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Aodh followed Henry and Jason into Yanbei Caverns, more terrified than he’d ever been before in his life. The battle with the demon wolves was crazy. The battle with the orks probably should have been the most frightening thing he ever experienced. However, something about walking into the entrance to Yanbei Cavern turned his blood to ice water.
Luckily, he was also very excited.
Henry and Jason both wore packs and carried sacks full of gear. Aodh carried a smaller sack that clinked when he moved. It was heavy, full of bronze orbs, but Aodh could manage. He wasn’t as strong as others in Delvers LLC, but he wasn’t weak either. He was a grown man, 16 years old, and worked on a farm his whole life.
He could keep up. He would prove himself.
Aodh tried not to breathe in too deeply or look too closely at the carnage as they stepped over the corpses littering the floor. If they came near an ork that was clinging to life or still in pain, not quite passed on yet, Henry administered a quick mercy killing. The whole situation was grim. Aodh just swallowed a lot and tried to keep his gorge under control.
Eventually, thankfully, they were past the remains of the torn up orks. Aodh studied the map of Yanbei Caverns in Mirana before they left and knew the dungeon was relatively simple. There were a few hallways and room near the entrance that they already passed, a tunnel leading down to the monster barracks, and three trap rooms past that prior to the treasure room.
Just to be safe, Henry was kneeling down to use his magic earth sense, checking for traps every 20 yards or so. So far they hadn’t found any. From Aodh’s perspective, there shouldn’t be any traps at all. Several hundred angry ork guards was already overkill for a dungeon in Tolstey, the most peaceful country on the continent.
So far, the little group hadn’t encountered any resistance other than a few large lizard creatures that seemed to be the orks’ pets. Each creature was smaller than a horned demon wolf and seemed slower too. When the creatures attacked, Henry stepped out to meet them and killed them with contemptuous ease, leaving four shattered bodies behind them on the floor. Aodh thought they kind of looked like giant tarrata, the lizards commonly grown for meat on Ludus.
Aodh was surprised that he had to hold back tears. He felt sorry for the creatures. He bit his lip as he walked by the last creature that twitched and died on the floor. It was probably a pet. These creatures were just animals. They didn’t ask to be holed up in a dungeon. They didn’t ask to be part of all the violence. From their perspective, they were probably just defending their home. They probably didn’t even know their masters were dead yet.
Aodh wondered if he was just soft, if other adventurers were immune to such thoughts. Then he noticed Henry’s stony faced silence and Jason’s sad expression. It seemed he was not the only person in their little group feeling pity for the slain pets. The thought cheered him up and made him respect Henry and Jason more. He kind of expected them to not care, the leaders of adventurer groups in the books Aodh read never would. The fact Henry and Jason were so powerful, but Jason was obviously fighting tears as they moved past the lizard creatures made Aodh feel a curious sense of pride.
He was proud to be in Delvers LLC.
The realization hit him like a ton of bricks. He wondered when the change happened. As the group carefully tromped down the dark passageways of Yanbei Cavern, looking for anything of value in the rooms they passed, Aodh realized it’d been a gradual thing. He hadn’t been sure what to expect in an adventuring company, but he’d braced himself for hazing and hardship. He thought it’d be like a mercenary group. Instead, Delvers LLC seemed was more like a loose-bound group of friends who just happened to kill a lot of monsters. Really fast. A lot of the time.
Aodh was just starting to smile, shaking his head when Henry pushed open the door to the kitchen and he witnessed hell.
The first he noticed was the acrid stench. Aodh grew up on a farm so he knew what slaughter and old blood smelled like. The stink rolled over him and as soon as the door opened, and he had to whirl and take a few running steps before throwing up. Feels like all I do is puke, he though.
When he got back, Jason looked a little green. Henry’s face was severe and he was absently patting one of his legs. Both men were waiting for him before they proceeded.
Apparently the orks were cooking before they were interrupted by the Delvers showed up. In a corner of the room, the fire was burning low, starved of fuel. Suspended above the sputtering coals was the body of a man that’d been roasting on a spit. One side of the corpse was charred from not being turned after the orks were interrupted, burned before the fire died down.
Racks and counters contained other body parts, some animal, some people. Aodh swallowed and felt nauseous again. There were enough humanoid body parts to make up at least a few people. A head was sitting by itself that Aodh could recognize as Areva. Aodh’s Fideli eyes pierced the shadowy corners of the room to see even worse things.
He turned around and walked out of the awful kitchen. Jason joined him a moment later and muttered, “I don’t really want to go back in there either. We’ll wait for Henry to poke around.” Aodh just nodded.
