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Writing on the Wall
The whole time he was trudging towards the entrance of the dungeon, Henry was wondering what they’d do about the captured orks. He’d seen Tony’s expression, especially after they passed the dungeon’s kitchen again on the way out. The kid had murder in his eyes.
Henry wasn’t sure what to do. On one hand, he thought it was good that Tony was getting fired up and was adapting to the violent realities of adventuring. On the other hand, Jason caught his eyes while they carried the loot out and shook his head. Henry understood the message; they weren’t going to kill the captives.
Henry thought he might understand. While they were loading up in the treasure room, he had a chance to tell Jason that all the dead humanoids in the kitchen had slashed throats; they were being prepared just like the animals were. It was obvious to Henry that the people were being treated as meat by the monsters. They weren’t torturing them. Plus, he knew Jason was shaken by seeing the ork leader’s office. Before this point, they’d considered all monsters to be murderous animals, no better than large dangerous vermin.
However, the orks used tools, they had language, they obviously took notes. What’s more, the kitchen had been disgusting and horrible, but there was no evidence that the orks were visiting pain and evil upon others like the bandits did.
Sure, the orks killed some people and they were eating them, but there had been hundreds of orks. Not all of them were probably eating people. Henry knew Jason and figured his friend was giving the handful of surviving ork the benefit of the doubt.
Henry actually just wanted to let Tony kill the orks or even just do it himself. He had no problem handing them a weapon to give them a fighting chance, either. They apparently wanted to die via duel anyway. However, before they left Mirana, he and Jason had a private talk about roles and responsibilities. They agreed that decisions like this one regarding prisoners would be Jason’s call so Henry was willing to back off.
Henry left Yanbei Caverns with a literal armful of loot and a bulging pack. As the strongest person between Jason and Tony, he had to carry the most. Luckily, with magic strength from the earth, he was able to move easily even while completely loaded down.
Once they got close to the others, Tony was staring at the orks and went to grab a grenade. Jason grabbed the boy’s arm with his free hand and said, “No, Tony. It’s not your decision.”
Aodh wasn’t happy, but he followed Jason’s order. He didn’t even look at the orks again and his nostrils flared in anger. It was obvious the dungeon kitchen deeply affected him.
The next few hours went by in a blur. Henry led most of the Delvers down to the treasure room to haul the rest of the loot to the surface, following the safe paths through the trap rooms that Jason marked in chalk. Jason stayed behind and tried communicating with the captured orks using pictures (using a pad of paper and pen they found in the treasure room) and hand gestures.
The rest of the loot was carried out of the treasure room by Bezzi-ibbi, Rark-han, and Aodh. Henry and Mareen took a few trips to carry out the huge bronze doors that Jason cut up into convenient pieces for them earlier. It amused Henry that they were even taking the dungeon’s inner door.
Bronze was valuable. It was too bad for the other adventuring teams that they didn’t think of taking the door or didn’t have the means to do so.
The big surprise came when they were getting ready to leave. Henry was curious what Jason was going to do with the orks, and his question was soon answered. Jason stood and calmly said, “We are letting these last few orks go. I’ve told their leader to not kill people unless it’s in self-defense and they said will not attack anyone unprovoked. I believe them.”
Everyone was aghast and there was silence for a few seconds until Uluula exclaimed, “What? What are you thinking? These things should be exterminated!” She started angrily walking forward.
Then Henry saw a curious thing. His friend faced Uluula, squared his shoulders, and firmly said, “Lula, this is my decision. It’s not up for discussion. Stand down.”
Henry’s eyebrows tried to climb into his hairline. His friend usually followed Uluula around like a lost puppy but he just put his foot down. Jason found his balls! Henry was shocked.
Apparently Uluula was too. She stood stock still for a moment before getting a very strange look in her eyes. Her face got hot and Henry figured she must be angry. The petite woman turned on a heel, got into the back of the Battlewagon and pointedly looked the other way. Henry might have been imagining it, but he thought she was quivering.
Damn! Glad I’m not him! Just as Henry was congratulating himself for not being involved in his friend’s drama, Mareen slowed down behind him and whispered, “You’d better not get any ideas.” Henry rolled his eyes. He’d never let a woman boss him around.
