Bujilli closed his fingers over the thimble. He didn't have the thing for even a minute before the offers started rolling in...he wondered why...what made this thimble so special?
The reek of radishes and the unwholesome halitosis of the goblins jabbeirng at him with increasingly ridiculous and grandiose sounding offers was getting to him. He stepped out from under the tarp and let the cool Spring rain wash over him. The goblins kept to their master's selling stall, which was a relief. He looked back at the goblins. They were capering and cavorting about their master's stall, noisily trying to connive and convince any and all passersby to come look at their wares, to trade with them while their master slept. He re-visualized the steps involved in forming an Oneiric Bubble again.*
The goblins scurried and hopped, skipped and jumped to get as far away from Bujilli and the hateful spell as they could, but not one of them crossed the line marked out by their master's tarpaulin. None of them were willing, or able, to cross the threshold into the rain. Then he saw the tell-tale glimmer. These goblins were still hollow, mere nightmare-shells summoned to serve the Oneirist. None of them had managed to devour enough flesh to make themselves more real than their master had already allowed. At least not yet. But goblins were mischievous, nasty little things; they'd find a way to subvert the restrictions placed on them, one way or another. Time was on their side. Time and human gullibility, greed and just plain ignorance.
Bujilli considered using the Oneiric Bubble to expunge the goblins from the Market. He knew he could do it, but he wasn't keen on using such a spell in the middle of such a crowded place. He wasn't sure how others might react, what sort of attention he might attract. Suddenly he disliked the very notion of making any sort of impression or being noted or spotted at all. Old reflexes asserted themselves; he felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise like hackles. Someone was watching him. Stalking him.
He left the goblins alone. He had other matters to attend to, like figuring out why the goblins had wanted his thimble so very badly...and why some old Seamstress would hand it to him in the first place.**
The thimble was silver-plated, formed from the yellow metal of the Morlocks and beaten into shape by a hammer that left overlapping spiral impressions in the metal. It was engraved.
One in Aklo that he read as 'There is no one coming.'
Another in Franzik that he guessed meant something like 'No one can save anyone.'
The third was in Etrurian and was even more opaque; 'A stitch in time saves nine.'
Cryptic gibberish. He was half-tempted to spit.
The thimble had cut into the palm of his hand when the weird crone passed it on to him. He had seen his own blood seep into the creepy thing. It was more than just some peculiar bauble. This thimble felt heavy. Dense. Very real. Not like the goblins at all.
But it didn't make any sense to him. He had come to the Market in search of some answers. He knew he was close to something, some deep realization or sudden insight that would help him make sense of it all. He was so close it hurt.
But the cool Spring rain felt good on his face.
He remembered the weather rolling into the mountain passes and hidden valleys he had prowled as a child. Clouds swarming past giant black trees and warped old rocks. Wild sheep and feral goats that were the offspring of runaway that had escaped their tenders and were too much trouble to re-catch. He had watched the rams leap from ridge to ridge and wondered what it might be like to run away like they had...
He closed his fist around the thimble, not wanting to take a chance by slipping it into his belt pouch. No sense letting some thief snatch it away before he could figure out what it was first. He put some distance between himself and the goblins. And his recollections.
Man-height Tripods reeking of green smoke pulled along small wagons and carts laden with produce, preserves and other products that were not available in the Winter. Bujilli watched as farm kids haggled with their customers over smoked hams, loops and string of real sausages, rashers of bacon. A feral girl wearing densely-rolled burlap over a light leather smock nearly ran into him--she was too caught up in directing a clumsy-looking and much overladen mollusc towards a group of cheering yet discretely hooded women from Urdiz. The mollusc looked sickly, the girl skinny; something was not quite right--then he caught the scent of Hard Candy from the girl's breath before she excused herself and continued on through the light rain.
He watched the women tend to the creature, unload the brightly wrapped packages and bales that had been heaped upon its load-bearing flanges. They all wore the ankle-cuffs of factory-workers. Conscripts not much better than slaves who had been sentenced to one of the three remaining mills. They rewarded the girl with a rag doll that she clutched tightly as she ran off, back to wherever her gang had staked-out a place to call their own. The doll snapped its teeth at everyone that got in her way.
The rain slackened, almost by not quite stopped. Bujilli shook the water out of his hair. The Market amazed him. It was colorful, noisy, busy, filled with rich scents, exotic flavors and abundant food; everything that Winter in Wermspittle was not.
A tremor of desperation ran through Bujilli. Lemuel*** was struggling to reach him. The boy was in trouble.
Bujilli could feel Lemuel's fear bleeding through the psychic link they shared. The boy was in trouble. Scared badly. Alone. In a dark place.
The thimble throbbed once. Sharply. Just enough that it was unmistakable. He felt a slight trickle of blood in the palm of his hand. The blood was quickly absorbed by the thimble.
