"Only a fool..." taunted an unseen woman's voice.
Firelight glinted from the edges of a steely knife. Leeja rose from her cushion instantly. The blade tilted, glimmered like glass, flicked towards Mama Rudta like a mirrored serpent's tongue. Leeja couldn't deflect the thing.
Mama Rudta wasn't laughing any more. Her hand were clutched to her ample bosom. The wire-bound handle of the dagger jutted out from between her veiny hands. She had a dumbfounded look on her face that made Niobe laugh. Leeja rushed to Mama Rudta.
Then the screaming started. One of the guards collapsed, their throat slit cleanly to the vertebrae. Another.
Leeja ignored the chaos surrounded her and focused on Mama Rudta. The dagger was some sort of medical thermometer, sharpened and reformed into a killing weapon. One that left glass and mercury, if not other things behind in the wound it made.
She cast Pale Shelter, if only to buy Mama Rudta and herself some extra time. Stilletto in-hand, she set about removing the nasty debris befor it could do any more damage. The old woman remained standing. Stoically silent. Her eyes fixed on a point behind Leeja, following...something.
Leeja spun and flung. Her stilletto stopped abruptly in mid-air with a muffled grunt. The section of the blade embedded within invisible flesh distorted as though under water. Leeja barked forth a choking cloud of Charnel Breath and lunged towards the unseen assailant. The cloud had a slight purplish tint to it, but she didn't pay it any attention; instead she concentrated on wrapping her tendril-like hair around the assassin. She could hear them coughing, gagging, so she tightened her hair where it caught around their torso.
She yanked-out her stilletto, twisting it ever so slightly as it withdrew from their flesh. It came away wet, slick with transparent blood. The assassin screamed, but their voice was muffled. A quick check gave Leeja the impression of some sort of scarf wrapped multiple times around their face, a sort of mask, composed of invisible silk.
Leeja tore away the unseen mask as best she could manage. Ripped it free. Flung it away.
"I'll tell you nothing..." Their oath was cut off by a fit of coughing. Charnel Breath could play havoc with people's lungs. It should have paralyzed them. But it didn't. That bothered Leeja. A lot.
"You don't have to." Niobe laughed.
Leeja looked up at her sister. Niobe made a mocking face at her momentarily dumbfounded sister; "Mama Rudta can learn all sorts of useful things from this one's blood. We don't need to keep them alive."
Leeja looked back at Mama Rudta. The old woman slumped down on her cushions. The wound had been less serious than she had feared. The old woman nodded grimly; "It is as your sister says...however...there might be value in this one, perhaps a ransom of sorts?" Her contemplation of their options was interrupted with a coughing fit. She looked drawn. Far too sweaty and pale for Leeja's liking. There was blood on her lips from the coughing. Never a good sign.
"I'll die first--" The invisible assassin struggled to get their hands free.
Leeja grabbed hold of the assassin's invisible face then slammed the pommel of her stilletto down upon what she believed was their temple. It took a second try as they squirmed, then slumped unconscious. For now.
She stood up. Dragged the body along with her toward Mama Rudta. Niobe was removing the bits of glass and wiping at the wound with a clean rag.
"Nasty business." Niobe shook her head as she worked on the wound.
"Who would send this," she gestured at the figure bound up in her hair; "sort of thing after you?"
Mama Rudta grimaced. Coughed wetly, then yelled; "Malza! Bind this would-be killer!"
Another girl, very similar to Mishka only daubed in blue-green and wielding a slim, almost whip-like scimitar silently acknowledged the command, sheathed her blade and ran off after some cordage or the like.
Leeja looked out past the dying fire. It was quiet.
A tall, heavily-built old man with a wild shock of white hair came into the circle of fire-light. Only just.
"They're gone now. We killed one other. They slew six before escaping. We cannot stay here any longer."
"I know that as well as you do Razga. They would never have come after us in the old countries. The pact is broken, or in abeyance, either way it is not too very good for us here. Pass the word to break camp. We leave this place immediately."
"But you can't--"
"Can and will." Mama Rudta gestured Leeja to come closer, placed her wrinkled claw-like hand on her arm gently; "There's no place for us here. Not any longer. they killed six of our children tonight. They have nearly taken my life as well. It is better to take our chances along the Cold Roads...or perhaps we can arrange to have one of the rafters to take us through the marshes..."
"But it is raining still..."
"It is Spring, child; of course it is raining. The lichen-scrapers look to their attics now, there will be a new harvest of fungi and such things now. The fish, frogs and crabs will be spawning in the cellars. Plow Grubs will be waking up out in the Low Lands. The flocks are returning to the Tulgey Wood. This is a good time. Winter is done, for now."
"You need not worry about us child. We know the ways of many roads, many routes. Not all the worlds surrounding us are necessarily dead. We will find our way, under the cover of darkness and rain if need be."
