Leeja's skin was hot. Feverish. Black nodules, vicious little fish-things crested just beneath her increasingly translucent skin, each one coming just so close to rupturing through. Damned things. They taunted him. His friend was dying. In his arms. She'd lost consciousness even as he was communicating with Hedrard. He spat in anger. Snarling and furious Bujilli carried Leeja through the corridors, past the myriad ancillary stairways, rampways, hallways little squares, pleasant grottoes, everything. He walked on through the accumulated dust. If he stopped he feared he'd lose her. If he kept going and Sritta didn't find them, Leeja was doomed.
Should he try to cast his Green Fire spell on her? It had purged the werms from Sharisse.
But it was not an easy spell to cast. It took his full concentration. They'd both be entirely too vulnerable in this place. He didn't trust this place.
He also had no idea if it would work on Leeja...or if it might harm her. She was partly something other than classical humanity. She responded badly to the Voorish Sign. It hurt her. The Green Fire might likewise make things worse, not better.
He invoked Counsel. The machine etched into his bones on another world. It showed him the teeth burrowing through her flesh. It waited. He grew furious. His lack of understanding, his gross incompetence in using his gift, his so-called Inheritance, this Counsel might very well be the death of his...partner.
Bujilli growled in frustration.
He didn't know what else to do. He walked.
He could hear his Uncle spit out the words.
So he walked. He walked deeper into the darkness. Past unseen tapestries and unrecognizable statues. Bujilli carried Leeja in his arms and he learned the true capacity of his heart to hate.
He'd grown up an angry young man. Beaten, abused, dangled down into caverns on a crude tether with a table-knife he'd stolen his only protection. Unwanted and abandoned, he had been adopted, grudgingly, informally by his Uncle. His bitter old sorcerer of an Uncle.
Bujilli grew up around demons. Both those who were trapped and held prisoner by his Uncle and those that were honored visitors, even occasional collaborators with his Uncle.
He carried the mark of one such.
She'd dearly love to have him call out to her in desperation.
Beg for her help.
She'd twist things. Make him suffer for his betrayal. She'd hurt Leeja just because he l--
"There you are!" Snapped an owl-faced girl.
"What?" Bujilli shook his head. This had to be Sritta. Not too tall, thin, spindly, practically naked--no--not naked--she wore form-fitting armor, each piece exquisitely sculpted and etched to recreate some sort of anatomical diagram. Owl-headed. Taloned toes. She carried a rune-carved sword like it was an after-thought, just another casual accoutrement. A mere bauble.
"She's in a bad way. You're right to take her to Hedrard. Follow me." Sritta chirped once, shrugged he sword into place across her right shoulder and began to scamper.
She increased her rate of speed without looking back.
He ran to keep up.
She went faster.
He ran after her.
Only Sritta was visible.
Sritta whisked the door open.
He was standing in Hedrard's office.
"Well, don't just stand there gaping like a fool. Put the girl down on the table Bujilli. I'll see what I can do."
He set Leeja down on the filthy, blood-stained work table. Gently. It reminded him of a butcher's block. He stopped himself from looking for any tell-tale scraps of gummy flesh from his last time. Instead he backed away and let the hag get on with it.
He wondered what she'd done with Lemuel. But Bujilli would not take his eyes off of Leeja. Not for a second.
The hag examined Leeja. Cut away the blood-soaked dressing on her hand. Clicked her tongue in disgust at the gangrenous black stains radiating out from the bite mark. She traced the paths of each tooth as it wriggled through the pale girl's flesh. It seemed to be taking forever. Bujilli fidgeted. Opened his mouth. Closed it. He needed to be quiet and let the hag do things her way.
He was no healer.
Again, he was faced with his utter lack of any real healing capability beyond simply binding wounds, a little hygiene, a few battle-field tricks like packing a wound with clean moss or wool. Nothing terribly useful in this situation. Not one damned thing that might save Leeja's life. His face burned in shame.
