"Where's Hedrard? she was supposed to be with you..."
Then Shael spotted the cocoon surrounded by the whispering, jostling, restless band of Morons. She began to cry. This was not what she had expected...
The door Sprague had just left though exploded in a slow-motion cloud of green smoke and wood splinters that spun and swirled through the air like lazy snow-flakes. The herd of Morons screamed, howled and knocked over furniture as they panicked.
"Scheiss!" Old Man Putney swore as he staggered into a side room and slammed the door.
Four infantrymen in Franzikaner uniforms rushed into the apartment wielding unfamiliar-looking fire-arms; long rifles with strange cylinders and flattened canteen-like things attached to them by hoses, nozzles and tubes. They wore strange battery-harnesses that were linked to the guns by heavy cables coated in gutta percha. Acrid gray blue smoke and tiny sparks spumed irregularly from a sort of venting apparatus strapped to the frames of their field-packs. Whatever they were, however they operated, the weapons were at least partly electrical in nature.
Leeja simply ducked behind the woodwork arch that separated the sitting room from the vestibule. She drew out her stiletto and began to weave her particular version of a Web spell into readiness.
Bujilli went over all the phrases he knew in Franzik and tried to come up with something suitably intimidating or questionable that might take these soldiers off-guard. Sometimes a good bluff can work wonders. But he wasn't quite sure what to say. His grasp of the language was not exactly fluent. He did not want to botch things. It would be all too easy to get it wrong, to say something stupid or nonsensical.
He was intensely curious about their weapons, but not particularly interested in seeing them put to use against him. He began to prepare himself for casting Gestural Globs even as he slid out his hand-axe. Just in case.
Before he could speak Headmistress Shael glared at the intruders and demanded; "What is the meaning of this?"
Two of the infantry-men took up positions on either side of the door while a third began to investigate the rooms. The fourth one, an officer by his heavy gold braids, overly-polished buttons and ornate helmet, strode past the destroyed door and surveyed the place with a haughtiness that would rival a Pruztian's disdain for the lesser folk. He ignored Shael and unstrapped his breathing mask. He had the solid black eyes and deep ebony features of one who had Tsalalian ancestors, only livid purplish tissue pulsed and writhed across his left-side; Mucoid tissue that had been crudely grafted into place.
All four of them bore the insignia of the Imperial Third Tripod Tactical Triplicity. It was the badge used by a unit of deserters from the Red Army that had entered Wermspittle several Winters ago and set themselves up as bandits who lorded it over a small section of the Burned Over Districts. They were said to have two mostly-working Tripods.* Hedrard had told Bujilli about these notorious mercenaries in response to his telling her about his more recent adventures prior to coming to rescue her, and Lemuel, from the Gormenstille.
The officer folded-up the straps and closed the flaps on his breathing mask then replaced it into its belt-mounted carrying case with the crisp punctilliousness of too much practice.
Six Morons scrambled to get away from the door Old Man Putney had disappeared behind as it slammed shut again. Blood began to puddle outwards from under the door. There was no sign of the soldier sent to reconnoiter the apartment.
The Officer raised one eyebrow askance then gestured abruptly, crisply, and one of the other two soldiers stomped over to the door, their triple-cleated boots tearing the old carpets into shreds with each step.
She slung her rifle-weapon and drew out a wickedly serrated short sword.
The door burst open and a fat gray-black rat flew into the soldier's still-masked face.
Old Man Putney never went anywhere without a few of his friends along just in case.
He lobbed another rat at the Officer.
A triple-barrelled trench-gonne was in the Officer's good left-hand. The rat was spattered across the ceiling, a mess of shredded meat and still-twitching paws.
"Ooooh you bastard. Shouldn't ought to have done that!" Old Man Putney jabbed his own short sword into the guts of the soldier struggling with the rat scrambling across his face and shoulders.
The rat ripped free one of the straps and began to gnaw the soldier's face. He screamed, as best he could, with blood gushing from his mouth and crumpled to the floor.
Leeja began to move but one stern look of disapproval from the Old Man held her in place. For now.
Bujilli moved over to Shael. It got him out of the way of ant more rats getting lobbed by the Old Man and gave him a chance to possibly out-flank the Officer.
All around the apartment, the Morons that had followed Bujilli and his friends through the Synchronocitor's vortex busied themselves trying to position themselves behind any available cover. All the while the four priestess-attendants and six honor-guard warriors stood stock still as they formed a human barrier in defense of Hedrard's red cocoon. The priestesses made furtive gestures and the warriors stoically allowed their fingers to extend into sharp, black owlish-talons.
Shael struggled to sit upright. It hurt her terribly. Tiny trickles of blood dribbled from dozens of spots where her spell-twisted flesh gave way to glass. Her left hand might be immobilized, but her right one still worked fine and she used it to call forth a golden trapezoid wreathed in violet flames: "Tell your remaining soldier to stand down and I'll let you live long enough to explain yourself."
The Officer stared at her with his emotionless solid black eyes. A slight nod and he re-holstered his trench-pistol and gestured to his subordinate to stand down. For now.
