Bujilli's nostrils burned. He hated discharging fire-arms in enclosed spaces, but the hungry tiger insisted.
He scrambled back up the corkscrew ladder and started looking for a small space to wriggle into, somewhere the tiger down below couldn't get at him. Hopefully. He needed to re-load his pistol again. It had been sheer luck that he had finished right before the big cat returned.
The beast was persistent.
That was never a good thing. Not when it was hunting after you.
Bujilli clambered across a gap in the catwalk. Jumped. grabbed hold of a bent railing and pulled himself up into the works overhead. Gears. Huge pulleys and bearings and cables. The dark space reeked of oil and rust. He climbed behind the biggest cables. A precarious perch atop some sort of ledge bolted to a support pillar. He tried to re-load the manticore pistol with still shaking hands.
The roared. Bujilli dropped a paper-wrapped cartridge. He cursed in frustration as the cylindrical packet bounced down through the gaps between machinery, cables and metalwork. The tiger roared more loudly. The echoes made it impossible to tell how far away the ting was, or how close.
The pistol was loaded. Finally. Five tries. He huddled in the dark. Waiting for his nerves to settle.
Tigers ate Almas.
All his young life Bujilli had been raised listening to stories about tigers.
Tigers scared demons. Ate them.
Tigers ate everything.
His Uncle had summoned a tiger to dispose of a troublesome rival and her three demons. He had made Bujilli watch.
He was beaten afterwards for pissing himself in fear.
That had not been the lesson his Uncle had intended to teach him.
His hands stopped shaking.
In that moment he finally understood what his Uncle had tried to teach him.
His Uncle had summoned the tiger. Commanded it. Dismissed it once it had served him.
An Almas had proven himself the master of a tiger.
He didn't know how to summon a tiger. Not yet. But he did have his Uncle's, actually his Father's Four Little Brown Journals. He could learn to summon things. Command them.
The tiger growled as it passed below. It couldn't reach him. It might not even be able to catch his scent with all the oil and rust around him.
He watched it pass.
He considered his spells.
Sleep might buy him some time, but he wasn't sure the version he knew was strong enough to affect the tiger. Bujilli wasn't inclined to tinker with it just now in the hopes that he might find a way to make it more effective against the tiger. He could try, but he wasn't terribly impressed with his chances. This was a tiger, not some already half-asleep guard.
He didn't expect to get very far with Ventriloquism, not once he started moving. The tiger would probably spot him or catch his scent once he was down from his perch and away from the defunct machinery.
He considered just taking a nap. Let the overgrown cat get bored with waiting around and it might wander off in search of someone else to eat.
Bujilli looked about him for something, anything he might use to scare off or kill the tiger down below.
Cables, cables and more cables. Gears, ratchet-things, rods and levers...nothing that really looked particularly useful for improvisational tiger abatement. A large, heavy old wrench. Rusty buckets. A small tool-kit, tipped over and mostly empty. A screw-driver and pliers, both rusted together.
Not a lot of options.
He had his nerves under control, for now, but he wasn't terribly keen on confronting the tiger face-to-face, not without something more effective than his manticore pistol. He could hurt the thing. In fact, he had already wounded the tiger. But only slightly. Just enough to annoy the beast.
He closed his eyes and consulted his Counsel. It showed him all sorts of images and diagrams of tiger anatomy and physiology. It instructed him in the dietary preferences and hunting strategies of dozens of great cats related or derived from 'tigers.' He felt himself drowning in trivia and stopped Counsel from further imprinting reams of background data into his brain. He didn't need to become an expert in the ecological significance of the creature about to eat him. He needed to drive off the big cat.
Query: Initiate Pursuit Deterrence Protocol
Yes. Bujilli smiled. He remembered how his Counsel had been able to keep a trio of assassins from pursuing him and Leeja back at the Beast Pens, where the two of them had first met. He sighed. He missed her. But there was work to do. A hungry tiger to dissuade from following him. A trip to the Market. Some answers to find. A theory to test.
A set of twelve little blue icons unobtrusively hovered on the bottom edge of his field of vision. He remembered the third one had been fairly drastic.* This time he selected option one.
His left hand began to tingle. A fine, golden sweat formed across his palm and fingers. It flowed like heavy syrup. At first. Then it began to thin out a bit. The golden fluid dripped from his hand. He held it out over the gap off to his side where he had spotted the tiger as it prowled past just a few moments before.
The golden drops fell past the rails, through the catwalk, down to the level of the tiger.
At first Bujilli wasn't certain about the hissing noise. It quickly grew loud enough to make his ears ache. A billowing golden cloud swirled down below. Obscuring everything. A blinking green icon showed that it was time to get moving.
Bujilli climbed down from his momentary refuge. The cloud hummed to itself as it hid him from the tiger.
He began to run once he reached the catwalk.
He didn't stop running until he reached the blue-tiled stalls of the Farmer's Market.
He was soaked to the skin from the cool spring rain, but he didn't care.
It was time to look for some answers.
* We saw 'Pursuit Deterrence Protocol: Option Three in use in Episode 30.
Leeja followed the lithe girl with the red-streaked face. They ran in the rain. Along alleys. Over make-shift bridges. Down garbage-clotted ramps. Over once decorative railings. Across avenues more forest than roadway. Around the outer walls of a burned-out manor. Through mud and along the faint trails left by the gangs of feral children who hunted in these parts.
Mishka led her into some sort of ticket office. She paused to examine a rusted doorway marked 'Maintenance.'
The girl went pale with fright; "Run!"
Leeja ran after her. Back through the rain. She followed. Her mind wandering. Remembering the times she had spent running in the rain with--
Mishka grabbed Leeja by the wrist. Pulled her through the doorless opening of a looted store. Up the stairs. On the fifth floor the girl collapsed in front of a grimy window. Leeja never got a chance to see what made all the racket.
"You watch the door. I think we can avoid them. This time."
"Who?" Leeja moved back to the door. Examined the hinges. Tested it gently. When it didn't creak overly much, she pushed it half closed to provide them with better cover. Just in case.
"Brats. If we're lucky it's just a couple of polly-dollies or pudgies."
"And if not?"
"Shockheads. Bushwhackers. There are dozens of the things to choose from."
"What are they?"
"Children. Mostly. What's left of them...or what's become of them." Mishka motioned for Leeja to be silent.
Leeja was curious to know what was making all the noise, what was going on, but she stood at the edge of the door and kept a look-out.
A terrible screaming erupted from the street below.
Three voices. Six. A dozen. All of them in direst torment.
The building shook. Windows rattled and cracked. Somewhere a mirror shattered onto the floor.
The screaming grew louder. More discordant.
Mishka scuttled back from the window, shaking with a soul-deep revulsion. She looked right into Leeja's eyes; "We either run. Or we fight."