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Aodh stood at the rear of the Delvers LLC Battlewagon. It was officially christened the “Battlewagon” the day before when Uluula and Mareen admitted they liked the name and Jason got overruled.
Aodh wasn’t sure if he was more excited or nervous. He watched the countryside pass by as the Battlewagon soundlessly traveled down the hard-packed trade road. He had to admit the vehicle itself was amazing. Henry figured out a way to use his Earth magic to convince the magic tech how to behave when it was powered.
Delvers LLC didn’t have many magic stones left, but the Battlewagon consumed power efficiently. Henry told the group they had barely enough magic stones to get to Yanbei Caverns and back. Hopefully they’d be successful in the dungeon they were heading to and fuel would no longer be a problem on the return trip.
Aodh didn’t understand much of it, but he did understand that the Battlewagon worked with gold. When he was designing it, Henry decided that since there was so much gold on Ludus and so much of it existed deep in the earth,the Battlewagon would function on gold “runners”. The way Henry spoke of building it, it sounded more like training something how to behave than anything else. The best Aodh could understand, the gold bottom of the Battlewagon pushed on the gold in the ground and this force kept the vehicle hovering about two feet above the terrain.
To turn, the Battlewagon had runners on the underside that pushed different directions and were operated with levers in the driver’s compartment. Simple turns weren’t hard but complicated maneuvers seemed really tricky to do. Aodh was just glad the vehicle worked and he was impressed it moved so fast. They were traveling about the speed of a galloping zebra and the ride was fairly smooth.
Jason was driving and Henry manned the “turret”, the round object on top of the Battlewagon with two tubes he could control. Aodh got a demonstration of Henry’s “rifle” a few days before while he made adjustments to the aiming device, and it was obvious the tubes on the turret were larger versions of the same weapon. The whole vehicle was covered in bronze plating for protection too. It was impressive.
As he watched the landscape pass by, Aodh avoiding thinking of other things, namely all the dangerous objects and people only an arm’s length away. He also definitely didn’t ponder the bronze cylinders hanging from his baldric. “Grenades,” Henry called them.
Aodh could feel a Blood Marker in every tube hanging on his body. He could also feel a connection to every other, larger device stored at the front of the vehicle. In fact, Rark-han was sitting on a crate with some of the nastier weapons packed inside. Aodh shuddered. He liked being valuable to such a powerful adventuring company, but the he still wasn’t comfortable with the sheer power of what he could unleash using Delvers LLC inventions. The fact he could set off every bomb on the Battlewagon right now if he wanted to made him a little queasy.
He gripped his heavy, wooden staff and breathed slowly and evenly. Henry told him he’d eventually get used to the responsibility, and Aodh believed him. He also knew the design was tested now for over three weeks without fail, an unprecedented feat for dealing with gunpowder on Ludus.
Before they left Mirana, he asked Jason why they weren’t testing the bombs even longer and the answer was simple. Jason merely replied, “We’re out of money. We had to borrow quite a bit from the Jaguar Clan over the last couple months too.
“If we could, we’d spend another year on R&D and make the team even stronger, but we have several time limits. At this point, any action we take will be dangerous so we have to just try choosing the best option and hope for the best.”
The logic made sense to Aodh, but he took cold comfort that if all the bombs exploded, at least everyone else would die with him.
The Battlewagon made excellent time. After a while, Aodh began to get bored. He also felt embarrassed by all the stares they were getting from other travelers on the road. The fact Henry was drumming metal fingers on the side of his turret and making music noises while Jason sang a song called, “Bad Moon Rising” in English. Keeja was sleeping on top of their packs, or at least pretending to. She gave herself away by mouthing the words to the the song.
Most of team was used to Henry randomly starting a drum beat and instigating Jason to sing songs none of them had heard before. Henry started it a week ago with “Eye of the Tiger.” Luckily, Jason had a pretty good singing voice and Henry kept his mouth shut so Aodh didn’t mind. Some of the songs were pretty catchy too, like “We Will Rock You.” Jason and Henry taught him how to stamp and clap to that one, so he looked forward to participating when it came up.
