Sprague hacked up more blood. Collapsed. His wounds were bad. He needed serious medical attention.
Gnosiomandus slumped against a fractured section of retaining wall. His eyes closed. Nearly unconscious.
Leeja seethed in barely contained rage. Her claws scratched furrows across the wall.
Bujilli watched the boat pass around the nearer harbor defense tower. He considered his options as he walked a quick circuit around their position. His hands felt heavy. His shadow dragged across the paving stones, as though hesitant to follow him. He smiled.
"Your spell that brought us into that courtyard from Sprague's chambers," He took hold of Gnosiomandus by his shoulder and shook him lightly. Insistently. "It was some sort of Oneiric spell. Wasn't it?"
"Yes." The old man wheezed. Shifted against the wall. One eye opened ever so slightly. "So what of it?"
"You're not an Oneirist." Bujilli half-challenged, half-accused.
"No. I'm not. But I am an Unnatural Philosopher. I know a bit about many different disciplines and such."
"Of course. But who taught you that spell?"
"Why Sprague and I exchanged a few things between us, as a professional courtesy, years ago. What of it?"
"What did you give to him in exchange for those spells?"
"Scheiss!" Gnosiomandus scrambled to his feet. Leeja hissed. The hair stood up on on Bujilli's nape.
"He didn't want any of my spells. He only wanted copies of all my files, records and notes from my expedition into Ku-Stri-Tal--"
"The Outermost Bastion of the Fifth Dynasty." Leeja whispered hoarsely.
"You've been there?" Gnosiomandus studied Leeja very intently.
"I was born not far from there. The Labyrinth-Warrens beneath the Catacomb-Keep extend downward into Deep Dendo. My great grandmother's people were exiled to that place..."
"Before or after the ghouls?"
"My kin drove out the ghouls."
"...and the Grunters?"
"They...drove us out."
"Ah. I should have realized--"
"No. You shouldn't. Could not." Sprague tried to sit up. Bujilli helped him. "You know why; don't you? Or at least he suspects." Sprague jabbed a bloody finger at Bujilli with a mocking sort of laugh.
Bujilli nodded. "Someone has been meddling with things."
"Meddling? How? What sort of things?" Gnosiomandus sputtered.
"Memories. Impressions. Very subtle things. All very minor, inconsequential things. But they've been slowly adding-up. It's like a fog that has slowly, but surely, seeped in under everyone's defenses. It reminds me of how Mistress Eberhard was subverted by the geist. I felt something similar when I first encountered Gudrun, but I thought that was some sort of influence being exerted by Sprague. But it wasn't Sprague. It wasn't even the Mirrorborn thing impersonating him. It goes deeper than that."
"For what it is worth, I never met you before you tore me loose from those Black Chains..." Sprague sank back onto the pavement. Fever was starting to set in.
"Just how long have you been gone, Sprague?" Leeja demanded.
"I remember looking out at my gardens. She was supposed to meet me..." He trailed off into reverie.
"When? When was this?" Gnosiomandus insisted on knowing.
"The first night of the Spring Revels." Sprague whispered. Barely.
Bujilli looked to Gnosiomandus.
"That was weeks ago. You arrived in my roo--at Wermspittle near the end of the Revels."
"Or it was a year ago. Or more than one year..."
Bujilli looked out across the harbor. The boat was rapidly becoming a speck in the distance. The light in this place tended to be diffuse. Yet he still cast a reluctant shadow that wavered like so much ink spilled into milk.
He closed his eyes. Took control of his breathing. Listened. Relaxed. Let his senses extend outwards like he'd learned as a child.
Pressure. Resistance. Interference.
He recognized the sensation all too damned well.
He cast Thought Wall.
His shadow erupted from the gritty pavement, all talons and teeth, devouring blackness.
He wished he still had his tulwar, but he still had Stril's axe.
It hacked a wicked gash through the billowing black demonform.
The thing shrieked. Silently--felt only inside his skull. A vile echoing noise. This thing was prone to tormenting the sleeping, preying upon the vulnerable. He hacked it once more, cast Auric Sheath. Extended the spell as far as he could push it, then reversed it. Brought it down around the demon. Encapsulating the thing. Trapping it.
He nearly lost control of his spells. The mindshriek of the demon was horrible. But he'd heard worse. Far worse. Growing up in a sorcerer's yurt. He held on. Tightened the shell around the demon. He could feel the demon pulling him into a trance-state. Just like he expected. Stupid demon.
Bujilli pressed the Auric Sheath down. Harder. Compressing the wretched shadow-thing into a dense, black smear. On the very edge of collapse the thing whispered urgently into his brain: 'Please.'
"Make your offer." Bujilli knew the rules of this game. His Uncle had taught him well, if harshly and unkindly. Hard won knowledge carried more weight, direct personal experience held more value than simply reading a lot of books. Bujilli had read an awful lot of books as a child. But he'd also been forced into assisting his Uncle in all sorts of workings and experiments. His Uncle had explored a number of different demonologies and summoning schema. He remembered the night they called forth Ahtrishka.
Scars ensure one does not forget. He would never forget. Not ever.
'Release. Promise to release. Give Names.'
