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The Long Road to Mirana
As soon as Henry was healed and the caravan started moving again, he noticed a difference in how the villagers were acting towards him. Henry knew he wasn’t the best person sometimes at noticing others’ emotions, but the expressions of fear, pride, and especially awe made Henry a little uncomfortable. From his perspective, when he fought the demon wolves, he just did any decent person should have done.
He patted his leg, a nervous habit he’d recently picked up and thought, Well, I do have some hellacious scars. If anything was impressive, it was how his leg looked. Despite having healed (helped along a bit by Mareen), the giant bite mark on his leg was clearly visible. It looked a bit like a huge shark chomped his limb into pieces and then some mad doctor put everything back together. Henry was deeply grateful for his healing ability. He would never take walking for granted again.
After he gave himself another day to heal, he and Jason started practicing magic at night again. Henry vowed to have more tools and experience the next time he had to fight for his life, because realistically, he was sure there would be a next time. Ludus was a dangerous world and eventually he and Jason were going to start adventuring. They were planning to explore a city first to get their bearings (and some gear), but life on Ludus would probably never be easy.
Still, Henry was getting seriously sick of following the same crappy, half kept trail through the forest and eating the same bland hard tack every day. He and Jason eventually learned from the villagers that quite a few of the plants in the forest were edible, but they all tasted horrible. For the time being, Henry just kept eating the hard tack as the lesser of two evils. Too bad the demon wolves were pretty much inedible. At least we got some horns to trade for cash in Mirana.
In the back of his mind, he kept thinking about the machete. George said that any “blessed” steel tools that didn’t fall apart like other ferrous metals were insanely valuable. Henry wondered how much the machete would sell for. He didn’t understand the local currency, but he’d been told that selling his machete could make him rich. Henry talked to Jason about it and they both thought they should get some more information before making any decisions, but agreed selling was a good idea. As soon as they got to Mirana one of the first orders of business would be to sell the machete and start of their adventuring (and hopefully future continent conquering) career with a bang. A bang made of shit tons of cash.
Henry had almost no stress about eating or finding a place to sleep once he and Jason left the caravan since they had so many valuable items to sell. All of that changed about a week into their journey.
Henry woke up early in the morning as he usually did and reached for the machete that he kept on the ground next to him. He fumbled around in the weak dawn light and became increasingly worried after he was completely awake. He eventually got up and searched around the wagon he’d been sleeping under, hoping that he just misplaced his weapon. After a solid 20 minutes of frantically checking all the wagons and around where the night’s fire had been, he had to face the reality that the machete was missing. He clearly remembered putting it next to him before he slept.
Next he woke Jason up and they went to talk to George. George woke the rest of the villagers and at first there was commotion but then the mood of the entire caravan sunk when they discovered what must have happened. Jeth and his father, Yelm were both missing too.
After the villagers took inventory, they discovered that Jeth and Yelm stole couple packs and basically took every small, valuable item in the caravan when they ran off. In addition to Henry’s machete, they took George’s journal too.
Henry barely remembered Jeth. During the week he’d been with the caravan, he got to know most of the villagers really well and he liked most of them. On the other hand, Jeth and his father kept to themselves a lot when they weren’t leering at the village women.
In fact, now that Henry thought about it, he remembered an encounter he had with Jeth other than knocking him on his butt the day the demon wolves attacked.
Mareen wasn’t usually alone, she tended to hang out with George or follow Jason around. Jason had been helping a villager with something so Mareen was by herself when Jeth sidle up to her. At first he just whispered to her while she shook her head, but then began to talk under his breath in agitated tones. Henry hadn’t been able to hear what was said, so he just watched until Jeth tried grabbing Mareen’s arm to pull her away with him. When she resisted and Jeth wouldn’t let go, Henry got up, walked up to the two and gave Jeth a stiff armed shove. “Leave,” was all he’d said.
After Jeth scurried off, Henry went back to ignoring Mareen so he wouldn’t mess up Jason’s game and promptly forgot the whole thing happened. Now that he thought about it, that was the day before the demon wolves attacked, wasn’t it? No wonder Jeth was acting so pissy the next day.
Hell of a thing.
Well, now the greasy, ugly bastard had run off with his equally creepy father. If they hadn’t taken Henry’s machete and effectively stolen a fortune from him, he wouldn’t have cared. But now he was stuck on an alien planet away from his family and he was broke again. Following them wasn’t really possible at this point either; they had too much of a lead and the villagers still needed protection.
