Jason was seriously tired of the wagon’s rocking motion. He also didn’t enjoy dealing with the weird, ox things that most wagons on Ludus were pulled by. Their name in Luda was “yucka” but Jason called them “nasty-oxen” in his head. He appreciated how hardy and strong they were, probably a necessity on a monster-infested hell-hole like Ludus. In fact, the very real possibility that nasty-oxen were the result of some monster getting frisky with an innocent ox many, many years ago was something he didn’t care to think about.
They were on a road heading south away from Mirana and their group was in two wagons. The first wagon up front could be covered if needed, the rear wagon was uncovered and full of wooden boxes. The boxes were very impressive looking but packed with straw; perfect bait for their bandit trap.
Most of the women in the party stayed with the uncovered wagon acting as guards. Jason and Henry were tasked with driving the lead wagon, completing the illusion that they were a micro caravan for a rich family or a side project for a merchant’s son. The idea was that if the Jaguar Clan caravans were being attacked, it’d be best to make their group look like an easy, enticing target.
As he learned to sway with the wagon, Jason watched the farmers working their fields and examined the long, wavy vegetation by the side of the road with interest. Ludus always seemed to be some strange combination of the familiar and the alien to him. He recognized some of the vegetation they passed, and some he didn’t. Same with the birds and the crops the farmers were growing.
It was a strange feeling to know that one day he might not notice the differences between Ludus and Earth anymore.
Their group departed from Mirana early in the morning. Jason was impressed by how fast they’d mobilized but then again, everything for their mission had been pretty much ready to go already before Bezzi-ibbi woke up. Bezzi-ibbi insisted they leave as soon as possible and demanded he come along. He pointed out that at least one Jaguar Clan member had to be with the wagons in case someone was specifically targeting Clan caravans. In fact thinking of him now…
Jason glanced up at where Bezzi’ibbi was riding on top of the covered wagon, his weight balanced on two of the wooden “ribs” that formed the wagon’s roof structure. The rolled up cloth cover allowed Jason to see the boy clearly.
Bezzi-ibbi had fresh clothing. He wasn’t wearing a suit like when Jason first met him nor the more relaxed clothing he wore in the Jaguar Clan house. Instead, he was sporting a dark, button up shirt rolled to the elbows, a white tie, and a striped vest to match his striped slacks. In a world where most people wore simple, serviceable clothing, Bezzi-ibbi stood out like a sore thumb. What’s more, the mark of his hero ring was obvious on his arm.
Jason swallowed down a pang of guilt as he studied the Mo’hali boy’s silvery gauntlet. From the tips of his fingers to past his elbow, Bezzi-ibbi’s entire left arm was covered in metal, or perhaps turned to metal. Jason wasn’t entirely sure. The whole arm was so bright and shiny Jason thought it looked like mercury; the metal seemed to move and undulate at times too. Bezzi-ibbi was reluctant to talk about the arm so everyone avoided the subject for the time being. They were just happy he was alive.
In fact, since Bezzi-ibbi woke and until they got on the road, there’d been utter chaos at the Jaguar Clan house. The Clan seemed to be collectively amazed, proud, worried, and furious with Bezzi-ibbi. They did not want him going on Henry and Jason’s mission, but Bezzi-ibbi came anyway. From what Jason could understand, a legitimate Mo’Hali Hero is considered to be a champion of all Mo’hali people until they retire. Bezzi-ibbi’s Clan could not forbid him to do anything anymore. The same tradition and ceremony that they used to keep him safe in the past now worked against them.
Before they left, Bezzi-ibbi’s father, mothers, and a handful of siblings whose names Jason already forgot crowded him and Henry into a room. They asked them to take care of Bezzi-ibbi, but the request sounded a lot more like a threat. Jason could have sworn that Hajim-ibbi flexed his claws slightly when he squeezed Jason’s shoulder. The feeling had not been pleasant.
From the top of the wagon, Bezzi-ibbi grinned at him and jumped down to the driver’s seat, his movements lithe and precise. Sometimes Jason was taken aback by how Bezzi-ibbi’s mannerisms seemed to scream, “predator”. The boy patted Jason with his right hand as he sat, “Family”.
Jason looked at Bezzi-ibbi curiously. “You know, we all know that you can speak fluent Luda now. While you were in a coma we also learned that your brothers and sisters even respect your ability with languages. Why the act?”
Bezzi-ibbi grimaced and his voice came out haltingly, “It’s not an act. I hate speaking Luda. I had a bad language teacher. Didn’t like Mo’hali.”
“So even now, you’re speaking Luda slightly broken as… what, a protest?”
Bezzi-ibbi grinned wider, showing his fangs, “Yes!” He nodded and patted Jason again, “Family!”
