"You've done well. Both of you." Gnosiomandus sounded distracted. Everyone else was gone. They were alone on the edge of the Arena.
Bujilli stood before the old man. Leeja still held his hand. They had witnessed something profound, he was sure of that much, but he was drastically out of his depth, tossed into the deep end of politics and internecine academic conflicts he knew nothing about. He looked out at the Arena. He disliked this place. It reminded him of the naked belly of a beast. It was cold and empty; no hungry. Waiting.
"You're right, of course. This place will not lie fallow and neglected forever. Nor is it the only Arena established within these walls. Much blood has been spilled here. Not all of it for the better." Gnosiomandus rubbed his gnarly old hands together. They were none the cleaner.
"But why? What's the point?" Bujilli regarded his erstwhile mentor as if seeing him for the first time, a sense of betrayal boiling up from his guts.
"So now you'll want to ask whether or not we're actually civilized. Alas, yes, we are quite civilized. That's a large part of our problem, the root of so many of our many problems."
"I do not understand..."
"An excellent place from which to start. Come along you two. We can share a drink or two while I set the requisite paperwork in motion and perhaps I can answer a few of your questions...though I doubt I can do much about any doubts you may be harboring. This is Wermspittle, not some cosmopolitan metropolis where things work like they ought to, where things didn't crash or get overwritten by malwa--malevolent spirits. Things went sour here, badly. Intensely. But some of us are trying to do something about all that."
"Was there a war then?"
"Many wars. Wermspittle has been surrounded by wars from before it even had a name. Heretics, bandits and outcasts; our unfair little enclave was founded in the midst of a great war. We're no strangers to war, not here. But to answer your question, no...it wasn't so much a war...hmmm...well...hmmm..." Gnosiomandus scowled. His eyes took on an unfocused, glassy appearance as he contemplated what he was attempting to explain.
"Yes?" Leeja prodded the old scholar.
"Ahem. Yes. Ah, let us go to my office. No. My study. I have some rather good brandy that I brought back from Anselgo that you might enjoy. They make it from green peaches. It's quite sour, but something tells me you both have something of an affinity for such things."
Gnosiomandus led the way to one of the arches that slid into view as he approached, just as Sprague and the Head Mistress had done before. A soft golden light flickered across the comfortable, familiar study--the room where Bujilli had first encountered Gnosiomandus.
Bujilli propped himself up. He was sprawled across an uneven, harsh stone floor. Sickly green light seeped towards him from an ornate brass lantern swaying from the crooked arm of a black iron staff jammed into a crack in the floor. Blood dripped from his mouth, matting on his chin whiskers.
He nearly vomited as he sat up. His eyes took a while to adjust.
He was in a cave. Alone.
Crumbly chalk and coarse-ground blue-green salt described a geometric figure, a diagram with seven points. He was at the center of it. The other six lanterns were burned-out. There was a heavy scent of yak butter and incense clinging to the space. As far as he knew, only certain of the Almas used dung as a binder for their ritual incense.
Bujilli didn't need to look out the icicle-fanged mouth of the cave to know where he was.
He knew this cave.
All too well.
His scars itched.
He considered his options.
Going farther back into the cave would take him to a well-worn ledge overlooking a dismal shaft that led deep down below. There were many centipedes down there. Some of them the size of whales. and there were the things that they hunted, or that fed upon them. He'd spent much of his youth as a 'dangler' getting lowered on a harness from rough ropes by his mother's kin. Either his baskets and bags weer full when they pulled him back up, or else they'd kick him back over the ledge and he'd have to start over again.
Bujilli hated centipedes. But he knew how to handle himself around them.
The storm outside was certain to hide his tracks...but they wouldn't need to follow his footprints, not if they could rip him away from Wermspittle with a crude diagram and some shitty incense. Summoned like a demon. Bujilli grinned, making his lips bleed a little more. Then he spotted the bundle next to the lantern post.
Red silk. bound with strips of chitin cut from a medium-sized centipede.
The sigil daubed on the bundle in golden, greasy paint was his name.
It contained a severed braid.
"Uncle? Why have you brought me back here?"