Bujilli was soaked to the skin from the cool spring rain. He didn't care. It was time to look for some answers.
Ever since coming to this place he had been confronted with one horrific thing after another. But it wasn't the monsters that troubled him. He'd grown up around demons and Yeren. No. It wasn't the monsters that bothered him. It was the people.
He looked at the people moving about the blue-tiled walls and market stalls. Tall, thin women in narrow leather smocks riveted with plates of salvaged metal were fighting with a recalcitrant Tripod they had rigged to hold up their awning. They were selling massively hypertrophied fruits, mostly berries. Across from them a fat old man in a heavily stained green raincoat sat on his stool puffing on a pipe and ignoring them He has crates of various edible roots, all packed in clean creamy sand and well out of the rain under an almost origami-like arrangement of rusty sheet-metal. Farther along were a pair of fungal-haired children peddling mushrooms, oblivious to the cool rain. A family of refugees, driven from Karlogne during the bombing and burning, were setting-up their wagon to show off baskets of tree-nuts, recently dug-up truffles, fragrant herbs, bundles of rushes from the Low Marshes, and a few just-shot ducks.
Bujilli wondered at the diversity and abundance of food-stuffs on display in the market. He saw a hunchback searing strips of pork hacked off of the boar carcass dangling beside him. A woman in antique yellow metal armor used her ancient blunderbuss to point to the chalk-scrawled menu set next to her neatly patched carnival tent. A child on stilts ran past in pursuit of a flock of pigeons. Haggard veterans with any number of limbs replaced with zinn prosthetics were hawking baked goods, candies, exotic fruits, meat pies; whatever they could get cheaply enough to make it worth trying to re-sell from one or the other box, crate, bucket or bag strapped across their chests and hanging off their bandoliers and belts. A matchgirl screamed as she set her hair on fire only to have it snuffed out by the rain. An oneirist, the 'great Mandroni of Ikrapor' according to the garish placard set before his badly-arranged yurt (Bujilli knew quite a bit about yurts). The Great Mandroni offered a wide selection of services ranging from the Repair of Reputations to the Distillation of Madness, Taming of Nightmares, and Dentistry. His price list included entries for curing bed-wetting, baldness and something called scroufula and thrush. Bujilli scratched his head; he thought that a thrush was a bird, not a disease. He found himself surrounded by various goblins who screeched at him to buy something as their brethren cajoled the crowd to come taste their fruits and buy their produce, all while the 'Great Mandroni' snored loudly from within his leaky yurt. A brief visualization of the first steps in the Oneiric Bubble spell kept the goblins from hassling him, though they did make rude gestures and one of them cast aspersion on his parentage in poorly inflected Etrurian. The goggle-eyed goblin went pale and ran away once he realized that Bujilli could understand Etrurian. With a laugh Bujilli left the goblins to their commecial racket. He was enjoying himself and wasn't inclined to get into a tussle with some minor nightmare-spawn.
Refugees squatted around makeshift camp-fires, some glaring at passersby and others making people welcome in the hopes of selling them something, anything; Feral Children and Street Urchins ran through the crowd, some playing others working; Wretched derelicts and Patchworkers shambled about, some looking for an alternative to Black Liquor, others trying to sell their dubious wares to unsuspecting farmers; Accursed Poets and desperate street performers duelled for the best corners from which to ply their trde; a singularly despairing hunger artist glared disapprovingly at three beautiful Eloi sharecroppers; Murkim collectors hastily tried to readjust their tarpaulin to protect their pails of scrapped lichens,clipped- ferns and gutter mussels; Tsugri gleaners sullenly sat behind a jumbled pile of bundled stalks and twigs and half-dried shoots; burly and well-armed farm kids entrusted by their parents with wagons heaped with the first fruits of the early harvest were hollering and arguing with their neighbors. The Candymen tended to avoid the farm-kids--they'd been warned about Hard Candy and weren't afraid to shoot or stab the dealers on sight.
No horses. Fodder golems dragged heavily-laden travois along the cobblestones. Pack-geese waddled under loaded panniers and penguins in harnesses pulled small wagons. Tripods of various sizes and types carried bundles, boxes and crates to and fro. But nowhere was there a horse to be seen. He over-heard some chess-playing owl-faced strixin who said that the nomads would be sending along the first mule-trains in another week or so. They always brought loads of loot into the city in pursuit of mates, wives and concubines. Their arrival was late this year. Flooding had kept them from making it to the Spring Revels. There'd be a second 'Un-Revel' when they got into town. Bujilli moved on from their position under a large pink umbrella only to jump out of the way of an electric tractor driven along at breakneck speed by a drunken morlock who was cussing up a storm and shaking his mailed fist at the balky, bulky slow-shambling mass of some kind of pack mollusc, or maybe it was some kind of tunicate, one of the ponderous creatures captured in the Kalaramar Drifts and used as beasts of burden. He had heard the phrase that only a fool sent a horse into Wermspittle; the people would eat the thing before it could make it wherever it was going. Now he believed it.
Bujilli kept moving. Always watching. It shocked him deeply to see so much food being made available after such a hard winter. Where he grew up the major harvests were all in the autumn, right up to the onset of winter, not in the spring. Sure, one would find morels, other fungi, even some of the early shoots and ferns were best gathered right as the snow was leaving, but he had never seen anything quite like this before.
