Sirens shrieked. The window rattled. Something exploded down below. Another. Another.
Lurid green smoke filled the garden. Bujilli could see it streaming up from one of the ventilation well-shafts that led down into the lower levels beneath the Keep.
Dozens of Grunters* charged out of the smoke. Each one wore a crude respirator-mask and was covered head to hoof in baggy coverall-like suits. The first few over the rim of the well-shaft were lobbing crude black-powder grenades into the garden seemingly at random.
"Scheiss. We only just got here." Bujilli went to the wardrobe and pulled on his denims, a fresh shirt, started getting his armor settled into place. His boots didn't want to go on right and required him to make three tries, finally sitting himself down on the bed let him get them on properly. His hands were shaking. He knew all too well what Grunters were like from his time spent running through the Blade Maze of Kalkendru***. Long, long ago. Another lifetime. It was supposed to be all over. Done.
"What do you intend to do? you're not completely healed yet. You can't rush down there just to get yourself killed." Leeja's white hair writhed and slashed about like a corona of flames. She withdrew her gonne from its make-shift carrying-case/sheath and began to re-load it. The shot she was using looked like small bundles of blades bound with copper wire. Her powder came in paper packets stamped with the black fist of Abundru, a notorious Tsalalian arms merchant who advertised in the Whisperer. He wondered when she had picked that up. Most likely while he was unconscious or going through his surgery.
"No. I'm not in a hurry to go down there. I'm not ready to face those things one-on-one, but I don't have to." He slung his quiver and withdrew the short bow Mistress Eberhard had given to him to replace his old one. It was built-up from layers of horn, bone and wood, compressed and bound with glues and resins and spells. The string took a little more effort than his old one required to get it into place. The handle was bound in some sort of roughened hide that held a good grip. It had a stiff, but substantial pull. He grinned. It was time to put all those arrows** he had taken from underneath this very Keep to work. But first he set down the bow and checked his manticore pistol. It needed to be re-loaded, so he took care of it. If anything happened, or he ran out of arrows, he wanted something he could rely upon. He wasn't strong enough to wield his hand-axe in pitched battle. The pistol would have to serve. He began to stuff a dried gunpowder grub down the barrel.
"You do realize that's a manticore pistol, right?" Leeja stared at him with her eyebrow arched in disbelief.
"I just had my skull reassembled, so I'm not much interested in sarcasm. If you've got something to say, then spit it out. We don't have a lot of time to waste."
"Fine." Leeja strode over to him, took the pistol out of his hands, held it up so he could see clearly and worked a tumbler and latch mechanism at the base of the trigger-guard. The pistol snicked open on its well-oiled hinge. The thing had eight barrels, not just the one he had been using and it was a breech-loader, not a muzzle-loader. He felt foolish.
"Don't know much about gonnes."
"It shows. Don't worry about it. Just get it loaded. I'm going to see what I can see from the balcony here."
He nodded and set to work getting the pistol loaded. The grubs slid into place much more smoothly this way and he didn't need to tamp them down with the little brass rod with the brush--he realized that was probably for cleaning the barrels. Snick. The pistol locked back into place smoothly and securely. He slipped it into his sash, took up the bow and headed to the window.
Krak-Boom! Leeja was already re-loading her gonne. She had over-charged her weapon. Two Grunters were squalling and screaming and squealing as they thrashed about on the ground. One had lost a good chunk of its face, the other their left fore-arm.
Bujilli pulled out an arrow, knocked it, pulled and released in one fluid motion. It would have hit dead center if that Grunter hadn't been struck down by a glaive wielded by some mail-clad defender down below. Three more mail-clad defenders forced their way forwards, one with a halberd, two with military forks.
He drew and released one more arrow. It took a Grunter through the eye-socket. He drew again. And again. Again. All six arrows were gone. He didn't have any other arrows left, so he set the bow down against the railing and drew out his pistol and the black-iron-and-teak fighting wand. He was reluctant to use the wand unless he had to, so he set about shooting any and every Grunter that looked like some sort of leader or specialist, like the grenadiers who remained clustered about the well-shaft.
The third grenadier he killed lurched backwards and fell over the rim of the well-shaft, taking his grenade with him.
The blast stopped the flow of green gas surging forth from the gaping maw of the well-shaft.
More defenders wielding a variety of pole-arms pushed the remaining attackers back to the well-shaft and drove them back over the rim.
The last Grunter went over squealing as Bujilli finished re-loading his pistol a second time.
