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Jason didn’t enjoy feeling so weak. He knew that he should be feeling fortunate to be alive, but he couldn’t help grumbling to himself as Uluula helped him walk. The rational part of his mind was amazed how accustomed to good health he was after a short time on Ludus. With his regeneration and endurance abilities, he felt whole and healthy all the time.
Oh, he’d been beaten up and tired before, but he usually bounced back right away. This was the first time he felt, well, normal again. He could feel himself rapidly improving but the whole situation was humbling. Deep down he could understand why Holders would fear or even hate Mo’hali Heroes. He could envision how this fear could extend to all Mo’hali people too, especially when he thought about the havoc a single Hero could wreak in a city… or during war.
He hadn’t seen much of the new world yet, but if technology like airships existed, he was willing to bet vehicles of war did too. The idea that one person could completely shut down anything using this world’s technology for a significant amount of time was crazy to think about.
He glanced at Bezzi-ibbi out of the corner of his eye and saw the boy was keeping his head down. Jason still didn’t know much about Bezzi-ibbi, or Heroes, or the Jaguar Clan, or Mo’hali, or Ludus in general. Bezzi-ibbi’s behavior seemed weird to him, but he was starting to suspect that some people looked down on Mo’hali and feared Heroes.
To Henry’s credit, he just didn’t seem to care. Jason could tell that his friend liked Bezzi-ibbi and saw him as a surrogate little brother. Henry adapted to some of the stranger aspects of Ludus like a duck to water. Being unphased after getting adopted by a beast kid with a metal arm was a great example of his friend’s personality.
The group left the building they were staying in, a large house the Jaguar Clan was renting. Jason thought Rohs was a fairly large town. Of course, he didn’t have much to base that assumption on. So far on Ludus he’d only seen Mareen’s village, Mirana, and a small number of tiny villages on the trading road.
On a map, he remembered seeing that Rohs was one of the outlying towns from Southpoint City, the destination the trade road they’d been following lead to. He briefly wondered what happened to the caravan wagon, but then remembered how thrifty the Jaguar clan was. He would bet money that some Clan members were heading back to Mirana with the wagons right now.
The town was just starting to wake up. Tradeswomen were setting up shop for the day and Jason could sense the hustle and bustle of a normal Rohs day beginning. Kinwe-na-ibbi lead them down several side streets, eventually ending up at a plain building that was entirely unremarkable save for the two Jaguar Clan guards stationed outside. Their bronze spearheads winked in the morning sun and both guards saluted Kinwe-na-ibbi, left hand to shoulder, bowing.
Kinwe-na-ibbi opened the door with a key and ushered everyone through the doorway. By this time, Jason was beginning to feel more like himself again but he continued leaning against Uluula. He enjoyed the feeling and if he was honest with himself, he enjoyed her obvious concern too.
The group walked down the hallway, continuing to follow Kinew-na-ibbi. Nobody spoke, but Keeja grinned as she brought up the rear. Jason wondered what was so damn funny. Maybe the fact that everyone almost died fighting the bandits while she sat on her ass. He realized he was definitely developing a bad mood.
The interior of the building was pretty standard for what Jason was used to on Ludus. Wood walls, random paintings, and crystals that emitted light, functioning like lightbulbs. He knew that this type of interior lighting was a staple of towns and cities, and was part of what local taxes paid to maintain. Everything was powered by magic stones, all of which were harvested by adventurers.
The whole concept of “adventurer” was still strange to Jason. When he thought “adventurer”, he imagined people raiding dungeons for gear and glory. However, while adventurers on Ludus still fought monsters, it seemed like most of the time they were just after magic stones.
If Jason had to explain the difference to someone, he’d say his idea of an adventurer was a deep sea treasure hunter, were as on Ludus, adventurers were more like fisherman. Some Ludus adventurers still went after big treasure, but doing so was very dangerous and most people didn’t bother. Real treasure, like blessed steel weapons or Dolos Orbs usually only turned up in the more dangerous dungeons.
