"We need to go n--"
The outside wall flashed red. Stone screamed and wood charred into ashes that reminded him of Triddel. Bujilli squatted down and retrieved her pistol. It was heavy, with three triangular barrels. The lock-mechanism looked like some sort of gyroscope. It reeked of something foul that he couldn't quite place.
He looked at the cleaver stuck more than an inch-deep in the floor where Triddel had dropped it. Bujilli wanted no part of that thing. It reminded him of Unfred and bad things he'd as soon forget.
Then it struck him; the smell was Salted Shot, like he'd been hit with back at the Beast Pens*.
Vushka turned and ran. She didn't have time for discussion. She intended to do something.
Leeja tugged at his hand. She was headed to the access-point where Sprague was waiting for them.
"Hold it. Why? Why should we go to Sprague right this minute?"
"He's waiting for us--"
Red fury screamed through the back wall. Plaster erupted in a cloud of hot dust. Draped burst into flames despite being labelled 'flame-proof.' The bed was beginning to smolder.
"Let him wait. We need to do something about those Tripods--"
"Letting them burn us down while we argue is what's really crazy. I'm going out there. With Vushka. You do what you think is best." Bujilli hefted the odd pistol and shifted his hand-axe into a comfortable grip as he headed out the door. Once down the stairs he began to run and he didn't look back.
A red ray had penetrated a near-by building that must have had a methane pocket built-up under it. Maybe it used to be an unlicensed cess-pit.
The door exploded in a red haze of splinters and flames. Bujilli tucked and rolled through it--he was running too hard to stop himself.
A moment of heat and chaos.
He picked himself off of the cobblestones. Leeja was next to him. Her hair was slightly singed along the left side.
He nodded, turned to face the oncoming Tripod, then charged the closest of its three segmented legs.
His hand-axe bit deep into the yellow metal, especially where there were patches of pinkish corrosion.
The Tripod halted in its tracks.
Bujilli jammed Triddel's pistol into his belt, then shimmied up the metal limb using his hand-axe to hack-out hand and foot holds in the metal.
He looked up. A hatch was splitting into three sections as it pulled back to reveal--
Bujilli grabbed the pistol and fired. Fired. Fired again. Satisfied it was empty, he discarded the pistol and started climbing in earnest.
Drip. Drip. Blood spattered his shoulders as he climbed. A body tumbled past him. Shaggy white mane, over-large eyes; it had to be some sort of Morlock.
Someone jabbed at him with a five-tined fork. Bujilli ducked under the wicked weapon and lunged in through the hatch. He towered over the morlock with the fork. It was a funny feeling. He was usually shorter than average.
The morlock stabbed at his guts. Bujilli chopped the morlock's weapon in two. Then he slid forward and slammed the haft of his hand-axe across the morlock's throat. He'd learned how to do that fighting Yeren as a child, as a warrior allowed to join the fighting, but whom no one would ever help or back-up. Quite a few of his mother's folk had been openly disappointed every time he managed to return from fighting the yeren.
He pushed. Hard. The morlock tried to scramble backwards but only managed to trip over something. The body of another morlock. Bujilli seized the advantage. He pulled out the manticore-pistol and jammed the barrel into the morlock's forehead. He hated to bluff, but it seemed like it might work this time.
"Yield or die!" He tried to sound as threatening as he could manage. It came out raspy, like some awkward adolescent playing air-pirates in the wood-lot. a game he was never allowed to take part in as a child.
"Yield!" The morlock shrieked in all too obvious relief.
Bujilli stepped back. Holstered the pistol before his prisoner might spot that it was unloaded. Gestured with his hand-axe; "Why were you hunting me?"
"Who are you?" the morlock pilot scowled in confusion.
"Why did you attack the tavern?"
"We were eliminating dangerous elements from the street. The tavern and other buildings were merely collateral damage." The pilot wriggled to the side, trying to adjust their position so they were not jammed up against some sort of machinery.
A huge explosion violently shook the Tripod.
Bujilli went to the gaping hatch. He could see one of the other Tripods completely enveloped in flames and slowly teetering over against a burned-out temple of some sort. He suspected that was Vushka's handiwork.
Leeja grabbed at him. He dropped his hand-axe and pulled her through the hatch. No sooner was she through than she tripped him.
The morlock pilot snarled as he fired his palm-pistol.
The glass dart missed Bujilli's head by a hairsbredth.
He retrieved his hand-axe and advanced on the pilot who was frantically trying to reload the small gun.
