Something went bump in the dark. Again. Heavy gears grated. The floor was descending. It felt like the walls were receding. The air grew cold.
"You...you didn't need to do this. Eberhard already gave you a pass..."
"We're not the monsters here. Neither of us. We'll get through this. Together."
Dim red light seethed through the darkness. The walls were farther away now. A fence of hair-thin blades extended a couple of paces out from the walls. The ceiling was obscured by a cloud of tiny, shiny dots. The cracked and cratered sun-sphere loomed overhead, a fitful aura of flames flickered across its surface but radiated no heat.
The floor shifted again. The darkness subsided to a murky reddish dimness.
Bujilli quickly scanned the changes to his surroundings. The space was round now. Hundreds of feet across. Four massive pylons were rising from out of the grit, each one equally spaced around the perimeter. He and Leeja stood at the center of it all.
He looked to Leeja.
"We pick a direction. We either reach one of the safe zones at the wall, or we don't."
Leeja began walking towards one of the pylons. Bujilli matched her pace. Did a quick check of his new weapon, his old stand-bys. He considered options. Which spells might be most useful.
SIZZLE -- Bujilli dropped to one knee. A flurry of his own hair surrounded him. His skin burned. He fought past the pain to erect some kind of defense against the attack.
Chartreuse light spilled off of his Shield spell in greasy gobbets of viscous magical energy. His skin was raw. His hair continued to fall out at a distressing rate. Bujilli spat in anger.
He spotted the Molg. Fat, sluggish; the gellid thing quivered as though laughing. Bujilli shifted his Shield and prepared Magic Missile. That spell dropped from his mind in a flare of imposed panic.
The Fantomist laughed. Her eyes flared mauve behind her white-metal mask. Then she began to cough.
Leeja was using Charnel Breath. The Fantomist screeched in outrage; "How dare you!"
The Molg was beginning to glow with a sparkly green light. Bujilli ran towards the bloated thing. There wasn't time to waste farting around with spells. He drove his hand-axe into the thing's fore-section. Green violence exploded out across the gritty floor of the Arena. It barely missed him. It nearly caught Leeja.
Bujilli hacked the thing once more.
"Wait!" the Fantomist wheezed through the foul black fumes surrounding it.
Bujilli raised his weapon for a third, possibly killing blow.
"Please! Stop!" the Fantomist extended her hands, palms up, empty. Not even a spell simmered on her aura. She was up to something.
"Why?" Bujilli shook more hair out of his eyes. Axe poised. He began to consider his options. He tried to connect with Counsel, the machine etched into his bones. Nothing. Not quite. A dim echo of something muffled or at a distance. Hedrard had told him that something had been done to interfere with his access to Counsel. She accused Idvard of deliberately meddling with it. Of suppressing it.
"My Molg. Don't kill it. Please." the Fantomist came closer.
Leeja laughed: "This is the Arena--"
"I am am a mercenary. No one paid me to fight in this place. I was summoned without so much as a by-your-leave."
"So what?" Leeja scowled.
"Pay me. We're done. Screw these sick bastards and their stupid games."
"You would barter with us? Here? Now?"
"Why not? We can all die anywhere, at any time; why not transact some business instead of mindlessly murdering one another for nothing?"
"Not for nothing--"
"For. Nothing." the Fantomist focused her too-bright mauve eyes on Leeja.
"It is a test--" Bujilli considered the Fantomist's offer.
"Exactly! You're not as stupid as your partner here. Make me an offer. Quickly. Before--"
"What is your price? I carry little in the way of money--"
"Not money. Never money. I can sense interesting things. You carry fragments..."
"Yes. I have some pieces of a crystal skull--"
"Perfect. One decent-sized shard and we're done here."
Bujilli motioned to Leeja. She came over and held her own had-axe over the Molg. It had no mouth. Its whimpers of pain echoed outward telepathically.
He reached into his pouch. Retrieved a rolled-up section of carpet. Felt around for a suitable piece. Worked it past the others until it fell out onto the grit. It shone darkly. Like burned glass. Tempered in screams.
"There. Will that do?"
"Nicely!" she gestured and the shard rose up from the grit and turned end over end. Satisfied, she held out her left hand and the shard flew to her. It hovered a few inches above her up-turned palm.
The Fantomist scribed a dim blue Symbol in the air with her right index finger. It throbbed with unhealthy vigor. The Molg wriggled away from them, towards the pylons. It left behind a nasty discoloration where its blood oozed out onto the floor.
She bowed. Fully. Formally.
Black flames roared forth from her right hand as she charged right at Bujilli.
"Idiot!" she screamed.
Bujilli swung his Shield into place. The black flames scattered before him leaving a smoky, oily residue wherever they touched.
The section of crystal skull sliced through his Shield. It might as well not have been there.
Leeja killed the Molg.
The Fantomist lunged. Bujilli twisted. Dodged. Slipped on the grit.
He could feel the cold, hard weight of the crystal poised before his eyes. About to pierce his skull. To end him.
"NO!" he roared.
Everything stopped. Froze.