Mareen and Uluula were softly talking, probably practicing their English. Aodh got lucky on that account. The whole team was learning English so they all could communicate in a language other than Luda. Bezzi-ibbi in particular picked it up really fast. The boy was sitting across from Aodh in the back of the Battlewagon. Rark-han was sitting next to him. The man shadowed Bezzi-ibbi everywhere he went.
Bezzi-ibbi met his eyes and Aodh swallowed. Despite the other boy actually being younger, Aodh felt immature and awkward around him. He was just a farm boy, but Bezzi-ibbi was a merchant prince who received a Hero Ring directly from Dolos himself and was crazy or brave enough to actually use it.
Suddenly, Bezzi-ibbi asked in English, “Do you not like me?” Aodh was amazed at Bezzi-ibbi’s talent for languages. The boy was almost completely fluent in English in less than a month’s study and Bezzi-ibbi knew at least five other languages as well.
Aodh was flustered and shook his hands, “No, I don’t dislike you!” He suddenly realized that he’d barely spoken to the Mo’hali boy the entire time he’d been an adventurer. The whole thing was obviously a misunderstanding. “I just didn’t think you’d want to talk to me! I mean, you’re a heir and I am a shepherd!”
Bezzi-ibbi cocked his head to the side and nodded slowly. “I find this odd. We both appear as things we do not have hearts for. You looked like a shepherd, but you had the heart of an adventurer. I looked like a Clan Heir, but I had the heart of a warrior poet. The difference between us is that now you actually are an adventurer now while I have only managed to change my arm and meet more people who see me as an heir.
“This talk is not to complain.” Bezzi-ibbi paused for a moment before continuing, “The purpose of my words is not for pity. It would be a great insult to people who would kill for my birthright and advantages in life. However, I would like one day to achieve what you have; people to see me for my dream instead of my birth.”
Aodh swallowed, he never thought about it that way. He would have never considered a Mo’hali merchant Clan heir could envy him for anything. He shook his head, “Why do Henry and Jason tell people about your Family connections, then?”
Bezzi-ibbi smiled and shook his head. “Well, part of it is they are idiots. But also, they see my birth, even my whole family as almost…” He struggled for a few moments to find the words before finally continuing, “Like clothing. It isn’t real to them. It is something they know I have, but isn’t what I am. I felt hints of this the first moment I met them. They are fascinating. I wish to be a warrior poet and they will help me attain my dream.”
Aodh nodded slowly. It was true that Henry and Jason were idiots, but he understood what Bezzi-ibbi was saying. Something about them made him want to believe in them. The fact they could create ridiculous things like the Battlewagon, and even irresponsibly strap bombs to his belt made him want to see what they’d do next. He felt a new sense of kinship with Bezzi-ibbi and was about to say so when suddenly, he heard howls.
The piercing, otherworldly cries sounded like nothing Aodh ever heard before. He was instantly alarmed and glanced around to see the rest of the team’s reaction. What he observed was confusing and didn’t help his growing anxiety.
He couldn’t see Jason in the driver seat, but the Battlewagon started to slow down. Henry looked excited and was doing something with the cannons attached to his turret. Keeja was still pretending to sleep and not doing a very good job of it. Uluula and Mareen both grabbed weapons and looked scared but excited. Rark-han was trembling, he was obviously terrified. Bezzi-ibbi on the other hand was calm and didn’t do anything other than take his fancy coat off and flex his metal arm.
Aodh didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what was happening, but the howls were affecting his state of mind. “What’s going on?” he whispered.
Bezzi-ibbi rolled his eyes, “Probably demon wolves. I was actually expecting something like this. The odds are low we’d see them again so soon but wherever Henry and Jason go, trouble follows.”
“Demon wolves?” Aodh felt sick to his stomach. “What should we do?”
“Get ready for an attack and don’t be a liability.” He tilted his head towards Mareen and Uluula, “They might run over us if we get in the way.”
