Sorry for the wait. RL definitely got in the way.
In other news, I created a new page of consolidated ways you can support the story! Most are just clicking on stuff and will take a few seconds of your time. Please check out the new page. It’s on the left hand of this website, but you can also go there directly from here. <—- Hopefully this will reduce the number of links I scatter around.
Delvers LLC Garage
Two weeks passed since Uluula got back to Mirana with the rest of the group. The moment they returned, she began practicing in earnest with her spear. Her half-remembered energy halberd drills from the Academy served her well, but she was still sorely lacking. Uluula was accustomed to being good at most things. In fact she expected a certain level of excellence from herself in everything she did.
It came as a blow that she was barely competent during the battle with Thod’s bandits. Sure, she hadn’t been as useless as Mareen. Mareen was a sweet young thing, but she was a little soft between the ears and in the heart too. And yet, now that silly girl was a Holder and could beat a normal person to death with her bare hands.
Uluula had to establish her worth. She had to prove her pedigree. Losing to Mareen would simply not be acceptable.
Plus, next time Bezzi-ibbi might not be around to save them.
Uluula didn’t know where she fit into the group yet, but she wasn’t going to be anything other than the best at what she did. She definitely wasn’t willing to burden a little Mo’hali boy with the responsibility of her life.
She’d been the fastest rising star in her old battlegroup. She was the daughter of a governess on her home planet. She worked hard for everything she had and in her 40s, barely an adult, she’d already proven herself in combat.
Yes, she was currently stranded on a hellhole planet with only basic technology. Yes, she knew her aspirations for the Admiralty were pretty much ashes at this point. None of this meant she had to give up her pride or personal standards. At least not yet.
The only good thing to come out of her predicament was Jason. As she walked toward the makeshift “garage” that Henry and Jason set up for their bizarre experiments, she felt a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Like most Areva on her planet, she’d never actually seen a Terran before being stolen to Ludus. It was a shock to learn that Terrans, the monster she heard stories about as a child actually existed. Furthermore, the reaction of the Areva in her first village she learned this fact was… amusement.
I took her some time to realize the truth was that Terrans, or “humans” as they call themselves, weren’t monsters, at least not in the sense she grew up believing. On the other hand, they had the potential to be worse than demons. It was sobering to think what the universe would be like if Terrans ever got their hands on Areva technology.
The village had been good to her. She learned how to speak Luda, she grew to understand the basics of the new world she lived in. She worked hard to learn what she’d need to know to be independent.
As soon as she could, she journeyed to Mirana to find work. The rest was history – and she’d never forget when Jason and Henry rescued her. They hadn’t asked for anything in return, they were obviously just doing what they thought was right. And remembering Jason’s expression when he saw her for the first time still made her eyes twinkle.
She actually didn’t find any Terrans attractive at all to begin with. They were too big, too muscular, too loud, too… alien. But the longer she knew Jason, the more she was attracted to him. It seemed like every day she was discovering a new side of his personality.
She knew Terrans weren’t accustomed to the long, intellectual courting process of her caste and her home world. She thought everything was going well and things were progressing nicely until Mareen and Henry started courti– seeing each other. Now Uluula felt like she was under scrutiny. She knew intellectually that Jason was patient and didn’t mind waiting for her. She knew nobody else really judged her, but she felt on edge the past two weeks.
Scathing and unflinching self-analysis had led her to only one possible answer for her unease; she was afraid of sex. Perhaps it was because before Ludus, she’d assumed she wouldn’t attract a man until she was at least 80. Maybe deep down she thought she’d focus on her military career and never even experience romance.
Either way, Uluula was aware she had weakness now. It was gnawing at her, not least of which because such a large part of her personality was competitive. Jason and Henry were still adapting to Ludus too, but so far they’d started their own business, created strong alliances, and made heroes of themselves. Meanwhile, Uluula was barely scraping by, getting captured, and performing as a sub-par warrior.
She had to be rescued by a little boy.
No more. It was time to get her act together. She didn’t know how she was going to prove herself yet, especially surrounded by such amazing people, but she was determined. Her name was Uluula b’ Anami b’ Pairose of the Blue, dammit.
She shook her head and shifted her burden as she walked down the cobbled street. If Jason hadn’t asked her for a favor in a message via runner, she’d still be training and brainstorming in her own, rented house. Still, she was glad for the interruption. Deep down, she was also curious what Jason and his friend were building in their “garage”, which apparently was just a big room with a large door attached to their house.
Henry insisted everyone call the room a, “garage”. Uluula had been there for that rant, when Henry insisted that since Ludus was full of stupid names, everyone could, “Throw him a fuckin bone and call it a damn garage.” Uluula respected Henry, he was honorable and brave. She didn’t really understand his personality or motivations at all, though.
