A set of stairs led down three flights to a large hallway. Blue-green mold smothered the corners and formed a foul canopy overhead. Dark liquid--it wasn't water--dribbled down the left wall, forming a long-running rivulet of oily nastiness that seeped sluggishly down the stairs.
"We can't stay here." Hissed the Eloi roof-runner. Their eyes were wide with fear. Blood leaked from a shallow wound along their left upper arm.
"What did you see?"
"Dozens of them. There's dozens of them. I only barely escaped." They were shaking badly, but clutched Leeja's knife tightly.
"Them? Who are we talking about?" Bujilli drew out his hand-axe.
"Yes. Who is out there? Perhaps we should introduce ourselves since we're clearly trespassing on their territory--"
"Sure. Why don't you go parley with them while we wait right here." Leeja suggested sweetly.
For a moment, a brief moment, the Ignoble appeared to weigh her words as though seriously considering it.
"There's nothing to discuss with them. Not unless you'd care to give them some suggestions on how best to cook your flesh. Even then I doubt they'd listen; they prefer to hear their victims scream as they torture them to death."
"Scheiss. There are dozens of them you say. And they are after you?"
"Then we best get going."
Everyone nodded except Hedrard. She seemed lost in thought. Distracted.
They were half-way down the stairs when the tribe of degenerates trailing the Roof-runner caught-up with them. A well-aimed javelin punctured the Ignoble's left arm, knocking them down onto their knees on the dusty floor where they began to scream hysterically.
Leeja drew out the javelin while using her Web spell to close-up the Ignoble's wound. She had an idea to extend the web to clamp-shut their mouth, but opted to let it go. This time.
Bujilli trotted back to the stairs. They were narrow and only one or two of the degenerates could come at them at a time by that route. He used Hold Person on the first degenerate to show their teeth as they clambered down the stairs. Three of their fellows piled into them, grunting, squealing and yowling in consternation at being thwarted in their bloodlust.
He prepared himself for the butchery before him.
Hedrard stopped him, her claw-like hand on his shoulder. He turned to face the hag.
"Killing isn't the only option, nor is it necessarily the best one in this situation."
"What do you suggest?"
"Look at them. Not much better than Morlocks." She took the javelin from Leeja and handed it to Bujilli; "Look at their handiwork. These are not beasts, not entirely, not completely. They are still at least partially human."
The javelin was cunningly fashioned from a length of thick vine that had been boiled or steamed and shaped, sanded and carved into a flexible, yet durable shaft. Flaked stone, some sort of greenish flint or chert formed the pointy-bit. It was primitive, certainly, but well-made, obviously the product of a master crafter.
"So they have not descended entirely into mindless savagery. What of it you old bitch?" The Ignoble backed away from the group, away from the stairs and the squalling, babbling degenerates wrestling their way out of the pile-up.
Hedrard walked over to the entrance to the stairway. The degenerates jammed in the passage went silent at her approach. Each one had several elaborately carved combs worked into their filthy hair and wore all manner of crude jewelry and adornments hand-crafted from bone, hide, braided hair, and cast-off bits of stone or metal. All of it cunningly wrought and covered with ornate inscriptions.
The hunters resumed their struggle to extricate themselves from each other's limbs, but it was no good. It was too late. They were trapped and they knew it. Wide-eyed and running with sweat, the hunters stopped struggling and waited their deaths stoically.
Hedrard brushed aside Bujilli's spell and reached deep inside the guts of the hunter that had served as an impromptu barricade. Blood trickled down the front of their legs, but they made no sound, just stood there and let the hag do whatever she was doing.
The Ignoble ran away screaming. Leeja made to chase after them but Bujilli shook his head. They'd either catch up with the Ignoble later, or not.
"As I thought." Hedrard withdrew her hands from the degenerate hunter's bowels. The gaping wounds closed almost immediately.
