The Jaguar Clan
Henry and Mareen sat on opposite sides of the carriage as it headed out of the Mirana commercial district. Bezzi-ibbi sat next to Henry and openly stared at the farm girl as she fidgeted and peered out the window.
Until about fifteen minutes earlier, Henry had still been in front of the burning warehouse. He’d was loitering with nothing to do after giving the Guard his statement and making sure they were still looking for Jason. Before he left, he saw a few Guard mages arrive and start poking around the area. He sensed them use very small amounts of magic in bursts as they investigated. Henry was curious what they were doing, but not enough to actually talk to them about it. Not long after that, the carriage from the Jaguar Clan arrived.
After he got into the carriage and travelled a short way, he saw Mareen walking on the side of the road towards the smoke. He banged on the roof to get the driver to stop and got Mareen’s attention by waving. He knew she had probably been looking for him and Jason. Mareen was only in the carriage with him for a couple minutes but he already felt tension in the air.
Henry didn’t know if Jason made it out alive. With his teleporting abilities, it shouldn’t have been a problem for him to escape, but Henry could easily see his honorable friend staying behind to help someone else. He wanted to avoid thinking about all the things that could have gone wrong and that meant he didn’t want to tell Mareen what happened yet. He figured she’d probably be extremely worried about Jason. Jason better have made it out, he thought.
Henry felt awkward alone in the carriage with Mareen. He didn’t want her to fall to pieces over Jason being missing but he also didn’t know what to think about her body language. He thought she looked upset. Maybe she was disgusted he was so dirty or wondering where Jason was. Henry had never been very good at comforting anyone. He knew he didn’t want to see Mareen cry. He thought one of her prettiest features was her dark, sparkling eyes and they’d be obscured by tears… He shook his head and looked out the window. That line of thought was dangerous.
Now that he thought about it, it was kind of strange that she hadn’t asked about Jason yet, right?
Without warning, Mareen blurted, “I have something for you.” Henry was nearly startled out of his skin but he gave little outward sign of it other than blinking rapidly.
“You have something to give me?” he stammered. Henry had absolutely no idea what Mareen was talking about. Then he remembered she had to do something earlier, run an errand or something. That’s right, we weren’t supposed to move until she got back. He felt a little sheepish.
“Yes,” she nodded. She took a couple items out of her satchel. This was also the first time Henry actually noticed her new leather satchel. Get it together man. Stop staring at her eyes and pay attention to your surroundings. In Mareen’s hand, she held a ring and a necklace, more like a choker. Both looked like they were made of grey plastic.
As Henry watched, Mareen attached the necklace around her neck. It looked like a close fit. Then she handed the ring to Henry. “This is for you.”
Henry examined the ring in his hand. It was smooth and was lighter than he thought it would be. It was also really thin. It looked too small for any of his fingers but without thinking he slipped it on to his pinky. The material of the ring expanded to create a tight fit.
Suddenly a flash of light blinded Henry and he felt the ring on his finger get cold, so cold it stung for a couple seconds, the sensation rapidly fading. “What the fuck…” he yelled.
He rubbed his eyes and could barely see Mareen holding her hands out as she quickly said, “Please calm down. I merely… formed an indentured servant contract with you.”
“You what!?” hollered Henry. This day was going to give him a permanent twitch, he could just feel it. “How am I a servant?” He looked at his finger. The ring had vanished, a grey-silver line now went around his pinky. A similar band went around Mareen’s neck. He held up his hand, “And what the fuck is this?”
“I just… I wanted to repay you for all that you’ve done for me and the village. You are now my employer for 10 years. I’m your indentured servant, honor bound to your service. I am not a slave, but my life is not really my own either. Whether you pay me or not is your choice.”
“So you tricked me into this? Now I’m, what, bound for 10 years?”
“No, no,” Mareen’s voice was frantic. “I’m the one who is bound. I wanted to repay everything you’ve done for me and for my family.”
Henry shook his head, “This makes no sense. Why me? Aren’t you worried what Jason will think about this? You two are together, right? Why didn’t you give him a tattoo ring?”
