Bujilli awoke to the taste of blood in his mouth. He hurt in places he didn't have names for. He cracked open his crusty eye-lids. Tried to sit up. Fell back upon the feather bed. He woke again, minutes, hours or days later--there was no way to tell. He was thirsty. Weak. Alone in the dark.
He was not alone. Someone sat nearby. He could hear their gentle, rhythmic breathing. It lulled him back to sleep. But not before he caught her scent.
She had found him. Somehow. Someway. He fell into a deep dreamless slumber, knowing that his friend, his partner was watching over him.
The fever broke. Delirium drained away. The pain faded. Bujilli healed in body and mind, spirit and soul. A long night ended once and for all.
He sat up. This time he managed it. Barely. His hands were shaky. She handed him a mug and helped him to sip from it.
Cool water. It reminded him of ice-melt. The sort of thing he had grown up drinking over the harshest months of winter in the high country of the Almas.
Darkness receded. A tide rolling back out. Leaving behind memories scattered like sea shells along the shore of consciousness.
"I still live..." Bujilli's voice came to him like the rasp of a half-strangled crow. He laughed. That hurt. He slumped back onto the pillow. He'd never had a pillow before. It was nice.
"Yes." She whispered. Gold-green eyes shone at him in the dimness. He took her hand in his. Passed back into blackness with a smile upon his cracked and bleeding lips.
It was good to be alive.
Dreams flickered and flitted through the internal darkness. Bujilli slept deeply. Soundly. Healing. Always healing. Leeja tended to him. Made sure he drank clean water. Then broth. He began to recover more quickly.
Voices woke Bujilli from a strange reverie.
Arguing. They were arguing. Leeja rose and went to the door. Opened it.
Two young girls were blocking Gnosiomandus from entering Bujilli's room. Gudrun and Sharisse. They should be killing one another, he thought. It was a surprise, even something of a shock to see Sharisse standing there holding a sabre and a hand-axe at the ready, as though she were prepared to do violence to the old man. She had changed considerably since first crossing Bujilli's path. She was still free of the Werms. He hadn't wasted his time in ridding her of those insidious things. Even if it had earned him an implacable enemy in this place. He remembered the first time he had met Gudrun. So much had changed since any of that. He wondered momentarily what hat happened to Lemuel. Best not continue with that particular line of inquiry. Not just yet. He wasn't ready for what that would stir up. He needed to get himself back together. Healed. Ready for what came next.
"Let me pass you stupid little trollops." Grumbled Gnosiomandus.
"Watch your tongue old man." Cooed Gudrun, her scalpel glinting nastily.
"Thank you Gudrun, Sharisse. Bujilli is awake. Please let Master Gnosiomandus in, so he can help our friend to recover more fully, more quickly--you both know how important it is that he be ready as soon as possible." Leeja motioned for Gnosiomandus to enter. Both girls nodded. Went back to their very vigilant guard duty.
The door closed. Locked. A lambent blue glow filled the cracks, sealing it with a spell. They were not taking any chances.
"Awake then? Good. You've made good progress my boy. Damned good progress. Just not fast enough for what's already in motion is all."
"I...don't...under...stand..." Bujilli croaked.
Leeja made him drink some more broth. She administered some waxy sort of ointment to his cracked lips. It smelled of mint and hyssop. He liked it. His lips felt cool and smooth for a change.
"But of course you don't understand--you've been off having adventures. That was a difficult battle there, at the end, between you and your Uncle."
"You saw it?"
"Of course. How else could I have known where and when to send Leeja to help you out as best we could?"
"You watched me?"
"Yes. But I was blocked from directly interfering, much as your Counsel has been blocked."
"Yes. You've been interfered with on a very deep, subtle level. Your machine, that thing etched into your bones, entered into a sort of dialogue with your dreams, a sort of way for it to remain unobtrusive, in the background, so to speak, so wouldn't keep getting in your way. Normally, having the mechanism connected to you through your dreaming self might even be a good thing, but when you ran afoul of Sprague's schemes...he took advantage of things and quietly suppressed the connection to your Counsel. He's a crafty, sneaky bastard that one."
"I...never...noticed." Bujilli took another sip of broth. It was hard to talk. His throat was sore. But his body hurt less than before.
"You weren't supposed to notice--that was the idea boy. Sprague rarely does anything out in the open, not if he has half a chance to do it behind the scenes or in secret or through proxies and catspaws."
"Sounds...familiar...Fungal Tyrants...do that..."
"Yes. They do, don't they. Interesting parallel. Sprague is many things, most of them fairly rotten, but he's not a fungus...not that I know of. Might have to check that."
"Danger?" Bujilli sank back onto the bed. The covers snuggled in over him of their own volition. He felt comfortable, as much as he could, considering. It smelled friendly. He felt drowsy.
"Yes. Yes indeed. We need to get you back on your feet quickly."
"Well, first we need to take all those...stitches...out of you."
