Bujilli awoke with a start. The thunderstorm had run its course. He could still feel it. Out there. Thundering and flashing with lightning. The deep purple animosity of the storm was intense, but it was moving away. He wasn't completely sure if the thunderstorm had been some sort of a Purple Cloud or not, but even if it had been one of those murderous aerial horrors, it seemed to have not noticed him. This time. It was good to be small and easily overlooked by vast, malevolent forces.
That brought back memories of hunkering down in filthy crevices, waiting for terrible things scuttling about in the dark places to get bored or to lose interest or to just simply go away. His earliest adventures down among the dim and dismal caverns and crypts where his Uncle had sent him to find shiny-bits and curious trinkets had been harrowing. It wasn't until after his third foray down into the deep places, after having been mauled by centipedes, that Bujilli stole a silver table-knife to defend himself. The knife he had used to destroy the demon-thing that had taken over his mother's body...
Nostalgia held no particular charms for Bujilli. His childhood had been something to survive, to escape, not something to go back to, never to relive, not even in dreams. Least of all in dreams.
Bujilli sat up on the stretcher. The violet-tinged centipede scars across his chest ached. Perhaps it was some lingering effect from the storm. Or not.
He swung his legs over the side of the makeshift bunk and squinted into the darkness. He could hear the others breathing, snoring, sleeping fitfully. The Pale Shelter spell had run its course. Hedrard was curled up on a stretcher next to him. Lemuel was propped against the wall. The two prisoners were sound asleep; the roof-runner was twitching in the midst of a nightmare and the Ignoble clutched their Iron Mask like some sort of talisman. They were all getting some much needed rest. As much as anyone could. He hoped it would be enough.
Bujilli turned to look at the stretcher on his other side. It was empty.
She was gone.
No. not gone, just not sleeping.
Perhaps she was keeping watch. Or hunting. Or prowling. Exploring and scouting the way ahead. Or....
Bujilli was quickly and quietly on his feet, casting about for some sense of where Leeja might be. His hand scraped against the place where his tulwar used to hang. His manticore-pistol still needed to be reloaded. Hand-axe and alley-knife it would be. The hand-axe, once Stril's axe, had served him well for a long time now. The alley-knife had come to him from Mistress Eberhard, one of her gifts to him before...everything got complicated and messy back in Wermspittle. He wondered how the black-eyed Mistress of the Arenas was handling the recent upsets and disruptions. She was no one to trifle with, he'd known that ever since the first time he looked into her glossy black eyes. That Lady was every bit a death-goddess incarnate. She would be fine. Pity the fools who provoked her wrath.
There--something moved. Bujilli slipped toward the open doorway leading into the third room--the one that had been barricaded when he had fallen asleep.
The place reeked of sorcery.
Debris cascaded across the floor. Something had brushed up against one of the precarious piles of broken masonry scattered about the place.
Bujilli went towards whatever it was. A momentary trace of whiteness. Then it disappeared around a corner. He moved more quickly in pursuit, still trying to remain as silent as possible. It had to be Leeja. Her hair. Her ivory hair in the dark. He followed the white flicker like a will-o-the-wisp farther into the darkness.
What was she up to?
Leeja was like a pale white flame flickering through the dark and he knew that he'd follow her anywhere...
But that wasn't Leeja...
Bujilli woke with a violent start. His chest was on fire. White Irrlicht-fire curled and slashed across his face and chest. He called out to the others, his voice a gasping croak that stuck in his to-dry throat. The stretcher shifted. Fell over. He nearly tripped, but the hand-axe was in his hand, as was the wand.
"Wake. UP!" He forced the words through his throat.
The malignant radiance receded. Tiny condensation blobs of the stuff curdled into a kind of pseudo-matter where it touched him. Rancid, poisonous, milky snot; it tickled where it settled into his flesh.
Bujilli brought the twisted wand to bear on the center-mass of the amorphous hostile illumination and ordered the wand to damage whatever it was, however it was capable. There wasn't time for any sort of finesse, which he had not learned as yet, so he relied on brute force.
The venomous effulgence erupted into a thousand sizzling droplets flung across the room.
The wand was cold in his hand.
He re-sheathed it. Next to the still-unloaded manticore-pistol.
"Bujilli!" Hedrard called to him. She was kneeling next to his stretcher. No--not his--she was tending to Leeja.
"What?" his voice cracked as he all but jumped to her side.
"The Irrlicht...it drained her...badly. She must be particularly susceptible to it."
"It stole a good amount of her vril, her life essence..."
"Will she be able to recover?"
"Yes. With rest. With time. Neither of which we're likely to be getting anytime soon. We need to get out of this place. The sooner the better. There are far worse things prowling these accursed passages."
"I'm not afraid of anything I can kill."
"Ah but what about those things that are already dead?"
Bujilli looked away from the hags' all too probing gaze.
He'd fought undead things before. Badly. The demi-lichipede he'd unleashed from its centuries-long slumber had nearly killed him, almost converted him into a minion, before his tulwar had landed a lucky blow at the last minute. But now he knew there had been no luck involved. His mother's spirit had intervened that time. But the tulwar, and her spirit were both gone now. He was on his own and woefully unprepared to fight the greater undead, abdead, living dead--whatever these things might be that lurked within the walls of this place.
"There are worse than vampires in these old passages. Far worse." Hedrard patted him on the shoulder then turned back to Leeja and began to do what could be done.
One more time Bujilli wished he knew some sort of healing spells.
But he did know of one spell that might help.
He cast Oneiric Bubble over Leeja and Hedrard both.
It wasn't much, but it was the best he could do for them. He'd never cast that spell over two other people before. It proved tricky. Took twice as long to get it right. But it finally spun into place and he carefully picked-up Hedrard from the floor and placed her on the stretcher next to Leeja.