A few minutes later, Henry walked out with an empty oil can in his hand that he tossed over his shoulder. He grimaced and growled, “We’ll torch the place when we head out. A proper burial would be nice but we don’t even know if these people believed in burying their dead. I also don’t want to search through half-eaten body parts nor cart them out of here.”
Aodh nodded vigorously and plodded along in a daze as Henry and Jason continued searching rooms. As he followed, Aodh started to feel angry. He knew what it felt like to be helpless. For most of his life, he wasn’t part of a powerful adventuring company like Delvers LLC. His hands flexed as he imagined the terror and pain of the people the orks killed before they were eatin. Well, he hoped they were killed first.
The anger permeated his whole body, a dull, constant roar. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, but he held it close, feeding off of it until he was paying attention, back in the present again. After his mind was unobstructed by fear or nausea, he realized that the setup of the kitchen, the way the drains were situated, the old stains made it obvious that other monsters inhabiting this dungeon probably killed and ate people too.
Aodh decided he really, really hated monsters.
In the last room before they got to the trap rooms, they discovered the commander’s quarters. It was the only room the orks occupied that had anything of note. Jason spent a few minutes looking at the maps, notes, and journal they discovered, but none of them could read the language they were written in. Aodh didn’t even know orks could write. Jason got a strange look in his eyes as he paged through the notes before stowing them away, and Aodh wondered what he was thinking.
Past that point, they followed the cave to the first trap room. The room was large and covered with tiles on the floor and the walls. Each tile had a hole in it, probably for some kind of nasty projectile, or gas, or magic, or spear. On the opposite side of the room was a switch. Jason handed Henry his pack and his sack of gear before saying, “Okay, I’m ready.”
Aodh asked, “What are you doing?”
Henry answered, “This is the first trap room. The info we got on this place said we have to turn that lever to disarm the fuckin’ room. But first, we need to test the ground around it.”
Henry took a handful of bronze balls from his sack and threw them over near the lever. The balls spread out randomly and Henry frowned for a moment. Aodh thought he could see a ball or two quiver. Henry turned to Jason, “It’s clear.”
Jason nodded and disappeared in a bamf of displaced air, reappearing on the other side of the room near the lever. Aodh didn’t understand what was happening and Henry noticed his confusion. “I just put downwards force on each ball to see if there were any pressure traps by the switch itself. I’ll do the same thing for our path once Jason throws the switch to make sure the room is really deactivated.”
“What about tripwires and stuff?”
Henry nodded, “That’s a good question. Jason was ready to teleport away as soon as he appeared. Plus, we’re not sure how it works but he can’t teleport into things, so we were reasonable sure he wouldn’t trip anything the moment he appeared.”
“Ah,” Aodh answered. He hadn’t known Jason’s power worked that way.
Henry and Jason’s methodical process was basically how they got through all three trap rooms. The other two rooms didn’t have a lever. They had to avoid certain tiles or push buttons in a certain sequence to get across, but Henry and Jason had creative solutions for each problem using their magic. When Henry’s magic triggered some of the nastier traps, Aodh gulped and felt eternally grateful he was nowhere near them. The long stone, wood, and bronze impaling devices, the blades, the ground that opened up, none of it looked like a good time to him.
Every once in a while Henry or Jason would light a torch or throw a “fireball” for light. The fireballs were rocks covered in burlap and pitch dangling from a thin chain. The little team proceeded slowly and smoothly. They didn’t encounter any other creatures or monsters at all. In less time than Aodh would have imagined, they stood before the door to the treasure room, a huge protal of solid bronze.
As they all examined the door, Henry got a strange gleam in his eye and laid his hands against the metal. Nothing happened for about a minute until the bronze began melting around his fingers. It looked like Henry was melting a hole straight through the door, but there was no heat at all. “It’s lucky our info on this place had a drawing of where the latch would be on the inside of the door,” Jason said.
Henry absentmindedly replied, “Nah, I could have just bored a hole big enough for some light so you could see in, then you could just teleport in and open the door.”
“Yeah but then we wouldn’t have been able to check for traps.”
“Sure we could,” Henry was fishing around on the other side of the door now, his arm through the hole up to his shoulder, “we could just use the balls again like we’ve been doing.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Aodh narrowed his eyes as he watched Henry, “Why didn’t you just cut through the door with your sword, Jason?”
Henry just shrugged and kept working but Jason scratched his head a bit before replying, “I guess I didn’t really think of that. This power is too new. However, speaking of swords…” Jason drew his sword and stood at the ready.
Aodh was alarmed, “Are we expecting a fight?”
“No, but there’s a first time for anything. The companies that came through here before might have left something out too. You can’t see it, but Henry’s entire arm right now is covered in steel skin and he’s probably got his earth strength turned to max.”