Jason was hoping they’d get to see some cool gear soon. Kinwe-na-ibbi hadn’t said anything about the building they were in, but it didn’t take to a genius to figure out it was a semi-secret Jaguar Clan warehouse.
As they walked through the central hallway, Kinwe-na-ibbi came to an abrupt stop in front of a chalk line drawn on the floor. She pulled a rope hanging from the ceiling and Jason thought he could hear a bell deeper in the building. He turned to Henry and his friend nodded. Henry heard something too.
Less than a minute later, an older Mo’hali man wearing spectacles bustled out of a door further down the hallway. He bowed to Kinwe-na-ibbi, left hand to shoulder, just as the guards had outside. They talked for a few seconds in the Mo’hali tongue before the man hurried off the way he’d come.
Kinwe-na-ibbi turned around and said, “Nobody step across this line until you hear that bell ring.” She pointed out a small bell that Jason didn’t notice before. It was connected to a string that went up into the ceiling.
A few moments later, the string moved and the little bell tinkled. The group started forward again and found themselves at the end of the hall. Kinwe-na-ibbi produced another key that she used to unlock the sturdy, bronze reinforced door. She turned and said, “Everything in this room was taken from the bandit camp.” Then she opened the door all the way and the group entered. Jason got his first look at the Jaguar Clan’s secure storeroom in the town of Rohs.
Tables lined three sides of the room and were set up in orderly rows. The room itself was fairly large. Items hung on the walls, boxes sat on tables, and crates of goods the bandits were going to sell rested under tables or in corners. However, what Jason found most interesting was that someone was living in the storeroom.
In one corner sat a bed, dressers, a chair, and a large, decorated chest. Sitting in the chair was a young Mo’hali girl with a book in her lap. Her large rabbit ears made her sub race obvious. Some Mo’hali looked more beastial than others but this girl appeared mostly human other than her fluffy white ears and red eyes. Her long dress hid her legs.
Jason noticed the girl had a metal horn growing out of her forehead. Except for the golden color, it reminded him of Bezzi-ibbi’s arm. He suddenly had a flash of insight and said out loud, “She’s a hero, isn’t she.”
Kinwe-na-ibbi gracefully pivoted and replied, “Yes. You are only being admitted to this room because you are full Jaguar Clan and you are entitled to a share of the spoils from the bandit camp. You are responsible for your non-Family companions. High Priestess Keeja can obviously do whatever she wants but I am sure she already knew of our… arrangement.”
“Of course I did,” Keeja grinned. “You’re not the only Clan to use Heroes as security, either.”
Kinwe-na-ibbi sniffed, “Of course not. It’s necessary for all the most powerful trading Clans.”
Henry shook his head, “I have no idea what’s going on. Aren’t Dolos Rings or whatever super dangerous for Mo’hali to use? Why is a hero just hanging out in a warehouse room reading books?”
Kinwe-na-ibbi didn’t reply. She walked over to the rabbit girl and spoke softly to her, ignoring the rest of the group. Jason glanced at Bezzi-ibbi, but he was still staring at the floor.
Keeja chuckled, “This is a secret all the powerful Mo’hali Clans keep. In my experience, this sort of thing disturbs Terrans and Kinwe-na-ibbi seems busy, so allow me to explain!” Kinwe-na-ibbi’s ears twitched but she continued her conversation with the girl in the corner.
Keeja continued, “This is a world where people can use magic. Security is very difficult to attain, especially since some mages have talents that are suited for theft. Most mages and Holders could break into a security room without much effort whether they used force or guile.
So what do you do when you’re a merchant and your measures to secure goods against theft are useless against magic? What do you do when the most effective means to protect your merchandise is to take magic power itself away from thieves?
Jason answered, “You hire Heroes, right?”
“No, they grow them,” Henry frowned.
“What?” Jason wondered what Henry was talking about. Grow them?