Henry was watching the freed orks slowly move away while he cradled his rifle. It really wasn’t sitting well with him that the orks were just going free, but he didn’t want to undermine Jason’s authority. He had no idea how long he was watching the orks when Mareen tapped him on the shoulder, “Hey, quit staring and go get in your little turret. We’re all waiting on you and I want to get out of here.”
Henry absentmindedly patted her hand and turned around, “Oh, okay.” He climbed into the Battlewagon turret and Jason began easing the vehicle away. Luckily, their loot haul from Yanbei Cavern included quite a few magic stones. The Battlewagon consumed more power while running with a heavy load, but they had plenty of fuel.
Henry glanced back at the heavy pieces of bronze doorway stacked in the back of the Battlewagon. Altogether, they were probably carrying several tons of loot back with them. He felt pride that the Battlewagon’s energy consumption didn’t go up too much and it still pretty much handled the same. He built her well. Henry patted the side of the Battlewagon as the Delvers sped back towards Mirana.
Smartstrong Gulzug mar-Tartooth was extremely confused. He watched the strange soft skins near-silently drive away on their death-spitting war machine and shook his head. His three remaining warriors stood aimlessly nearby as well.
Smartstrong didn’t know what to think. The Yay-soon’s people, the Dalvars had utterly annihilated all his men, Yay-soon slayed two of his mages with his own hand, their smallest members killed one of his best warriors in one on one combat, then the one with fur on his face effortlessly disarmed him and all his men.
They were captured, Yay-soon communicated with them via pantomime and pictures, and they were just… released. Of course, Yay-soon had made his demands very clear. Smartstrong and the Plains People were forbidden to attack or eat any softskin races. If they did, Yay-soon said he would personally kill them. The threat made Smartstrong’s neck go numb in dread.
Smartstrong didn’t know how to react yet to the events of the day, but he didn’t like being disarmed. He picked up one of the cruder weapons lying on the field of battle that the Dalvars hadn’t bothered to take, a club with obsidian blades. His men did the same and followed him as he headed back into the Dark Cave Holy Site.
Something wasn’t right.
The whole time the Dalvars carried items out of the Dark Cave Holy Site, Smartstrong was watching closely, ready for to try one last time to kill the defilers if he saw even one looted artifact or image of Tartooth. However, he didn’t see any. In fact, most of the items the Dalvars took from the cave were entirely unfamiliar to him.
Smartstrong entered his old home and did not look at all the bodies of his comrades. He currently had a stoic face for the sake of his three remaining warriors, but if he looked down, he knew he could start wailing in anguish. So many of his people perished this day. They died in honor if they were doing the god’s work, but he had a terrible, terrible suspicion.
He had to see for himself.
He trooped through the Dark Cave Holy Site and noticed the smoke curling from under the kitchen door. He could hear fire and feel the head radiating from the room behind the door. The Dalvars obviously torched the place. Smartstrong would have too. In fact, when sects of the Plains People warred, those that consumed their enemies were often dealt with harshly. Smartstrong had no idea why some held to such old, barbaric traditions. Especially hadashar, alive-eating. Smartstrong knew it was not honorable under the gaze of Tartooth.
Smartstrong briefly stopped in his old office. Luckily, his hidden bronze dagger was still there. Be briefly buckled it on before heading out again. He’d never been past the trap rooms before. A few orks had tried it, tried getting to the inner sanctum to commune with Tartooth while in yilm-induced fervor, but they all died. However, the Dalvars not only deactivate the rooms, they also left clear trails to mark safe trails.
Smartstrong was impressed. The Dalvars were clever and efficient.
After they arrived at the inner sanctum, the room was cleared out, there were no artifacts of Tartooth. Unfortunately, Smartstrong saw what he suspected, what he feared most; the end of the room featured a giant carved likeness of Dolos. Under the carving, something was carved in multiple written languages. Smartstrong was able to understand one line that read, “Great God Dolos”.
“We were tricked,” he snarled. “We were fools. The Yay-soon and the Han-ri have freed us. We must repent for our gullibility. This is why the Ul-hala challenged us but only killed one before the Han-ri rendered us helpless. We are helpless like children to Tartooth.
Rocksure shook his head and replied, “No, the interlopers, the defilers have tricked you. You are not seeing clearly.”