He went around to the back of a wagon piled with deep red bamboo. It was as quiet, as private a spot as he was likely to find in the immediate vicinity. It wasn't ideal, but then what ever is? Bujilli closed his eyes and examined the psychic link to Lemuel. When he was certain it was authentic he acknowledged the boy's attempt to communicate. Allowed the link to open minutely, at first.
Torrents of impressions, raw emotions, garbled images, distorted sounds all cascaded through the link. Bujilli forced the link shut, then extended his own message through the wild and unfocused cavalcade of disconnected information. It took perseverance and determination, but finally he got past the echoing cacophony emanating from the boy's psyche.
"Lemuel; calm yourself. I'm here. What is happening? why have you reached out to me?"
"Bujilli! I'm in big trouble!" The boy practically shouted through the link..
"Where are you?"
"Through the East Gate. Hedrard had to meet with someone beyond the Inner Ramparts. It was a trap. They overwhelmed the others. Took the two of us through the ruined city. Weak Points. Look for a broken griffin. Third Greenhell on the right--"
Shocking pain spattered across Bujilli's head, heart and hands. He nearly dropped the thimble.
Sheering and muttering obscenities under its breath, a purple-eyed stranger stood over him wielding a galvanic prod.
The mud. Bujilli rose back to his feet. He was coated in mud where he had spasmed and rolled about under the ungentle caress of the sizzling, snapping prod. The link with Lemuel was shut down. Sudden, unexpected pain can do that.
Bujilli laughed. This boy in gaudy, baggy clothes with the galvanic prod reminded him of Ilzinna+ and her brother Ahven. It was the eyes that did it. Oily, swirling purple irises that resembled troubling clouds wrapped around a bottomless pit of a pupil; it was not a look one would easily forget.
"I don't have time for this..."
* See Episode 92.
** Bujilli received a silver thimble from a strange crone in Episode 93.
*** 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. We last saw Lemuel in Episode 81.
+ Ilzinna's body was discovered in Episode 82. Her brother Ahven showed up in Episode 83, and killed himself in the course of spewing forth a Purple Wisp that had been ritually bound into his body in Episode 86, preventing Bujilli from learning anything important and nearly killing Leeja in the process. Both of them were Half-Umbri and had ties to the Purple Horde, and were sent after Bujilli by someone they claimed to be their 'Grandfather.' Ilzinna was possessed by the spirit residing in an ivory mask; the mask was destroyed, but the spirit fled.
"I am so glad that you missed." The bear squinted at Leeja and Mishka through its dusty monocle.
Mishka snapped-open her heirloom pepperbox pistol and quickly re-loaded. Her eyes never once left the bear. Her hands shook slightly, but she didn't let that stop her. Fear only ever worked if you let it stop you from doing something. Her mother had taught her that. One sharp lesson after another until she'd learned it in her bones.
Leeja looked at the Voormi warrior standing less than three feet from her. It, too, was staring at the bear.
"Ingglak vasha naatu ber jut..." The Voormi snarled and whined at the bear.
The Middle Sized Bear listened intently, nodded sagely; considered the Voormis words very carefully.
Click. Mishka readied herself for the worst. Her gutting knife gleamed in the dim light. She intended to sell her life dearly.
"Trespassing is a curious thing to be accused of by those with no better claim on a place such as this than what the Voormis have. After all, I was here before either of you, even before the unpleasant couple who used to dwell upstairs or the terrible old man down in the basement." The bear snuffled and lowered its head to examine Leeja more closely, more directly; "I am of the opinion that the recent bit of unpleasantness between yourself and the Voormis was merely a spontaneous incident born from both parties' fear and uncertainty and sparked into violence based on a mutual appreciation for self defense. I don't think either of you ought to be holding any grudges. Do you agree?"
Leeja nodded. "Yes. I do." She almost reached out to restrain Mishka but quickly thought better of it.
"Excellent. The Voormis in this particular band are not such bad sports as the tumor-mongers I had to drive out a few months ago, and they do keep the pigeons honest." The bear nodded its huge head enthusiastically then began to respond to the Voormis in kind. The Voormis was reluctant to give ground, at first, but the bear's sheer erudition and impressive volume overcame the warrior's wounded ego and distrust of strangers.
The snouted warrior glared at Mishka. His pronounced canines protruded over his black bottom lip. He was clearly agitated.
"Ah, the brave young warrior here has a point we few, we happy few, need to resolve before we can all go forth in blissful equilibrium, each to follow their own star to its inevitable end."
"What point?" Mishka glared back at the Voormi. Their mutual antipathy flared out from them like a fluctuating magnetic field between two poles. They eyed each other with bad intent and both looked ready to go after the other with everything they could muster.
"The Voormis claim this building as their clannish dominion. You have intruded upon them, as they see it, and injured several of their warriors--"
"We acted as necessary, in self-defense."
"Most assuredly. However, you have seriously injured several of their warriors and disgraced the other members of this fine fellow's little hunting group..."