"I did not promise any such thing." Grumbled Old Man Putney who kicked the dead soldier's body out of his way. Two more very large rats had joined their fellow to dine on the corpse. One of them reared up on its hind-legs and made a rude gesture with its fore-paws before nuzzling back into the gore next to its kin.
"Mercenaries don't invade senior faculty member's rooms in the Academy without good reason--I want to know who sent you and what you were paid to accomplish. Now!"
"The subject of our seizure is not present. I presume he has indeed fled the premises after all. You have dispatched two of my men and I do not flatter myself that you would have much trouble eliminating myself and this one with equal ease. There's no profit in following such a course of action. Our patron wanted us to secure and convey a harmless academic to them at haste, hence our forced entry...though now I doubt that any attempted subterfuge on our part would have worked any better."
"No. It would not." Shael shuddered from the pain of holding herself up. Bujilli replaced his hand-axe and adjusted her cushions to better support her head and shoulders. She gave him a brief look of appreciation, unable to nod her head, just talking caused her a great deal of discomfort.
"So. Our mission is scuttled. Are we to be held as your prisoners?" Already the Officer was calculating reasonable ransom amounts, possible exchanges, options he could put forward in the negotiations he expected to facilitate according to established protocol.
"I have no interest in prisoners." Shael gestured disdainfully. The golden trapezoid flew through the Officer's torso wrecking havoc much like a cannon ball might, then it killed the other soldier before flaring into a small violet star that simply winked out and was gone.
"Damn it woman--how do you expect us to find out who hired these bastards?" Old Man Putney growled.
"They were after Gnosiomandus and did not know for sure whether he had already left the city or not. Whomever hired them did so as disposable cats-paws. I disposed of them. We don't need the distraction."
"Cold blooded much?" The Old Man shook his head and took a bite of something like reddish tobacco. He seemed to be grinning.
"First Frost has come early and hard upon the Low Streets. My husband has turned out to be a dark reflection of the man I thought I had married...a man who now detests me and distrusts me. I've been cursed by the Privy Council and sentenced to a slow death for having had the temerity to try and change things, and not having had the power to back it up adequately. I've been abandoned, not just by the monster I married; more than half the Senior Faculty are missing, disappeared or indisposed and the Academy stands in danger of being broken once and for all as our enemies are making their moves. If anything I'm not nearly cold-blooded enough." Shael closed her eyes. A single tear of blood ran down her cheek.
The morons began to whimper and sob softly in response to Shael's distress.
"We leave now." All four priestess-attendants spoke in unison...in Hedrard's voice.
"Yes. Of course." Shael waved her right hand in farewell.
"Bring her to us in three nights. We'll do what can be done." The priestess-attendants spoke directly to Bujilli.
He nodded in agreement.
The warriors took up positions in front and behind the priestesses and a few hangers-on who helped them to carry the red cocoon. They left.
"It's a fine mess. Indeed. Ah well; such things make for excellent opportunities for folks like myself. Whatever happens, my friends will certainly dine well in the days and nights ahead. not many can say such a thing with Winter coming on like it is..." Old Man Putney clomped over in front of Bujilli and proffered his grimy, questionably-soiled hand.
Bujilli shook the aged scavenger-scholar's hand.
"If you want to talk some time, just let one of my friends know. They'll pass on the word and we'll see what we can work out. In the meantime, I intend to go on living."
"As you always do." Shael tried to smile. Winced from the pain.
"As I always do. Despite all the other bastards." The Old Man left. The rats scampered after him, causing the few remaining morons scattered about the rooms to cry out in disgust and alarm as one after another of the large dark rats ran after their friend. The soldier in front of the bedroom door was mostly bones and chewed-up gear. the one that had gotten snatched lie on the bedroom floor, also mostly bones. The rats had not bothered with the Officer or the third soldier by the ruined door. They were not greedy. They trusted their friend to provide. He always did.
"We can't stay here." Leeja held on to her stiletto as she came over to her Aunt.
"No. We can't. But I have been informed that you two have a friend who might be able to offer us shelter...if you're willing to lend me your assistance. They've revoked my standing, abolished my office and removed my authority as Headmistress...even as they've done this to me." Shael removed the tattered quilt from her left side, exposing the hand that was more milky-opaque glass than flesh any more.
"We can discuss the 'why' of it all later. You've been marked by powerful forces..." Bujilli considered the situation. He knew all too well what it felt like to be at the mercy of circumstance and the whims of people who did not care about him. He always swore he would not grow up to be like that. Now he had to ask himself if that was still the case.
"I understand if you don't wish to help me now..."
"No. It is not whether or not we want to help you--it's really up to our friend--if you're referring to whom I think you might be." Leeja sensed some of his inner turmoil, having gone through somewhat similar experiences growing up in Aman Utal. Shael was her Aunt after all...
He looked into Leeja's green-gold eyes and they both laughed; "Idvard."
"We do have a standing invitation to visit him**." Leeja mused.
"But do we want to return to Idvard's Keep?"
What should Bujilli & Leeja do next?
* Actually only one mostly-working Tripod after the events of Episode 98 when Bujilli wrecked the other one.
**As of Episode 49.