"Please. I have children..."
"Drop the weapon."
It clattered across the rigid mesh floor. Leeja picked it up and slipped it into her belt-pouch.
"What should we do with her?"
Bujilli took a good look at the pilot. She wore an old-fashioned uniform. The red epaulettes and triangular badge on her sleeves were from the Red Army. He recognized them from the recruiting and propaganda posters he'd passed in the alleys and streets. There were a lot of old posters and broadsheets in this place. Perhaps no one ever took them down.
"It depends on how truthfully she answers my questions."
"The real Tripods will be here in less than a day. We received word of the attack and were given special orders to seek you out and eliminate you by any means necessary."
"How did you receive word?"
"Courier pigeon. We've stayed in contact with our forces for generations using those birds."
"Why target me? How did you find me?"
"We are trained from birth to not question our orders. It is a luxury we can not afford in these difficult times. your elimination was posted as part of a list of over a hundred other agitators and trouble-makers specified by the General as high priority targets as part of emergency measures now in effect."
Leeja snapped her hair across the pilot's wrist before she could grab hold of a particular lever.
Bujilli smacked the pilot with the flat of his hand-axe; "I'm not sure whether or not we're ever going to get anything useful from this one...but I am fairly certain that we can't afford to linger here much longer. He looked around for some way to sabotage the Tripod. He went up the ladder to the control pod. It was cramped, but he managed to release all the pigeons from their cages. Then he found the Anti-Capture Protocol lever next to the seat labelled 'political officer only.' It had a timer set right above it, so he pulled the lever until the alarm sounded. Then he scrambled down the ladder and grabbed Leeja; "Let's go!"
They got half-way down the leg with the hand-holds before the main body of the Tripod erupted in green flames.
Neither of them stuck around to watch what happened next, instead they both dropped to the street and started running towards the third Tripod.
They got there just in time to watch Vushka smash a boarding pike into the rear resonator assembly.
The Tripod--and Vushka along with it--faded out.
"Scheiss!" Leeja hissed in disgust. They only just avoided getting pulled along after the Tripod to wherever it was going to wind up next.
"We're running out of time. The Red Army is on the way to attack Wermspittle inside of a day, if we can believe what the pilot told us."
"We need to get to Sprague."
They both looked back at the Grampus-and-Krampus tavern. Neither of them were thrilled about running into a burning building, but a lot of the damage appeared superficial.
"Do we go back in there? Will Sprague still be holding the access-point open for us?"
"There's only one way to find out." Leeja grabbed Bujilli's hand and they started running back towards the tavern together.
The main room was smoky, but the flames had died out already. A lot of the stuff in there was somewhat resistant to flames. They headed back up the stairs. There was a gaping hole blasted through the wall of their room giving them a view of the ruined Tripods and the swarms of people trying to put out the scattered fires.
The access-point was still there. Still open.
Leeja looked at Bujilli.
"Let's go see Sprague then."
They stepped through the shimmering lozenge of purple light and stepped out into a gentle rain. Majestic, ancient trees surrounded them. The sky overhead was deep violet and filled with rain clouds. At first Bujilli thought that they had been betrayed to the Purple Clouds, but these were only rain clouds, not malevolent world-killing miasmas. He hoped.
"Good. You've come." Sprague relinquished his hold over the access-point and it shrunk down to nothingness.
"We've come, but I want to know why you brought us here. Wherever 'here' is."
"Welcome to the Purple Forest." Shael croaked from her make-shift pallet. She was in a bad way. Her left arm was missing. Someone had very nearly taken her head as well.
"What happened?" Leeja's claws snapped out as she rushed to her aunt.
"She was given a choice. Same as you two." An old man in heavily mended and mis-matching armor leaned on a heavy walking stick to get a better look at Leeja. His eyes were hard, dark, cold, but he seemed to approve of what he saw in her eyes and leaned back ever so slightly. With a chill she realized he had been prepared to put her down if necessary.
"What choice? Who are you?" Leeja demanded.
"I'm not important."
"Silas! You promised that you'd be honest with them." Shael scolded the grizzled old man whose armor smelled bad.
"Yes. I did. I am. Ahem. My name is Silas Grompf. You might have heard of me by now."
