A week after the caravan skirmished with the demon wolves, Jason was free falling. He loved doing this, teleporting high into the sky to scout. The idea occurred to him while he was drinking some mead around the fire a few days earlier. Everyone was talking and Henry was trying to explain Superman to Bezzi-ibbi and the girls. Jason was thinking about how Superman flew in the early movies and had a moment of inspiration. If he could teleport into the air, why not keep doing so and stay in the sky?
When he first tried his idea, it was kind of nerve wracking. He would look at the place he wanted to teleport in the sky, bamf there, fall for a bit while he scanned the ground, and then repeat the process.
He loved the view when he was up in the air and sometimes it felt like he was flying instead of just falling over and over again. Just like when he threw his knives and teleported them, he learned how to alter his own vector when he teleported. It was an amazing sensation when he got it right. If he waited until he was falling fairly fast and then teleported himself forward and at a 45 degree angle upwards, he could move really far on his own inertia.
Landing could be tricky, though. He basically had to ‘port himself with a straight upward angle, then wait until his motion came to a hald before teleporting himself back to the ground. The timing was important and the first time he did it was pretty scary. It had been worth the risk, though.
Scouting allowed him explore far ahead of the caravan and also let him practice his magic at the same time. In fact, he felt like he was going to hit a plateau soon, but his magic had grown by leaps and bounds recently.
200 yard teleports were no longer even difficult for him and his magic regenerated much faster too. He was able to scout more than five miles ahead of the caravan and back without a problem.
He also discovered that if he gathered magic and stored it, he could release it all at once to teleport farther than he usually could. He was getting a lot stronger and couldn’t wait to test a few new ideas. Experimenting with taking other people with him during a teleport and minimizing the noise that his abilities made were first on his to-do list.
During his recon missions in the sky, the solitude and freedom also helped him think. Henry and Mareen were creeping him out lately. They were being painfully awkward around each other. Jason assumed that Mareen now knew that Henry discovered she had feelings for him and neither of them was ready or willing to talk about it. Jason rolled his eyes. He couldn’t believe his friends were acting so ridiculous. Henry was married before! They were both obviously attracted to each other. Jason didn’t understand what the problem was.
Then again, he wasn’t exactly an expert in love so he shouldn’t judge. His own sort of pre-pre relationship seemed to be going well. Well, it was until two days ago when Uluula asked him how many wives he was willing to take.
Jason shook his head ruefully. It was one thing to know intellectually that polygamy is the normal family structure on Ludus. It’s another thing entirely when his almost-but-not-quite girlfriend (whom he’s seen naked but hasn’t even kissed yet) starts bringing up the possibility of him marrying her and other women in the future!
Maybe Areva are crazy after all. Then again he had to concede it probably wasn’t just an Areva thing. When he asked Mareen about it, she’d looked at him like he was mentally deficient.
In an incredulous tone she said, “Jason, you’re an orb holder. You’re destined for great things. Any woman who is not a complete idiot or unstable will try to find you another wife or two as quickly as possible in order to help manage your estate and invest your resources. I’m a farmgirl and even I know this!
How do people on your planet handle more wealth? Isn’t it easier when you have more family members, people you can trust to share the burden? Plus, Uluula is an Areva. Areva women are very pragmatic.”
Jason was experiencing some culture shock, especially after Uluula made it very clear she was not willing to “hoard an orb holder all to herself” or “manage a large household without any help”. Their conversation hadn’t exactly been a fight, but Uluula was currently giving him space so he could think about what she’d said before they talked about it again. He was thankful that she was an older woman sometimes. She didn’t leave him hanging without an explanation, she told him exactly what she was doing and why. He didn’t have to wonder about her actions like he did about girls he dated on Earth.
It didn’t make him feel any better, though. The really weird thing was that he always considered himself to be an open minded person. In fact, he used to read books and comics with stories that featured polygamy. Yet here he was in a situation where he had to face the real possibility and it kind of bothered him. The weirdest thing was that on Ludus (and apparently the rest of the universe), whoever he married would choose any new wives for his household, not him! It was a lot to process and he was a little weirded out.