What’s more, evidence pointed to the fact Jeth and Yelm were planning to steal and leave for days. These rat bastards had actively plotted against their fellow villagers and the people who’d saved their lives in the fight against the demon wolves. Henry became more disgusted and more agitated the more he found out about the situation. He began to wonder why he didn’t see the signs and how he could have forgotten Jeth’s sleazy behavior before it was too late.
Everyone deals with stress different ways. Jason got very quiet and worked hard to get the caravan ready to move again. Henry on the other hand stalked out into the forest as he tried to get his anger under control. He hated worrying about money. He hated not having money. He hated worrying, worry worry worry. He hated being reminded that his mom was back on Earth and he didn’t know if anyone was taking care of her. Was she all alone in the hospital with no hair, no visitors, fighting for her life as the cancer ate away at her body? Was the bravest, strongest women he’d ever known in his life all alone in a room where nobody even bothered to bring her flowers anymore? Did she think Henry ran away from her, from his responsibility?
Who was working to help pay for her medical bills? His useless sister probably still wasn’t.
Henry hated Jeth, he hated people who could do such shitty things to other people. He didn’t understand how people could betray the same people they ate and survived with.
“FUCK!” he screamed and punched the ground. Waves of force rippled through the earth in front of him and exploded, sending a shower of silt and clods of earth flying into the air. Same shit, different planet.
First he had the cosmically bad fortune to be brought to Ludus by Dolos in the first place. Deep down, he also felt guilty. Would Dolos have taken Jason if he hadn’t been working out with Henry? It weighed on his conscience a lot, but then he thought he’d finally caught a lucky break. On purpose or on accident, Dolos gave them a way to really get an edge in getting back to Earth. But no, some random asshole had to fuck everything up and now here he was again, worrying about money! Nothing ever changed! He was surprised his x wife wasn’t here to gloat. No, she was too busy living the time of her life, traveling to Paris with the piece of shit she’d been fucking behind Henry’s back for months while he worked 60 hour weeks.
And so, away from the prying eyes of his friend and the villagers Henry began to cry, softy at first but escalating into full blown, chest wracking sobs. He punched the ground again and again, restraining his magic with an effort of will as his emotions raged and his heart broke.
It was too much for one person to handle without strain. Two battles for his life, dredging up his warrior ethos, remembering combat and how to deal with it, being stolen from… the pressure of keeping up his tough façade took a toll. He finally allowed himself to temporarily give into his despair until it was time to be strong again. Someone had to tough, infallible. George was a good man but he wasn’t a warrior. Someone had to lead in times of danger and Jason wasn’t ready yet.
Henry sobbed in the woods because he had to. He finally let himself admit how scared he really was; he didn’t know if he’d ever get home. Even if he ever made it home, it’d probably be too late to say goodbye to his mom.
Still, he had to be capable, he had to be strong, and that meant he had to get his shit together. He was just thankful that his meltdown had been away from everyone who depended on him. However, at that moment, if Henry had used magic to map the area, he would have felt a bush move and discovered that someone actually was watching. That person was silent, letting him grieve in peace, and then she quietly walked back to the caravan. Mareen didn’t want Henry to know he’d been seen. He could grieve in peace.
The mood around the caravan was melancholy for the next week but at least they didn’t encounter any more monsters other than two wizened owl demons. Both of them attacked at dusk and luckily were not silent like the bird they resembled. They screamed as they approached, their bearded, beaked human faces foul and ugly.
Compared to the pack of horned demon wolves, a single freaky owl with a 30 foot wingspan wasn’t much of a threat to Henry. He knew from talking to George that wizened owl demons were highly feared by farmers since they had large ranges and could easily carry a person off for food, but to Henry, they were just a way to work off some stress.
Henry used both owl demons to test out a new magic technique he’d come up with that combined his stone acceleration power with a stone destruction ability. He called it “stone shotgun”. Each time a wizened owl came screeching down from the sky, Henry grabbed one of the large stones he’d started keeping nearby and waited for the creature to get closer. Then Henry threw the stone up in the air and punched it in the direction of the enemy.
As soon as his fist came close to the rock, he felt resistance like he was hitting a punching bag. The effect on the stone itself was impressive, though. In a tiny fraction of a second, the stone was split into dozens of pieces and hurled forward at high speeds in a rough cone. The small pieces of stone didn’t have the same speed or destructive potential as when Henry threw single accelerated, but using stone shotgun, he could actually hit something.