Henry was looking Mareen right in the eyes when her mood drastically changed so he actually witnessed the transformation. Almost in slow motion, her worried expression and stuttering vanished, transitioning into blazing eyes and bared teeth. Henry had never seen Mareen angry before. He soon learned he didn’t enjoy the experience.
“Listen here, you, you, stupid stupid man!” shouted Mareen. “I am not courting with Jason! He is my friend! How could anyone be impossibly (Luda curse) stupid enough to think that we’re courting? Are you all children? And you… you are going to shut your mouth while I explain this!”
She was actually growling.
Henry was shocked. He leaned back on his bench very slowly and folded his hands in his lap. No sudden movements. He was wise enough to know when to back off and act very attentive. Henry heard what Mareen did to one of the demon wolves. He started worrying she might spit acid at him too. Actually, he wondered if she was going to jump across the carriage and attack him. He kept his mouth shut and nodded very carefully.
No woman had been this angry at him in years. Proper, kind hearted Mareen was screaming and using profanity. What did I do?
“Listen closely. This is my decision. I don’t care what anyone else says. Not my grandfather, not you, not an unholy (Luda curse) angel in Heaven is going to tell me what to do my life! Yes, I’m sorry I tricked you but I knew you’d act like this, like an idiot from Earth who still hasn’t accepted you are ON ANOTHER WORLD NOW! Another world with completely different rules, you fool!
What you know or what you think you know is completely useless until you actually understand this world! I’m from here. Learn from me! I will teach you! Anyone from this whole doomed (Luda curse) planet would understand what I was doing here. You are impossibly (Luda curse) ignorant and you don’t listen. You don’t pay attention!
I mean, look at you! You’re covered in rotting (Luda curse) blood and God in Heaven knows what else. What is wrong with you? There were explosions and a fire! You could have been killed… again!” Mareen’s voice broke as she choked back a sob, but the sound was overcome by her fury.
“I just had to walk for miles, not knowing if I would ever even see you again,” she snarled. “You had simple rotting (Luda curse) instructions to stay by the gate, but did you follow them? NO YOU DIDN’T! You have been in a city for less than a DAY and you are already covered in blood! Whether that blood is yours or not, you are an idiot! You followed a whoreson (Luda curse) STREET KID into an ALLEY!? What is wrong with you?
And what is with this Mo’hali boy? Where did you get him? Actually never mind. I don’t want to know right now.”
Mareen’s voice lowered slightly and she said, more to herself, “No, that wasn’t fair. Knowing you, you probably helped the boy…” Her eyes flashed and she started yelling again, “But that’s no excuse!
I am going to help you whether you like it or not!
This was my rotting (Luda curse) choice! You have no obligations related to my servitude. Yes, as an employer of an indentured servant you are supposed to give me room and board, but I chose this for myself! If I have to I will pay my own way to support myself! But for 10 years, my life will be spent trying to help you with your stupid, stupid… GAH!”
Mareen screamed incoherently for a few seconds. Then she clenched her fists before growling, “This is the way things are now. It’s done. There’s not use in complaining about it.”
She threw her satchel into Henry’s lap and growled, “Take this. I got this for you and Jason. This is what you need to start an adventuring company. Now if you want to know more about the servant bond we can talk about it later.”
Mareen’s tone became slow and cold, “Right now I think you should read what’s in the rotting (Luda curse) satchel and don’t EVER mention even the remote POSSIBILITY that I am courting with Jason ever again, you fool! What the hell (this curse was actually in English) is wrong with you people!?”
Mareen was breathing heavily and Henry didn’t say a word. Bezzi-ibbi began clapping and laughing, his ears quivered in mirth. Mareen flushed and looked out the window. Henry on the other hand slowly did what he was told and examined the papers in the satchel. He’d fought monsters, he had a life and death struggle with criminals in a burning building, he almost died in a fire, but what he just experienced was by far the scariest thing he’d seen since arriving on Ludus.
The Jaguar Clan estate was huge. Like most of the other buildings Henry saw on the ride through the city, it was built from wood and rammed earth. Henry recognized the earthen construction method from his time in the Middle East. The architecture was like a tudor style house with Asian flair, mostly in the details.