Keeja clapped her hands and laughed, “Henry gets it. I would have said ‘creates’ but ‘grow’ works too. Dolos Orbs and Hero Rings are rare finds in dangerous dungeons. They can be bought for high prices. What’s more, most Hero Rings will stay intact if a host dies. So what do you do if you’re a powerful Clan and you need pet Heroes to protect your most expensive assets from thieves who can use magic?”
Jason understood and felt horrified. He replied softly, “You make people put on a ring until you get a Hero.”
“Exactly!” Keeja grinned. “The best part is, Heroes don’t get prolonged lifespans like most Holders do. Sure, Mo’hali live a while longer than Terrans, but not by much. The Clans want to keep their investment for as long as possible. Want to guess how they do it?”
Henry grimaced in distaste, “Probably by starting them young.”
“You are surprisingly good at this,” Keeja was no longer laughing.
“I studied a lot of military history on Earth,” Henry shrugged. “None of this is all that shocking to me.”
Uluula frowned and asked, “Why would it be shocking? We can see how this Hero guard lives. She is obviously not restrained. She doesn’t appear to be a slave and I’m not sure she could be enslaved she holds real, tangible power. What is the problem with a Clan offering steady work?”
Jason shook his head as his perception of the Jaguar clan changed. “It’s not right. The odds of a Hero Ring killing the host is really high, right? So the Jaguar Clan kills children?”
Kinwe-na-ibbi finished speaking to the young Hero in the corner and returned to the group. “You judge us unfairly. In fact, now that you are a part of the Clan, you are judging yourself as well. Yes, we believe there were Clans that forced ring assimilation, but this practice is stupid. Holding an unwilling Hero captive is expensive and foolish.
No, we are approached by families with desperate financial situations or children with incurable diseases. The families are paid a legacy fee regardless of success. The new Hero, if the integration is successful, becomes a proud member of the Jaguar Clan for life regardless of sub-race.”
“But what made Bezzi-ibbi different? It sounds like your manufactured Heroes are like indentured servants, but Bezzi-ibbi gained more freedom, not less.” Jason was still confused.
“It’s quite simple. Bezzi-ibbi used his own ring. He was making his own choice for his own reasons. He didn’t hold any debt so he had the freedom to become a roaming Mo’hali Hero. Anyone who contracts with a Clan to attempt ring assimilation owes that Clan for the price of the ring. They can choose to become roaming Heroes after their debt is paid.”
Henry scratched his head, “Okay, that makes sense. I guess all of this is fair in a world as crappy as Ludus, but none of this could have happened to you because you’re a mage, right? Can a Mo’hali mage even use a Hero ring? I know Mo’hali mages are super rare. How are you part of the Jaguar Clan?”
Suddenly the room got very still. Mareen gasped and Bezzi-ibbi leaned back in shock, his ears pressed flat against his skull. Most of the group nervously glanced at Kinwe-na-ibbi. The short, elegant Mo’hali woman narrowed her eyes before flicking her ears. “Take what items you want, I will be outside. If you need any help, Jitta-ni-ibbi in the corner or any of the guards in the building can assist you.”
With that, Kinwe-na-ibbi turned and lashed her tail, not quite stomping out of the room. Bezzi-ibbi looked back and forth between his retreating mother and the rest of the group before sighing and staying where he was.
Keeja chuckled, “I was beginning to think you two Terrans might be clever, but then one of you offends a matriarch of one of the most powerful Mo’hali Clans in the country, your Clan in fact. In fact, this matriarch also happens to be your friend’s mother, your friend who adopted you into the clan in the first place. You are idiots.”
Jason shook his head, “Great. Well, there’s nothing we can do about it right now. Henry, next time, please don’t point out people’s differences in public. That’s rude where we come from too. Are you going to start asking strangers about their disabilities too?”