Henry grunted as he tried to find the latch and muttered, “You know it.” Eventually he found what he was searching for, “Got it!”
The door slowly swung open. Nobody moved forward recklessly, and as they stood there, Aodh got his first good look at the Yanbei Cavern treasure. His eyes widened, “Wow.”
Mareen perched awkwardly on the side of the Battlewagon while Uluula sat across from her. Neither woman spoke. Mareen held her hammer while Uluula leaned her spear against her leg and crossed her arms, staring at the captive orks.
The orks sat in a docile circle, their arms bound, far enough away from each other that they couldn’t communicate without being noticeable. Mareen really didn’t understand why Jason and Henry were keeping them alive. Monsters were supposed to be killed. Everyone knew that.
The situation with Uluula was tense. Mareen didn’t know what to say. The silence was awkward, not least of which because Mareen felt silly that she was basically babysitting a woman twice her age from picking a fight with and killing barbaric people… or demon people… or something. Mareen wasn’t entirely sure at this point.
She glanced around and saw that Keeja had taken off somewhere as she did from time to time. Bezzi-ibbi was searching the dead orks for anything of value, bronze weapons and the like. Rark-han was helping him. The big wolf man was using the hook that Henry made to replace his missing arm to flip over the bodies and check their pockets.
Mareen shivered. She could kill now, but she didn’t have to like it. She definitely didn’t want to feel like a vulture, picking among the dead. Better them than me, she thought.
She avoided looking at the entrance to the dungeon, Yanbei Cavern. She knew Henry was probably in danger, but she didn’t have the right to control him or be worried. He let her face danger in the company too. When she asked him about it, he said he wouldn’t be respecting her if he tried to forbid her from what she wanted to do. That simple statement was exactly the kind of thing she loved about Henry.
Of course, he didn’t seem to understand that on Ludus, it was Mareen who’d be judged for letting a man face danger, not vice versa. Mareen really needed to educate Henry more with Ludus culture, but she just didn’t have the heart yet. For the time being, she wanted to prolong the feel of their new relationship and how they were exploring their fledgling love for each other.
Love. It shouldn’t be such a giddy word to think about since she’d already accepted her heart song, but she couldn’t deny the realization was taking some adjustment. She’d already given her heart and her body to Henry. He was her best friend. She felt stupid for wanting to marry already since they’d been seeing each other for such a short time, but she couldn’t deny it was the truth.
She didn’t know when to bring it up, though. She didn’t want Henry to think she was a silly young girl. She was several years into adulthood on Ludus, but she understood that people weren’t even considered adults on Henry’s world until they were 18. Strange.
People had babies, got adult responsibility, and felt the urge to couple much younger than that. Why would a culture pretend otherwise? Mareen didn’t get it. People from Henry’s homeland must have really easy lives. In fact, Henry basically said so, but Mareen couldn’t imagine it.
Suddenly, Uluula began speaking. The sudden sound startled Mareen so badly she almost fell off the Battlewagon. The Areva woman softly said, “You know, I think I envy you in some ways.”
Mareen blinked a few times before responding, “What?”
“If we were just about anywhere else in the rest of the Universe, I would have so many advantages over you in every conceivable way, the difference between us would be profound. Yet here on Ludus, our positions are roughly equal despite the fact you are a farm girl. I used to look down on you for that, but being an Areva is inconvenient sometimes. We can’t lie to ourselves.
“See, as you probably know, I have almost perfect recall, so I can’t pretend I said or thought differently about something than I actually did. And honesty compels me to acknowledge that regardless of my original intentions for this mission, you’re here now acting as my de facto guard.
“It’s humiliating, but maybe I needed this.”
Mareen blinked again. Uluula had a peculiar way of speaking sometimes. The Areva woman could come across as distant or aloof, but Mareen was used to that. This wry introspection was a side of her personality Mareen had never seen before, a side she definitely liked more. However, Mareen had no idea what the small, fierce woman was talking about. “What under the sun are you saying?”
“I was just thinking about how after all my self-discipline, after all the time and effort I’ve spent trying to adapt to this world and make a new life for myself, here I sit. I lost control and attacked some parasites, some vermin. I’m ashamed I did so, ashamed I ignored my own strategy for the operation. And now I’m being guarded by someone I looked down on before but who has not only managed to not act like a fool but who also managed to establish an adult, committed relationship.” Uluula snorted and didn’t make eye contact. “Not to mention someone who can physically overpower me despite vastly less experience in combat. Meanwhile, all I can do is blow a little wind around with a trickle of magic.”
