Jason and Henry sat on benches outside a store near the Mirana city gates. The benches were attached to the wall of a small meat-on-a-stick shop and the savory smells kept wafting outside. Jason was finding it hard to concentrate on anything other than his grumbling stomach.
Jason knew Mareen was up to something but he couldn’t figure out what. He glanced over at Henry who was eyeing the people coming in and out of the city gates with interest. Jason figured his friend was looking at their clothing and weapons.
Jason tried to do some people watching himself, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something major was about to happen. He’d learned to trust his gut so he couldn’t just dismiss it.
He started looking around everywhere, attempting to spot any trouble while it was still coming. Unfortunately, he utterly failed.
A young boy, about 12 years old and thin as a rail stepped timidly from a nearby alley and groveled, “Sirs could you help me sirs? My mom is hurt and I don’t know what to do!” He was near tears. Jason could see fresh bruises and cuts on the boy’s face and arms. His clothes were almost rags.
Jason’s first instinct was to be cautious, but Henry immediately said, “Where is she?”
Damn Henry and his code of honor sometimes. Seriously.
Jason thought quickly and interjected, “Why are you asking us? There are guards right over there,” Jason nodded at the city gate. He normally wouldn’t be so suspicious and confrontational, but his weird premonition just wasn’t going away.
The boy sniffled and crouched down a bit, looking both directions. “Sirs, please don’t tell the guards. They caught me pick pocketin’ a few times and they’ll take me, they will sirs!”
Jason glanced at Henry and saw his friend’s face softening. No no no no no no! Henry had a soft spot for kids, sick mothers, AND a rough childhood! The kid was using the perfect play to pick on Henry’s heart strings. Jason shook his head slightly and asked, “But why come to us? There are all sorts of people arou…”
“Please sirs! She needs help!” the boy pleaded.
Henry got up and started following the boy to an alley. He said over his shoulder, “Time may be important. I’m going, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Jason tightly closed his eyes and sighed. Fuck! He sincerely hoped whatever his gut was trying to warn him about was something other than following this kid into an alley, but he didn’t have any choice anymore. He had to follow his friend; Jason did not want to be on a dangerous alien world by himself.
They followed the boy into the alley and took several twists and turns, the buildings getting taller and dingier. The shadows got larger and darker as they continued too, the boy obviously leading them into a seedy area of the city.
Jason’s uneasy feeling was as strong as ever when they rounded a corner and he suddenly felt something sharp pressing into his back. He noticed Henry stiffen at his side and concluded his friend was being held at knife point too. Sometimes he really hated being right.
A man appeared in front of them from a recessed doorway and clapped his hands while looking at the boy. The man was wearing a threadbare outfit that looked similar to a suit. His hat was old but well cared for. His deeply lined face spoke of a long, hard life, but his grey eyes were clear as they watched Jason and Henry. “Well done, Timmo! Well done indeed! Here is your reward.”
The man held out a torn bread heel and the boy greedily darted forward, snatching the food and tearing into it as he ran away. The man chuckled to himself, winking at Henry and Jason conspiratorially, “The young ones will work for so little! It’s worth keeping a few pieces of bread on hand to see what interesting new people we can meet!
By the way, each man behind you is a mage.” The man smiled slyly, “If you happen to be mages and you try using magic, they will feel it and cut you down. We’d prefer not to kill you, but we can’t let you get away either. We like to keep our little operation discreet. Do you understand?”
Jason glared at the man but he didn’t say anything. In a show of good judgement, Henry didn’t say anything either. The man smiled and said, “Good, I’m glad we understand each other. You may call me Honorable Ben if you need my attention.”
To Jason’s right, Henry said, “You’re despicable for hurting children like this.”
“Hurting them?” Honorable Ben was aghast. “These little urchins wouldn’t even get that speck of food if it weren’t for me. Sometimes I give them rags during the winter too. I am their savior!”
Henry spat and snarled, “What do you want with us?”
“Oh, that’s simple,” said the man. “Our boss asked us to collect all strange looking or new-to-Ludus people that came through the gates. We’re looking for people who don’t fit in, especially people wearing strange clothing like you.” Honorable Ben looked behind them at the dagger holders, “Boys, put the hoods on them and bind their hands.”
Jason’s head was covered with what felt and smelled like a burlap sack. He seriously considered teleporting away. He knew he could use his magic at any time, but if he disappeared he would be leaving Henry behind. Jason was furious with his friend, but there was no way he would leave him like that. The hood robbed him of his senses, but he tried to stay calm.
Friggin Henry and his friggin… gah! Jason’s internal grumbling was interrupted when his wrists were bound tightly behind him.
The next few minutes were spent stumbling through alleys while the thug behind him prodded him in the back with a blade. He concentrated on keeping his feet; he did not want to fall into any of the things he smelled in the alleys they walked through.
Eventually they were lead down some steps and through a building. Jason could barely see any light through his hood. They walked slowly for a time though the large building until Jason was shoved without warning. His shoulder painfully hit a doorway before he fell to the ground. Gosh this is fun. Thank you again, Henry!
Behind him, Honorable Ben said, “Take their hoods off. Let’s get a look at them. Check their pockets and that green bag they had too.”