Fresh-caught cellar fish, moose jerky, boiled antelope meat, salted frogs, roast insects bigger than his arm, a hundred varieties of jellied werms, peculiar eggs in brine or some other solution, pigeon, ducks, pheasant, geese...he walked past stalls, wagons, impromptu displays, rickety-looking wooded racks weighed-down with things for sale, hastily thrown-down blankets covered with a curious potlatch of mis-labelled spices and curious delicacies. He made his way to the end of the market. It was incredible how much was jammed into that space. All of it rolled, dragged or carried in by those eager to sell to the winter-weary and desperately hungry people of Wermspittle.
He had been told that most of the sellers were from the farm enclaves. Heavily fortified ancestral settlements where old clans raised crops and herds and flocks...those that survived the annual onslaught of winter and the biters, wailers, and worse things that came with it. It was a grim thing to spend a winter fighting for your life against the wandering hordes and strange mobs that drifted in from the wastelands, or from the burning cities and ghost towns. Yet here they were; healthy, robust young people moving about with confidence and well-maintained weapons, going about their business as though they'd been doing it all their lives.
The Low Lands were contaminated, tainted with ancient weapons and old diseases. Anyone who lingered over-long in those places became sterile and eventually they went mad and in some cases became one of the horrid tings that plagued the enclaves every winter. The farmers sent their children into Wermspittle every spring like everyone else in the surrounding area. Like Lemuel had been sent. He wondered how Lemuel was doing, if he was healing, regaining some essential part of his humanity, however little Bujilli had been able to help salvage.
The he felt it. Lemuel. The connection they shared was too deep to deny. Lemuel was in trouble. Needed help.
Bujilli stood off to the side of a gaudily-painted wagon of radishes and considered what he should do...
* Lemuel first appeared in Episode 21, fought with Bujilli in Episode 22, collapsed in the throes of a hideous transformation brought on by abuse of Hard Candy in Episode 23, was lent a helping hand by Bujilli in Episode 24, became something of a 'blood-brother' to Bujilli in Episode 25. We've seen Lemuel off and on since then. He seems to have made some significant progress in becoming more human and less a shapeless, loathsome mass of corruption...
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.
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."
The building lurched. They were on the fifth floor and the whole place was rattling like a doll-house being redecorated with a sledgehammer.
The door fell off its hinges as they passed under the lintel. The railing around the central stairs collapsed in a cloud of dust and debris. Sections of the rotted railing from the floors overhead were crashing down one after another. More doors fell off their hinges. There wasn't any more glass left to fall out of the windows; it was all broken and underfoot. Dust rolled through the place like smoke.
They turned away from the stairs and headed to the back of the building. The fire escape. Three flights up, five down. They hurried up the wrought iron steps to the roof. The alley below was mounded with debris and garbage.
"Now what?" Mishka looked at Leeja accusingly.
"We look for another roof and we jump. Then we do it again. And again. Until we finally get away from whatever that thing--"
"Scheiss! Just do what I do. follow, but don't hesitate." She turned and ran off to the edge of the mostly flat tenement roof. Nothing within easy reach in that direction. She went to the left. Another alley. The next building over was lower, but the roof was covered with Red Weeds. She ran over to the right. That building was two stories taller, but she felt that they could make it into one of the open windows. If they got a running start.
"We'll need to run right up to the edge, then jump for all your worth."
"I'm not sure I can make it. But I'll try--I'm not staying here."
Leeja nodded once. Gathered up her courage, took a few deep breaths and ran. Leaped. Her hair whipped and flickered through the air like ivory flames trailing an arctic comet. Her foot snagged on the ledge. But she pulled herself past the window and took up position so as to help Mishka across.
The girl didn't make it.
Leeja lunged. Her hair whipped out. Snarled around Mishka's arms and yanked her through the window.
Mishka crumpled to the filthy floor. Leeja released her. Shook out her hair. Looked about the place.
The sweet stink of corruption was overpowering. The carpets were sticky with mostly dried black fluids. There was blobs of soggy plaster all over the floor, more and more of the stuff the farther in they went. The ceiling was sagging, bulging downwards with the wet mess of a Loathsome Mass leaking through the floor-boards above.
They avoided the worst of the detestable rot and corruption and headed for the nearest door. It opened onto a corridor. They ran down the corridor to the end and looked about for another window. No convenient roof was in reach. They ran to the left in search of a stairwell. Instead they found a yellow metal cage suspended off of a small balcony-like platform that had been retro-fitted into the place as an elevator overlooking an atrium or enclosed greenspace. The skylight overhead was grimed over and only let a few rays of sunlight in. They entered the cage and pushed the button for the ground level.
The cage jolted. Cables clattered and gears rattled. It descended at a stately pace.
They spotted some shaggy, dog-snouted figures with spears or pruning hooks moving around three floors below.
Leeja tried to stop the elevator. The emergency stop didn't work. It kept going down.
With luck it would pass by the floor with the shaggy people.
Muishka pulled out her mother's pepperbox pistol and a wickedly serrated and wavy-bladed gutting knife. She was a Wanderer--they bought and sold luck, but rarely indulged in it themselves.
Leeja watched as the elevator continued downwards...maybe they could slip past unnoticed...the elevator didn't make that much noise...
One of the shaggy folk barked and pointed to the descending cage.
"Damn dog-mounting Voormis." Mishka cursed.