She was getting close to Jason and Henry’s rented house with the adjacent shed they turned into a garage. She felt her heart fluttering, a strange sensation she’d only had to deal with recently.
She stopped for a moment to calm herself. She would face her fears about intimacy, just… not today. First she was honor bound to bring up the subject of marriage and she felt presumptuous and entitled just thinking about it, much less saying it out loud. She wasn’t even 50 years old yet!
She shook her head hard enough that she could catch glimpses of her white hair. It was time to pull herself together. If she was going to surpass Mareen’s position in the newly-formed Delvers LLC, she couldn’t start emulating on the girl’s habits.
She started walking again and got close enough to the garage to hear Jason and Henry working. She went down a side alley and knocked on a small door. The noise inside ceased and Jason swung open the entry, smiling at her.
Uluula walked in and set her bundle on a chair. The magic stones inside clicked together as they settled. She glanced around and frowned; the garage was a mess. There were wooden planks, chairs, bronze sheets, bronze bars, and random tools scattered everywhere.
She glanced at the corner desk where Mareen usually sat, writing down columns of numbers. The girl wasn’t there. “Where’s Mareen?” Uluula asked.
Jason waved her deeper into the garage and replied, “She went to the Adventurers Guild and some other places to try finding another candidate or two for Delvers LLC. We have a few positions open and we still have some time before we leave.”
“That’s right,” Henry nodded. “Jason had some good ideas for a larger roster. We have plans for what we’re doing here in the garage too.”
“Yes, but we are out of funding,” Jason sighed.
“Story of my life,” Henry muttered.
“Even with the extra funding that the Jaguar Clan gave you for research and development?” Uluula arched an eyebrow.
Jason frowned, “Yes, even with the grant, but it wasn’t very big. The Jaguar Clan wasn’t exactly rolling in wealth recently which was why they needed us in the first place. They have some money now, but not a lot. We used the last of our budget getting those magic stones,” he jerked his head at the sack Uluula brought over.
Henry shook his head, “No, we’ll have a little more soon. We didn’t have enough money for materials to build the cannons we talked about, so I asked Mareen to sell my Bad Axe. It would only accept one more owner, just by touching the thing I lowered the value. It will be worth selling, though.”
Jason blinked, “That is kind of random… but if you feel strongly about it, it was your weapon, you can do what you want with it.”
Henry nodded. “When Mareen gets back, she can run over to that supplier we’ve been using and order some more bronze bar stock.”
Uluula frowned, “Why would you sell your enchanted axe? It was rare, correct? And you just said that you lowered its value by taking ownership of it.”
Henry frowned and his expression became serious. “Yes, that’s all true, but improving on the Delvers Battle Wagon is more important.”
“We never agreed to call it that,” Jason rolled his eyes as he moved around some scraps of leather, looking for a tool.
“Ignore him,” Henry waved his hand dismissively. “This is gonna be the Battle Wagon.”
Uluula was skeptical. So far, the contraption Jason and Henry were building resembled nothing more than a large box. She could not imagine what it would eventually look like at all, or even how it would function. “Isn’t it a problem to lose such a powerful weapon, though?”
Henry grinned, “Normally I’d say yes, but I already made replacements.” He walked over to a counter, moved some scraps of wood aside, and lifted an axe out of the mess. It was shaped just like the enchanted axe he sold except this one was made of bronze. “Even though I made it a bit smaller, it’s kind of heavy since it’s bronze. I’m calling it the Bad Axe, Reloaded. BAR for short.”
“And he complains about stupid names,” Jason muttered.
Henry ignored him and put the axe back down, “This axe is really only in case we run into a hostile Mo’hali Hero and because I don’t have the khopesh anymore after returning it. I don’t really need a melee weapon anymore for most situations.” Henry grinned, “Jason! Let’s show her!”
Jason shook his head and grumbled. “We need to get back to work. Don’t you get tired of doing this?”
Jason crossed the room to a desk and grabbed a native fruit out of a basket. Henry began to explain, “When Jason let me have the spirit stone and I hit the next rank for my orb, I took Endurance (Rank 2, 3 points), Magic Perception (Rank 2, 3 point), Magic Power (Rank 2, 2 points), Magic Control (Metal Rank 1, 2 points), and Durability (Rank 1, 2 points). I used up all 12 points.”
“Think fast,” Jason threw the red fruit toward Henry, and in the blink of an eye, Henry swung his arm. The transformation happened so fast, it looked like a metal colored blur to Uluula. The fruit hit the wall behind them, sliced in half.