Bujilli looked down at his chest. Arms. Legs. He was covered-up, wrapped in some sort of web, a white cocoon. Those weren't covers keeping him warm. It was Leeja's hair.
He raised his arm. Glistening tracks showed where he'd been cut by Yeren weapons or his Uncle's spells. Each one tightly stitched closed by the white hair of his partner.
"Are you sure?" asked Leeja from slightly behind him.
"Yes." Gnosiomandus nodded. He patted Bujilli's hand. Smiled.
Something was happening. Snipping sounds. Movement. something small. Shiny. The little Slasher that had adopted Leeja back at Idvard's old place. It was severing the stitches. Deftly and precisely cutting-away her hair.
"The stitches have, my hair has, been in-place too long. It has fused with your flesh. I cannot withdraw it...not without potentially killing you."
"So now some part of you is a part of me..." Bujilli closed his eyes. Lay back on the bed motionless. Let the little insect-thing do its job.
"It was the only way..."
"I would have died otherwise."
She was crying. He didn't dare lift his hand to try and comfort her--the little Slasher was busily slicing away at the hair entangled in his wounds.
"That takes care of the easy part. Now--"
There was a knock at the door.
Gnosiomandus looked to Leeja. She must have nodded.
He opened the door. A dishevelled hag bustled in past the girl-guards. Both of them recognized the old crone and gave her a wide berth.
"Where is he you old bastard?!" Sceeched the hag.
Gnosiomandus stepped out of the way and allowed Hedrard to go directly to Bujilli. Only a complete idiot would have tried to gainsay the fearsome hag.
"Dread Lady Below--what have the bastards done to you now?!?" Squawked Hedrard. She didn't wait for a response, but went right to work inspecting the stitches, examining Bujilli from head to toe, clucking her tongue and scowling ferociously.
"You done well girl." She grudgingly conceded. "Well enough to save him. Now it's my turn to do what I can for the boy." She narrowed her eyes in consideration of the situation. Hummed what seemed like a dirty limmerick to herself. Began to work on his wounds, from inside him, from the bones outwards, or so it seemed.
A liquid golden fire cascaded though his body, mind and soul. Thousands of lingering black tendrils flashed away into nothingness. Less than nothing.
He sat up. His limbs moved freely. He could breathe through his nose again. It had been clogged with dried blood. But no more. He looked at his new scars. Each one outlined in white, but fading into his flesh. His hair was a mess. Especially across his chest and limbs. It would disgrace most self-respecting Almas. He snorted. good thing he was only half an Almas.
Bujilli twisted himself around. Dropped his legs over the side of the bed. Let the dizziness subside before going farther.
"Easy now. you've been through a lot..."
"I've been through hell, you mean."
"Ack--don't be an ass boy. Never mistake your personal hell for one of the real things. There are far worse things than a rotten childhood. especially here in Wermspittle. It can always get worse."
Bujilli thought about that. It made sense. But it didn't make him feel particularly special. Like growing up--it was something everyone did. Hopefully. Another cherished notion fell away. Outgrown. No longer useful.
He nodded. The hag Hedrard was a wise-woman in more than just name.
"Of course. Of course--I wouldn't dream of not coming. Besides, Lemuel insisted on it."
"He is making progress. In his own fashion, on his own terms, even as you are. He felt that he owed you a debt, for your efforts on his behalf..."
"He speaks now?"
"No. Not yet. But we understand one another well enough."
"I'm glad that he is making progress."
"He'd be just another corpse, less than that, if it weren't for your stubbornness..."
"I did what I thought was right."
"And one of these days he'll have reason to be thankful, not just feel a burden of indebtedness. Should we all be so lucky."
"Thank you." Bujilli reached out and took the hag's hand. She looked away shyly. It was a ridiculous gesture. But heartfelt.
"You're healing will continue for a bit. Rest would do wonders. But of course you won't stay in your bed. Not even with one like her holding you down with her writhey-white hair. So feel free to get up and start stomping around. Just try to avoid getting hacked to shreds for a while. Now I have to get back to work. You're not my only patient."
Hedrard grimaced. It might have been a smile. Then she left. Totally ignoring the ward on the door.
A tall, raven-tressed woman in a fighting gown slipped past the hag. Mistress Eberhard. Her eyes were a warm red-gold now, not dead black. She looked down at Bujilli.
She dropped a large, heavy satchel. Nodded sternly. Left.
Not a word was necessary.
He knew without opening the satchel that it held clothes, armor, boots, and weapons. All selected for him personally by the Mistress of the Arenas Herself. Personally.
It was her way of repaying a debt. It was he way of wishing him well.
Bujilli smiled broadly as he got to his feet. Beatrice Eberhard would not have dropped off these gifts if he wasn't ready to put them to good use. Or needed them. Right now.
So he opened the satchel and began to get dressed.
He hoped he had enough time to get ready before---