"You'll need to do better than that." He forced the Auric Sheath to squeeze tighter.
'Promise. Tell All.'
"No promises. No more games. Offer me power."
"Offer me wealth." He flattened the thing.
'Wealth! Yes! All You Want!'
"Offer me my heart's desire." He rolled-in the sides.
"Of course. You'll offer anything. But what can you actually deliver?" He shortened the shell.
"You have nothing I want." Bujilli crushed the Auric Sheath down into a finger-thick rod about the length of an arrow.
'Need! You NEED!'
"Go on. I'm listening."
'No! Too Late! She Knows!'
"Who? Who knows?" Bujilli demanded.
The demon's mental shriek ceased abruptly. As he knew it would. He jerked the Auric Sheath. Hard. Like fishing for cave carp. He twisted it. Jammed it down to the ground. Held it as he cast Protection from Aethyrial Intrusion. One of the spells he'd learned from the Gem of Muktra. So, so long ago.
A spherical shell of greenish non-light reverberated all around him, even as the pale violet Auric Sheath flickered fitfully at his feet. Whomever was behind the demon had retained their link with the demon. Used it to snuff it out before it could reveal anything useful or important. Now Bujilli intended to use that link against them.
Black lesions appeared along one side of the green sphere. They were lashing out. Maybe they suspected something of what he was up to.
Bujilli smiled. Snapped the demon's form down as hard as he could force the spell to go. Crushed it into a dull black rod. Taking care to shape both ends. One a notch, the other a point. An arrow. Black and deadly. To the one who sent the thing after him.
He replaced Stril's axe in his belt. Drew out his bow. Strung it. Picked up the arrow. Drew back to the full extent. Paused. Exhaled. Released the spell surrounding him even as he released the arrow.
No more pressure.
No sign of the arrow.
Bujilli looked about him. Sprague was unconscious. Gnosiomandus was staring at him in something bordering upon shock or dismay. Leeja was busily skewering beetles with her crystal stiletto. Her pet slasher followed behind, deftly slicing-off limbs and heads as it went along. The beetles were beginning to pile-up past her ankles.
There was a peculiar piping noise. Some idiot blowing on a cheap flute. The sound made his skin crawl.
He knew what it was. Now all he needed was to find the thing.
He knocked a yellow-metal arrow. One he'd taken from beneath Idvard's Keep.
There. He drew. Aimed. Fired. All in one smooth motion.
The piping stopped.
The beetles dispersed.
"Really? I've been killing scores of these nasty things and you end it all with one arrow?"
"Just need to know where to shoot. that piping noise was coming from a verminotriloquist. At least that was what my Uncle called them. It's someone who manipulates, dominates and controls vermin by use of certain sounds, usually from some sort of musical instrument."
"Lovely." Leeja wiped-off her blade. Re-sheathed it. The little slasher busied itself finishing-off any stragglers it might have missed in the earlier rush. Now it took time to nibble beetles. It seemed to prefer their brains. Such as they were.
"You're lucky it was just beetle..."
"Centipedes are much worse." He pulled his shirt back, tugged his armor off to the side to reveal some livid purple marks deeply imprinted into his skin. Not all his scars came from Ahtrishka. He'd had more than his share of encounters with centipedes in the deep dark places his uncle had forced him to explore. Even a basket on the end of a rope couldn't get you out of reach of the worst of those things, not nearly fast enough.
"Maybe I should get a hand-axe like you use..."
"You have to find what works best for you."
"Sound advice." Gnosiomandus coughed. Struggled to his feet. "We need to get back."
"You don't want to follow the boat now?" Bujilli chided his mentor.
"No. Damn fool that I've been, no. It's a distraction. A sort of reflection or echo. Even if we did catch up to it, all we'd find is an oneiric construct. So much dream-junk. and very likely a nasty surprise or two as well."
"So how do we go back?" Leeja went over to Sprague. Checked that he was still unconscious and not just biding his time, listening to their plans.
"We wake up." Gnosiomandus gestured for Bujilli to move closer to Sprague and Leeja. The Slasher skittered back to its mistress and disappeared into her belt pouch.
"Yes." Sprague gasped.
Gnosiomandus set about casting some sort of spell. It involved perambulating about in a series of counter-rotating circles and a lot of concentration.
Bujilli tried to pay attention to the old man's spell-working, but each pass around the circles made it harder and harder to focus.
"Grab Him!" yelled Gnosiomandus.
Bujilli lunged. Tackled Not-Sprague. Dragged them both through the steaming green mud to the doorway.
The green mud surged. Slopped against the door with a hissing wet slap. Again. The door gave-way. They ran into the hallway.
Two Spragues in tow.
They followed Gnosiomandus down the hallway. Down the stairs.
Shattered bits of glass-like mirror-flesh were everywhere.
Three women stood at the edge of the debris. A long cool woman in a black dress. A hag with over-sized owlish eyes. A tall, elegant woman wielding an oak staff. Mistress Eberhard. Hedrard. The Headmistress...or her simulacrum...
There was no sign of either Gudrun or Sharisse. Just their exuberant handiwork.
"That's far enough. I will have some answers..."