“I was curious, sue me.” Henry shrugged, “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. Besides, Henna-ibbi already tried to take a chunk out of my throat the first few minutes I met her. This isn’t new to me. At least nobody tried to kill me this time. I’d take asking a rude question over someone trying to kill me any day.”
Henry turned to Bezzi-ibbi, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me, will you? Your other two moms are Jaguars but Kinwe-na-ibbi is a mouse.”
Mareen cringed and shook her head. Under her breath she said, “Henry, just stop!”
Bezzi-ibbi gave Henry a withering look. He pointed to the middle of the room and said, “Spirit stone there.” Then he walked over to the Hero girl in the corner and started a conversation.
Jason sighed, “You are just making friends everywhere, aren’t you?”
Henry shrugged, “People will like me or they won’t. I don’t even understand the culture on Ludus enough to know what’s socially acceptable, much less how to be polite. It doesn’t do me any good to worry about it. Anyone who expects me to automatically understand non-human cultures on a whole new planet is an asshole. The only way I can learn is by asking questions.”
Jason couldn’t think of a logical counterargument so he snorted and walked away. First he headed to where Bezzi-ibbi pointed and saw a heavy wooden box, then he actually registered what the boy said. A spirit stone? He noticed a handwritten note next to the box that read:
Original Property of Bezzi-ibbi
Reward (appearing) after elimination of Thod-Bandit
Gifted to Henry-ibbi or Jason-ibbi
Jason’s eyes widened when he realized he completely forgot that Thod’s death should have produced a reward. He opened the box and got his first look at a spirit stone.
The spirit stone was nestled snugly in a bed of velvet. It was about the same size as a Dolos Orb, but instead being metal or any other solid substance, it was clear with a cloudy, glowing, rotating interior. It was beautiful.
Jason grabbed the spirit stone and pocketed it, leaving the box. He was going to show it to Henry later and decide who was going to use it.
Next he walked over to the walls and did a circuit of the room. He quickly realized that bare wall was hinged. It was some sort of large door directly into the room. He had a feeling the other side was hidden or protected too.
Jason examined a whole slew of bronze weapons and armor. He saw bolts of expensive looking cloth, jewelry, figurines, sculptures, even spices. He stopped short when he opened a box and saw a beautiful dagger. It had a guard and pommel made of gold and the blade glowed red. He reached down to touch it but the Hero girl in the corner barked, “Don’t touch that!”
Jason snatched his hand back. A couple guards ran in the door at the sound of the shout. The rabbit girl, Jitta-ni-ibbi waved away the guards and walked over. “I assumed you would know how to act in a loot warehouse since you were let into a loot warehouse. You obviously don’t. That’s an enchanted dagger.
“An enchanted dagger. Enchanted weapons can only have three owners so if you handle it, you’ll lower its value. How did nobody tell you this before you got here? Still, I suppose it’s fine if you’re going to keep it. Are you?”
Jason felt sheepish. “I’m sorry,” he closed the box and walked away as fast as he could. The bunny Hero girl looked about 19 but she made him nervous.
He approached the last area of the room he hadn’t examined yet, opened a large box, and caught his breath. He reached into the box and withdrew a beautiful longsword, more a bastard sword. It had a white scabbard and blue leather grip. He drew the sword out of its scabbard and the polished blade reflected the light. The steel, blessed steel, was beautiful.
The pommel and guard had decorative etching. He rapped the blade with a knuckle, Yup, pretty stiff. Jason sighted down the blade and decided it was probably an Oakeshott type XVII, a type of sword classification he knew from his studies on Earth. The blade geometry was capable of cutting, but good for thrusting too. He carefully put the sword back in its scabbard. This is mine. The sword called to him. Everything about it spoke to him.
He wasted no time buckling the sword on and decided on a name almost immediately. He knew a lot of guys back in his old HEMA group thought he was a geek for naming his swords, but this sword definitely deserved a name. It was obviously one of a kind, even more so on a world where steel weapons were rare. Breeze, he thought. Your name is Breeze.