Still, what made it all worse, the real icing on his freak out cake was that when he talked to Henry about it, his straight laced friend wasn’t phased in the slightest.
Jason remembered Henry saying, “So what? If everyone consents and everyone is happy, who cares? Also why does it bother you that your wife or wives will pick a new wife if you get one? You can still say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, right? Don’t you think it actually makes sense? I mean, you’re a guy. Your needs should be simple. It’s the women who have to find someone to get along with and you would want your family to be happy, right? Plus, they’d probably be smarter than you anyway.”
The fact that Henry seemed to be adapting to Ludus culture faster than Jason irked him a bit. He always prided himself on being mentally flexible and open minded. Meanwhile, Henry could be old fashioned and obstinate to a fault. Just… how the heck had their roles switched?
Jason realized he was grumbling to himself and tried to stop. The air was too clear and the sensation of flying too fun to spend time beating himself up. Not only that, he was supposed to be doing a job. He began paying attention more closely again. It was a good thing he did, because in a few more minutes he spotted something that made his blood run cold. He turned around and headed back to the caravan as quickly as he could, arcing through the sky between teleports to conserve energy.
Mareen was stringing her bow as she asked, “Okay, so we know there’s a suspicious looking group with a camp in the forest about four miles up the road, right? So what do we do now?” It was a good question.
The wagons were stopped and the entire group was in a circle to discuss what Jason saw. Jason ruefully decided he really needed to start thinking of everyone as a company, Delvers LLC. He had a lot of things to get used to.
Henry chimed in, “Also, why do you think this group is the one we’re looking for?”
Jason kept checking his gear. He was reminded of how he and Henry first saw the goblins. “Well, the camp is in a depression that could only be easily seen from the air. They’re obviously hiding and they have prisoners. More importantly, there are people in cages and I saw at least a couple bodies in what looked like a dumping area for trash.”
Henry slowly nodded. “That does sound… not good. Okay, so how are we going to do this?”
Uluula raised a hand. “Why don’t we just continue with what we were already planning to do? We look like a caravan and caravans have been disappearing. We can just keep heading up the road. The bait idea is probably still the simplest. Plus, I don’t think any of us really have abilities well suited for stealth.”
Jason briefly thought, Not yet anyway. Out loud he said, “Okay, what do you think, Henry?”
Henry nodded, “Yeah let’s stick with that, but since we may be moving into a fight, you and I should hide. Dolos’ message said you can tell an orb holder if you see them clearly.”
“I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t they just jump out and try to surprise us?” Jason’s mental image of the ambush was people in dark clothing and masks stepping out from behind trees.
“If these are bandits, they’ve been operating around here for a while and they haven’t been caught yet which means they’re probably pretty well organized. If that is the case, they’ll probably have scouts and some sort of message relay system at least a mile or two out from their camp.” Henry absently patted his leg. “Me and you should just lay in the bed of the wagon. That way if they attack they won’t know we’re there and we can get the jump on them.”
Jason nodded slowly, that made sense. Knowing ahead of time that he could be in a fight for his life was kind of a strange feeling, though. “Well, what about everyone else? Why wouldn’t they just try to kill everyone as a surprise?”
“Because women and children are always valuable to scum, Jason. At least for a few hours.” Jason saw Keeja nod grimly and swallowed.
In a monotone, Keeja added, “Areva and Mo’hali don’t usually rape, but Terrans and Fideli seem to love it. Some monsters seem to enjoy it as well. Sometimes it doesn’t seem anatomically possible but—“
“That’s enough!” Jason cut her off. He turned to everyone else in the caravan, no, the company and took a deep breath. He needed to get something off his chest. “None of you have to go through with this. I appreciate you coming out this far, but we have no idea what we’re heading into. This could be suicide. If you want to turn back, this is the time to do it.”
Nobody said a word. Jason could hear the wind move through the trees and a bird cry out in the distance. Every set of eyes staring back at him was steady and resolute, probably much more so than his own. Bezzi-ibbi looked excited and kept rubbing his metal arm, which Jason found mildly disturbing. “Okay, so be it.”
Everyone had a few more preparations to make before they began moving again.
