Bujilli held up Hedrard's amulet. The snaking black vine-things were crumbling away into so much inky dust in response to his dispelling the blockage. There was no connection. He could feel the blockage on the other side. Who would do such a thing? Why?
"You're right. I can't reach Hedrard."
"Of course I'm right. I didn't get this old being wrong all the time."
"So do we go check on her, or do we go after Sprague?" Leeja kicked another piece of Mandrake across the floor.
Dithering was deadly. Hesitation killed. That particular lesson had been drilled into Bujilli by his Uncle.
"I'm going to try to clear the connection to Hedrard. Which one is closer to where we are right now?" He looked to Gnosiomandus. The Unnatural Philosopher nodded in approval.
"Good thinking. Sprague is actually closer. Over in the East Wing. But we'll need to deal with his assistants before we can get to him. If he's even available."
"We'll make him available..."
"Optimist. You've obviously never dealt with an Oneirist before." Gnosiomandus chuckled.
"No. But I expect to learn. This will only take a moment." Bujilli closed his eyes. Focused on the amulet. He whispered the mnemonic sequence, made the internally-visualized connections, felt the energies flow through him, then released them into the amulet. There was resistance. A lot of it.
Bujilli stopped in his tracks. Intensified his casting. Redoubled his efforts before his spell could dissipate. The resistance was intense. Formidable. It took exertion to maintain the connection, to simply keep the channel open. Snaky black tendrils writhed towards him from the otherside of the amulet. He refused to let go. The black runners curled outwards, cutting across his hand, drawing blood. Thorns extended across the length of the coiling tendrils as they thickened. Pain made it even more of an effort to not get distracted and drop the spell. Pressure mounted. This was going to take more than a simple dispelling.
"Machine." Bujilli half-vocalized through gritted teeth. The pain was getting worse. The black thorns were dripping down onto the already gory carpet. The amulet was growing warmer. Warmer. His own blood was making the thing slippery.
"End this." He choked. The pain was getting to be too much.
A shimmering purple radiance flowed out from Bujilli. He could feel it ooze out through his flesh. It tickled.
The amulet fell to the floor. Bujilli flexed his hand. It was sore. Bloody. Criss-crossed with black streaks. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry or spit or swear. Where once he had carried the swirling violet fractals of a spell well beyond his early capabilities, now he bore the tattoo-like markings of another spell. This time it was someone else's spell he carried.
"What have you done?" Demanded Gnosiomandus.
"I ran into some resistance..."
"I should say so. I don't think the Custodians are going to appreciate your turning this hallway into some sort of arboreum."
"What?" Bujilli looked past his mottled hand. Black thorns had taken root in the floor in several spots. The thorns grew up the walls, across the ceiling and around the door to his room. The carpet was barely visible, a few tattered shreds stuck within the tangled roots that now covered the floor across more than thirty feet of the hallway in either direction. It reeked of fresh-cut ginseng.
Bujilli laughed. He looked at the amulet. His hand. The Black-thorns. The conspicuously missing fragments of the Mandrakes. He laughed again.
"What's so funny?" grumbled Gnosiomandus.
"I used a Confusion spell on the Mandrakes."
"Yes. so what?" the old man prodded.
"It was still somewhat in effect, I guess. The resistance I encountered was too much to simply dispell. It pushed me, so I pushed back. We fought back and forth a bit, then I called upon my Counsel to end it. Before I lost my hand. this..." he waved his hand at the strange new foliage covering the hallway, "...seems to be the result of all those things coming together at once."
"So you were not able to reach Hedrard?"
"No/" He looked down at the tangled roots of the black-thorns. They seemed to be settling down, going flat, as if voluntarily forming a floor. His hand tingled. He could feel a connection to the things. Low, slow and non-verbal. They responded to him on an empathic level. This could come in handy, later. It would have to wait for later.
"Then we need to go check on her right away." Leeja insisted.
"Sprague. We need to deal with him first. Hedrard can handle things just fine. If she was in serious trouble, I'd...know...it..."
"What?" Leeja demanded.
"Scheiss. My connection to Hedrard. It's blocked. Just like yours. Black, thorn-things."
"She has a connection with Eberhard as well?"
"Good. Then we head for Sprague's place right now. There's very little that Hedrard and Beatrice Eberhard can't handle together. I have a suspicion that Sprague is the one who really needs our help right now."
"Help that bastard?" Gudrun balked at the very thought. She had every intention of slitting the man's throat at the first opportunity.
"Yes. He may not be willingly serving these secret masters that are trying to pull his strings. He may not be in complete control of his actions." Bujilli looked pointedly at Gudrun and then Sharisse. both looked down at the flattened roots of the black thorns. There was an organic sort of parquetry to the way they fit together. It was a beautiful pattern. Very spirally.
"I'd appreciate it if you would lead the way..." Bujilli bowed slightly to Gnosiomandus. He remembered how the hallways and passages responded to Beatrice Eberhard when he had first met her. The staff and faculty of the Academy had special privileges in this place. He hoped that it would be enough to get them there before...he wasn't sure what was going to happen. But he could feel it in his guts that something was going on. Like something big and nasty prowling just outside his range of perception.
"Follow me then." Gnosiomandus headed towards the stairwell. His pace accelerated from a brisk walk to some sort of loping trot. Gudrun and Sharisse flanked him. Bujilli and Leeja brought up the rear.
Three more flights of stairs. Two hallways and a side-passage hat let onto a spiral ramp lit with blueshine pearls. Another hallway. Past three sets of heavily-reinforced bronze doors. Across a small enclosed bridge linking to the East Wing. Two more flights of stairs. Another hallway. A black door bound in rough-hammered silver. Purple carpets. Strange frescoes. Mosaics of shadow. Broken statuary and phantasmagorical fossils. Dimly murky mirrors in elaborate frames, most of them shuttered and barred like prison-cell doors. The Atrium of the Oneirical Studies Section was directly ahead of them.
There was no one at the reception desk.
No one stopped them from making heir way to the third floor. Room 303. Bujilli remembered that this was where he was supposed to go to pick up his voucher from Sprague when he first came to Wermspittle.
Gnosiomandus still had his gnarled wand at the ready. He paused at the threshold. caught Bujili's eye.
"How many uncovered mirrors did you count on the way up here?"
"Three." offered Gudrun.
"Four, I think." Sharisse pulled a gonne of some sort from her belt. She held it in her off-hand. It looked heavy enough to serve as a sort of war-club.
"Mirrors? What does that have..." Leeja closed her eyes in sudden realization.
"Sprague works with more than just figments and phantasms. He has several Simulacra on his staff--"
"He allows Mirror-born to work here?" Leeja sounded incredulous.
"Yes. And more besides. If there are four mirrors unvcovered, then there are at least four Mirror-born wandering about the place. Probably not wandering. More likely waiting in ambush."
"Do they bleed?" Bujilli considered his options.
"Some do. Others shatter. A few have the distressing habit of exploding into a cloud of shards that'll shred you to pieces if you're too close when they go."
"Wonderful. Anything else I ought to know before we go in?"
"Yes. Most of them can reflect spells back at you, so watch what you cast in here."
"Great. this just gets better and better."
It was your idea to come here first."
Bujilli bit back on his reply. Instead he tried the door. It wouldn't budge.
He considered kicking the damn thing open...