Spells to inflict grievous bodily harm. Spells to bring light, cast his voice, even make someone fall asleep. He had learned various exotic defenses, several ways to modify or enhance his innate senses. He'd stolen his spells from his Uncle, from his father's Little Brown Journals, from the Green Gem. Not one of those spells was worth so much as a fart in a stiff wind right now.
Hedrard worked on Leeja. Muttering. Gesturing. Clicking her tongue in disgust. She considered one approach, then a different technique.
"Cutting won't do. She's too far gone for Dissolve to be of any good. Removal won't do anything about the trauma, or the toxic rot that's setting-in...but it is a place to start. Perhaps." She glanced at Bujilli; "Your fancy Green Purging spell would have killed, just so you know."
He nodded. Afraid to speak. Each second they delayed meant she was closer to--
"I'll need to hurt her, a lot, quite a lot actually, before I can help her in any meaningful way. This is an ugly business. Sheer spitefulness of the worst sort, and I've seen a bit of such in my time. I'm going to need your help to repair things, after I'm through with the needle, and the damage is done."
"Yes. Anything. For her."
Hedrard cocked her head. Smiled. Nodded. Jabbed a wicked needle into Leeja arm.
Leeja shrieked. Eyes wide. Hair flaring out like a hundred tendrils of white fire. A storm of lashing, thrashing filaments. Each one drew blood. The hag ignored it. Bujilli endured it. Hedrard kept jabbing. Poking. Prying. One after another she skewered the teeth. Pulled them out. Dropped them into a cracked jar half-filled with a clear-pinkish fluid that smelled like kerosene or the like. They stained the fluid like gobs of India Ink dropped in water.
Hedrard set down the needle. Doused Leeja's mutilated flesh with some greenish liquid. Leeja moaned. Thrashed. It foamed and sputtered and spat a vile yellow discharge from each ragged hole made by the needle or the teeth. Leeja sobbed in agony. Hedrard took up another needle. Held out her claw-like left-hand to Bujilli. He came closer. She scooped blood from his pelt. His face. Wiped it into the wounds she had made then stitched them closed. Her touch was surprisingly gentle.
"You can help her to sleep now." Hedrard whispered.
Bujilli closed his eyes and cast his Sleep spell on Leeja.
Mercifully, she collapsed into oblivion. Hedrard inspected everything, stitched the gaping holes shut, made sure all the blackness drained out. She used a minor spell, probably a cantrip of some sort, and a suction-bulb to draw out the last of it.
Hedrard sat back from where she knelt next to Leeja on that terribly stained table Bujilli felt he knew far too well.
"She will survive. You're both very lucky."
"No. You don't know." Hedrard cackled.
"What do you mean?"
"Your friend Idvard. The one who suspended the functioning of my amulet so he could scheme with you in private. He didn't just suppress the amulet. He also interfered with that thing etched into your bones."
"My Counsel? Idvard interfered with how Counsel works?"
"I doubt he intended to do anything more than to preserve his personal privacy, but that place you were in, that other Wermspittle...there are things operating in the background...old things...Idvard thinks that they are all but gone now. Worn out or depleted. But he is wrong. At least one of them was able to suppress your Counsel."
"But how? I do not understand--"
"Exactly. Good. You're in the right place to learn about these things. I don't doubt that Gnosiomandus will teach you all about these sorts of things. that's all in his line of work, so to speak."
"I have a lot to learn."
"We all do. Just some like to think otherwise. They they find out just how little they really do know. Often the hard way."
"Thank you. For helping her."
"She means a lot to you."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh nothing. I'm actually quite pleased for you both, but I'm also well aware of the harsh realities..."
"Look. I'm tired. This took a bit more out of me than I'm used to any more. I'm growing old. She needs to sleep. The wounds will be healed, for the most part in a few hours. She's a strong one. Her system is robust. Reminds me of someone." Hedrard scrutinized him a bit more intently. Nodded to herself.
"As I guessed. All the harder it'll be then."
"What?!?" Bujilli demanded.
"Why don't you just lie down next to your l--the nice young girl here and get some rest yourself. It'll do you both a world of good."
He stood his ground. Stubborn. Scowling. He wanted answers. He did not recall getting onto the table. His eyes closed. He dreamed of orange clouds. Somewhere, faintly, he thought he could hear Leeja laugh...or was it Hedrard?