"I've heard of you. A little. you run the Sewer Miliita." Bujilli looked away from the old man and his shabby armor. He scanned the trees surrounding them. Some of them were moving in decidedly non-tree-like ways. He mentally nudged his Counsel;
/Have you been paying attention?/
/I need your help./
/Can you help me determine what the best course of action is going forward? How I, how we, might make things better without making them worse, without getting killed trying to do it, either./
/Then get to work./
"Good. If you've heard anything about me then you know that I'm a right rotten bastard. That will save us some unnecessary frivolities."
"What is this choice you're offering us?" Leeja hissed.
"I'm here to ask you both to join the fight--"
"Scheiss! Another recruitment attempt."
"No. Not just another attempt. Your last chance to do something worth the doing and the dying. I hope."
"That sounds ominous. Are you making some kind of threat?" Leejas' gold-green eyes were slitted like an angry cat.
"No threat. You've both accumulated plenty of that sort of thing already."
"Why should we join the Sewer Militia over any of the other factions that have already tried to get us on their side?" Bujilli considered the old man...there was something very different going on here. He wasn't sure what, jut yet, but he had a sense that this was not simply some sort of attempt to get them to come over to a particular side.
"Leeja. Bujilli," Shael coughed, wiped away blood; "Silas is not here to get you to come over to his side. Nor am I here to get you to take up the cause of the Seamstresses."
"You two have stirred-up the hornet's nest something fierce. I, for one, appreciate that a great deal. But I'm a bitter old curmudgeon with a powerful hate for the status quo, so that's probably as could be expected."
"The Rebellion is over."
"The Midwive's Rebellion is irrelevant and it needs to end. We must settle things. Once and for all."
"You two? Here? Now?"
"We can start the process. Finally. But it will take time. And we need help." Shael glared at Silas Grompf. He hocked a wad of phlegm and spat it towards the nearest tree.
"So you two have made some sort of deal--"
"Not quite as much of a deal as what we need to make with you two..."
"Oh really?" Bujilli was distracted by a swirling mass of icons and glyphs that were resolving themselves into some sort of pattern within his field of vision. Counsel had some extrapolations of possible choice-paths and consequence-streams for him to examine. Each one shifted in response to his attention and morphed into a brighter, more coherent set of options as he explored options or rejected obvious dead-ends.
Seamstresses. Midwives. Sewer Militia. The Corruption Trade. The Academy. The Medical College. Morquin and the Athenaeum. Confectioners and Candy-men. Butchers. Comprachicos. The Gardeners. The Farm Enclaves. Idvard and his private library. The Perdu and the Unseen. The Arena-keepers. Yellow Journalists. The Desert Fathers, Purple Clouds and their Purple Hordes. Hedrard and the forest-folk. Beatrice Eberhard. The Wretched and their bitter lords. The meddlers from Latterkamp. The Ignobles of New Chillon. The Toy-Makers and Doll Houses. The Wermic Host. Tsalalians, morlocks, eloi, and all the other refugees and ethnic groups struggling to survive in this place. The number of factions and players and meddlers active in Wermspittle was well beyond anything it could ever be expected to support.
The place had too many concurrent wars running simultaneously. Too many voices competing to be heard over the screams of their victims.
"Yes. Really." Old Grompf eyed Bujilli suspiciously. As if he could see the projection Counsel was presenting to him.
"What sort of deal?" Leeja came over and took up her place beside Bujilli.
Broken. Everything was broken. He could see that more clearly than ever before. All the competing, squabbling and feuding factions were locked in hundreds of pointless, ultimately destructive conflicts.
Each one turned against another by...
"I think young master Bujilli just might be on the verge--"
"Colony. They've colonized Wermspittle. Infested it. Poisoned everyone until they can't function without their toxins..."
"Who? The Corruption Trade?" Shael sounded vindicated, despite the raspiness in her voice from her damaged throat.
"Their masters." Bujilli saw it now.
"Masters? But I thought that the Corruption Trade were the real masters behind everything in this place..."
"No. They serve the Wermic Host." He could trace the lines of confluence and conflict mapped out for him by his Counsel. The central factor wasn't the ghouls, the morlocks, the cults, the ones everyone blamed or held liable. One group was behind all the others, clever manipulators, insidious, they were the true masters of Wermspittle. He felt that he ought to have realized that when he purged their influence from Sharisse**, when he was offered some sort of truce by the chorus of voices speaking through Triddel back at the tavern.
"But the host make it possible to survive through the winter..." Shael parroted the old familiar lie. It tasted like bitter ashes in her mouth even as she spoke.
