Bujilli walked silently through the trampled camp, past dozens of piggish-corpses, on his way back to the Keep. He was tired, bloody and bloodied and thoroughly disgusted. It didn't have to be like this...it didn't...they could have worked something out...
Halfway up the ramp a buzzing noise disturbed his reverie of recrimination. Something big was close. Getting closer. Fast.
A large beetle-thing more than three times his size landed behind him.
He nearly slipped, almost fell to his knee, the one with the arrowhead lodged in the armor. The pain helped him focus. He ran towards the entrance to Idvard's Keep.
The beetle-thing snapped its mandibles at him. Missed.
Bujilli feinted to the right. The beetle-thing lunged. A hard swipe at the thing's nearest leg caused it to draw back. He was leery of getting his hand-axe caught in the thing's leg-joint. But if he could cripple enough of its limbs...
Golden traceries of light flowed across his field of vision. Counsel displayed the rapidly adjusting probability of each potential attack actually connecting with the targeted spot on the beetle. It didn't look good for his chances of taking this thing apart. The beetle would most likely get him before he could chop off its limbs.
Another swipe. The beetle buzzed angrily as it moved back out of the way of the hand-axe. He ran for the entrance. It was barred. The portcullis was down and the doors behind that were latched shut. Airtight. No guards were in sight.
The beetle lunged for him. He rolled to the side. His knee gave out as he tried to get back onto his feet, so he knelt on it, driving the black-iron arrow-head deeper into his flesh.
The beetle snapped its glistening black mandibles at him as it approached. They were like chitinous scimitars, big enough to take his head clean off. His head. After everything that had happened with him and the Grunters this insect meant to take his head.
"I don't think so." Bujilli cast Gestural Globs. A mass of dermal mucus swelled into a semi-spherical blob in his free hand. A simple flick of the wrist sent the glob flying at the beetle-thing with a satisfyingly wet glunk.
The beetle-thing reared up, its wings buzzing angrily.
The glob of mucus slithered across its shell, gumming-up the wings and dribbling down along its shell in a gooey mess.
Bujilli watched as it dropped down onto the ramp only a few yards away from him.
It twitched, wobbled, tried to use its wings but couldn't. The sticky mucus caused its wing case to jam partly open. Its wings were ruined, shredded from sticking to one side or the other of the thing's own body. It couldn't fly. Its movements became jerky, erratic. It shuddered painfully--the mucus was infiltrating the beetle's breathing passages, closing-off its spiracles.
Bujilli did not wait around to watch it die.
He got up. He moved to the entrance and he pounded on the portcullis with the flat of his hand-axe.
"Open up damn it!"
Bujilli brushed the blood-soaked hair out of his eyes. His hand trembled. He was exhausted, bloody and bleeding from a score of small wounds. An arrow had gotten caught in his knee-guard. He'd snapped it off with a sweep of his scimitar, but now the point was digging into his flesh, making each step he took that much more uncomfortable. One of those vinkin halberds had shredded his sleeve as well. His ribs ached from where one of the last of his opponents had managed to hit him with a bulky, blocky hammer. He'd been caught flat-footed and the Grunter had knocked him flat; he'd used a Light spell on that one. Inside their snout. They panicked, dropped the hammer and ran squealing like their head was going to explode.
He almost laughed. Except for all the bodies scattered about what was left of the camp-site.
It was a stupid waste.
But it was over now. Maybe three Grunters had escaped. Possibly four. He had driven them back through the tunnel they had come through to reach this place; back through the Weak Point that opened onto some nameless Dead World they had tried to escape. He made sure they knew there was only death for them here in this place now. He used his fighting wand* to blast the area on the other side of the Weak Point with the smoldering white acid-jelly it drew forth from Selinoth-Yr, one of the Twenty Deadly Planes. It would deter any of the pig-things from returning and it would persist long enough for Idvard to come up with a better defense of his own later.
He had paused there, on the threshold of that dead world. It was raining on the other side. A cold, red rain drizzled across a blackened and pitted wasteland. The rain spattered and sizzled as it struck the acid-jelly, sending up wisps of foul-smelling steam that lingered over the mess he'd made.
He considered trying to use the Synchronocitor to close the Weak Point, but he was tired and unsure how to do such a thing despite Counsel displaying a series of diagrams and visual guides that displayed how to go about it.
He almost tried it.
But he didn't know how much longer he could stay upright. He was bleeding, he was tired, and he just wanted to go back to his room at the Keep and fall asleep. Maybe he'd take a bath first. A bath sounded so very good. But there wasn't any way for him to get back inside the Keep unless the guards opened the door. Not yet.
Replacing the wand to it's sheath on his hip, he considered drawing his scimitar again, but thought better of it--he had his hand-axe or he could still cast a couple of nasty spells and he had his pistol. That would have to be enough. He didn't expect a lot of trouble; not from all the dead Grunters behind him, nor from the panicked Grunters he'd sent back to this place. He used the hand-axe to help him sit down. His damned knee was throbbing. He pried the black-iron arrow-head loose, tossed it out through the Weak Point. He loaded his pistol. Then he waited. It would only be an hour or so before the Synchronocitor was recharged.