Smartstrong became sad. He knew how this would end but he had to try reasoning with Rocksure. “Lesser warrior, hear my words. Our stories are clear. All is with Tartooth or against him. The Dolos-god is obviously against Tartooth. We were tricked to guard this sanctum after being told this Dark Cave Holy Site was of Tartooth. Dolos is Tartooth’s enemy. The Delvars robbed from Dolos. They therefore must be friends of Tartooth.”
“No, they were just mages. Their weapons weren’t even that powerful, we just got transported here with none of our own weapons or technology.”
“You are being mislead by the Dolos-god, Rocksure.” Smartstrong shook his head sadly, “You cannot see the truth.”
The other ork snarled, “No Smartstrong, your brain is mush and you are…” His words ceased as a weapon impacted with this neck. The dying warrior sighed as Smartstrong pulled the bladed clum out his throat. One of the club’s blades broke off and stayed in Rocksure’s flesh. Smartstrong would need to grab a new one from the battlefield.
“You speak falsely. You must not speak heresy at this darkest of hours for the Plains People.” He regarded HelpsSturdy and TruthWatching, his last two remaining warriors. “Do you wish to spit heresy?”
They both shook a fist, signaling no. Smartstrong patted his chest, the gesture for acceptance.
He was enlightened. No wonder his mages fell to Yay-soon. The Delvars were obviously messengers of Tartooth. The Plains People had suffered dearly for their heresy, their gullibility, but Smartstrong knew the truth now. It was time to atone. It was time to spread the story of the Dolos-god’s treachery.
He understood now. It would have been a crushing defeat, an unbearable dishonor if his entire group was defeated by some soft skin mages with primitive technology. However, being defeated by demigods was an honor.
Smartstrong’s spirit surged. His eyes burned with zealotry as he led his last two warriors out of the cursed Dark Cave Holy Site. With only three of the People, funeral rites for the dead would take a long time. However, he knew he found his true calling. His spirit churned for the mission Tartooth gave him. He must tell the whole world about the evil Dolos-god. He must let the whole land know of Tartooth’s agents and teach how to properly venerate them:
The agent of Death, Yay-soon
The agent of War, Han-ri
The agent of Souls, Bass-abey
The agent of Carrion, Ror-kon
The agent of Honor, Ul-hala
The agent of Devotion, Mahr-in
Smartstrong knew if he didn’t spread the truth of how to honor the agents of his god, they would come back and cull Tartooth’s children while his handmaiden looked on in the sky, giving her blessing. Smartstrong must not let it happen again!
Deep in the bowels of Yanbei Cavern, a new religion was born.
Henry was glad they had a fairly peaceful return trip back to Mirana. The first night on the way back, they stopped by a river they’d passed before and set up camp. Since they could store their packs in the Battlewagon, camping was a breeze. When Henry thought of it, he’d never had to truly hike around Ludus with only what was on his back. He wanted to keep it that way.
He was beginning to enjoy his nightly cookouts.
After they all ate and it was getting dark, he saw Uluula pulling Jason to the river. Jason looked confused. Henry barely caught a snippet of their conversation, Uluula was saying, “Mareen told me you like ‘catgirls’, is this true?” Henry snickered as his friend’s obvious discomfort.
However, a couple hours later when they came back, Jason had a big dopey grin on his face, Uluula was trying too hard to look like everything was normal, and they both had disheveled clothes. Did Jason just score? Finally? Henry shrugged. They could have just bathed in the river and it was none of his business. However, if Uluula finally gave it up, he was glad. Those two had been wound up so tight for the last couple weeks he was afraid they were going to start randomly stabbing people or humping furniture.
When Henry saw Jason almost immediately go to bed, still with a big stupid grin on his face and Uluula grab Mareen to walk off to have a private chat, he knew he’d been right. The situation was further confirmed when UIuula didn’t pitch her own tent and crawled into Jason’s. Henry shook his head, and just hoped his friend remembered to swallow his Spirit Stone before sleeping.
As Henry chuckled about his friend’s relationship, he thought about how nobody really grew up. Being an adult was like never-ending high school and apparently living on a different planet with other species didn’t change a thing. As he brewed some sorta-tea, he wondered if he should write down his profound thoughts. He might as well, they had notepads now courtesy of Ludus or Dolos… or something.
He always wondered how it was that so many Earth items were sold in Mirana markets. Now he knew. In addition to loot that adventurers would be interested in, the Yanbe Cavern treasure room also contained a good amount of random junk in boxes and crates, some of which came from Earth. Among the haul of weapons, armor, coins, magic stones, a spirit stone, and a dolos orb, they also found random things like baseball hats, fishing line, notebooks, plastic plates, and a number of other perplexing things.