Uluula demonstrated by picking up a leaf, placing it in her palm, and causing it to blow away from her hand as she furrowed her brow in concentration. After the leaf was gone, the Areva woman clenched her fist before relaxing and gently clasping her hands together.
Mareen wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. At first, she was offended by the implied insult but forced herself to think through the rest of what Uluula said. She wasn’t blind. She’d noticed how Uluula tended to avoid her. She thought it was because she said something before that offended the smaller woman. Either way, Uluula usually acted professional if a little cold and distant.
Plus, this wasn’t the first time another woman gave Mareen the cold shoulder. Growing up in a tight-knit community where so many men tried to get her attention didn’t exactly make for a comfortable life sometimes. During that time, some other women blamed Mareen for staying single. They thought her available status might have spurred on the interest.
They might have been right. However, quite a few women in the farming communities Mareen lived in also approached her to be the second or even third wife in their families. Mareen believed her outright rejection of these proposals was appropriate, and in truth they were. The idea that Mareen, a young, educated, healthy, reasonably attractive mage would agree to be the second or even third wife in a farming family was ludicrous. Mareen knew it, the women making the suggestion knew it, but rejection was rejection. Some people didn’t handle it well.
George had no idea any of this had happened, of course. Mareen loved her grandfather dearly but he could be somewhat oblivious. She wished her mom was still alive. The old ache flared up and disappeared again just as quickly.
After a second or two, she finally replied, “You planned out most of this operation. If I wasn’t orb-bonded, I’d have no chance against you in a fight. In fact, Jeth almost killed me,” Mareen put a hand to her scarred lower back. “I have been a burden more often than not. The same is not true for you.”
Uluula shook her head, “No, the way you handled the incident with Jeth was very brave and quite intelligent. I’m just glad he got what he deserved.” Her eyes flashed, “I’m glad he knew what happened to him in his final few seconds, too. I still wish we could have crucified him, though. At the very least, he should have been tortured for a while. Based on evidence and what the bandits told the Jaguar Clan, he was one of the vilest bandits of the lot. We should have replaced his blood with acid, little by little.”
Mareen felt a slight chill as Uluula’s words and tone reminded her of the stories she heard of Areva ruthlessness. She changed the subject, “Why did you attack the orks anyway?”
Uluula didn’t speak for a while but finally said, “Tusked demons, orks killed my older sister. She was superior to me in every way. What’s more, she had a good heart and a sweet nature. She devoted her life to helping people. She probably ended up in a tusked demon’s stomach. I hate them. They’re locusts of the Universe. If allowed, they will spread unchecked and reduce a world down to rubble.”
Mareen nodded, “So it was about family then. I understand now. My father and my mother were both killed when I was young, murdered. Their room was locked from the inside when their bodies were found. My father was a famous adventurer. After he died, since nobody knew who did it, I was given to my grandfather’s care and grew up on farms. If I ever find out who killed my parents, I will probably be much less calm than you were.
“In fact, if not for Grandfather, I’m not sure what would have happened to me. He’s the only family I have left. I owe him more than I could ever repay in a lifetime. I don’t know what I will do when Grandfather passes away, much less what I’d do if he was killed.”
Both women were quiet for a while, lost in their own thoughts. Finally Uluula said, “I owe you an apology. I’ve been avoiding you and I didn’t even know you very well. I made a lot of assumptions that were not true.”
Mareen nodded, “I haven’t exactly tried to seek you out either. I think part of me was a little intimidated. I’m a farm girl and you’re Areva. You won’t say so, but it’s fairly obvious you’re an aristocrat.”
“Yeah, well, at least you’re the same species as the person you love.” Uluula colored slightly but didn’t look away.
“What?” Mareen was shocked. She wasn’t sure if she heard the other woman right but Uluula didn’t respond and just studied her feet. The conversation was awkward, but Mareen felt glad they were having it. It kind of felt like they were breaking weeks or even months of misunderstandings and misplaced competitiveness between them.
Eventually, Mareen asked, “Are we friends now?”
Uluula looked up, startled, “Yes… I suppose we are at that. How surprising.”
“I’m glad,” Mareen smiled.
Uluula looked thoughtful for a moment before her cheeks colored and she asked with an otherwise entirely straight face, “Well, since we are friends now, can you tell me how to go about becoming… physical with Jason? How was it for you? What did you do to get over your nerves? You were a virgin, right?”
Mareen couldn’t help herself. She began laughing, her mirth rang out by itself until Uluula joined her. Both women laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes.
When Mareen saw Bezzi-ibbi look up at the sound of both women giggling, roll his eyes and ignore them while getting back to work, it just made Mareen laugh harder.