Jeth Fortright crept forward in what he thought was a stealthy manner. His rough woolen clothes itched and he knew he smelled pretty ripe. He had not bathed in… well, he couldn’t remember. The last two or three weeks hadn’t been very pleasant but the last week was unbearable. He was starting to resent his father, Yelm for dragging them into this mess.
Sure, he was the one who first brought up the idea of leaving the sappy, Terran loving farming villagers in the first place. But he had wanted to find a city, sell that slant eyed bastard Henry’s machete and all the other stuff they took from the wagons and then live like kings. It was Yelm’s idea to come out here to the middle of nowhere and join up with his friend’s bandit group. He didn’t even know how Yelm was able to find the camp in the first place. What’s more, they barely got anything for all the loot they gave Thod, the bandit leader. Thod called it their “joining price” and said if they didn’t like it, they could leave.
Yelm accepted everything despite Jeth’s protests. His father was making decisions on behalf of them both and it was frustrating Jeth. He was a grown man. His father should be asking for his input!
Yelm believed that by staying with the bandits, they’d get rich and be protected. Thod was an orb holder. If that bastard Henry and his tall, ugly, gangly friend Jason ever came looking for them, Thod and the rest of the bandits could back them up. Jeth had to admit there was some logic to that. As much as he hated Henry, he wasn’t going to fight him when that dog had an orb. It wasn’t fair. If they were just two men instead of Henry being a Terran, orb holding freak, it would have never come to this. It was all Henry’s fault. Well, Henry and Mareen.
Jeth’s nostrils flared while he thought about that little bitch Mareen. She was so stupid. Who cared if she was good at math or could remember things? She couldn’t figure out that she belonged to him! He earned her. He watched over her, he was a nice guy, he didn’t think about any other girls naked but her. He was faithful to her! And still, she hung out with that awkward monster-fornicator Jason! It was Jason’s fault too. Jeth hated Terrans. Those dirty, thieving Terrans.
Jeth was from Ludus. His ancestors might have been Terran, but he knew he was no more Terran than the demon wolves those two showboating assholes killed. He was Ludan. He couldn’t understand how any other self-respecting Ludan could fall for a Terran’s acting and lies, but Mareen turned into a little Terran follower. It just wasn’t fair! He wanted to hurt Mareen. He wanted to hurt her and make her see how wrong she was to not accept his love.
Jeth smiled, his eyes feverish. Well, maybe he’d get that chance. Thod’s own rules for the camp would work in Jeth’s favor this time! He chuckled darkly.
The rules of the bandit camp were simple. Loot was split between every member of the group that earned it and a portion went to Thod and his two captains. The bandits who captured slaves got to ride first if they wanted and then the whole camp got a turn. If a slave survived, they’d go in the cages to be sold or used later. It was difficult to sell slaves, so unless they were valuable, nobody really cared what happened to them.
There weren’t many female bandits, why would there be? Women ran the whole bleeding world. They could just sit in their clean cities and take the pick of the richest and tamest men to marry. Smug, arrogant bitches the lot of them. Still, the handful of female bandits knew how things worked. Some of them participated in … sampling the captives. The others looked the other way.
Since Jeth was new to the camp and young, he was lowest in the camp’s hierarchy. Jeth hated being lowest seniority. Since he was lowest of the low, he was one of the bandits who had to move dead bodies to the garbage dump. Bodies were heavy and the dump stunk. His lack of seniority meant he was last to ravish new slaves too.
When he first joined the bandits, he got the chance to lose his virginity after a caravan with females was taken. After waiting a long time, trying to ignore the screams, he went to take his turn in the “comfort tent”. The woman waiting there for him was a stinking Mo’hali and she was already half dead. Her face was swollen and nose bloody from being hit. Her eyes were red and puffy, her feline ears cut with a knife from some other bandit’s turn. She was naked, held down with heavy tin chains. “Help me,” she whispered.
In that moment, Jeth almost had mercy on her. He almost unhooked her chains from the ring in the floor, put her in a cage and gave her some water. He was a nice guy after all. He walked forward to grope her and smacked her face a bit just for fun.