“You know we can hear you, right?” Mareen gritted her teeth.
Bezzi-ibbi yawned, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth before responding, “Don’t care.” He smiled slightly, his feline eyes glittering.
Aodh felt his anxiety level rising. He didn’t understand the reactions of the team, he just knew he’d never been in a real fight before or even seen a real monster. The farming communities outside Mirana were well protected which was one reason people paid rent to farm there in the first place.
As Aodh started at the surrounding forest, he silently screamed at Jason to speed up, not slow down! Why are we slowing down? Then he saw his first horned demon wolf.
The creature was terrifying, nearly the size of a pony. It was dark, all muscle under matted fur. Its horn was a sickly yellow and its eyes glowed red. It howled, flashing enormous canines, and it salivated in excitement as the rest of the pack become visible, closing in for the kill.
Aodh’s fear reached a fever pitch and he almost involuntarily yelped as several things all happened at once. Jason swung the Battlewagon sideways, the vehicle’s momentum kept it moving down the road sideways. Uluula and Mareen jumped off the Battlewagon and ran at the demon wolves. Henry aimed and fired one of his enormous cannons.
The first demon wolf didn’t even get a chance to react. It exploded into a cloud of red mist and Henry whooped, the sound savage and satisfied.
The violence was so one sided, Aodh wouldn’t even call it a battle. It was a massacre, a bloodbath. The pack of demon wolves was huge, almost 20 of them in all, but they didn’t stand a chance. Aodh watched it all play out in sickening fascination. In front of him, Bezzi-ibbi took occasional glances at the action, but Rark-han’s attention was as riveted as Aodh’s.
Mareen wound up and swung her hammer with such force the front half of a demon wolf practically disappeared. Another monster tried to bite her leg off. She merely stepped back and back handed it away from her like it was a puppy.
Uluula was so fast and nimble, none of the demon wolves even came close to touching her. One of them lunged, its jaws wide. She stepped back and slammed the blade of her spear into its throat, bracing the butt of her weapon on the ground. The demon wolf impaled itself with its own weight with a sickening squelch. Before it could even start thrashing in death, the Areva woman used her entire body to kick the monster’s head back before neatly scooping the spear up and extracting it from the creature’s carcass in one smooth motion. She twirled the spear before precisely piercing another creature through the eye.
Henry fired the second cannon barrel and another demon wolf exploded. Then he stood up and began using his new rifle.
Jason clambered on top of the Battlewagon, then disappeared, air rushing to fill the space he just occupied. He appeared to the side of one demon wolf near Uluula and neatly cut it in half. It was the first time Aodh saw Jason use his longsword, Breeze, and his skill was obvious. He was like an artist, each strike was so precise, so fluid, even Aodh could tell how deadly they were. Coupled with his magic, Jason cut a swath through the monsters so fast they didn’t even know what hit them.
From the turret, Henry yelled, “Tony, try using a grenade!” The man actually sounded excited and curious. With no time to think, Aodh yanked a grenade off his belt and threw it in the general direction of the demon wolves, away from most of the team. It was a terrible throw, botched from nervousness and fell short. However, one of the demon wolves made the mistake of running directly towards the Battlewagon… right over the grenade.
Aodh clenched his fist and activated the Blood Fire scrap in the grenade. There was an instant explosion and Aodh felt a dull thump in his chest. The demon wolf’s head and front legs were vaporized in the explosion. The creature fell to the ground and began to convulse, its jaw only hanging on by a thread. Aodh felt a brief flash of triumph before his gorge rose and he was noisily sick over the side of the Battlewagon.
The entire slaughter was over in less than a minute. Aodh couldn’t believe his eyes. An entire pack of demon wolves, almost 20 strong, effortlessly destroyed. Such a large group of monsters, while relatively low level for Ludus, could still terrorize entire communities.
Keeja was still pretending to sleep. Bezzi-ibbi and Rark-han hadn’t even done anything, although when he looked closer, he noticed Bezzi-ibbi’s hand was on his metal arm and his body was coiled, ready to spring. After the battle ended, the boy relaxed and shrugged.
