As Jason waited in the dark wooden cell for his captors to return, he realized that he didn’t have a plan. How in the world could they he be incarcerated, waiting for a battle without a plan? Jason was a gamer and Henry was a leader-type. How could they both just be sitting in the dark staring at the cell door? He knew that Henry wanted to do the right thing, but as he thought about it, things just weren’t adding up.
His normally pig headed and ultra-focused friend was acting… off. And because Jason was generally willing to follow Henry’s lead when things got stressful, he hadn’t really noticed.
Jason thought carefully back to the last couple weeks and realized Henry’s behavior changed after he lost the machete. When Henry returned from his time out in the woods, he’d acted like nothing happened. He never mentioned the machete again.
Jason could not believe he failed so badly. Of all the people in the world, his friend had been transported to this world with Jason, the son of a battered mother. Jason had spent years helping his mom put herself back together again. He knew what internalized guilt and a fragile, strong front looked like. Hell, he knew what it felt like. He’d spent a week around Henry and hadn’t even seen the signs when they were right in front of his face.
He was a fool. What’s more, he was running out of time. He had no idea when their captors would return.
“Henry,” he whispered, “we need to talk.”
“Hmm?” Henry was staring at the door. “Don’t you think we should be waiting for our good friend Ben to come back?”
Jason steeled his resolve, “No man, I’m serious. We need to talk right now because I don’t know if either of us will even be alive at the end of the day. And right now, I am not sure you will be.”
Henry slowly turned his head, his eyes dangerously narrowed, “What?”
“Come on man, don’t play dumb. You’ve been acting off ever since the machete got stolen. You know that wasn’t your fault, right?”
Henry looked away, “Can we talk about this later? This is really not the time or place for a heart to heart.”
“No,” Jason steeled his spine. This had to be said. “No man, I think we’ve been holding up pretty well so far all things considered, but let’s cut the crap. We’ve known each other for a long time. You told me before that you dealt with PTSD after combat. You had a lot going on in your life before we even came here. What’s more, I’m not mad at you anymore for getting us into this mess, but the more I think about it, I get mad at myself.”
“What do you mean? You’re not going gay on me are you?”
Jason’s temper flared, he would not be easily deflected, “Shut up, we are going to talk about this. Period. Look, you know about me and my mom. I want to try something out that used to work when I was younger. I’m going to just talk. After I’m done talking, you can let me know what you think.”
Jason saw Henry reluctantly nod and spoke softly, but forcefully, “I will admit it. I haven’t enjoyed our little trip to Ludas. But I just realized that I’ve been blindly following your lead when things got hairy and I’ve been wrong, because you’re full of shit.”
He saw Henry tense but plowed on, “Don’t get me wrong, you have much more experience with management and command than I do, but I just remembered that I actually have more knowledge about this sort of world than you. All of this makes the fact that you have not asked for my advice about this world for the last week a bit strange. You have not been a good leader for a week. We didn’t even have a plan for what to do when we got to the city!
You’ve been being a bad leader and I’ve been being a bad strategist. And I think it’s a sign of PTSD or at least shell shock. It’s not going to get better unless we realize it’s there.
Let’s face it man. The fact we are even here is stupid. We have magic! If I can avoid getting mugged at night in Chicago for a couple weeks as a teenager, I should be able to avoid getting fucking kidnapped when I’m a mage as a full grown man!”
Jason was breathing hard, his hoarse whispers echoing with his frustration. Henry stared at the door for a full minute and Jason was wondering if he’d pushed too far.
It came as a surprise when Henry replied, “It’s all my fault. Everything, all of it. You know, I was the only one taking care of my mom before we were transported to Ludus, but I just kept trying to work harder. I was getting sick from not sleeping. I never really tried to include other family members because I thought they were weak. I thought they weren’t doing enough for Mom. Now look what happened. Without me there, is anyone even visiting her?
I fucked up, man. I fucked up big time.
You know what Holly said when she left me? She said she stopped loving me because I was a control freak. Thing is, what she did was wrong, but she was right about all my flaws.