Henry’s entire arm was covered in glittering steel, a long blade extending from the top of his fist. The steel on his arms crept up into the sleeves of his dark tunic and Uluula could see tendrils of steel extending up through his collar, overlaying the skin on Henry’s neck.
It was very impressive.
Henry grinned as he de-manifested his blade, its length melding back into the steel on his arm. Then the metal on his body just seemed to fade away until he looked normal again. “I never get tired of that. My abilities now really show how gimped I was by not getting fuckin Magic Control before. It’s like night and day.
Also, now when I put on my regular armor, I’m like a fuckin tank. I can cover all my vitals with steel skin. The Durability skill makes my skin as tough as boiled leather without any other protection too. On top of all that, I think my bones got stronger. I don’t have to worry about hurting myself by using my enhanced strength anymore, even though it’s still getting stronger. This level up is amazing.”
Jason nodded, “He can create rifling in barrels now too. He made himself a new rifle.”
Henry patted his thigh, “I’m still going to keep my bigger exogun, maybe keep one of the smaller tubes too, but yeah, I have a rifle now.” Henry went to a table on the other side of the garage and picked up the weapon he created that week. “This thing is fantastic. I’m still working on better sights for it, but I have actual magazines for this sucker, see?”
Henry detached what looked like a box on the underside of the tube weapon and showed it to Uluula. She saw long, golden metal slugs presumably stacked up, waiting to be fed into the rifle. She was impressed. She wasn’t sure how the weapon worked, but she thought it looked a lot like an Areva magnegun. She was familiar with the shape of Henry’s rifle, but not with its function. “How does it work?”
Henry slapped the magazine back into the underside of the weapon and cocked a bolt back to the rear. “This is how you load the gun. I use magic to actually fire it so the mechanism just guides a sleeve back to load a round.
Using gold rounds was Jason’s idea. We’re still getting used to the fact that gold is common on this planet. Lead is fucking hard to find, but gold works just fine, especially since I made the barrel so dense and strong. It’s really friggin heavy, but it should last a while.”
“Weren’t your projectiles for the exoguns made of bronze?” Since the conversation veered into weapons development, Uluula was genuinely interested. The way Jason and especially Henry could just invent contraptions out of nothing was fascinating.
Henry nodded, “Yeah, but exoguns are quick and dirty. They were just smooth tubes and the balls I was firing were not a tight fit all around. I just rolled them between my palms. The barrels of the exoguns basically just exist to guide the ball in a certain direction. On the other hand, this rifled barrel creates spin and stabilizes the slugs.”
The weapon was incredibly crude but Uluula understood the basics. Her eyes shined when she realized how formidable such a thing would be in Henry’s hands. He noticed her expression and smiled, “Yup, I don’t think I have to explain what this thing can do for you. Mr. Peaceful back there still doubts me, though,” he jerked his head at Jason.
Uluula pursed her lips and thought about what the two said a few minutes ago, “And you want to put cannons on the vehicle too? I’m assuming that with your… orb upgrades, you can fire guns with more power now as well.”
Henry snorted. “You don’t know the half of it. This baby will make my old exoguns look like bb guns.”
Uluula didn’t know why Henry would refer to any weapon as a Terran infant, nor what a “bb gun” was, but she understood the gist of what he was saying.
Henry put the rifle away and faced her, “You should also see what your boyfriend came up with yesterday.”
Uluula glanced at Jason and thought he looked sheepish. She said, “He is not my boyfriend. The most accurate way to describe our relationship is that we are discovering whether courting is—”
“I really don’t care what you want to call it,” Henry shook his head. “You two should just bang and get it over with. But whatever, it’s not my business; Jason’s badass new ability is, though.”
Henry grabbed a thick bronze rod and held it out. “Show her, Jason! She’ll get a kick out of this.”
Jason rolled his eyes but his eyes lit up as he unsheathed his sword and walked over. Henry began speaking again, “He started meditating yesterday when we were taking a break. He was probably just sulking because you were out training with your spear or whatever and you two couldn’t go on an incredibly polite, well-mannered date. Anyway, this mopey, goofy motherfucker came up with something completely terrifying.”
Jason swung his sword, Breeze at the bronze bar, and as the sword arced forward, Uluula noticed the edge of the blade flicker. When the sword hit the bronze, it didn’t stop. In fact, it continued on like nothing was even there. The severed bar fell to the floor with a metallic twang, its end cut so cleanly the surface looked polished.
Uluula’s jaw dropped open.
Henry sniggered, “I told him he should ditch the lame name for his sword and call it, “Lightsaber” instead.”
“Just ignore him,” Jason sheathed his sword and walked back to his work area. “Back during the fight with Thod, I discovered that the edges of my null time fields were very sharp, probably because they are only about a molecule thick. Once I was able to figure out how to anchor a long, thin null time field to a physical object, the rest was history.”