Both times Henry used his stone shotgun attack against a wizened owl demon, one shot was enough to almost instantly kill the creature, shredding its wings and body before it crashed into the ground. On the evening the second creature attacked, Jason joined him as he walked to the body to make sure it was dead. It was definitely dead.
Jason prodded the ugly thing with his foot and said, “You know, my magic is great for speeding up my sword swings, teleporting, that sort of thing, but I don’t really have many tools to attack at range. At least none I’ve figured out yet. It’s a good thing you were here to kill this wizened owl demon.”
“It’s a stupid name,” Henry said sullenly. “In fact, all the demons we’ve heard about so far have had really stupid names except the goblins. What gives?”
Jason rubbed his nose, “Well, that’s not entirely true. Think about the literal translation for ‘goblin’ in the Luda language. It’s ‘spindly cave demon’, right?”
Henry frowned and thought for a moment, “Yeah, you’re right. So they had stupid names too.”
George quietly walked up next to them. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” he said, “and there is actually a bit of local superstition about demon names.”
Henry knew George probably had Jason’s undivided attention. Despite the absurdity he felt discussing demon etymology over the cooling corpse of a “wizened owl demon”, he knew they just had to get it out of the way or Jason would never let it rest. He motioned with his hand for George to continue.
“Well,” said George, “according to priests of the Church of Dolos, all the demons on Ludus are descendants of monsters created by Lilith, one of Dolos’ great archrivals.”
Henry blinked, “Huh?”
George shrugged, “If you get a chance, find a book or ask someone about some of Earth’s old myths concerning Lilith. It might interest you,” George was looking right at Jason. “Anyway, popular superstition is that Lilith named her creations in the language of the gods. The demon names were translated as directly as possible into Quadrant, the language most Ereva speak, and then translated again the same way into Luda. So basically, demon names sound strange because they’ve been translated through several different languages and because people believe that changing a demon’s proper name may invite the wrath of Lilith.”
At this point, Henry gave up pretending he cared about the conversation. The owl demon was dead and nobody would be eating it. Apparently, they tasted even more terrible than the horned demon wolves and it was creepy that they had human faces too. He walked back to the caravan as Jason and George chatted behind him. Off to the side, he caught Mareen staring at him. She’d been acting funny for a while now. He idly wondered why she seemed to hate him. Oh well, they should be getting to Mirana in another couple of days. His time would be better spent trying to figure out what he and Jason were going to do about food and lodging after they got to the city than pondering the pretty girl who hated him.
Henry talked to Jason about the possibility of staying with George’s people and trying to make a life as farmers, but both of them were agreed that it wasn’t an option. They knew the villagers would welcome them and they’d be asset to the community, but both men felt they had too much to do. They had to at least try to get home again.
With heavy thoughts, Henry stomped over to where the villagers were building a fire so he could help. He was so deep in his own thoughts, he barely noticed or acknowledged when any of the villagers clapped him on the shoulder and praised him for killing the second demon owl.
A day later, right before night fell the caravan came out of the forest into farm country. The morale of the caravan started to lift; they were almost there. The next day, the caravan finally reached Mirana. Henry had to admit he was impressed.
The city was fairly large and surrounded by a wall. Henry didn’t know a lot about traditional building methods, but he could guess the wall was made by compressing dirt and clay, similar to how many people in the Middle East on Earth still built homes and walls.
Henry judged the city was home to tens of thousands of people. The surrounding farmlands were pretty large too and he noticed that all the people they’d seen looked healthy, none looked mistreated. He didn’t see the telltale signs of second class citizens or serfs. Things were looking good so far.
As they walked to the gate of the city and got in line, he asked George, “Why did you guys leave this place again? Are you from here?”
George shook his head, “No, we just passed through. We were concerned it may be too expensive. Mirana was basically built around the adventurer trade since so many labyrinths are nearby. This means the city is rich for its size. We were afraid the area would be too expensive for us to settle in.”
“I see,” George turned back to watch the gate of the city. He started said, “How in the world did you get to the area you built your village in the first time without getting eaten by monsters?”
George shrugged, “We hired a group of adventures. They had a pretty easy time of it. We only got attacked one night by a couple goblins.” Henry translated what George said in his mind to “goblins”, but now he couldn’t help hearing, “spindly cave demons”. The monster names were so stupid!
“I’m guessing that the increased demand for farmers around here has made it worth the risk to come back, right? That and this place isn’t crawling with monsters like the old village.”
George simply nodded, “Yes.”
Jason, who’d been walking behind them suddenly asked, “How did you find out about the city needing more farmers anyway?”