“You’re a weird kid, you know that?” At the last moment, Jason changed the actual word he used from “kid” to Luda slang for “child”. He almost accidentally called Bezzi-ibbi a baby goat. Jason didn’t ever want to get the same confused, slightly concerned expressions people gave Henry sometimes. His friend didn’t always pay close enough attention to what he said in Luda.
Jason was about to ask Bezzi-ibbi about their route when another weight settled onto the bench. Bezzi-ibbi’s expression immediately became guarded as he looked past him. Jason turned to see Keeja nonchalantly eating an apple. He wondered how she always seemed to have fruit on hand.
“You know,” she munched for a while before continuing, “you could just teach the boy English. I already speak it, you and Henry do, Mareen is halfway there, and Uluula can learn pretty much any spoken language in a couple weeks due to the hardware in her head.” Keeja pointed at her temple. Then she looked thoughtfully at her apple core before throwing it to the side of the road and scooting her hips against Jason’s. She leaned back and put her arm around him.
Jason sat still for a moment in surprise before he snorted. He looked at her levelly. “Okay, teach Bezzi-ibbi English, that makes sense. Why are you helping us, though?”
“Oh, you’re no fun at all!” Keeja moved back to her end of the bench and pouted. “Your friend is much more entertaining. I find it interesting that his reactions are much more animated despite having more experience with women than you. Either way, Terrans are all prudes.”
Jason shook his head, “I’m not even going to ask how you know about our love lives. But I think you’re misunderstanding something and I highly doubt you’re making him uncomfortable. If you teased him and he tried to act proper, it was probably because he didn’t want to infringe on your honor or something. Henry has strong feelings about chivalry.”
She blinked at Jason for a couple seconds before she threw her head back, choking out peals of laughter. Jason shared a glance with Bezzi-ibbi and stared forward resolutely until Keeja had herself under control again. “Ah, I needed that! You think your friend is really trying to protect my honor? I’m almost 2,500 years old and I went through an… experimental phase. I have no honor to protect, I assure you.”
She chuckled a bit more and shook her head, “It’s incredibly boring being stuck on a planet like this as an immortal. I’d say you wouldn’t understand, but that would be an understatement. Then again, if you don’t get yourself killed, maybe you will one day. You know, I was going to abandon you as soon as the ‘bot left yesterday but I actually saw something interesting. The way you and Henry are using your orbs is very creative.”
“Thanks… I think.” Jason gave the nasty-ox’s reigns an idle flick. “I’d like you to answer my question, though. Why help us?”
Keeja frowned, “I originally pegged you as a thinker, but you still aren’t very smart, are you? I already answered your question.
I’m bored, Terran and it’s worth my time to help you stay alive if you keep entertaining me. I’m one of the oldest of my sisters on this planet and all we ever do is work in a lab, or attend meetings, or set up experiment props. It’s terrible. ‘Priestess’ they call me. Ha!”
“Well, you are a priestess aren’t you? I mean, you’re one of the heads of a religion, right? And you follow a god we’ve actually met in person…”
Keeja rolled her eyes at him. “Do you always believe everything you hear? Also, what makes you think I had any kind of real choice with this whole, ‘priestess’ thing?”
“Well, everyone seems to be awfully afraid of you…”
She studied Jason for a moment. “You know, like all the other priestesses, I keep track of every orb holder on Ludus, including yourself. Intellectually I know that you and your chivalrous friend have been on this planet for less than a month. However, most Ludus immigrants are still pissing themselves over monsters or trying to find a way to make money by this point. I should try to remember that you two aren’t normal because I keep forgetting that you still really don’t know much about this planet.”
She seemed to gather her thoughts for a couple seconds, “Jason Booth, I’m not feared because I’m a priestess of Dolos. I’m feared because I am one of the most powerful beings on this planet.” Keeja raised her arm straight up. The space in front of her hand flickered and an enormous torrent of energy burst upwards, the solid bar of blinding green light almost instantly penetrating a cloud high in the sky. The energy stopped after just a brief pulse and Jason watched in astonishment as the tatters of the superheated cloud slowly dispersed.
Jason was not a scientist, but he had enough working knowledge of physics to know that what he’d just seen was terrifying. The energy Keeja unleashed could probably reduce an entire town to a smoking ruin.
But she still wasn’t done. So quickly he couldn’t follow the motion, Keeja snatched one of Jason’s bronze knives away in a blur. She held the knife up and then slowly, deliberately pressed the blade down on her arm and cut. Jason knew the knife was razor sharp, but Keeja didn’t have a scratch on her.
She flipped the knife around and handed it to back Jason handle first. Jason slowly, carefully sheathed the blade and asked, “What are you?”
