The Un-Babe's eyes were a lurid pink that darkened into a heavy red along the edges while a scarlet glow smoldered deep within. There was no denying the fierce intellect that operated behind those squinty, piggish eyes. Wet with birth-gore and wrapped in filthy rags, the creature snuggled closer to Leeja and watched everything very intently, knowing all too well that everything she saw or heard was shared with another...at least for now.
"Warriors approach from above!" One of the perimeter guards crumpled to his knees, a yellow-metal arrow sunk deep into his left shoulder, leaving his arm to hang useless at his side, his armor crusted with dried, old blood.
"There's no time to lose! We have to reach Bortho and his people before they start dropping gas-bombs or worse on us!" Bujilli pushed his way through the clamoring and clomping Grunters. He only hoped he could reach the fighters defending Idvard's Keep before things went all to hell.
Leeja grabbed Bujilli by the shoulder; "That guard came from the wrong direction!"
Zulli snatched the violet lance from Bujilli's hand and rammed it through the guard's face with a sickening, all too wet squelch. Pale off-white mycellium-strands burst out of the guard's shuddering, juddering corpse to writhe and lash about in a frenzy.
Zulli slipped in the muck losing her grip on the violet lance. Flat on her back she looked up at the fungal horror looming over her. The violet lance snapped in two as the corpse lurched and shuddered and tried vainly to remove it from its head. Purplish fluid frothed delicately as it dribbled freely from the flesh surrounding the broken lance.
"TYRANT!" The cry went up among the Grutners who took up positions to block the fungi-possessed corpse from escaping or advancing. they had faced several of these things before* and they knew now what must be done. Those nearest the thing used their halberds and spears to hem the thing in, to hold it back so that those behind them could get to work. They knew from hard-won experience that they might not survive, but they were certain that the others would end this thing once and for all.
Leeja started to turn away, intending to carry the Unchild born form Talzag's self-spelled flesh away from the coming mayhem but the little creature reached out and gripped her chin and forced her to look down at it; "Take me closer!"
The command was so forceful, so earnest that Leeja complied without argument.
The Unchild growled and grumbled and sputtered in some uncouth tongue as its pudgy little hands went through a series of motions. Black Flames roared forth from the Unchild's six out-thrust fingers arcing over the heads of those still in-between it and the fungi-infected corpse to cascade down upon the thing in a torrent of sibilant whispers and a cold that burned more deeply than any natural flame could. Six snarling, sputtering nodes of black fire took up position on either side of the cadaver forming a pair of opposing triangles. The little pig-imp glanced over at Bujilli then she set the nodes to spinning. Faster and faster they swirled around, becoming a screeching blur that radiated an intensely wrong sort of cold.
The Unchild made a fist and barked a command.
Immediately all the nodes stopped in place, fluctuating, crackling tendrils of black flame roared into position forming a hexagonal cage of energy around and half-within the torso of the fungi-ridden cadaver. It blackened and crackled and collapsed in upon itself as the wicked flames danced through its flesh, then it began to fracture like dark glass under impossible pressure. The black flames snapped into place, one after another, one triangle after another, the whole assemblage expanding outwards, increasing in size and intensity until finally forming a smoldering black icosohedron that fully encompassed its victim.
Zulli scrambled back from the mess clutching the section of the violet lance that had broken off. The Grunters arrayed behind her would not let her pass. One of them set his vinksome halberd at her midsection. She would ahve considred it ironic under other circumstances.
"Let her pass." Bujilli commanded the Grunters. One moved aside smartly, but the next-nearest one hesitated, almost looked back towards Talzag's den.
"Will your spell destroy this thing?" he looked down at the bloody and dirty little Unchild in Leeja's arms.
"If you like. Or I can incapacitate it if you prefer. Do you wish for me to destroy it Skull-Thief? Or would you like to interrogate it somehow?" The Unchild's was utterly sarcastic in its feigned deference.
"Not yet. I might be able to make use of the thing, but it will have to be later. After we return from conferring with the Lord of the Keep Above." He considered what to do about the little pig-thing.
"You have a use for this thing? Is it a secret? Will you tell me what you intend to do with it?" She batted her too-long eye-lashes and heaved a mock sigh that was as comical as it was disturbing.