"There is so much I do not understand..."
"You are young. You have not been here very long. Answers take time. Knowledge takes effort. Experience comes at a price. This one--" Mama Rudta waved towards the invisible form wrapped in Leeja's white hair; "This one might have some things to tell you, if you wish to ask. I can reveal to you the answers carried in their blood, but such things will not set you at ease. Such things will only pull you further into their master's orbit to cross paths you do not even suspect as yet. People fear the unknown for good reason. but if you like, I can pull back the veil slightly and give you what I am able."
Bujilli jogged along the muddy side-street. Mishka had not waited for him. She slipped through the rain like a phantom he could only barely keep in sight. Down a rain-slick ramp. Switchback stairs. Across a bramble-choked forest confined by black iron fences, what was once a park of some sort. through a debris-clogged passage between blackened and crumbling buildings. Over a make-shift bridge suspended over a deep crater in the middle of a street. Over mounds of rubble, treacherously slippery in the rain. He caught up with the girl on the half-caved-in verandah of a dead hotel overlooking the Low Streets. Two-thirds of the walls in this place were missing, as if sheared off by a gigantic knife. Surprisingly, the remaining sections were still mostly upright, only a few had collapsed after the place had been gutted.
"There," she pointed along the defunct funicular railway.
He looked out across the night. Tried to see what she was pointing at but it was next to impossible with the steady fall of the night-time rain. The streetlights were all dead in this area, which didn't help as much as he might have hoped. There were lights down below, galvanic lamps, gas lamps, some other luminous things. It was a messy and uneven patchwork competing light-sources interspersed with random patches of darkness. Bujilli's eyes were drawn to the jagged black shapes of another Burned Over District, a section of the city that had been bombed, blasted, burned into a mangled and malevolent wilderness of curdled shadows and stone. He looked away. It might have been possible to pick out specific neighborhoods or notorious regions, if one knew the place that well, but he did not.
"I'm not sure..."
"It's right there at the foot of the rail. In the old days people bought a ticket and rolled down the ramp and did their shopping right there, never straying too far from the walls surrounding their fancy homes up here. Back before the bombs. When the airships still came here. Just follow the rails and you can't miss it. Keep an eye out for the blue tile stalls and you'll be fine."
Bujilli nodded. It was clear that the girl was anxious to get back to her people. It was better that he proceed without her. He needed to travel quickly, quietly, carefully.
"Thank you." She was off and running before he finished saying it. He watched her until she disappeared around a corner.
Bujilli turned back. The railing ended less than three yards to his left. Sheared off cleanly by whatever had struck the old hotel. Lightning flashed across the roiling black clouds overhead. A great crash shattered the night as a bolt struck somewhere back behind him, towards the Academy. Another. Then another. some sort of tower was rising from a gap in the rooftop along the West Wing. Some sort of giant lightning rod?
He followed the street towards the ticket office. The signs along this section were replaced with baroque lozenges of yellow metal extruded in a semi-organic mockery of flowers, bulbs and vines. The street names were dimly picked-out in shimmering green and handily repeated in three languages, including a stylized dialect of Etrurian that he recognized and could mostly read.
The ticket office was a hollow shell of its former glory. The slotted ticket-window was shattered. The register overturned and broken-open by vandals. Red Weed tendrils were growing over everything. He climbed over the vine-bound turnstile. There were two cars. One was two-thirds of the way back up to the top. The other one was dangling off the side less than twenty feet from the street below. Neither were in service any longer.
Bujilli sat down on a yellow metal bench that wasn't quite completely overtaken by the spirally vines. The rain was coming in heavier now, with no sign that the storm was letting up any time soon. He considered searching out an alternative route but dismissed the idea out of hand. He had business down below. He did not intend to waste time running around looking for another way down there.
He spotted a sign that he thought read 'Maintenance.'
That sounded promising.
The door gave way on the third push. He called up his Gloomlight Glyph and started exploring the narrow space. There was a slanting corkscrew-stairwell leading downwards. He took it. One step at a time. Minimizing the noise of his boots on the metal rungs as best he could. He was too impatient to take off the boots and pad along bare-foot, which would have been quieter, but decidedly less safe.
He wasn't keen on stepping into a gore puddle or a patch of stair-sludge. There were quite a selection of Jellies prowling about in these sorts of places. He wasn't going to run into any such thing barefoot. Having nearly lost a few toes to a centipede had made Bujilli a firm believer in a pair of good, stout boots.
Bujilli froze in place.
Something was moving around down below.
He had six rungs to go before he could step off onto the top platform, quite a few more rungs to get down before he got to the bottom platform, at least as far as he could make-out in the dim gloom.
Whatever it was seemed to be down on the bottom platform, so he moved down the remaining six rungs ever so carefully and --
His foot slipped.