The defenders encircled the well-shaft, forming a bristling barrier against any of the Grunters returning to the surface. Three of the tallest defenders, each one wearing an elegantly plumed helmet over some sort of gas-mask stood off to one side and conferred with a shorter, stockier member of their cadre, one that wore a flat, round white helmet and a heavily-reinforced suit similar to what the Grunters wore, only of much better quality. The one in the white helmet made three quick signals to his squad who rapidly trotted out from the base of the Keep carrying a variety of mechanisms and tanks, hoses and poles. They set up a heavy tripod-frame over the well-shaft then began lowering hoses over the side in-between the struts. One of them wrestled a block and tackle into place at the apex of the frame.
Bujilli nearly dropped the pistol.
They were rigging up some sort of bomb to be lowered on chains down to the level where the Grunters had broken through.
A knock at the door. Leeja re-slung her gonne and looked at Bujilli; "You ready for visitors?"
"I guess." He finished re-loading his pistol, slipped it into his sash then picked-up his bow. He'd need to replace the missing arrows. Once unstrung it slid back into place alongside the now empty quiver. He wondered if they had any more of the barbed-ones in the Keep's stores or arsenal. He liked how the flexible yellow-metal fletchings worked. He had a feeling that they might respond to his direction if he could only figure out how to connect with them.
"Good of you to lend a hand. I do apologize for the ruckus. The Grunters have gotten to be quite a nuisance of late." Idvard floated in the doorway; "May I come in?"
"Yes. Certainly. Thank you for your assistance with my..."
"Your recent injury had us all quite worried my young friend. I am pleased to see you up and about so soon and already making yourself useful."
"Is the Keep secure?" Leeja scowled at Idvard.
The sirens sounded the all-clear.
"I would say so. My forces, with your help, have driven the Grunters back again, and this time we're prepared to do something more than just seal them off."
"The Fungal Tyrant didn't wipe them out?"+
"Unfortunately no." Idvard floated over to the window. He kept his third eye focused on the defenders efforts around the well-shaft.
"Do you know what happened?" Bujilli sat back down on the bed. Leeja remained standing. She seemed agitated. Her hair swished and swayed like a pack of angry white cats.
A lot had happened while he was out of commission.
"I have learned a few things, partly from interrogating some prisoners and the reports of those scouts that have managed to return from below."
"Prisoners? Scouts? What has been going on?"
"The Fungal Tyrant betrayed us all. It no sooner began to disrupt the Grunters than it tried to negotiate an alliance with their leader. The thing had killed or infected more than two-thirds of their Legion before the Grunters managed to eradicate it or eliminate it somehow."
"They adapt to infections rapidly. And poisons. That's what allowed them to take over the Blade Maze on Kalkendru. They raise their offspring to breath poison gasses, to suffer through horrid poxes and plagues, in order to make themselves stronger."
"You are sure of this?" Idvard screeched.
"Pardon me." He floated through the window, over the balcony and streaked towards his defenders.
"Apparently Idvard thought it would be a good idea to fumigate the lower levels." Leeja smirked.
"A terrible idea. At best it would only annoy the Grunters...at worst, it would make them even stronger." He shivered at the thought; "The competing hordes and armies of Grunters fighting over the toxic terrain of the Blade Maze routinely exchanged volleys of chemical weapons, Black Smoke, even poxes and plagues their shamaness-sows bred like prize-winning dogs among the slaves their raiding parties took from along the Borderlands."
"If the Grunters have been able to cast-off the Tyrant's influence, then they aren't going to be driven off so easily. Idvard referred to them as a 'Legion.' That's another bad sign."
"The Grunters only form Legions when they intend to hold some territory. Legions are defensive, they guard, protect, fortify..."
"Scheiss. Idvard has a much bigger problem than I thought."
"Yes and no. The Grunters lost quite a few of their troops...how long has it been since we left here?"
"I'm not sure. time works slightly differently. A few months, not more than a full year. Why?"
"The Grunters are matriarchal. When they take severe losses, they go into a breeding frenzy. If Idvard doesn't drive them off very soon, there will be a lot of newborns down there and the Granters will fight like demons to hold onto their new spawning grounds. If one or more of their shamaness-sows survived the assault by the Fungal Tyrant they will accelerate the birthing process. Not only will more of the offspring survive, they'll mature much more quickly. Grunters begin military training before they reach three years of age."
"Three years...that means we have time--"
"No. You don't get it. The sows can use their spells and serums to breed a replacement army in only a few months."
"Time is of the essence then." Idvard floated back into the room from the open window.
"We must take the fight to them." Bortho settled to the floor beside his mentor-master. He wore a mail hauberk and a blue-plumed helm that he removed so he could shake out his mane of thick hair. He smiled as he strode over to clasp Bujilli on the shoulder.