"They should know better than to waylay strangers. It's a dangerous business. Not something well-suited to the inept...or the weak." Mishka put as much contempt into her words as possible. The Voormi might not understand the language she spoke, but he did get the gist of the insult. They were highly sensitive to tonality, the Voormis; their own language tended to carry as much information buried in the overtones and harmonics as in the word-sounds.
"Sound advice. No doubt. However--"
"Excuse me," Leeja stepped closer to the Middle Sized Bear; "We are passing through this place. If the Voormis allow us to leave peacefully, we'll not trouble them again." She smiled sweetly.
"And if they insist on--"
"If they do not have the courage, the confidence, the good sense to let us pass...then we will have no choice but to make them regret their decision for several generations to come."
The bear balked. Growled under its breath. Looked deep into Leeja's gold-green eyes and began to rattle off a series of harsh barks and commands to the Voormi.
The Voormi warrior faced Leeja. Nodded once, solemnly. He drew forth a heavily-carved bone flute and set it before her. Then he turned and left without another word.
"Congratulations young lady. You've not only managed to disgrace the chief's only living son, and severely injure his two major rivals, you've now given him the ultimate prestige a Voormi could ask for--he has successfully negotiated the withdrawal of a terrifying demoness and her slave who was on the verge of wiping out the entire tribe. He'll be made chief within a week or less, I imagine."
"And this thing?" Leeja gestured to the bone flute.
"All such dealings must have a token."
"I see." Leeja reached down into her utility belt. Her fingers bumped against a couple of smooth, oblong things. She opened the pouch and looked inside. The little Slasher spawnling she had adopted back at Idvard's old attic-library had deposited four eggs before it died. She drew out one of the eggs and placed it next on the dusty floor as she picked-up the bone flute.
"This might prove useful to the little chieftain. It is a Slasher's egg. It seems inert right now..."
"But it will become very active once it is soaked in fresh blood. An excellent gift. I will see to it that he receives it. Might I also confer your blessing upon his impending chieftain-hood?"
"Yes. Please do."
"Good. So you'll be leaving now?"
"That is good too. I do not wish to be rude, however, if you were to leave from the West entrance, through the old freight elevator, you will be able to avoid a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed and violence."
"Thank you. We'll do as you suggest."
The Middle-Sized Bear nodded wisely, bowed slightly, scooped up the little egg oh so delicately in its claws and waddled off towards the Voormis' barricaded section of the old building.
Leeja got back on the elevator. Mishka hesitated.
"You meant it, didn't you?"
"You would have massacred their entire tribe?"
"Only those that didn't immediately surrender."
"You scare me."
Leeja started to close the gate. Mishka got onboard and pushed the button for the basement. She barely suppressed a shiver.
They descended together through the dimly lit atrium. Down past balustrades and arches. Behind walls and windows. Finally the elevator stopped in the basement. It was well lit. The walls were spottily white-washed and a gritty coating of borax or something similar covered the floor to a depth well past their ankles.
Leeja stepped off the elevator and started walking. She quickly found a wide corridor running the length of the basement. Huge arches were set every couple hundred feet. Behind each were pallets, crates, racks of boxes; storage and supplies from the old days. Beady little red, green and yellow eyes scampered or hopped about in the darkness beyond the arches. Rats and other things. This was now their domain, for the most part.
The elevators were marked in Franzik, with small plaques of some cheap substance screwed into place underneath repeating the designation in Pruztian. They quickly found the West elevator and set it into motion. The heavily reinforced doors overhead parted and they emerged into a light rain. Leeja pushed the 'down' button and sent the elevator back. The freight-doors closed. She didn't want to leave them open for just anyone. The Bear had been very civil, after all.
"This way." Mishka started off through the rain.
Leeja followed her guide. The girl was a study in contradictions. No doubt she mystified her nearly as much, or more.
They entered some sort of festival. No. It was a market of some kind.
Mishka veered and wound her way through the crowds, avoiding the large moving objects and dodging the smaller, more insistent shapes. They passed a stall where a gaggle of goblins yelled, hooted and tried to get her attention but Mishka did not stop nor slow down, so she kept going.
"There!" Mishka pointed to some silly bastard rolling around in the mud next to a cart-load of red bamboo.
"I've done what Mama Rudta asked. I'm going back to camp now."
"Thank you." Leeja offered the girl her hand.
She shook her head; "We're Wanderers; we never say good-bye. We're far more likely to run into people you bid farewell than those you don't, or so our elders like to tell us. Either way, I don't wish to cross paths with you again Leeja...not without good reason." Mishka turned and quickly was gone, seemingly swallowed up bu the riotous throngs and moving masses of produce and people in the Market.
Leeja went to Bujilli. He was facing some boy in baggy clothes, all decked-out with fancy chains, ear-rings, a terribly looking cape edged with a tasteless orange fringe. He reminded her of Ahven. He also has a galvanic prod and was obviously moving to strike Bujilli with it.
++ Leeja first found the spawnling in Episode 38.