It had stopped raining.
Bujilli reached for his hand-axe.
The boy screamed.
As well he should; his hands were wrapped tightly in writhing white hair constricting so tightly that blood was spurting out through every tiny gap.
The galvanic prod sputtered in the mud then went dead. It was very likely rigged with some sort of dead-man switch. Bujilli had no intention of touching the thing.
"Good to see you." Bujilli smiled broadly at Leeja for a moment, then reality sunk its teeth back into his flanks; "We've got to get moving. Lemuel is in trouble."
"Lemuel? But he's with Hedrard--"
"Exactly. Or at least that what he claims. A lot has happened. This is not the best place to explain everything..."
"No. It isn't. Back to your room? Or somewhere else? I know a place that's close. sort of close."
"And him?" Bujilli felt ambivalent about his would-be ambusher. Failure probably meant death to the kid. Just like it had for Ahven previously.
Sirens sputtered, warbled then began to wail forlornly. Their sound quickly escalated into an ear-piercing dissonance.
"Scheiss--SMOG!" Leeja clouted the boy on the back of his head and hefted him over her shoulder; "come on--we need to get to a shelter!"
Bujilli followed her through the tumult and chaos of the market to a sphinx-topped bunker of some sort. There were yellow signs, broadsides and posters all over the place in a confusion of languages and acronyms. Recruiting. Political rallies. Warnings. There wasn't time to really examine any of them in detail., but he did notice a couple of posters that featured a very large and cartoony figure all in red crushing a some symbol in his gauntleted right hand--it looked like blood streaming through his fingers and the three-headed black eagle of Middle Sileza loomed behind him--it wore a tabard-style label across its cuirass-encases chest. Very striking.
Leeja tugged his hand. He nearly dropped the thimble.
Bujilli hesitated for a moment. He started to say something but then people began to yell and raise a commotion--they were closing the doors of the Smog Shelter earlier than usual. He slipped the thimble into his belt-pouch and started to run beside Leeja.
They made it through the heavy, purple-stained doors into the shelter.
Leeja slipped. Went down on her knee. Dropped the boy.
Purple vapor swirled from his lips.
Bujilli grabbed him and heaved him back through the doors before they fully closed.
He couldn't help noticing that the smog was rolling in across the lowest spots in the street and marketplace. Things that might have been people were capering and contorting and generally carrying on in strange ways back where the smog had billowed up into a deep purple zone or macabre wonderland. He wasn't sure which. Then the doors closed with a loud clang. The seals were pumped into place. The lights flickered and people began to look around and take stock of their situation.
Bujilli went back to Leeja. She was sitting against a wall. Eyes closed. Obviously in pain.
"Might I be of assistance?" A thin man in a white suit bowed slightly. His left eye squirmed oddly. It was some sort of graft.
"My friend has been poisoned..."
"Certainly. I saw the Purple Wisp as it left the boy's lungs--you did us all a great service in eliminating that villain from our midst and I'd like to repay the favor."
"What can you do?"
"Well...with your...ah...friend's permission, I can attach a couple of leeches to her back and they will draw off the toxins from the Purple Wisp."
"Leeja? Does that sound acceptable to you?"
"Yes--" she leaned away from the wall. Her cloak was ruined--half of it stuck to the concrete in a mess of blood and purplish ichor.
"I had best hurry." The thin man made a few quick hand-motions to his three unobtrusive and mouth-less homunculi-servants in some sort of gestural code. They each handed him a wriggling, black-striped leech that he carefully applied to her back.
"In this case, under the circumstances, we'll need three leeches. You'll start to feel better presently. The little darlings produce a numbing substance that they freely share with their clients at no extra charge. Very considerate little things."
"And these things will remove the poisons?" Bujilli watched the leeches wriggle and flop about as they slowly grew plumper from absorbing Leeja's blood. The damage to her back stopped hissing. She slumped forward a little.
"Does it help?"
"Yes. Thank you." She shivered. It had been a close call. The boy had nearly gotten her. It had been stupid to carry him like that.
"From now on, we can't afford to take any more chances with these purple-eyed--"
"Purple Irised folk? The Ledaan have been troubling you?"
"Yes. We don't know why--"
"And you may never find out. If you did, it might not matter--or make much sense. The Ledaan are part of the Purple Horde. They worship and serve the Purple Clouds and are ruled over by the Desert Fathers..."
"Do you know a great deal about these Ledaan?"
"Whether directly or indirectly, they are responsible for a great deal of my most lucrative business."
"...drain off the toxins from the various and sundry unpleasant things the Purple Clouds have gifted us with; it tends to pay much better than the usual sorts of things people come to me for, like pus-drainage, blood-letting or reviving circulation in a defective or botched graft and the like."
Bujilli looked at the leeches. They were getting fat, bloated with tainted blood. There wasn't much trace of the oily purple sheen that had covered her back only moments before.
"It seems to be working."
"Of course. I'm no quack. I deal in only the very finest and most exceptional leeches available in all of Wermspittle."
"I have no doubt of that. I am impressed with how quickly they are removing the poisons--what do you do with the things once they've gotten too bloated to take anything more?"