"Bortho!" Bujilli was pleased to see his one-time delving companion again.
"It is good to see you again Bujilli." Bortho clasped Bujilli on the shoulder. His chain-mail was formed from a semi-translucent chitin or similar material. It clicked slightly as he moved.
"You've done well for yourself since last we saw you." Bujilli grinned.
"Not well enough. The Grunters threaten to wipe us all out if we don't destroy them first. We will have to go down into the lower levels and hunt them down, exterminate them like vermin."
"It will be brutal. The worst sort of tunnel-fighting imaginable. Grunters are vicious beasts. Vicious and clever and quick to adapt both physically and strategically. You'll only get one real chance at this. If you fail, they'll begin breeding another generation, and another, until finally they manage to overwhelm you. Time is on their side." Bujilli massaged his right temple. His head was beginning to ache.
"No. They expect to fight a war of attrition, to wear us down while building-up their forces..." He disappeared only to reappear next to Bujilli; "...But it is we who have time on our side." Bortho grinned broadly.
"You can move through time?" Bujilli remembered that Idvard had told him how Bortho's people were somewhat 'flexible' in how they related to time.++
"Only to a limited extent. So far." A woman also clad in chain-mail and with a vivid crimson plume on her helmet stepped up next to Bortho.
"Zutissa?" Leeja took up position on the other side of Bujilli.
"Yes. It is good to see you both again. I wanted to thank you for saving our child." She reached out and took each of their hands in hers. Her gratitude was genuine.
"and Zutissa's life...as well as my own." Bortho grew suddenly serious.
"How is your child, Bortho?"
"She is well. I intend to make sure she remains that way."
"You speak much better than when last we met..." Leeja tilted her head askance.
"Ha. Good. We have been studying. There is much we need to learn about this place and what remains of our ancestral domains."
"Have you learned much about what lies below?" Bujilli looked past Zutissa at the third leader of the Keep's defenders. It was the specialist in the round white helmet and gas-mask. They unclasped their mask and pulled off their zinn-plate armored-gloves revealing heavily wrinkled and orange-speckled yellow hands. It took him a moment to recognize this third leader as a Vinkin.
"So this is the much vaunted Bujilli we've all been hearing about?" The Vinkin kept her distance.
Bujilli struggled to his feet, pistol in-hand.
"Bujilli; what are you doing?" Leeja was beside him, her claws extended but unsure what was happening.
"Is this your 'specialist' you were going to hire to tend to the Fungal Tyrant?"
"Yes. she is. And she has done an excellent job--"
"Of setting you up. The Vinkin serve the Fungal Tyrants. They're fruiting bodies of a collective fungal intelligence. Everywhere they go they colonize."
"Is this true?" Idvard demanded.
"You don't know the half of it." The Vinkin pushed a button on one of the clunky boxes attached to her harness.
The bomb only recently removed from the tripod exploded.
Bortho drew his long sword. Zutissa had a long-hafted fighting-sickle in each hand. Leeja slashed out with her hair. Idvard erected a green disk of light between himself and his former employee.
Bujilli began firing his pistol.
The Vinkin traitor laughed as she ran out to the balcony and leaped off of the rail.
Bortho appeared. Swung his blade. Missed.
Zutissa appeared. Slashed. Missed. Slashed. Caught the cuff of the Vinkin's suit which then ripped as she plummeted down out of sight.
Bujilli arrived at the railing in time to see the Vinkin carried away by a cluster of winged monkeys. He emptied his pistol but wasn't sure what good it did. Then he felt Hedrard's amulet throb slightly--a clear signal that She wished to contact him.
The gardens below were filled with toxic vapors. The defenders around the well-shaft were scattered; many were incapacitated, possibly killed. Shapeless figures moved about tending to the wounded, replacing guards around the well-shaft, sorting through the damaged and broken equipment or examining the singed but still-intact well-shaft.
Bortho and Zutissa disappeared. They reappeared down below calling out orders and getting things back under control. Someone was positioning large fans and some other device made up of bunches of tubes and cylinders to drive off or neutralize the lingering green gas.
Leeja's overcharged gonne split open the sky like thunder.
The fleeing villain screamed. She hit her target. The traitor plummeted down through the trees and was quickly lost in the roiling toxic vapors.
The winged monkeys scattered screeching and chattering in fear and agitation...
What should Bujilli & Leeja do next?
* Grunters are described in this post.
** Bujilli discovered a set of barbed arrows beneath Idvard's Keep in Episode 41.
*** Bujilli described some of what happened to him wduring his time within the Blade Maze also in Episode 41.
+ As seen in Episode 44.
++ As revealed in Episode 49.