"I may be able to use it to track down its source, the Fungal Tyrant that sent this thing back here among your people..." with luck he might be able to do much, much more than that, but he wasn't sure how much he wished to confide in Talag's Unchild. It combined the worst features of the wrinkled old shamaness-sow and an infant like some twisted sort of putto only someone suffering from a fever would ever have sculpted...or someone truly warped would ever bring into the world like Talzag had done. Her ruthlessness and ambition were as profound as they were grotesque.
The Unchild nodded sagely, as if savoring a particularly subtle joke, then she terminated her spell, leaving behind a gleaming black twenty-sided object that hovered six inches off of the floor with a violet lance jutting out of one face. Frost rimed the edges of the thing and a bitter mist trickled off of its surface.
"My progenitor can keep this thing frozen for weeks if necessary." The Unchild squirmed in order to face towards her 'mother,' Leeja turned without having to be asked. "Isn't that right 'mother' dearest? Perhaps while we're gone you can let the strongest and worthiest males attempt to free that violet lance from the black stone...maybe if one succeeds you could take them as your new consort..."
"Talzag made to get up, but was too weakened from her efforts. She glared at the impish spawn.
"We'll deal with it when we return." Bujilli nudged Leeja and they began walking away from Talzag's nest.
"Lead on Head Taker." The Unchild smirked as it waved him toward the passage to the next chamber.
Bujilli looked back at Talzag. She made the same gesture that her spawn had. She slumped back down upon a pile of furs and cushions. Guards took their place behind her. Those who wished to curry favor with the new mistress jostled and pushed their way in front of one another; things were settling down into familiar patterns again. He wondered how long it would take for Talzag to betray him. He expected maybe an hour. She was still a bit worn out from having birthed her weird imp-pig after all.
"You needn't worry about that old hag. She'll behave. I promise."
"Halt!" Three gladius-wielding skirmishers called out to them from the top of a ramp-way where all the embedded lamps had been broken of covered over. Four more fighters wielding spears stepped out from behind camouflaged manlets on either side of the blade-wielders.
"Can I kill them?" wheedled the Unchild.
"No. These are Bortho's people. They serve the Lord of the Keep Above." Leeja hissed.
"Send word to Bortho and Idvard. We bring an emissary from the Grunters."
"Who the hell are you then?" The burlier of the three waggled his gladius at them as if to encourage them to speak up and be quick about it.
"I'm Bujilli and this is Leeja--"
The fighter on the left elbowed his friend; "Those two are friends with Bortho and Zutissa."
"I don't care who they think--"
"Stand aside Grallaf." Zutissa stood three steps behind and to the right of the guardsman, one hand on her sword, the other bearing a slim metal rod topped with a bluish crystal that gave off a deceptively gentle illumination.
The burly guard backed away and they passed without further incident.
Zutissa led them up ramps and along passages, through the Keeps underworld defenses and up into the Central Courtyard where six unter-fighters in studded leather waders, breathing masks and other such gear were gathered around waiting further orders while the rest of Idvard's forces were occupied clearing-away debris, mitigating lingering pockets of poison gas, and other such tasks.
Bortho was suddenly in front of Bujilli, clasping him by the shoulder; "It is good to see you. We were about to descend in force...try to get you back from the pigs..." He stared at the Unchild. She in turn stuck out her tongue at him.
"We've brought an emissary from the Grunters. She speaks for Talzag, their leader--"
"They have surrendered?" Bortho sounded incredulous, possibly disappointed. Either way it was substantially different from how he had acted when they had first met. Back then all of Bortho's folk dreaded going down into the lower levels of the Keep. They had been incredibly frightened of the Grunters. Not any more, apparently...
"Not hardly." laughed the Unchild.
"They serve me now. That's why I want to talk to Idvard. I think we can all come to an understanding that would be in each of our best interests." He still wasn't sure what to say abouot Zulli just yet.
"I would certainly like to hear your proposal!" Idvard hovered into view from around the corner. He was flanked by a dozen insectile drones, each wielding an impressive assortment of weapons.
The Unchild was dumbstruck. Neither she nor her progenitor Talzag had ever encountered a Triloo before.
Idvard rang a small green bell with his left hand. A Spirk clad in black and tan motley and an outrageously ruffled collar stepped out from a slim aperture.
"Jumdrim, please prepare the informal dining room off of the main hall. We have several distinguished guests for dinner." He looked intently at Zulli. She tried to meet his gaze, but looked away.
"It will be as you say." The Spirk Steward disappeared back through the aperture which then closed back upon itself with a faint popping sound.
