
So was he.
Growing up among the Almas. Unwanted. Rejected for being too human. Raised by an abusive old sorcerer, his demon-haunted maternal Uncle, had not been easy. Not by any standard. Since he was big enough to hold a knife, Bujilli had served his Uncle as a 'Dangler.' One of those children who are given a blade and a basket, tied to the end of a cable and thrown over the lip of a sinkhole, cenote, or other opening in the ground. They either scraped together something worthwhile, whatever they could find, or they served as bait for the centipedes. Or worse.
Wermspittle wasn't the only place where things could get worse.
'We were hired to kill the stunted apeling.'
Bujilli spat in disgust.
and dismember him
and scatter the pieces
so he could not be reassembled
by Hedrard or ever full recovered.'
Hateful. Bujilli stared out into the rain, into the night, the darkness surrounding him. He could recall Sharisse's voice, her sneer, as she told him who had hired her and those other students to attack him.
'I am not lying.'
No. She had not lied. He knew that thanks to his spell. The purging green flames he had used to liberate her. He'd looked deeply into her soul. Past the ugliness she'd learned to adopt and model. Through the deceits she clung to in order to Just Not Deal With It All. But he had made her face things. Reveal everything she knew. He had demanded answers and she had no choice but to give up what she knew.
It hadn't been personal for the attackers. They were dregs. Victims. Bitter and worn-out. The ones who had just barely made it through the last Winter. After a fashion.
He wondered how Sharisse was doing now. He had freed her from the Wermic Host. Cured her addiction. Burned it out of her with hot green fire. She could never use White Powder ever again. Her body would reject the Werms as well. But freedom to starve was no freedom at all. Bujilli knew that all too well. Far too well. So he'd changed Sharisse while he had her entangled within his spell. Transformed. He'd made it possible for her to eat nearly anything. She would never starve again. Except by choice.
It was a terrible thing that he'd done.
Perhaps it was evil.
He'd destroyed her excuse for accepting things the way that they were. He'd removed her ability to conform, to jet let things follow their course. Sharisse could never go back, would never be the same, was thrust into a new world.
But she was free.
It was up to her to do something about it. To make something of herself. Make a mark on the world around her.
That was out of his hands.
He snorted. Laughed bitterly. Looked at his hands. One hairy enough to almost pass as an Almas. The other. Bare. Naked. One more thing that had marked him as human. It had never been the same since he'd gotten burned attempting to cast one of his Uncle's spells. He'd been very young. Foolish. Desperate to find some sort of protection. The demons in their bone-and-brass cages whispered to him in his uncle's yurt. Hurtful insinuations. Snide lies. Soul-twisting riddles. Promises.
Bujilli hated promises. Atrishka's searing hot kiss on his soul. DuKushKa's grotesque offer of terrible power in exchange for becoming her consort. Hedrard's concern for his welfare, taking care of Lemuel, giving him her voucher, her amulet. Promises were bargains. The kind of deals that rarely worked out. Debts that were nearly impossible to collect. Promises often led to betrayal. He had learned not to trust such things.
He bore the scars of his tuition. On his flesh. In his soul.
Bujilli rose from the mound of old carpets and rugs they had dragged together. He paused to look at Leeja. Still asleep. They had to fight their way past a squad of deserters, Franzik troops, Rifle-carrying infantry, on their way to becoming yet another gang of mercenaries, cut-throats or bandits, depending on their luck, which couldn't be all that good; they were in Wermspittle. The scuffle was over quickly. No one was hurt. The soldiers were still disoriented. They'd wandered into the Low Marshes. Gotten lost. Displaced. For all Bujilli knew, they were hundreds of years out of place now.
He wondered how the soldiers would fare. They had the look of beaten men. Desperate. Scared. What some would call battle fatigue. Or was it this 'shell shocked' thing he'd heard about? Maybe they had faced artillery. Seen it devastate everything all around them. Bujilli had never seen cannon. Aside from the huge naval gonnes set in the high emplacements overlooking Wermspittle. They sounded worse than dragons.
The alley was clear. Whatever it was that prowled about in the rain seemed to be elsewhere. It had spooked Leeja. It was gone now that the rain was lessening. He wondered what sort of creature it had been.
Bujilli examined the immediate area once more. Just to be sure. He found a suitable spot to piss, beneath an overhanging bit of fractured facade. He could just make out the characters on the battered, weathered sign tilted at a funny angle. FILM REPOSITORY & ARCHIVE.
He went back inside. Leeja was waking up.
"The rain is letting up, at least for now. The Votch will follow the rain. They're creatures of the rain, if the old Midwive's tales are anything to go by."
"I trust your judgement. you know this place better than I do."
"That is why you wanted me to be your Guide..."
They stared into one another's eyes for a second longer than either had expected.
"Time to go back to the Academy."
They had discussed it. Ever since leaving Schroedingers & Cave's curio shop. They knew who had hired their attackers. Sharisse had told them plainly; it had been Gudrun. Mrs. Cave's daughter. She blamed Bujilli for her brother Gabreel's death in the Arena. Somehow it was supposed to be his fault. Sprague, the Department Head for Oneiric Studies at the Academy had dreamed of Bujilli. Had observed his encounter with the Muck Raker beneath Zormur's Palace. Decided it would be a good thing to try and breed one for the Arena. Which he did, with help from Gnosiomandus and Hedrard. His sponsors. His friends. Or so he thought.
"Shall we go?" Leeja moved to the door.
Outside the rain stopped. The mist was thinning out. You could start to see the features of the burned-out buildings across the cobblestone street.
That's when the shooting started.