But as he was about to unhook her from the floor, he saw the fear and loathing in her eyes. How dare this little bitch look down on him? He suddenly thought of Mareen.
Mareen hadn’t given him any mercy, oh no. Mareen and her smug words, telling him there were other men around for her to choose from. Telling him that he wasn’t GOOD enough! He snarled and started hurting the Mo’hali woman. In his mind, he saw Mareen and he kept punishing the chained woman over and over again. He imagined the Mo’hali woman’s screams were Mareen’s.
By the time he was done and pulled his trousers up, he realized the woman was dead. He’d choked her to death. Jeth curled his lip at the memory. Oh well, he hoped she enjoyed her easy life before she got what she had coming to her.
But after that incident, he felt unclean since he’d been with a Mo’hali. After that, he tried to wash the taint off by sampling every Ludan, Terran, and Areva girl the bandits captured.
His true woes began after he killed a young, pretty Terran girl that could have been sold for a decent amount. The bandit captains were angry. They said he’d killed too many slaves and he was not allowed to take a turn with new captives anymore. Plus, he wasn’t allowed to go on caravan ambush missions if there were any young girls since then he’d have a right to sample them. It was so unfair! Jeth knew he didn’t do anything wrong. It was all the stupid bitches’ fault for not being stronger. They mocked him even in death! They probably died just to spite him!
So over the past week while his father was sucking up to Thod, Jeth was hatching his own scheme. They couldn’t keep him from sampling new slaves if he was on an attacking crew. Usually the whole camp showed up to capture a caravan, though. Otherwise they wouldn’t get any loot.
So Jeth became friends with the lookouts. He brought them food and water. He ran messages for them. He bowed his back and made himself useful. He was waiting, hoping for a caravan to come by in the early morning before most of the camp was awake. Looking forward to his opportunity to snatch something for himself among all the unfairness he endured.
Today was the day! There was a caravan and most of the camp wasn’t awake yet! And what’s more, one of the lookouts reported that among the women in the caravan was a young Ludan or Terran girl, strikingly beautiful with dark hair, tan skin, and clear eyes. And she was wearing a plain blue dress!
When Jeth heard the description, his heart stopped for a moment. Mareen liked to wear blue dresses. Jeth knew the odds of the woman being Mareen were slim, but even the small possibility was almost too much to bear! Oh Mareen, the things he wanted to do to Mareen!
Even if the girl wasn’t Mareen, the lookout said the caravan also had a bored looking Areva woman eating an apple, a young Areva girl with white hair, and a little Mo’hali boy too. It’d be easy pickings!
Jeth asked the sentry to stay quiet and found five other men to join him, most of them angry youths like himself. These five were others bandits from the camp who were tired of taking a small cut and being looked over.
He giggled to himself. Three women and a little boy? A wagon stacked high with boxes? They were going to be rich! And when they attacked, all the weaklings in the caravan would probably just give up! Just in case, he was smart enough to bring two big bandits who were pretty good in a fight and he planned to hang back. He was a strategist, after all. He was using his superior intellect to give these brutes an opportunity. The least they could do was fight a little bit.
Even if the girl driving one of the wagons wasn’t Mareen, he was going to teach her a lesson anyway. They would pay. They would all pay!
He used to be such a nice guy, it was all Mareen’s fault he wasn’t anymore. It was everyone’s fault… but mostly Mareen’s. Mareen, Jason, and Henry. He’d hurt them all one day. He wanted to hurt them slowly. But he really wanted to hurt Mareen. Oh yes, Mareen. He wanted to make her understand his pain. He needed her to know what a huge mistake she made. He wanted her to know it was all her fault what he did to the women he hurt. Everything was her fault.
She’d never find another man as good as him. A nice guy. A smart guy. He giggled, plus, if he couldn’t have her, nobody else could either.
Jeth kept moving towards the road with the five other bandits. They needed to prepare an ambush and there wasn’t much time left. It was going to be a good day, he just knew it. He couldn’t stop thinking of everything he’d do to Mareen if she was actually stupid enough to come into his waiting arms. That’s what she should do though if she had any decency. The dumb bitch should feel sorry and come crawling back to him. He was her protector, after all.