Aodh couldn’t get his mind around how easily Delvers LCC, his adventuring company had utterly annihilated almost 20 dangerous monsters. Even Uluula destroyed two or three demon wolves on her own… and each creature had been practically as tall as her at the shoulder.
Aodh didn’t know of any other Mirana-based adventuring company that could boast this level of sheer destructive power. In fact, even in his stories of Thato Jacob’s era, there weren’t many adventuring companies that could take down a large pack of horned demon wolves in under a minute.
It was madness! One one hand, Aodh felt overwhelmed that he was working with such a powerful adventuring company, but on the other hand he thought, Delvers LLC is mental!
That night, Henry took a watch with Jason to discuss the fight. They sipped some kind of half-assed, Ludan tea made with water warmed by the fire. Henry still hadn’t found a decent coffee substitute. He grumbled, “I asked Keeja and she won’t say anything about the demon wolves. She literally does not respond and pretends she doesn’t hear my questions.”
Jason shrugged, “She probably can’t say anything about what Dolos does or doesn’t do. I think it’s rather obvious it was a test, though.”
“Yeah, no shit. Once, okay, that was bad luck. Twice was pushing it. But three demon wolf attacks in under half a year, each pack almost the same size? I think it’s pretty obvious we’re being tested.”
“I’m inclined to agree. The good news is all our hard work paid off. Bezzi-ibbi didn’t even bother to leave the Battlewagon. I really hate that name, by the way.”
Henry ignored Jason’s gripe about the Battlewagon’s name. His friend would just have to learn to live with it like he had for all the stupid monster names on Ludus. “Bezzi-ibbi is probably smarter than the rest of us. If this was a test, we did too well. It means if we get tested again, we are gonna have a lot more shit thrown at us.”
Jason considered for a moment, eventually replying, “You’re probably right. Damn.”
“Well, we’re alive and nobody is hurt. We can’t complain. Plus, this dungeon isn’t very far away from Mirana but it’s in a dangerous area. I like that we can blow the hell out of any nasty critters popping up out of nowhere.”
“I guess that’s true. It’s also nice to know that our gunpowder inventions work.”
“Yeah, I was a little worried about it, but I’m really glad,” Henry nodded seriously. “Our nasty little surprises are gonna make hitting the dungeon, or any dungeon in the future a lot easier. I think Tony did really good today.”
Henry thought for a minute before asking, “Who is going to take point lead dur the op? We both technically own the company, but we probably need a clear chain of command for the dungeon mission.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I think you should take it. We can iron out who does what in the future later.”
“Yeah man, okay.” Henry was fairly sure Jason would answer that way, but he wanted to make sure. He respected his friend and didn’t want to step on his toes, intentionally or otherwise. “So, how far have you gotten with Uluula?”
“None of your damn business.”
Henry smiled. Now that their serious talk was done, he could spend the rest of their watch killing time. For the next hour, he complained about all the foods he missed. Jason mainly missed cold beer, but Henry missed everything.
If they ever established any kind of normalcy on Ludus, Henry wanted to start researching food options. Maybe he could even find an animal on Ludus that produced decent steaks. Most of the meat he’d had in the last few months was oily and gamey. The tea they drank tasted like ass.
They’d only been on Ludus for a few months, but it felt like a lifetime. Unfortunately, they’d been either vagabonds or pinching pennies the entire time, and Henry was really getting tired of eating food that was only a step up from dog chow.
He wasn’t looking forward to guaranteed violence when they hit Yanbei Cavern, but they sorely needed the money. Plus, he felt a little guilty for taking their first spirit stone. If their dungeon raid went well, Jason would get one too.
Henry was starting to think that Ludus might not be all that bad. His mom was healthy and safe back on Earth, he had a beautiful woman who put up with him waiting in his tent, and he had a rifle… sort of. He just needed to fix the damn coffee situation and maybe life wouldn’t completely suck anymore.
“Priorities,” he whispered to himself, “priorities.”