“Once, I was just an Areva girl with dreams,” Keeja’s looked wistful. “Now I’m different. What changed me, what made me this way can’t be duplicated, but Dolos is trying to create something similar using a different approach.”
A number of things suddenly made sense to Jason. The orbs, the “research” Dolos was doing… He realized the whole planet was full of guinea pigs for the purpose of weapons research. Jason was horrified, but also strangely impressed. If he were an amoral douchebag with the power of a god, using an entire planet as a petri dish would probably seem very efficient too.
“Why doesn’t Dolos just use you and the other priestesses to defend Ludus when this war comes in a few years?”
Keeja sighed, “Because that would be pointless. The bet, the agreement was to pit experiment against experiment. If beings like me participated on either side, it would be a useless exercise. Dolos is basically betting his pride as a researcher for last few thousand years against his rival.”
“So you’re telling me that people will probably die and there will be a war… because of pride?”
“In a word, yes,” Keeja smirked. “The world isn’t fair, child. You’d best get used to it.”
Jason frowned and looked Keeja right in her eyes. What he saw made his mouth go dry. It was one thing to hear Keeja say she was ancient or even see a display of her power. Jason had seen a lot of amazing things since he got to Ludus so his threshold of being shocked by anything was practically nonexistent anymore.
Keeja physically looked like an Areva woman in her prime. However, when Jason actually looked into her eyes, her age and power became real to him in a way it wasn’t before. She represented an existence he could not really comprehend. He felt himself shiver when he realized how alien she really was.
Keeja must have noticed his reaction. Her expression fell, “This is another reason I hate being imprisoned on this world. Mortals are a passing fancy and most can’t ever truly understand the perspective of an immortal. But all the other Holders on this planet like me are High Priestesses and we loathe each other.” Keejas lapsed into a brooding silence and Jason was happy to let her do so.
He gazed at the nasty-ox pulling the wagon, thinking about what kind of monster it might be mixed with when he realized with a start they could be attacked by monsters at any time. He turned to Keeja, “Shouldn’t we be keeping a closer watch for monsters?”
“No, they don’t come this close to cities. Cities around the whole planet are basically safe from monsters most of the time.” She shrugged, “If we let the monsters run around willy nilly, there’d probably be no people or civilization left.”
Jason blinked, “’We,’ as in you and the other High Priestesses control monsters?”
“Of course. What, do you think Dolos manages the day-to-day on Ludus? Of course not. The creatures you call monsters are not native to this planet in the first place. On top of that, someone has to make dungeons, someone has to put treasure in them, someone has to keep track of the monsters…”
“Wait. You make dungeons and put loot in them?”
Keeja made a face, “You don’t think they just magically pop up out of nowhere, do you? Like I said, for someone who’s supposed to be smart, you don’t seem to do a lot of thinking. Plus, I would have thought by now as someone who can use magic, you would have figured out that “magic” means many different things to many different people.”
Jason couldn’t decide whether to be thoughtful or furious. To be honest, he hadn’t ever considered that anyone other than Dolos was responsible for what happened on Ludus. Then again, it made a kind of sense that there would be a team of researchers on an experiment planet. He thought through what Keeja said carefully and realized what he’d been missing, “We’re all here because of the Dhu, aren’t we?”
“Maybe you aren’t stupid after all,” Keeja smiled.
Even more pieces started falling into place for Jason, “So people being born on this planet who can learn to use magic, the fact that iron rots so fast, all these things are probably because of the Dhu, aren’t they?”
“More or less. You’re missing a lot of background and particulars, but the fact you’re here, the fact any mortals are here on this planet is directly because of Dolos’ research. And Dolos’ research revolves around the Dhu. Everything and everyone is linked to the research in some way.”
“No, that’s enough questions,” Keeja’s voice was firm. “I’ve probably already told you too much. I personally don’t see a problem with research subjects understanding what their data is being used for but Dolos wants everyone to remain in the dark.”
Jason looked her in the eyes again, her ancient, unsettling eyes. “Why do you help him?”
“You make that sound like such a simple question.” Keeja turned and stared into the distance for a while before continuing, “Nobody’s asked me that in a very, very long time, though. You don’t have enough information to form any sort of context for what Dolos is doing. Dolos is a vain, power hungry egomaniac and I think some of his methods are crude… but he’s getting results. What’s more, his research may be necessary. Maybe one day you will find out why. You should hope you never do.
And at the end of the day, I’m a prisoner here just like you are. At least you have a chance of escaping before the research is done. On the other hand, I’m probably stuck here for another thousand years at least.” Keeja smiled but the expression held no humor.
Jason didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even know what to feel. They all rode in silence for the remainder of the day until reaching a good spot to set up camp for the night at the edge of the fields. The next day they’d be entering monster territory.