She began to hum a strange little tune as she moved in among the quivering, glistening bodies of the hunters piled-up in the stairwell. Patiently, delicately, precisely, she plunged her claw-like hands deep inside the guts of one after another until finally she managed to work her way through six of the hunters before the ones that had not gotten themselves entangled in the stairwell ventured to see what was happening to their fellows.
Six hunters got to their feet and took up a defensive stance, shielding Hedrard from the rest of the tribe.
"What are you doing?" Bujilli asked softly, hoping he wouldn't be interrupting anything delicate.
"These people have fallen into their present degenerate state because they thought that they lacked any other viable options. I intend to make a trade with them; I can give them a fresh start towards a new life in return for their help getting us to the rooftops, or wherever else you want to go in this place."
"First I made it impossible for these six volunteers to consume human flesh without suffering terrible, painful consequences. I also took the liberty of making a few adjustments in their flesh and blood, as well as the things dwelling in their guts. They'll suffer an intense bout of fever, that's unavoidable, but in the end, those that survive the process will be better, much better for the experience."
"You...changed them..." Leeja's voice took on a husky quality as she tried to sort out what had just happened from what she thought she knew about the hag standing before her.
"Yes. I did. Just like how Bujilli altered Sharisse. How you changed Lemuel before that." Hedrard looked deep into Bujilli's eyes. Past the pain and the doubt there was something powerful, primordial, profoundly unsettling in the old woman's eyes, in her very soul.
"But..." Bujilli looked away, stared down at the floor. He wasn't sure if he should feel shame, blame or something else. He drove out the werms infesting Sharisse, gave her back her life and made sure the wermic host could not reclaim her ever again. He had even made it so that she would never starve again, eliminating her primary excuse for allowing the werms to take her over in the first place. He thought it had been a good thing to do. The right thing. He had tried to save Lemuel only to leave the boy in the form of something monstrous. He had tried to do what he thought was right. But who was he to do such things?
"I have held back, focused on the beasts of the menageries and rehabilitating the abominations and hybrids developed and bred for use in the old arenas, becoming something of a glorified veterinarian, much as Gnosiomandus once accused me when we still argued about such things. When we were both much younger, much more foolish and idealistic. Back when we still believed in the work we were doing, each of us trying to do what good we might, in our own way. Before it all went to hell and we withdrew behind our walls and tried to ignore it."
"What do we do now?" Leeja asked.
"We go meet the leader or leaders of this tribe and I make them a deal they cannot refuse. Then they help us to get where we are going. After that...nature will have its way, run its course."
"You ... you are all monsters ... monsters!" The Eloi Roof-runner backed away, then turned and fled down the corridor, each step obliterating the footsteps left behind by the Ignoble before them.
Bujilli watched the panicked Eloi flee into the darkness. He regretted how things had turned out. He wished he had been able to help them, save them...but then he thought of Sharisse and Lemuel and the others he had tried to help...
"Let's go." He was not going to stand around in the dust and gloom and torment himself with regrets. He did what he could, as best he could, and that was either good enough or it wasn't. He wasn't some kind of god or omniscient being. He made mistakes. Lots of them. That was how to learn things, what drove him to learn more, to be able to make better decisions, to do better.
Leeja took his hand in hers and they followed Hedrard as she directed her entourage back up the stairs. The rest of the hunting party were taken aback at the way the others had changed. Fear sprung up like a forest fire among them and they fled before the six of their band who now served a hag.
Two flights up they followed the six hunters. A domed chamber covered with a mosaic of lapis lazuli depicting a starry night with constellations set out in gold, an orrery hung broken overhead in a tangle of cables, rods and chains over the central pit where the tribe made it's nest-lair.
A tall, thin man with scores of tiny golden tubes woven into his lion's mane of filthy gray hair stood atop a rough platform of scavenged brick and sheet-metal glaring at them as thy made their way down the gently inclined ramp through the bleachers and benches where the tribe-members slept or busied themselves carving fresh javelins, working at fashioning elaborate hair-combs or other adornments. Children played obscure games out of the way from the adults.