The Delvers took all of it. What they couldn’t find a use for, they’d sell.
All in all, Henry was in a great mood. That night, Bezzi-ibbi and Rark-han took the night watch, as usual. The Mo’hali could see in the dark, they had great hearing, and they were uncomfortable letting anyone other than other Mo’hali pull guard duty. Henry wasn’t real happy about the arrangement since it seemed unfair, but everyone other than the person driving the Battlewagon could nap while traveling. Nobody really had to miss out on sleep.
As they got ready for bed, Henry noticed that Mareen seemed to be in a good mood too. Henry could only imagine it was at least partially because she was meddling in Jason’s love life. That was what women did, even a practical woman like Mareen. Henry approached it fatalistically. As long as she was fucking with someone else’s life, she probably wouldn’t feel the temptation to start nagging him. Small victories.
That night, he and Mareen didn’t make love. They were so tired they just cuddled for a bit and she almost immediately fell asleep. Right before he fell asleep, in a rare moment of vulnerability, Henry smiled and got tears in his eyes while he watched Mareen sleep. She was snoring softly, something he was trying to get used to.
He was amazed he’d attracted someone so special. They might be stuck on a monster plagued world, but at least he’d been able to save his mom and meet Mareen. Ludus wasn’t a total wash.
The rest of their return journey was similar. The only monsters they saw were random things wandering around by themselves and Henry was able to easily kill them while the Battlewagon sped along. It was uneventful enough that most of the Delvers began to nap or play games while they traveled. Bezzi-ibbi produced a set of playing cards and a musical instrument from somewhere. The kid was awfully handy to have around when they needed to kill some time.
Henry and Jason didn’t even talk about Jason’s spirit stone upgrade or what he chose for his second rank. They’d have plenty of time for that conversation when they got back to Mirana. Nobody wanted to break the relaxed mood.
Henry thought it was strange that Keeja hadn’t come back. He talked about it briefly with Jason but his friend had no idea why she hadn’t returned either. Even after all the time they spent with her, they didn’t know much about the enigmatic High Priestess. That suited Henry just fine. Fine ass and tight body or no, she gave him the creeps, probably because she always looked at him like he was a piece of meat. He could have sworn she licked her lips once.
Plus, the fact he had to keep remembering she was thousands of years old when she didn’t look much older than Uluula was confusing as hell.
After they got to Mirana, the Delvers avoided talking to anyone. They passed through the gates without a problem but quite a few people were curious about the Battlewagon and their masks. A few other adventurers that recognized them called out asking if they’d had a good haul. The Delvers ignored everyone. They were tired and they just wanted to sleep in a real bed before dealing with city life and Adventure Guild issues.
Henry was glad for the garage. Even though they were carrying a fortune in loot on the Battlewagon, the Delvers Garage gave them an easy way to secure it so they didn’t have to immediately start selling everything off to the Adventuring Guild or the Jaguar Clan.
With their haul of loot, they weren’t exactly rich yet, but they wouldn’t have any money problems for a long time.
Once the Battlewagon was parked and the front door was locked, Bezzi-ibbi volunteered to guard the loot. His control as a Mo’hali hero was good enough now that he could extend his nullifying power enough to cover the battlewagon and keep it there. As usual, Rark-han was his shadow.
Jason and Uluula said they’d be in the house in case Bezzi-ibbi needed them. Henry rolled his eyes. They were probably just going to make out. Henry bet they wouldn’t even notice if a fucking army tried to invade the garage but he didn’t say anything. He’d already squirreled away enough magic stones in his room that if the rest of their haul was stolen, they’d have enough to pay the bills.
He was never, ever again going to make the same mistake he made with his old machete. The memory still weighed heavily.
With nothing better to do as evening fell in Mirana, Henry walked with Mareen as she went to visit her grandfather. Before they left for Yanbei Cavern, George asked her to visit when she got so he’d know she was safe. Henry knew Mareen probably also wanted to brag a bit. It was her first dungeon too, after all.
As they walked out of Mirana and through the peaceful farming communities, Henry smiled. It was turning into a nice night. The wind sighed through the crops on either side of the road and as the alien sun set, it kicked up a riot of watercolor lights on the horizon. Henry and Mareen held hands, neither of them saying anything, just happy to be in each other’s company.