"Go to the mirror, boy."
Bujilli shook his head. He was soaked in blood, in sweat, in tears. There were dead Grunters to either side of him, more behind him. His handiwork.
He felt foolish for having tried to work out some sort of deal with the Grunters. It had been a mistake.
He gestured. The Synchronocitor twisted back into view. It was fully charged. He had it take him directly back to his room.
A small blue lamp glowed softly on the little table next to his bed.
He managed to take his boots off on his own. She helped him get undressed and tended to his wounds without a word.
She held him and he slept for days, weeks, hours...he had no idea how long. It was peaceful; no bad dreams, no nightmares, no memories of horrific things.
He woke to the gentle glimmer of the morning sun peeked playfully over the windowsill.
Morning Glories were in bloom all along the trellises on either side of his window. It was a pleasant scent to wake-up to and he relished it after all the reeks and stinks he had been forced to endure down there, below the Keep.
Bujilli sat up suddenly. He was naked. Bandaged. In his bed at the Keep.
Leeja stirred beside him.
He wasn't sure what to do.
"Go to the mirror, boy."
He saw the heavy old mirror-cabinet that had been wheeled into his room while he was gone. The key to the thing lay next to the small lamp on the table next to his bed. It was cast in bronze in the shape of some sort of apple tree, an apple tree that had a gaping, toothsome maw right where the hole in the key would normally be, if it had been a skeleton key.
Bujilli picked the key up. It was heavier than he expected. He looked at the mirror, examined the key, looked over at Leeja who had gone back to sleep and he made up his mind what he was going to do. He slipped out form under the blankets and pulled on a robe. The key went into a pocket. He closed the door to the room carefully, quietly behind him. He managed close to a full hour of soaking in the bath tub before she knocked on the door.
She took over the room while he busied himself locating some fresh clothes from the wardrobe. He had liked the old shirt, but now he needed to replace it. He selected a dark green velvet tunic that went over a raw silk undershirt and another pair of denim trousers, reinforced with airship fabric like his old ones. He couldn't find his boots, nor his armor. He was about to ask Leeja about his gear when there was a knock at the door.
He opened the door. One of the drones stood there holding a wicker basket inside of which were his boots and his armor, all of which had been thoroughly cleaned and repaired.
The drone deposited the basket in front of Bujilli then left. He watched it as it walked away until it turned a corner then he picked up the basket and took it to the bed. He wasted no time getting into his gear. The boots felt like someone had replaced the pads inside. Good. They'd been in need of that. They fit perfectly. His armor was clean, all the pads had been replaced, the straps as well. He couldn't find any trace of the punctures, scratches or dents he knew had to have been there when he returned. The side panels were slightly different, reinforced along slightly different lines and the lamellar sections were thicker, yet it weighed about the same as before. He took his time adjusting each strap and panel just like he'd learned from Rilma the mistress-at-arms.**
He had just removed the green book from his loot-sack when Leeja came back into the room.
"How is Idvard? Bortho and Zutissa? Are they..."
"He was still in a bad way when I last checked in on him. The healers he has been able to hire to work here in the Keep are doing what they can, but they aren't surgeons or midwives. Also, there might have been poison in the wound..."
"I'd just about bet on it."
"Bortho is hobbling around and seeing to the defensive arrangements. Zutissa is...much worse off. We nearly lost her..."
"I'm sorry..." Once again he found himself wishing he had learned some healing spells.
"Yeah. Me too. I really like those two. Did you know that they've had two more children since we last saw them?"
"But we haven't been gone that long..."
"Time works differently for them. They named the girl Julilli and their son is Beela."
"What happened...down there?"
"It wasn't meant to be, I guess. I tried. I failed. I've learned my lesson. They won't be bothering us ever again."
"What did you do?" Leeja cocked her head to one side.
"I unraveled the Unchild, took Talzag's head and killed most of the Grunters. Three or four might have survived, but I drove them back through the Weak Point they used to gain access to the tunnels underneath us. I set up a temporary barrier to entry to discourage trespassers."
"Oh..." Leeja looked into his eyes and for a moment they both were able to look deep into the other's soul, past the wounds and scars and terrible things they'd each seen or witnessed or done...
She wasted no time getting clothed and into her armor. He noticed that she had a new short sword slung on her belt as well as a different pistol, this one had four barrels and a much more elegant weapon than the one she used to carry. He lost count of the knives and daggers and wasn't quite sure where they all went.
He slid the book back into the sack and placed it inside the wardrobe, beneath a stack of underwear. He wasn't going to lug it around unless and until he got a chance to really study it first. A book like that could be a hazard to the unwary. He'd come back for it later.
Leeja was smiling. He couldn't help but to smile himself. He felt good. Ready and raring to go and do something, anything, so long as it was with her.
"Do you want breakfast, or should we unlock the mirror and see what it is that Hedrard wants?"