Listen Jason, I’m not stupid. I was in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. I saw a kid ride a bike rigged with explosives into a checkpoint once. I’ve seen kids kill. I’m not naïve. I knew the setup that landed us here was suspicious as hell and I knew you were right to question that kid. I think… I was just hoping for a sign that everything wasn’t shit. I was hoping that there was still some decency in the world.
I don’t think there is anymore.” Henry looked away from Jason, not meeting his eyes. “I know that most of this is my fault. The fact I was trying to hold it all together just makes everything worse. Do you know what it’s like to feel responsible for… Wait, never mind. You probably do know what it’s like.”
Both men sat in silence for a while, refusing to cry in front of the other. Henry finally said, “It might not have been realistic but I wanted to avoid you seeing stuff like you’re probably about to see. You’re one of the most legitimately nice people I’ve ever met. I don’t want you to become like me. I have not had a solid night’s sleep since I came back from combat. I still get nightmares. I am broken. Sometime I think I did the EMT thing because at least that way I can help people and give the nightmares some variety.”
Jason didn’t know what to say. He had never heard Henry be this open or talk about himself this much. He thought for a few minutes about how to respond, but eventually asked the question that had to be voiced, “Henry, do you want to die?”
In a low voice, Henry said, “I don’t know. This last week, I asked myself that a few times. I have no wife, no home, no world, and I might have no mother anymore. It’s only because it might be my fault that you’re here that…”
Jason’s sucker punch landed beautifully. Henry sprawled out and rose slowly rubbing his cheek. “You self-righteous son of a bitch,” Jason growled. “Don’t you dare. I may not be a veteran, I may not have fought in any wars, but I got my ass beat by my crackhead dad for years. I eventually had to tackle him and testify in court before I was old enough to drive. I worked three jobs to put myself through school. It’s not like I don’t know how to put myself back together again. I am not weak enough to need a friend to take care of me. You want to play the blame game? Why haven’t I been more assertive? Hmm?
It is just as much my fault we are here as it is yours. You are not a martyr. And you are not allowed to die. You told me once that suicide was the most cowardly thing a person could do. Walking through life like a zombie and passively letting some podunk criminals on another planet kill you is the same damn thing.
You want a reason to live? There are a bunch of people on this planet who need someone to help, someone to care. Don’t live because I need help, live because God knows how many people on this planet could use a Henry Sato to save them. Hell there are two of them in the next cell.”
Henry shook his head, “But I lost the machete—“
“Who gives a fuck!?” Jason snarled quietly. “We’ve only been here for like, what, 16, 17 days? We have magic! If I can get a college education after missing school for half my childhood, after living in a women’s shelter with my mom and working to help her pay bills, we can get another stupid metal weapon.”
Jason couldn’t believe he’d been so blind. He had been allowing himself to be passive. He let himself slip right back into the role he took when he was a kid when the going got tough. Not anymore.
He suddenly knew what approach to take with Henry even though it’d be a low blow. He winced internally, but still said, “Listen Henry, you said before that some of your buddies were killed in combat. What do you think they’d say about you acting like this?”
Henry sighed heavily, “They’d fuck me up.”
“Yeah. So how about we stop just saying we’re going to rescue the other people here, and actually do it?”
A single tear tracked down Henry’s cheek. He didn’t speak for a long time. Finally he said, “You’re right. I think I needed a kick in the ass. Thanks.”
Jason shook his head, “I’m only going to say this one more time: It’s not your fault. Now enough of this. We need to make a plan.”
Henry exhaled heavily, “Yeah, okay. So what’s up?”
“So this listening through the door stuff; can you hear farther away? Like how soon will you know our hosts are coming back?”
Henry shook his head, “I can only use one of my senses at a time and I usually need to be thinking about it. When I heard the demon wolves, I was trying to listen for moving water.”
“I see. So can you not hear the guards outside when we’re talking?”
“I can if I focus really hard, but it’s weird and I think it’d give me a headache doing it too much.”