They kept walking, and Henry felt a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. He didn’t want to upset the mood so he ignored it for a while, but it kept getting stronger until he had to acknowledge it. Something was wrong.
They were in the Georgetown settlement now. They hadn’t gotten to the houses yet, but at this time of the day, before dark, there should still be some farmers visible making use of the light to work or visiting with friends.
Henry couldn’t see anyone.
It took Mareen longer to catch on that something was wrong, but Henry knew she noticed when her hand suddenly gripped his with crushing force. Neither of them spoke, but they separated hands, drew weapons, and began to trot towards the Georgetown houses. Henry felt the pit of his stomach dropping out.
George, please be okay, George. Please…
At the settlement, there were no lights. That was when Henry absolutely knew something was asmiss. “Wait here.” Mareen was so worried, he was afraid she wouldn’t listen, but she nodded. Henry couldn’t imagine why there wouldn’t be any lights at all and his dread began to grow. He was glad he hadn’t enhanced his sense of smell when he opened the door to George’s home, because it almost hit him like a physical thing. Blood, offal, and pain.
George’s body wasn’t alone in the home. There was a dead village child in each corner, throats cut or heads caved in. They’d obviously been murdered and they were placed to make the room even more hellish. It was a message. The clinical portion of Henry’s mind judged they’d only been dead for about a day. They were probably killed the previous night.
George’s body was strapped to a table. He’d been tortured. Tears ran down Henry’s cheeks as he witnessed proof of what his friend went through during the last moments of his life. The last light of the setting sun leaked through the windows and illuminated the hellish scene.
Piles of fingernails, fingers, and things Henry didn’t want to think about were stacked on the table next to George’s naked body. The walls were splashed with blood. Blood and bodily fluids had soaked into the wood and left deep, partially dried puddles in dips of the floor.
In the waning light, Henry could see something written on the wall in blood:
Next to the simple message was a symbol that Henry recognized. When he and Jason looted Mr. Ben and his thugs when they first got to Mirana and escaped the warehouse, they found a huge silvery coin with the same symbol. Henry thought it was unique looking so he still had it in a drawer somewhere. He hadn’t sold it. It was kind of a fucked up souvenir from almost dying.
Next to the bloody writing, sticking into the wall was Henry’s stolen machete. He immediately recognized it.
“No fucking way,” his voice came out in a whisper. He was still in shock, his brain stuttering so badly he didn’t hear Mareen’s footsteps approaching.
“Hey Henry is everything-” Henry woke up out of his stupor as Mareen started screaming. As he forced her out of the home, he thanked God for the dim light and that he was blocking a clear view into the house by standing in the doorway. He’d rather Mareen had nightmares about shadows than what was actually in there.
Henry forced himself to think rationally, through his grief, his anger, his guilt. He had to draw as much strength from the earth as he could in order to restrain Mareen’s superhuman flailing so she wouldn’t hurt herself. He held his screaming, hysterical girlfriend under the winking, uncaring stars of an alien world and felt empty inside.
It was going to be a long, terrible night. And though Henry was weeping inside and his heart was breaking, a larger part of himself grew cold, colder than it had ever grown before. Henry stared into the distance while he waited for Mareen to calm down or exhaust herself so they could try to find help.
Someone hurt his friend, Mareen’s family. Henry was going to kill them. He was going to kill them, their friends, and everything they held dear. He was going to raze their buildings to the ground, salt the earth, and piss on the ashes.
Henry was more angry than he’d ever been before in his life. As his rage grew, the ice within him grew even colder. Every time he thought of George, every time he thought of his friend who helped him and Jason understand and survive Ludus, his rage grew. Every time Mareen’s sobs racked her body, every time he heard her despair, her heart breaking, his wrath reached new heights. His fury grew so great it was almost a physical thing, and he couldn’t help letting some of it out. The ground began to shake, rocks within the earth were crushed to dust.
Someone had sent a message. Henry needed to find out who it was so he could make sure they got his reply.
This is the end of the Delvers LLC: Welcome to Ludus.
For the final version including added content and an epilogue, please look forward to the published release!
*note: There will be a 2-4 week delay before any new chapters of Book 2 are released. I will be posting news updates on the site.