Lemuel was clomping from the tumbled barricade toward the other doorway, checking their immediate space.
The Ignoble stood staring at the Oneiric Bubble, their Iron Mask forgotten on the stretcher beside them.
The Eloi roof-runner was examining the dismantled barricade.
Bujilli closed his eyes with a sigh. Then he caught the sense of it. Flimsy, filmy threads of evaporating force--the traces of a spell that had covered them all while they were asleep.
Subtle somnolent vibrations shimmered through the web-like strands.
No wonder the Irrlicht had been able to drain Leejas' essence without waking any of them.
But Irrlichts were immaterial things.
How did the make-shift barricade get removed?
He stalked over to the Eloi.
They looked up at him with dewy, too-large eyes; "Someone undid our work here one brick or chunk at a time and we never heard a thing..."
"There was a spell, some sort of sleep-inducing sorcery cast over the room. It affected us all." Bujilli watched the Eloi as they touched each of the carefully stacked and sorted piles of rubble that had been their barricade. Their hands were filthy, bleeding from rough work.
"Of course some one did. That thing wasn't physical. It was a thing of light and shadow; it didn't have any hands we didn't lend to it." The Ignoble sneered down at the Eloi from beside Bujilli.
"What? Are you accusing me?" The roof-runner stood up, hands balled-up into delicate fists.
"Your kind were raised to serve in medical experiments, brothels and as slaves. Everyone knows that you're all deeply conditioned to respond to all sorts of charms, suggestions or commands. Weak-willed cattle--"
"And you still clutch your Iron Mask like a pathetic child with their doll--"
"Enough." Bujilli still held the hand-axe and made sure that both of them saw it; "We don't have any time for fighting among ourselves. We need to get out of here--"
"Out? Out to where? We're in the fucking Gormenstille you idiot peasant. There's nowhere to go, not for us."
"We broke your chains. You're free--"
"Ha! This one would rather cling to the walls of her cell than face the world beyond these walls." The Eloi roof-runner had a sharp-edged splinter of stone in their hand. It wasn't much, but it could be enough; as a child Bujilli had started out with less.
"Look. We're leaving. If you want to stay behind, that's your business, so long as you get out of our way and never cross our path again."
"You can't cast me aside like this! How dare you! Do you realize who I am? I am Nemo 22722--"
"And I'm Nemo 112811. Who cares?"
"Nemo?" Bujilli thought he recalled something about that particular name, something that his Uncle had mentioned, or was it some book he had read as a child?
"We're non-persons. They took away our names and gave us a number."
"Then feel free to reclaim your names because you're free now."
"You do not understand. They really did take away our names. Removed our old identities. We have wiped clean of our old identities; there's nothing left to go back to, nothing to 'reclaim,' even if we wanted to do so."
"Then pick new names. Start new lives."
The Eloi perked up at this radical new thought. The Ignoble scowled, rejecting it out of hand; "Such a thing would go against centuries of tradition, it would be a betrayal of my lineage and ancestors."
"As you will then. It is your life, your choice."
Lemuel was standing over Leeja and Hedrard. Keeping watch.
Bujilli nodded in approval.
The boy who had once attacked him in order to get some slight advantage in the Entrance Exams at the Academy had been through a great ordeal, a terrifying transformation, an experience they had both shared. They had an understanding of one another like few other beings could ever imagine...and yet they remained so very independent, so separate. Since Hedrard had severed their connection they'd both changed considerably, becoming incredibly different from each other, and yet the bond, the link between them remained...a strange form of kinship. It was good to have friends, especially in this place.
"How do we get out of here?" The Eloi sat back down on their stretcher.
"We don't. No one does. That's the point--"
"If there's no obvious way to get out of here in the next day or so, then we need to find a way to stay out of the way until I can get us out of here another way."
"You have a way out of here? Why are you waiting? Let's go. Now!"
"It doesn't work like that. I need another day before I can use it." Bujilli felt the Synchronocitor hovering close to hand. It was bonded to his aura and even phase-shifted as it was, he could still feel it, still sense it slowly recharging. Twenty-one hours. They just needed to survive another twenty-one hours in this place before he could take them elsewhere.
"That's inconvenient. So what do we do in the mean-time? Knit socks from cob-webs?" The Ignoble slumped onto their own stretcher.
"This place was built for a reason--"
"It's a prison."
"I get that. But --"
"This is the place where they throw away the unlawful bastards, the inconvenient relatives, the unwanted and those they can't afford to simply murder..."
"Mad kings, princes replaced by simulacra, barons with ties to officially defunct lineages, children with unfortunate bloodlines...hostages..."
"And secrets. Such secrets as would beggar belief. This place is a repository of dangerous knowledge, all sorts of buried evidence, troublesome things and inconvenient truths..."
"Secrets? Knowledge? Like spells?" Bujilli re-set his stretcher into place and sat down. Maybe this place might be worth a bit more investigation...
"The central core of each tower is an archive stacked full of boxes, books and other things--"
"And how well defended or guarded are these archives?"
"Depends. The Central one is out of the question...but one of the lesser tertiary tower might be something we could reach and poke around in a bit...it's dangerous...but we might be able to do it..."
"Foolishness!" The Ignoble fumed; "I, for one, do not relish getting killed or worse just so you can browse through other people's dirty secrets in search of--"
"Knowledge. I came to the Academy at Wermspittle seeking knowledge. Now that I find myself in this place, I am curious jut what sorts of things I might learn here..."
"Curiosity killed the cat--"
"I am no cat."
"Of course not. Cats are noble creatures. But surely we cannot run off in search of gods know what before your friends recover form your spell..."
"They will be waking up very soon. Then we need to decide what we are going to do next."
What should Bujilli and company do next?