“Okay,” Jason whispered, “You didn’t really answer my question, though. Can you hear them coming?”
Henry frowned, “I think I can. I won’t be able to talk to you when I am trying, though. Any normal noises like your whispering would be way too distracting.”
Jason nodded, “Okay, can you let me borrow the Swiss army knife?”
Henry hesitated, “I don’t think so. Every time I use metal magic, I can sense the metal items on my body. Without the machete, or the knife, I think I could still do my forearms thing, but it’d take way more out of me.”
“I see. Well, can you make me a stone spike without alerting the guards?”
“Yeah,” Henry nodded. “That’s easy.”
“Okay,” Jason’s eyes are resolute, “Work on that and I will tell you my plan. I’ll do all the talking when the time comes for it. Let’s get done ASAP so you can listen for people coming and we won’t be surprised.”
Henry nodded and got to work.
Henry let Jason know that a group of people were coming in plenty of time to prepare. Both men put their hands bending their backs like they were still restrained and stood near the back wall. Eventually the door opened and Mr. Ben walked into the room with the guards. Other men could be seen in the hallway now too. Jason saw that two of them, both wearing leather armor and carrying bronze tipped short spears.
Mr. Ben grinned and said, “I bet you had a fun time trying to get your ropes off. We cover them in pitch before tying you. I’ve seen prisoners lose the tips of their fingers trying to free each other. It’s quite funny.”
Jason evenly asked, “Where is your boss?”
“You’re that eager to meet him, huh? You shouldn’t be, he’s not nice like me. However, I did tell him about you two and he’s very interested. I don’t know a lot about Dolos mythology, but apparently my employer puts importance in some of the old stories.” Mr. Ben’s eyes glittered, “Especially the fact that you don’t look like you’re from around here, you speak perfect Luda with a weird accent, and you do not have orbs on you.”
Mr. Ben sighed, “I think the boss is quite upset that we have not been able to find any new orbs for a while. He’s asked me to move you to another, more secure location. I think he intends to punish you personally for taking what was rightfully his,” Mr. Ben’s grin was nasty.
Jason calmly assessed the situation and gripped the long stone spike tightly behind his back that Henry made from a chunk of the stone floor. He doubted the rest of the building had stone flooring, but the large flagstones in the cells would be effective at preventing most prisoners from escaping. Unfortunately for Mr. Ben, Henry and Jason were not normal prisoners.
Jason delicately, slowly sped up his perception of time. He didn’t think any more information could be gleaned by talking. That meant it was time for action but it wasn’t time to make his move just yet. In slow motion, he watched Mr. Ben make his way further into the cell. Jason tensed, the next portion of the plan would be up to him.
Henry needed a couple seconds to manifest his arm armor and blades. He’d be vulnerable during that time in an enclosed space. Jason had to make the first strike and keep the guards occupied until his friend could become a human wrecking ball again.
He knew that doing this would change him forever. He’d killed a lot of monsters, but he’d never killed another person before. Plus, in all his other fights, he’d more or less been fighting to save his life in the heat of the moment. What he was about to do was entirely different.
Jason hadn’t told Henry his true fears about the coming fight. Jason was flattered that Henry thought he was a nice person. It was probably because despite all his blustering, Henry saw the good in everyone. No, Jason knew he was not a good person. He knew some of the things he would have done in his past if he had the power to do so, and the fact he actually did have power now scared the hell out of him.
Jason knew he had darkness, true darkness within him… and he was about to let it loose. Unlike Henry who probably just wanted to save the other prisoners and escape or put down evil people, Jason deep down could not deny his frustration that people had made a victim of him again. These people had made him feel weak.
He wanted to make them pay.
His whole life, Jason suppressed the darkness within himself. Who he was as a person was what he did in life, not what he fantasized about, especially as an angry teen. He wanted to be a good person. He wanted better people than him, people like Henry to see him that way. But in his current situation, the normal him would not be enough. He had to release what slumbered deep inside himself.
Jason took a deep breath and forced himself to commit. In that moment, the old Jason died.