Henry walked over and eyed Jason’s sword, “That looks pretty nifty. Did you already give it a dorky name?”
Jason gave him a flat look and pointed to the box Henry was carrying. “What’s that?”
Henry opened the box up and showed him a softly glowing, steel hafted axe. The blade looked sort of like a bearded axe, but the haft curved back before it came forward again. Jason had never seen an axe quite like it before. The weapons’s soft red glow cast shadows in the box and made the engravings on the haft stand out.
Henry smiled, “Pretty, isn’t it? They say this is enchanted. I guess I need to find a way to cover it up or it’s going to draw way too much attention. I’m gonna call it, ‘Bad Axe.’”
Jason rolled his eyes and asked, “Why do you think the bandits weren’t using this stuff?”
“I can think of a few reasons,” Henry replied. “First of all, they probably didn’t need it. Thod was a goddam force of nature and his own gear was already extremely effective for him. Plus, if any regular bandits kept expensive gear, some of the other bandits probably would have killed them for it. There’s also a good chance Thod just kept everything for himself.”
Henry snapped his fingers at Jitta-na-ibbi, “Hey Hero girl! How much of these boxes under the table have money? Were these bandits loaded?”
The girl frowned and said, “They had quite a bit of coin, yes.”
“And the Clan still didn’t make much profit? Jesus, how many fucking magic stones does a flying ship take to run?” Henry looked off into the distance for a moment, “Come to think of it, I need a few magic stones.”
“Why?” Jason noticed a glint in his friend’s eye. He had a feeling Henry was about to say something stupid, interesting, or both.
“Because I think when we get back, I’m gonna try building a truck.”
On the trading road a few days north of Rohs, a middle aged man tightly crossed his arms and struggled not to weep. His unshed tears reflected the setting sun as he stared up at his dead son. Jeth’s body was hung on a thick stake under a sign that read, “bandit”. When the Jaguar Clan arrived the day before, every dead bandit was strung up in this manner, a grisly reminder that the punishment for banditry was death.
Yelm clenched his jaw and stood mourning the dead as the last three remaining bandits did the same. None of them intended to cut the bodies down for a proper burial. It would just alert the authorities they were still alive and wasn’t worth the risk.
Yelm couldn’t believe that Thod got himself killed. He saw the man get hit once by a falling boulder and walk away without a scratch. He shook his head, he knew who did this. He knew who was responsible for killing his little boy.
Those rotting bastards Henry and Jason.
Sure, Jeth had some problems, he was a little… rough around the edges. He had some things to work through, but he would have outgrown them! He didn’t deserve to die, didn’t deserve to get stabbed so many times! He wondered who stabbed his son over and over again. Probably Jacen, that pox-ridden snake.
Yelm just wanted a better life for his son than he had, but that dream was shattered now.
He never even had a chance to tell Jeth the good news. Thod decided to make him an officer in the camp. He even got a priceless Dolos Orb! Jeth’s dad was moving up in the world!
He bitterly regretted not using the orb right away. He was too excited to sleep and stayed up all night waiting for Jeth to return to their tent. In the end, he didn’t use the orb. He wanted to show it to Jeth, wanted to let his son how that amount of wealth in his hands too.
Maybe everything could have turned out differently. He would never forget his shame as he ran away from the camp, ran away and didn’t stop for half a day. He passed out in fear and exhaustion, but at least had the presence of mind to swallow the orb.
Now things were different. Now he could make them pay.
Yelm clenched his fist and willed ice to play across his knuckles. Yes, next time would be different. But first, he had to report Thod’s death.
With the gift of the orb, Thod had also entrusted Yelm with the knowledge of who they were really working for. He gave strict instructions on where to report if the bandit camp was ever destroyed and to bring any remaining bandits with him if he did.
It was still too early for revenge and Yelm had a mission to finish. Revenge would come in time, it would definitely come.
But first, he had to go meet his new masters.