The two mage thugs weren’t gentle as they searched Jason and Henry. Before long, they found Jason’s bronze dagger in the waistline of his pants. Honorable Ben chuckled as he studied the dagger, “This isn’t too bad. Crude, but practical. I think I will be keeping this.” He tucked the knife away under his clothing. “Boys, now we just gotta wait for the boss to get back. We’ll get our cut soon.”
Honorable Ben pointed at the two on the floor, “Don’t even think of trying to escape. If you do, you will be beaten. Also, these two fine fire mage will be guarding your door. They will kill you before they let you escape. No funny business!”
One of the goons looked confused, “Honorable Ben, why don’t you just ask them if they can use magic?” As he listened, Jason realized the “honorable” before Ben’s name was the Luda version of “mister”. It was a polite way of addressing someone. He made a few mental adjustments so the conversation would sound more natural to him.
Mr. Ben looked irritated. “Nead, if you were in their position, would you tell me that you could use magic?”
“Well, I guess not.”
“Exactly. Get out here and guard the door. Or do you have questions about that too?”
Nead dropped his head and replied sullenly, “No, Mr. Ben.”
As the kidnappers were leaving the cell and closing the door, Jason shook his head. He couldn’t believe Henry’s paranoid bullshit ended up being so useful. He knew Henry kept the blessed steel Swiss army knife in a pouch tied around his ankle. The goons missed it.
Jason stoically stared at the wall. He couldn’t believe that the magic practice Henry insisted they do was going to be so useful so quickly.
During their nightly magic practice while they traveled with the caravan, they eventually realized that they could feel magic being used. Henry suggested they learn what they could about this phenomenon and insisted they practice hiding the use of their magic from each other at various distances. It took a lot of control and practice, but releasing magic slowly was a good way to avoid detection.
What’s more, Henry’s Magic Perception skill allowed him to sense Jason’s magic much easier than Jason could sense his. They also theorized that Henry’s skill would allow him to tell if another person could use magic or not.
All of this meant Jason wasn’t too worried about escaping. He knew Henry would probably be unbound any minute now. He just wasn’t sure what they’d do as soon as they were free.
Sure enough, a short time later he felt Henry cutting through the rope on his wrists with a blade Henry slowly grew from his finger. After he was free, Jason rubbed his wrists and glared at Henry.
To his credit, Henry looked embarrassed and shrugged his shoulders. “What can I say?” he whispered. “I should have listened to you.”
“Damn right!” Jason whispered back. “Now what are we going to do about this situation?”
Suddenly, a soft, female voice from behind the wall to their cell said, “How did you do that?”
Jason almost jumped out of his skin and covered his mouth to hold in a yelp. Henry didn’t even look startled and just frowned intensely. Jason clenched his teeth and glared in the direction the voice came from, “Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m a captive too. My name is Uluula, an Areva!” the voice hissed. “I am sharing a cell with Bezzi-ibbi, a Mo’hali boy. If you are going to escape, please help us too! We were both kidnapped almost a week ago and I believe they are going to ship us to an underground slave market soon!”
Jason moved closer to the wall and saw there was a large crack between the boards. A bright, slanted blue eye peered back at him from the opening. “Please help us,” Uluula pleaded softly.
“Hold on a moment,” whispered Jason. He moved back and glanced at Henry. They both slightly shook their heads in resignation; they seemed to have an unspoken understanding. How do these things keep happening to us? “Okay, what’s the plan?”
Henry ran a hand over his face while he collected his thoughts. “You still can’t teleport anyone else with you, right?”
Jason nodded and whispered back, “Correct.”
Henry thought a moment longer and said, “I was going to tell you to just teleport yourself, especially since this is mostly my fault, but I know you won’t do it. Since that is the case, I think we should wait until the boss gets here and find out what is going on.”
Jason frowned, “Why? Why not just escape?”
Henry grinned, his eyes hard and said, “Because my Enhanced Senses made my hearing so good I can barely hear the guards talking outside our door. They’re complaining about how they wished the girl and the boy in the cell next to ours weren’t virgins so they could rape them. Apparently their boss doesn’t let them spoil merchandise and virgins sell for more. They’re also laughing as they remember beating a kid to death about a month ago.”
Jason sighed, this was the goblin cave all over again. “Yeah, plus they were specifically targeting newcomers to Ludus. Why?”
“I figured you caught that too,” Henry whispered. “We’re still flying blind. I want to find out what we can and then break free.”
Jason swallowed, his stomach began to churn, “We might have to kill people, won’t we?”
“Yes,” Henry looked his friend right in the eye. “This is a hard world. I know this is a messed up situation, but we’re not in Seattle anymore, man. Can you do this?”
Jason paused before answering. He looked deep inside himself and didn’t exactly like what he saw. Ludus was changing him.
For him, practicing martial arts and sword fighting had always been about exercise or self-defense. Before the goblins and the demon wolves, there’d be no way he could seriously consider killing another person in cold blood. Things had changed.
He nodded, “I won’t freeze. I’m not even mad at you anymore. This sort of thing was bound to happen sooner or later. This world sucks.”
Henry idly picked up a piece of straw from the floor and broke it in half, “Agreed. But at least we have our magic. Maybe we can even do some good and shut down these slaver pieces of shit.”
Jason nodded. He wasn’t a hero, Henry was. But if his friend kept dragging him into these dangerous situations, at least he knew it was for a good cause. The beautiful eye he’d seen through the wall and the fear in Uluula’s voice haunted him.