George shrugged, “Magic messenger bird.”
Seriously? Thought Henry, but he let it drop. So did Jason. Apparently neither one of them currently cared enough to strain their brains learning about magic messenger birds. Yet another dumb name.
It took while, but eventually the caravan reached the gates. The bored looking guards (both women) asked George to state their purpose, but after hearing they were immigrating, the guards shuttled them off to the side and made them wait some more.
Eventually a woman in an official looking robe came out to greet George. The woman had slightly Mediterranean looking features and her handsome, middle aged face had smile lines. Her robe hid her figure but she held herself like someone who was used to being taken seriously. Henry sat on a log by the roadside with Jason. Mareen was next to Jason as usual and she wouldn’t look at Henry. What did I do to make her hate me so much?
After some time, Henry noticed that George seemed to be politely arguing with the woman. It didn’t look like matters were going well. Then George seemed to excuse himself and slowly walked over to Henry and Jason as the woman in the robe waited. George looked at the ground, dry washed his hands and said in English, “Bra, we got a sif problem, ja? We don’t got ‘nuff money.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jason.
“I guess there ain’t use in dik bek over it I’ll just tell you straight. Settling in this area costs a load of money, ja? To farm can make a lot of money now but it costs to rent the land. They usually need a year of rent before you can be boers. The city counselor over there has a plot for us and it even has shacks already we can stay in till we build somethin’ better. She is even letting us start with just 6 months rent and we won’t have to pay for ‘nother year. Problem is Jeth and Yelm stole most of the village’s valuables. We don’t have enough, we’re very close but still short just now”
Henry and Jason looked at each other and Henry mentally sighed. They had no obligation to these people, any debt real or imagined had been repaid several times over. But he knew Jeth and his father had betrayed the villagers even worse than the two of them. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the difficult situation George’s community was in. George said before that they wouldn’t starve, but Henry knew winter was coming. Could these people survive a winter in a land full of monsters with no homes and no food available but the nasty plants in the forest? At this rate, the entire village might have to pursue morally dubious methods to survive another year.
No, Henry knew what they had to do. He saw Jason slightly nod, and once again, Henry was proud of his friend. As Jason unfastened the crude bronze sword from his belt, he noticed George’s complicated expression, grief, relief, gratitude, and shame spread all across his face. Henry clapped George on the back and walked with him and Jason to the city counselor.
Jason held up the damaged sword and said in Luda, “I’ve heard that metal weapons are worth something. Would this be enough on top of what George has to get these people some land?”
The counselor nodded serenely, “Perhaps so. Let me get this appraised.”
A short time later, the counselor came out with a piece of paper marked with numbers. “You are in luck. The sword by itself would not have been enough due to its poor condition, but we’ve found it is considered a spindly cave demon artifact so it is worth significantly more than usual, even damaged.”
“Spindly cave demons,” Henry muttered under his breath, “so stupid.”
“I’m sorry my introduction is late, but my name is City Counselor Hirine.” She produced a cloth pouch, “If you were to sell the spindly cave demon artifact to the city for research, the portion of money you would have left after covering the caravan’s rent shortage in this bag. Do you accept these terms?”
Henry didn’t know if they were getting screwed or not, but it wouldn’t matter. This was another situation where there was only one available option open to him in order to still be the man he wanted to be. He glanced at Jason who gave another small nod. “Yes, let’s make it happen.”
The deal was done. A guard was called over to lead George and the rest of the caravan to their new land and a new life. George came over to Henry and Jason with tears in his eyes and shook their hands. He couldn’t speak, but his eyes spoke volumes. Before he turned back, he exchanged a long, significant look with Mareen who nodded firmly. George shrugged and went to join his people as they began walking down a side road towards a section of rich farmland. He didn’t look back.
Mareen abruptly said, “I need to talk to the city counselor about something. Please find the first place inside the gates that you can rest at for a while and I will meet you there as soon as my business is done.”
Jason stammered, “But… huh? What do you need…”
“Please just do as I ask, Jason Booth.” Mareen didn’t exactly snap, but her tone explained quite clearly that she was not budging on this matter.
Henry mused, I guess women on every planet are born knowing how to do that, huh? The thought amused him enough that he was able to temporarily forget they were basically unarmed and broke, had no extra food, and were about to enter a brand new city..
Jason asked Henry, “Is it cool with you if we wait?”
Henry snorted, “I don’t think we have much of a choice. Let’s go find a place to sit down.