The carriage pulled up to a large gate made from thick branches of a dark, horny wood. The grounds around the mansion were large and well kept. A stylized motif of a snarling jaguar was painted on the thick wooden fence surrounding the estate.
Two jaguar Mo’hali were manning the gate, one male and one female. Bezzi-ibbi bared his teeth at them out the window of the carriage and they returned the gesture. Henry had no idea what the greeting meant. When Bezzi-ibbi sat down again he patted Henry’s shoulder and said, “Family.” Then he nodded.
Mareen looked puzzled, but she and Henry were still not speaking after her outburst. She went back to looking out the window before they rolled up to the house.
After they got out of the carriage, Henry noticed that it was probably late afternoon. To him it seemed like a lot more time had passed then that, but his day had been rather eventful. Even with his new, ridiculous endurance, his body was starting to feel heavy.
The front doors of the estate opened and a large jaguar Mo’hali man in flowing pants and a short robe came out flanked by three Mo’hali women, two were jaguar race. One jaguar woman was short with brown hair. Her clothes hid her body, but she was probably curvy. Her face had smile lines. The other jaguar woman was tall and thin with dark hair. Her sharp facial features were beautiful in a severe way. The last woman looked like a mouse race Mo’hali. She was petite with dark hair, large ears, and her inquisitive eyes had epicanthic folds.
All four Mo’hali wore similar clothing in the same shades of black and green.
Bezzi-ibbi briefly held hands with the mouse race woman and did the same with the taller jaguar woman before nuzzling faces with the short, brown haired jaguar woman. Then the man in the short robe walked up to Bezzi-ibbi and cuffed him on the head hard enough to knock the boy to the ground.
What the… Henry thought. Bezzi-ibbi rose from the ground in a crouch, snarling, claws out. He and the man stared at each other without moving for a moment before Bezzi-ibbi slowly turned his head to the side and averted his eyes.
The man took a quick step forward and enfolded Bezzi-ibbi in a huge hug. The boy growled happily and hugged the man back. Then the man set him down and introduced himself, “Welcome to my home. I am called Hajim-ibbi and I am the head of the Jaguar Clan. I am Bezzi-ibbi’s father. These are my wives.” He nodded to the taller jaguar woman, “Henna-ibbi,” he gestured to the mouse woman, “Kinwe-na-ibbi,” and the last woman bowed as he said, “Banna-ibbi, Bezzi-ibbi’s birth-mother.”
Henry was struggling to understand the introduction. He knew the Luda language from his orb, but he didn’t understand Ludus, or specifically Mo’hali culture very well yet. For instance, “birth-mother” was one word and he knew it was a title, kind of like a Japanese honorific. The term didn’t directly translate, though so he decided to mentally frame it in a way he could understand easier.
“Nice to meet you,” Henry replied. Three wives? This guy must be a baller. Henry glanced at all three women and noticed they stood very straight and regarded him with restrained, polite interest. The villagers Henry first met and the regular people he saw in the city didn’t act like that. If they were curious about something, they just stared. Ah, these people must be aristocrats. With a start, Henry realized that his mannerisms were similar to the Jaguar Clan’s. Henry never thought of himself as particularly polished or confident, but he usually tried not to be too rude. He didn’t shy away from other people either.
He suddenly wondered if everyone he met so far on Ludus thought he and Jason were acting like aristocrats. Maybe that was why George had been a village leader too. Perhaps growing up in a world without monsters around every corner made regular people more confident. If he saw Jason again he’d mention it. This was the kind of stuff Jason got off on.
“Thank you for taking care of Bezzi-ibbi,” said Hajim-ibbi. “He is very wild but we feared the worst after he didn’t come home for a week. Before you arrived, the Guard sent us your account via magical messenger bird.”
Banna-ibbi, Bezzi-ibbi’s mother nodded and said, “Yes, it’s lucky the criminals didn’t know which families were in power in the city or they would have held Bezzi-ibbi for ransom. His life could have been threatened to force our Family to comply with demands. Thank you for saving our son!” She bowed deeply.