Jason was trying to sound nonchalant, but Uluula could tell he was pleased with himself. She felt her heart swell with pride for this strange, tall, alien man.
Henry shook his head as he examined the cut on the bar. “The only reason this cut isn’t literally perfect is because of the width of the sword. This is some scary shit.”
Jason shrugged, “Just imagine what we could do as a team if you got good enough with Ludus tech to replicate this ability using powered swords.”
“We’d be unstoppable, man.”
Uluula sighed. She had a lot of think about. One of the roles she was planning to try her hand at within Delvers LLC was Tactics. Jason could think strategically too, but he didn’t have her experience. It was very possible he wouldn’t need her assistance, but for the time being, her goal was to be the company’s tactician.
However, to do planning of any kind she needed to understand the capabilities of every person on the team. That meant if any new members were added, she’d have to learn about them too. She had a lot of work to do. At least she already had intel on their target location.
“Jason, Henry, you two read about Yanbei Cavern from the materials Mareen got us, right?
“Yes, and we are planning for it,” Jason gestured at their large, unfinished vehicle. “We’ve been working on strategies to counter all the dangers mentioned in Mareen’s reports from the Adventuring Guild.”
“Do you think I could help?”
Jason smiled, his eyes tired but bright. “Sure, we’ll get another desk in here so you can set up shop working on ideas while Mareen crunches numbers. That would be fantastic, actually since then you could influence our experiments and vice versa. Are you sure you have time, though? I know you’ve been working on a lot of your own stuff lately.”
Uluula considered for a moment before answering, “It depends. Can you make me a better ranged weapon than the old, shoddy crossbow I’ve been using? Next on my list of tasks to accomplish was, ‘get better with crossbow.’”
“Can you do it, Henry?” Jason asked his friend.
Henry scratched the back of his head for a few seconds before answering. “I don’t see why not. I already have to make a new bow for Mareen since she can bench press a truck now. I think I can definitely make a better crossbow for you. We’re going to be pressed for time, though.”
Jason crossed his arms, “Yeah, the struggle is real. We were out of money. I know Henry has some now, but we’ll probably use all of that up too. That means we still have to worry about paying rent on this house in another month and a half.”
“Wait,” something just occurred to Uluula. “What about every new person you see being notified that you are Holder? How have you even been shopping?” Uluula realized she forgot that Jason was marked!
Jason laughed, “Henry came up with a way to solve that problem a week ago.” Jason took some rolled leather out of his back pocket, revealing it was a mask when he put it on. The mask covered his face above his nose and over his eyes, but didn’t otherwise alter his appearance.
“We look a little eccentric when we wear these, but based on some experimentation, we realized the Dolos data is triggered by facial recognition.”
Henry’s voice was grim when he elaborated, “So now we also know we’ll have to keep an eye out for other people who do this same sort of thing or hide their faces.”
“Why didn’t you cover your face the last couple times we stepped out, erm, went on a date?” Uluula shook her head.
Jason smiled, “Mainly because it was dark and we were already going to restaurants or places I’ve already been. Most of the people we saw have already seen me before. Sure, it was an unnecessary risk, but I really hate wearing a mask, especially a leather one. I smell nothing but leather all day long afterword unless I shower. I don’t want to waste our magic stones, though.”
Uluula suddenly made a decision. The fact she could know so little about what Jason was up to for the past two weeks despite the fact they saw each other regularly was proof that she was disconnected. She couldn’t reasonably expect to assist in the company’s strategy if she didn’t even know its two leaders were skulking around in poorly crafted masks.
“Get a desk in here, please. I will start working in the garage to help plan for our mission.”
“Good answer!” Henry exclaimed. He gave her a quick probing look that Jason didn’t see before he walked back to his tool-strewn workstation. Not for the first time, Uluula felt mutual dislike for Henry. Still, in moments like these, Uluula was grateful he made an effort to get along with her for the sake of his friend. Uluula really never wanted to make an enemy of Henry.
The man acted foolish and carefree often enough that sometimes she forgot what an engine of destruction he could be. Jason had the same effect with his analytical nature and soft spoken manner. Uluula forgot that Jason seemed to turn into a god of death if the situation demanded it. If they survived the next year or so, both men could join the ranks of the most dangerous people on the planet.
Uluula chuckled softly to herself. After coming to this planet, her dream of being an admiral was a thing of the past, but Ludus was hardly boring. She had to admit she was actually beginning to enjoy the challenge of finding her place in this world, both personally and professionally.
She hummed as she began to clear out an area in the garage for her new desk.