"Some can be milked for useful compounds, others get sacrificed as components to various things, a few I pickle and preserve for the proper time of the year..."
"So you know ways of making use of the toxins your leeches draw-off of their victims, I mean hosts?"
"But of course. Otherwise it would be a pointless waste of my time."
Leeja grabbed Bujilli's ankle. He leaned closer.
"When the All Clear is given we need to go to the right, along Schwarzenegger Lane, past the decapitated statue of Dorothea Witchmangler. You'll see a sign for the Grampus-and-Krampus. It's a tavern. Of sorts. Tell the bar maid, the one with the black hair, not the green-toothed one, that I need her help." Leeja slumped forward with a shudder. She wasn't going to remain conscious much longer.
"There. My lovelies have nearly completed their task." The thin man delicately removed one of the blood-engorged leeches and deposited it into a container held out for him by one of his servants.
"She'll be weakened for a little while--she's lost a lot of blood, but there was no other way to get at the poisons. You've seen the purple smog now, haven't you? How it swirls and writhes like a thing live?"
"I've seen it." Too damn many times for my liking, he thought to himself.
"The poisons do the same thing. They swirl and writhe deeper and deeper into the flesh of their victims. The stuff could be alive for all I know." He pulled loose the second leech.
"Have they gotten it all then?"
"Yes. I believe so. This one," He carefully raised up the third leech which was noticeably less plump than the first two; "Yes. If there was more of the stuff in her flesh and blood, this one would have kept going until it had sucked it all up. Greedy little things. But very useful." He slipped the leech into a third container.
"Not at all--thank you!" The white-suited thin man bowed and presented his hand to Bujilli who shook it. The leech-monger left behind a business card in the palm of his hand. It was set in a flowery script and looked like some sort of Drushik, but he wasn't sure. He slipped the card into his pants-pocket. He didn't want to open his belt pouch. Not here. Not yet.
Leeja slept. For the most part.
Bujilli kept watch over her.
The rest of the people in the shelter seemed to avoid them.
Some gambled. A few slept. Most just slept or read the papers and pamphlets their neighbors shared among one another.
The All Clear sounded. The seals popped and hissed as they were deflated and retracted. The heavy doors opened. It was raining heavily outside.
Bujilli scooped-up Leeja in his arms and moved towards the doors. An old woman smacked him in the back of his knee with her cane; "Where do you think you're going?" she snarled.
"Out." He turned to glare at the woman.
"Oh sure. Go running in the Purple Rain like a damn fool. Not like we don't have enough madfolk and murderers running around the place already."
"Are you not from around here young fella? Don't you know what that is out there?" She stabbed outwards with her cane.
"No." He was feeling surly.
"Take a good look before you go running into that rain." She shook her head in disgust and walked away to go harass some other young dumb fool.
"But the All Clear--"
"Vujjdut!" The old woman scowled at him fiercely; "Those things haven't worked right in decades. Not since the verammdt Pruztian engineers tried to dismantle them. Go ahead, put your faith in ancient unthinking machines. See where that gets you. Ha. Manshonyaggers or worse. no one remembers. No one studies history any more. If they ever really did." She shook her head sadly and walked away into the crowd.
Bujilli looked outside. The puddles had an oily, purple sheen to them that he hadn't noticed before. More toxins. He was sick of poisons. Especially purple poisons.
He set Leeja back down, slumped down beside her and watched the rain for three more hours. He needed to get going. He had to go after Lemuel. But he needed to deal with Leeja first. He thought about the thimble. About the wanderers and Mama Rudta. The three dead purple-eyed kids who had nearly killed Leeja twice now. The rain made him drowsy. It was easy to get lost in second-thoughts and recriminations. Self analysis.
Idiot. He slipped Hedrard's amulet from under his armor and concentrated on it. The thing grew warmer at his conscious touch.
'Bujilli?' he could sense Hedrard on the other side of the connection. She was pushing the link hard from her side, allowing it to form a bridge between them. He could feel the tension within the imprinted spell forms. If it had been anyone other than Hedrard, who had created the amulet in the first place, this sort of thing would have ruined the thing. As it was, it still might.
'I sent word to the Strixin to keep an eye out for you. They can tell you what you need to know.'
'I was contacted by Lemuel-'
'I know. I told him not to do it. He went ahead anyhow. They've been very hard on him.'
'Who? What is going on?'
'War. We've been captured. The Purple Horde is on the move. They intend to take Wermspittle.'
'We have to tell-'
'No one. It would be pointless. Shael already knows. Everything is about to-' The connection was severed.
The rain became a lurid drizzle.
A fine mist.
The clouds broke up and the sun came out.
Bujilli scooped-up Leeja once again and headed out into the sunshine. It was good to be out of the rain.
He looked at the people streaming back into the market. Looked left where the lane sloped down and curved back towards the Low Streets. Looked right and saw a wide bridge over a section of rails and what appeared to be a headless statue atop a large block of malachite. He adjusted his grip and started walking...
Which way should Bujill go?
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To be Continued...