"BUJILLI!" roared a voice that cut through the amber fog in his brain.
He knew that voice...
Eyes wide open, Bujilli scrambled to get off of the table. But he wasn't on any table.
Sand. Gritty stuff. Gravel.
He got up from the cold, hard ground. Leeja slept at his feet. They were both picked-out by some shimmering globe of light.
All was darkness in every direction past the edge of the soft, greenish light.
"I am Bujilli." He called back to the voice.
The light flickered, a rack of armor and weapons presented itself. Perhaps it had been there, just past the light or maybe it had risen up through some hidden trap-door.
He looked around.
Empty blackness. Just the flat, granular expanse and the greenish light...and Leeja still sleeping.
His armor was ruined. A Grunter had nearly broken his back with a battle-axe beneath Idvard's Keep.
He and Leeja had intended to get it replaced. After they had visited Schroedinger and Cave's shop. But they had gotten side-tracked. First by the rain. Then by the Not-Kids. The one had bitten her. He hated them for what they had done to her.
The selection of armor was highly eclectic, extremely diverse. He didn't recognize most of it, other than that it was some sort of chain-mail or studded hide of some sort or articulated plates of some peculiar metal. Yellow metal. Mottled gray alloy. Bruthem hide. No felt, no carpet-armor. A breast-plate fashioned from a single sea shell, another formed from teeth set into a mosaic that covered both the torso and most of the shoulders and hips, still another that was made from overlapping strips of some sort of incredibly tough leather--he liked that one. It was adjustable. Flexible, yet gave good protection and wasn't going to weigh him down with a lot of heavy metal. He pulled the lorica segmentata off of the rack and removed the shoulder-plates that were hooked into the basic straps beneath. He replaced those with his old shoulder pieces, curved and well-worn, dense-pile carpet over silk and maiden-felt, reinforced with green bamboo and bone. He also kept his old leggings. The lorica fit reasonably well, considering that he was adjusting it on his own and had not yet gotten a chance to move around in it. It felt like it would work. It was also an improvement over the old stuff. He had the best of both old and new now.
He looked at the weapons.
Again, it was a jumbled pile of cutlery and mayhem-making implements from a curious melange of cultures. Blades, spears, javelins, knives, hammers, maces, axes of all types and sorts. No phurbas. He did notice a kartika of some sort. It felt good in his hand when he picked it up. It was old, simple in design, not as overly complicated as the ones that the monks used to carry. A good edge. He slipped it, and the red tassel into his sash. It might be of some use in this place of demons and werms and such things.
"DO YOU STAND READY?"
The light went more green. Leeja stirred. Rose to her feet. She looked around her.
"Bujilli?" she called out to him.
She could not see him. Could not hear him.
"PREPARE YOURSELF!" roared the voice.
Leeja looked at the racks, the armor, the weapons. Realization.
Her eyes went cold.
Bujilli watched her stride over to the racks. Sort through them. Select and adjust some armor. Equip herself.
She took a suit of leather armor, not lorica like he had, but something sensible, a good alternative. He'd considered that suit himself, but wanted to keep what he could of his old armor. She had nothing to lose, only some rags, odd-bits scavenged here and there. This was probably her first real set of armor.
The weapons did not seem to impress her over-much. She still carried her gonne. Had a crystal knife of some sort. She took-up a hand-axe, fairly similar to the one he favored, and a short sword. The short sword was cruelly serated and tapered to a fine, needle-like point, which he could see when she removed it half-way from the scabbard. It suited her.
"DO YOU STAND READY?"
The light went out.
He could hear the racks clatter as they were withdrawn.
Dim red light seeped up from the rocks. A oval shaped space was picked out in the hot, red light as it radiated outwards and up the steep walls surrounding them.
A sinister red sun kindled into existence overhead. The red light faded from the rocks, the walls. It had run its course.
The sun quickly brightened. Illuminating the Arena.
There in the main box overlooking the place like a dark queen in all her corvine glory was Beatrice Eberhard.