"Grosk." Hedrard croaked. At her gesture the six hunters took up positions on either side of her.
"Ulla ulla ulla! Obresk. Kitur. ULL-vosig-yusk-golm. Bastif!"
"Morons. These people are descended from Morons, an off-shoot of the Eloi." Hedrard informed Bujilli and Leeja before stalking right up to the leader of the tribe and staring down at him. He glared at her. They stood there for seconds before he blinked, whimpered, quickly looked away. He tried desperately to withdraw back to his private lean-to before anyone could see that he had wet himself. Children began to mock him with sing-song taunts. The adults took-up javelins and seemed poised on the brink of either laughter or some sort of war-cry.
"People who have an extraordinary capacity to believe nearly anything, the ability to serve nearly any cause, follow any order without qualm or reservation. They respond to authority, any recognizable authority, and lack the capacity to question anything. They are like the Eloi, only they lack empathy and obey a deep-rooted form of logic. They are incredibly well coordinated and are quite a sight to behold when they march beneath their banners." Hedrard seemed to be looking far away, reviewing bitter-sweet memories from long ago.
"No. These are people who voluntarily subjugated themselves long, long ago. Their ancestors were intuitive conformists; they are consummate followers, aiders and abettors of tyrants and demogogues; the product of hundreds of generations of true believers."
"They appear to be getting restless.."
Hedrard raised her left hand. A lurid red glow slithered outwards into the murky, smoky air like a mass of writhing vaporous blood-red tendrils.
The red-light tendrils spread rapidly in every direction twisting around and between everything and everyone within the tribe-nest except for Hedrard, her two companions and the six feverish hunters at her side. She brought down her hand sharply. The shimmering red light congealed into delicate scarlet traceries that writhed and squirmed and began to take root.
"Red Weeds!" accused Leeja.
"Yes." Hedrard watched as the Red Weeds infiltrated the stones of this place and sent out feelers and feeding threads that extended through every reachable nook, cranny and crevice until they found the necessary materials needed to grow and thrive in this place.
"But why?" Bujilli couldn't believe what he was seeing. The Red Weeds were settling into place as if they'd always been there. Children were climbing the thicker stalks or chasing errant runners with sticks, each time they whacked the vine-tips they changed direction which amused the girls and boys immensely. The adults were far more nervous, much less trusting of this radical new change in their nest-site.
Hedrard lifted a plump red fruit from a vine that swirled up to meet her hand. She tossed it to Bujilli.
"Now they have something to eat besides each other. If they are clever, they can learn to work with the leaves, the shoots, the various other parts of the Red Weeds and clothe themselves, make tools, whatever they need. But they will still have a taste for meat, so..."
She reached up toward the opening in the dome overhead where the broken orrery hung and began to whistle shrilly.
After a few minutes of her whistling a fluttering noise began to echo through the shaft overhead.
A pigeon perched on her hand.
She wrung its neck. Split it open and butchered it for cooking, then handed it over to one of the six hunters who took it over to a cooking fire built atop a raised stone block.
The thigh bones were quickly, expertly converted into crude whistles that she then handed off to another pair of her entourage.
They blew the whistles. One after another pigeon fluttered down through the shaft to perch momentarily on their outstretched hand. The remaining two hunters took the pigeons, wrung their necks and prepared them for cooking.
One by one a few of the bolder, or hungrier, members of the tribe approached the cooking fire. The cooks passed out skewers of roast fowl. Others rushed up to claim their share. Still others began to sample the different varieties of red berries, melons and fruits bulging into place around the nest wherever the Red Weeds found a suitable cache of nutrients.
"So now we have a way up." Leeja watched as more pigeons descended from above.
"Yes. We do. Shall we get going before one or another of the old leaders' rivals decides to start making speeches?"
What should Bujilli, Leeja and Hedrard do next?