"No. They don't. They make it impossible to survive without their 'help.' They keep poisoning the low lands, which means all those farm enclaves have to send their children into the city before they go sterile or start to develop worse defects." It was a sinister, yet elegant pattern. The Wermic Host were seen as necessary to the survival of everyone, and they had made it so by their constant poisoning of the water supply, the soil, the food...
"But the low lands were affected by the old weapons..." Shael began to piece it all together for herself. She had been accustomed to the carefully woven tapestry of assumptions and implications maintained by the Werms...as the daunting realization settled upon her, she grew increasingly uneasy.
"Yes. Centuries ago. The Wermic Host have tainted, tampered with and sabotaged every attempt to clean-up the low lands ever since." Silas Grompf bowed his head; "We drove out the Fetidians. We cleared-out the slither-mobs and mold-cultures wherever we could reach them. At least we used to, before the treaties with Yellowholm and the fungal congress put a stop to that. Now we're riddled with vermin sympathizers, crawling with infected collaborators, addicts sick with yellow fungi and infested with werm-kin above and below the Near Deeps. Everything we fought for has been taken over from within by hook and by crook thanks to the Ignobles and their treachery and there hasn't been a damned thing we could do about it. Until now."
"What has changed?" Leeja scoffed. She wasn't sure she trusted old Grompf.
"You two." He snapped his walking stick into a spear and made a gesture with his left hand, a sort of circular motion overhead. The spear unfurled a banner; the gray disk on black field of the Sewer Militia. Bujilli hadn't noticed it before, but the disk was actually an ancient coin of some sort.
Hup Hup Hup Sergeants bellowed and officers directed underlings. Abatis-works were set into place. Barrels were rolled into place. Heavy stakes were set into the soggy ground. The clearing became a fortified staging zone.
Armored soldiers from the Sewer Militia and the Wall Guard took up positions along the perimeter of the clearing. Each group of five had one flame-thrower, one of the galvanic weapons crackling with pent-up electricity like the one Bujilli had left with Idvard, and at least one heavy prod-type crossbow fitted with what might be captured Black Smoke cannisters. Here and there among the troops could be seen a blue toque or a rusty-red stocking-cap. Spinsters wielding bodkins and crones carrying antique fowling pieces had attached themselves to various groups. Some would act as medics, the rest would do what they could with needles, hexes and other things.
A small corps of red-breasted skirmishers took up position on either side of Bujilli and Leeja. Elite werm-killers. Their unit insignia was a robin pulling a toothy-werm from the ground.
"We've spent generations fighting, dying, bleeding and entertaining the werms. Now it's time to change that once and for all. Will you join us?"
Counsel rearranged the flowing mass of icons into one configuration after another. Each permutation, every projection showed mass chaos, devastation, destruction...death. The estimated odds of survival were extremely variable and never remained constant. Each time some piece moved, another faction shifted, the odds had to be recalculated.
The only certainty Counsel could determine was that Silas Grompf, Shael and all these soldiers were very, very likely to all be dead or worse within the next four hours unless Bujilli worked out some sort of an arrangement with them...and even then...things looked grim. Except for one thing.
Bujilli smiled broadly. He wasn't alone in this place. He had friends. He had made the mistake of looking at it all from the viewpoint of what made him valuable in this conflict, and that was a mistake born of ego. It was never about him; it was about his connections, his friends.
That was when Bujill knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again.
"So are you in, or are you out? Times a'wating and a lot of us have some dying to do..."
Bujilli could feel more than one set of eyes focused on him...
What should Bujill do next?
* Bujilli woke up being dragged through the alleys by Unfred after being shot in Episode 34.
** Sharisse was part of the group that ambushed Bujilli and Leeja back in Episode 29, was captured by Bujilli in Episode 30, was revealed to be Werm-Ridden in Episode 31. Sharisse had the werms removed in Episode 32 and Episode 33, (it was in Episode 33 that Bujilli put together his spell of Purging Green Flames, one of the new spells to be featured in our forthcoming grimoire), and Sharisse was then sent on her way. She re-connected with Gudrun, who was being manipulated to wrongly blame Bujilli for the death of her brother and ever since then Sharisse and Gudrun have become friends and followers of Bujilli. Both young girls were featured in the short story Of a Feather. Sharisse and Gudrun were both involved in the battle with the MirrorBorn back at Sprague's offices in the East Wing of the Academy that kicked off around Episode 74. We'll be seeing more of Sharisse soon...as she has gone off with Gnosiomandus as one of his grad-student/bodyguard/agents...