Henry glanced at Bezzi-ibbi and wondered why the kid was still standing with him instead of with his family. Henry obviously didn’t understand Mo’hali culture. Bezzi-ibbi’s dad smacked the shit out of him and nobody else in the family batted and eye. These people were weird.
Henry patted his scarred leg, his new nervous habit and said, “I just did what anyone would have done. What I’m most surprised about is that you all speak perfect Luda when Bezzi just growls a lot.”
“Oh no…” Mareen whispered in horror.
There was no other warning. The jaguar people all made noises like stepped on cats and Henna-ibbi, the taller Jaguar woman sprang forward at Henry. Her teeth were bared and her claws extended as she went for Henry’s throat.
Henry didn’t have time for conscious thought. In a fraction of a second, he used his magic to borrow strength from the earth and covered his forearm with glittering steel. He barely managed to block Henna-ibbi’s murderous claws as he sprang back. Bezzi-ibbi body checked Henna-ibbi with his full weight and jumped back next to Henry. Bezzi-ibbi had his claws out now too.
These people were crazy!
Bezzi-ibbi howled something and his whole family stopped moving.
What happened next was simple; Henry stood very still and he saw Mareen doing the same behind him while Bezzi-ibbi spoke rapidly to his family in their own language. Henry glanced at his steel-covered arm. He hadn’t known he could make the transformation so fast or that he could do one arm at a time. He needed to practice more.
He noticed the mouse woman, Kinwe-na-ibbi staring at him. He saw she was studying his arm in particular. Even though it didn’t look like she was doing anything, Henry could feel magic emanating from her. He knew without a doubt she was a mage.
Henry wished he understood what was going on. This had been a truly horrible day. Above all he wished he knew whether to relax or get ready to fight for his life again. The emotional yoyo was exhausting. He was battered, bruised, covered in dried blood, smelled like smoke, and he was almost completely out of magical power.
When Henna-ibbi attacked earlier, she almost got him; she was so fast! If they all attacked seriously, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle the whole Jaguar Clan. Kinwe-na-ibbi was a mage too. Henry was becoming increasingly convinced the mouse Mo’hali woman was probably the strongest mage Henry had seen so far other than himself and Jason. The thought made him feel strangely vulnerable.
The volume of the Jaguar Clan’s argument kept rising, the adults looking increasingly shocked and upset. Bezzi-ibbi’s tone was firm and unyielding. His body posture was ramrod straight, leaning slightly forward as he stood beside Henry. Henry still had no idea what they were talking about, but the fact nobody had tried to murder him again was probably a good sign. Maybe. Hopefully.
The conversation between Bezzi-ibbi’s family finally began to wind down. Banna-ibbi and Henna-ibbi both said something to Hajim-ibbi who looked off into the distance and pondered for a moment. Then he nodded and said something to Bezzi-ibbi who responded by crouching and putting his head down on the ground. Henna-ibbi took a step forward, bowed stiffly to Henry and grated, “Excuse me for my actions. I was not aware of the situation. Please honor us by staying as a guest in our home.”
Bezzi-ibbi got up and grinned at Henry, “Don’t worry. Everything okay now!” He patted Henry’s shoulder and stated, “Family.” Then the entire Jaguar Clan family headed into the house. Bezzi-ibbi followed and tried to pull Henry along.
What. The. Fuck. Henry glanced at Mareen but she looked confused too. Based on her earlier reaction, she still seemed to know more about the situation than he did, though. Henry felt like he was flying blind in a cultural mine field.
He seriously considered just walking (or running) away, but he was surrounded by Jaguar Clan guards and had nowhere to go. He was also dead tired and out of magic energy. Basically, he was out of options. He turned to Bezzi-ibbi and asked, “Is everything okay?”
Bezzi-ibbi patted his shoulder again. “Safe,” he said. “My home. Your home. Family!” The kid’s smile showed all his teeth. Henry let his forearm armor disappear, but he held on to his strength from the earth, though. He was going to stay juiced up as long as he could until he knew nobody was going to try tearing out his throat again.
What a shitty day.