Bujilli felt Idvard's spell lodged in his brain. He grabbed it with his mind. Crushed it. The spell collapsed. Took on a crystalline quality. A compressed fractal. He spat it out.
Right at the Fantomist's face.
Turgid gray light blanked out everything.
His hand-axe knocked the crystal shard away.
It fell to the floor and shattered.
The Fantomist stood dumbfounded. Her eyes wide in surprise. Her mouth worked soundlessly.
She fell to her knees.
Pink fumes sputtered from her mouth. Her ears popped. Her eyes ruptured. More pink vapor roiled and boiled out of her head.
She fell forward. Her head broke open like a rotten egg. Pink smoke rose from her curdled brains.
The pylon began to descend back into the grit. Whatever portal had been there was closed now.
"We'd best get moving. If we stay here, in the middle, we'll get out-flanked and attacked on all sides. Better we pick one of the Pylons and hit whomever is there before they come after us."
"Makes sense. Good strategy. Any particular Pylon calling to you?"
"Yes. But we'll go to the next one on the left, that will clear half the Arena, maybe give us some breathing room. At least it'll be less stuff behind us."
Bujilli nodded. Leeja smiled. They both ran towards the next Pylon.
"Machine?" Bujilli whispered half-heartedly as they ran.
"How many more do we need to fight?" he asked his Counsel.
Initiating Scan Extrapolating From Stated Parameters
Three Active Portals Detected
Query: Initiate Translocative Countermeasures
"We have potentially three others out there." He spat hair out of his mouth. It was still falling out. His skin burned painfully. He didn't want to think what might have happened if he hadn't gotten his Shield spell in place fast enough. All those times he had been made to practice, his Uncle throwing knives at him, had been worth it. He'd only been cut a few times. When he was just learning to cast the spell. His Uncle had been furious, at first, but then he relented. Having some sort of defense like that made him expect more of Bujilli. He used it as an excuse to start lowering him down into the more dangerous shafts and chasms. The ones no one else would try because it was known that centipedes or worse were down there.
Defenses were meant to be used, his Uncle had pounded that into his thick skull, one fist after another, one knife after the other, until finally he had learned how to cast Shield by reflex. Then he learned how to turn it into a weapon. His Uncle was a demanding, brutal, but thorough instructor in the sorcerous arts.
"Yes. One for each Pylon. If they're sticking to standard rules."
"Machine," Bujilli knew things were very likely going from bad to worse. This was Wermspittle. It could always get worse. They needed help. He desperately wished that he knew how to use his Counsel more effectively. It was a tremendous resource, but he didn't know how to use it properly. Yet. That was one of the things he wanted to learn from Gnosiomandus. One reason he was fighting to gain entry into the Academy in Wermspittle. He glanced over at the other reason. They kept running. "What is this thing you are suggesting? Explain."
Transparent graphic representations flowed through his field of vision. He smiled. It was a way to shut down portals. If it worked. It depended upon Counsel still being able to contact the Transveyance which was back...beneath Zormur's Palace...on some other world...on the world where he had been born...
"NO!" wailed a piebald hunchback in grimy chain-mail; "You can't do this to me! I've come too far. Damn you all!"
Two-thirds of a heavy, hollow statue of a pig-shaped figure molded from intensely blue iron lay sprawled across the grit. The edge facing the now descending Pylon was mirror-smooth and glistened wetly as a swirling vortex of sparks and smoke coiled upwards from the ruined construct.
Leeja barreled into the hunchback. He didn't go down. She bounced to the side. Slightly dazed.
"Who are you people?" demanded the hunchback. He snapped free his two-handed sword. It was heavily-built. Serrated. The blade had an oily sheen.
Bujilli grabbed Leeja and pulled her back onto her feet.
He began to attempt to parley--
The hunchback rushed them.
There was no time to debate. Only dodge. Go on the attack.
Leeja slipped to the right. Tried to trip the hunchback with her hair.
Bujilli rushed in under the sword, going low and aiming for a knee.
The two-handed sword slashed downwards. Less than an inch from Bujilli's puggish nose. He had to shift his balance to avoid running himself into the blade. His hand-axe missed it's mark.
Leeja yowled. A swath of her pale, white hair writhed where it lay on the grit. Severed.
She spun rapidly. Kicked the hunchback in the back of his knee. Her hair flared out. Snapped in like a sail at sea. Snapped back out. Blood flew everywhere.
The hunchback laid about him with his mighty sword. Blinded by the raking attack of Leeja's hair.
Bujilli rolled. Came up behind the swinging blade. Jammed his hand-axe into the throat of his opponent--there wasn't room enough for anything fancier.
He pushed. Hard.
The hunchback choked. Brought the sword back at Bujilli. Hard. Leeja jumped out of the way. Bujilli tried to get under it--there was no way to get beyond its reach quickly enough. The blade caught him on the shoulder. He rolled with it, as best he could. Couldn't keep his balance. Slipped.
He saw the blade whirl past him and then make a looping motion and come right back at him. Smooth. Clean. Deadly.
He hung in mid-air. Half-way through his fall. The blade was the only thing that seemed to be moving.
But it wasn't.
Leeja dived in front of the blade...