"Come then. Let us adjourn to more comfortable environs and by all means let us discuss such matters as you have in mind." Idvard floated on ahead so as to lead the way. The drones marched along in mindless synchronization. There was no overt evidence of his having cast any spells, but they passed along through the chlorine-damaged gardens; through the main inner-gatehouse; down a pillar-lined hall, kitty-corner through a trapezoidal room draped in vivid pink; along a corridor flanked by twenty statues of squat and shaggy morlocks wearing over-sized ovalish masks; up a spiral ramp and ended their journey in a richly paneled and well-lit room where a small banquet was set out for them buffet-style.
"Make yourselves comfortable. Have something to eat, drink. I have the impression that we have much to discuss."
"You are not the builder of this place..." The Unchild sneered.
"No. By no means do I claim to be. But I do claim it. And have defended it. Do you wish to dispute my claim?" Idvard poured a small snifter of brandy and took up his place at the head of the heavy oak table.
"This isn't about me, but rather my people...and Head Taker here."
"Head Taker?" Bortho set down a plate heaped with smoked salmon and roast potatoes. Zutissa shushed him.
"The Grunters have taken extreme losses. They've fought their way into the spaces down below and they've had to fight to remain where they are...and they've fought very well. I doubt very much that they would have stayed around this long nor attacked you directly if it wasn't for outside agitators who stirred them up and set them against you with lies and empty promises."
"Who? Who would do such a thing? I doubt very many people even know that I'm here..."
"The Purple Horde want to use this place in order to infiltrate Wermspittle--"
"WHAT?!?" Idvard set down his brandy and stared at his friend with his central eye, all the while keeping everyone else, and particularly the Unchild well within view of the other two.
"They came to us. Our Sow-Mistress at the time was an ignorant slut with no real grasp of strategy despite her penchant for penny-ante schemes and vendettas. She made a deal with the purple robes. They were setting us up, using us. Long story short; she's dead, I'm the new mistress and Sow Slayer here has claimed our fealty. We follow him now...my progenitor serves him, the rest follow after."
"But this is no good..."
"Talzag and her people need a home to call their own. Your Keep is woefully exposed to outside forces down below...you don't have the troops or resources to really consolidate your hold on everything down there...not without a major, very bloody, very costly fight. Then there's that Fungal Tyrant to deal with once and for all."
"What are you suggesting?"
"Hire-on the Grunters. Put them to work. If you don't want them down there under your Keep, then help them find a place of their own."
"An interesting proposal..."
"What's to stop us from taking over this place?" Grumbled the Unchild in between mouthfuls of roast beef and succotash.
"You don't have the numbers, nor the resources. You can fight, make a real mess of things, but in the end you know as well as I do that you have not established your claim. Your people have been misled into fighting someone else's battle for them. You deserve better."
"You say this? You? Skull Thief? One of the most notorious enemies of our people?"
"I say this...whatever happened before was...another place, another time..."
"And another group led by another mentally challenged sow. You're right. We cannot hope to establish our claim here...nor can we hope to take over this Keep...not at this time..."
"I have discovered six Weak Points in the ruined city in the valley below us."
"Ahem." Zutissa scowled at Idvard.
"Forgive me; my associates have discovered six Weak Points in the valley below. Two of them lead to places that might be especially worth further investigation. I would be open to discussing terms for your group to act as scouts or to lead an expedition--"
"What about the lower levels of this place?"
"I would be interested in contracting with your group to serve as consultants on how I--we--might go about better securing things down there and perhaps you might lend some assistance in regards to this Fungal Tyrant as well..."
Bujilli sat back in his over-stuffed chair. They were talking each other's language now. The Unchild was completely engaged and trying to negotiate the best possible deal for her people...after all those years of mocking those who had taken over her group and criticizing everyone else's efforts, it was her turn to show what she could do...show what Talzag could do, working through her imp-spawn.
He looked over at Leeja.
A slight nod to the door.
He quietly excused himself. Idvard and the Unchild were so engrossed in their negotiations that they didn't notice, or chose to ignore his departure.
She met him at the end of the hallway.
"I still need some new arrows...and I'd like to spend some time in Idvard's study like he offered last time..."
"That...sounds like a plan..." She smiled.
Hedrard's amulet pulsed three times.
"So; should we stay or should we go?"
What should Bujilli & Leeja do next?
* See Episode 44.