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Wagon Stage

 

It had only been three days and Henry was tired of walking.  He wasn’t having any problems with the trip itself, that wasn’t the issue.  Due to his handy new orb powers and the fact that his body still remembered long marches during his Army days, he was better off than everyone else in the caravan other than Jason.  Henry knew Jason used to be a cross country runner and he had those long, gangly legs.  With the addition of the orb, Jason never looked tired anymore.  If Henry had been the slightest bit fatigued himself, he probably would have held it against him.

No, what was irritating Henry was the boredom.  Or rather, he wanted the actual travel portion of the day to be done so he could test his new powers some more.  He and Jason weren’t trying to hide that they had taken Dolos orbs, but they both decided not to advertise what they could do yet in case they needed an element of surprise in the future.  What they would actually need an element of surprise for, Henry didn’t know but he approved of Jason’s paranoia.  Apparently, all these RPG tropes that Jason was betting on closely aligned with Henry’s real world experiences; shit could go to hell in the blink of an eye.  It didn’t hurt to be prepared.

The first time he and Jason tried testing their powers was on the first night of their journey with the caravan.  Henry found that if he concentrated, he could bring up a list of things he could do with his power.  Apparently, the list was just a set of guidelines though, because he could make up his own similar abilities.  For instance, one of his abilities was to turn the skin of his forearms to metal for protection.  However, he found that by concentrating, he could make spikes or even blades come out as needed.  It was a neat trick.

His abilities with earth were not listed in his mind, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that they were similar to his metal magic.  One experiment he did was to try pinching the blade of a stone knife and sharpening it like he could with his machete’s blade.  It worked and the knapped stone blade glittered in the moonlight, but it seemed to take more energy out of him to do it than working with metal.

Henry tried out all of his abilities one by one whenever he got a chance and tried to think of new applications for them.  Meanwhile, every night he practiced, Jason also walked out into the woods to escape the prying eyes of villagers and just sat with his eyes closed.  When Henry asked him what he was doing, Jason said he was meditating.  Henry rolled his eyes.  No wonder he got a cartoon cat talking to him in his dreams.

Still, Henry had a lot of respect for the magic school his friend chose.  Jason said that since he got the Magic Control skill for his school of magic, it was easier for him to manipulate, took less power to do things, and he had a lot more options for effects appear in his mind if he thought about it.  Still, Henry hounded Jason for days to actually demonstrate some of his magical abilities.

Jason had only given in after the second day.  He demonstrated one of his abilities; with the sound of displaced air and a pop, Jason teleported behind Henry.  For a moment when Henry looked around, the tall, gangly Jason looked like death incarnate.  Henry realized that if his friend ever used this ability violently, it would be terrifying to anyone on the receiving end.

Well, Jason’s abilities were cool but Henry thought his spiked metal arms were pretty bad ass too.  It was also slick how he could throw stones with the strength of a bullet.  Being able to near effortlessly craft stone tools had been useful for the villagers on the trip too.  He just didn’t tell them how he kept “finding” exactly the same tool someone said they needed in the forest.  He knew nobody was really buying it, but they pretended to believe him.

Henry looked at the sun in the sky again.  It was only noon!  Time just seemed to crawl.  He glanced over at Mareen.  As usual, she was walking next to them and chatting with Jason.  Jason always seemed to get all the girls; Henry figured it was his height.

Mareen was cute, nice, helpful, and a hard worker.  She had a habit of wrinkling her little button nose before she laughed.  She was a few inches shorter than Henry, he judged she was about 5’3”.  From what they’d seen so far, that seemed to be about average height for women on this world.

Mareen’s simple dress was baggy but glimpse could be seen of her figure underneath sometimes.  Plus her clothes had been all torn up in the goblin cave.  Henry would describe her type as athletic with curves in all the right places.  She reminded him of an actress who’d be in action movies.

Henry judged that Jason could definitely do worse.  He wished them well and made it a habit to not talk to Mareen.  He didn’t want to get in their way.  What was hardest was not talking about Jason’s cartoon cat experience while Mareen was around.

He was softly chuckling to himself while he thought about Jason’s dream friend when he heard the howls.  His head snapped up and he looked around quickly.  Nobody else seemed alarmed.  Then he realized that the wagons were creaking, people were talking, the villagers and the animals were walking… normal people probably wouldn’t be able to hear the howls yet.  With a flash of insight, Henry remembered he had chosen the Rank 1, Enhanced Senses skill.

Henry took a step over and grabbed Jason’s shoulder, “I hear howls.”

Henry instantly had Mareen’s full attention.  “Howls?” she asked.

“Yeah, I can hear a lot of them and I think they are coming this way.”

Mareen’s face was white, “This is the range for a large pack of demon wolves.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons so few people come out this way.  We didn’t see them when we moved to this area and we thought they were just a scary story.”

Jason frowned, “Couldn’t they be normal wolves?”

Mareen gave him a strange look.  “Normal wolves don’t exist.  If they did, the demon wolves would have eaten them.”

“Oh,” said Jason lamely, “silly me.”

Henry frowned, “Why would you or anyone else think that demon wolves were a ‘scary story’ in world where you literally see demons and monsters all the time?”

Mareen shrugged, “Wishful thinking?”

“So then why don’t you have guards or… oh never mind.”  Henry’s mind went into overdrive.  His first inclination was to continue questioning how otherwise rational people could make such stupid decisions, but he shelved it.  His first priority was to get these people into some sort of defensive formation.  He saw a small clearing up ahead and the howls were coming off from his right.  It would be close but they could make it.

Henry had never particularly enjoyed leading, especially in high stress situations, but he objectively judged that he was the best person for the job in their current situation.  And then, like many other times in his life, he turned off his doubts and did what had to be done.

Henry climbed up to the top of the nearest wagon and hollered, “Everyone is in danger!  Don’t panic, but move faster so we can get to the clearing ahead faster.”

Most of the villagers stared at him blankly in surprise but Jeth, a man in his early 20s sneered, “You aren’t one of us.  Get off the wagon and stop giving orders.”

Henry didn’t have time to argue.  With an effort of will, he pointed at the ground near Jeth’s feet and a spray of dirt and rocks sprang up hard enough to knock Jeth on his butt and give him bruises all over.  “Someone pick that moron up.  Listen up everyone!”  Now he had everyone’s attention.  “You will all calmly but quickly make your away to the clearing ahead or I will personally kick the shit out of every last motherfucking one of you.”

Henry’s words carried, his voice trained by years of calling cadences while running.  Completely silence fell for several seconds until everyone started scrambling for the clearing.  Henry nodded his head in satisfaction and jumped down.

Jason said, “Did you really have to curse at them?”

“I didn’t see you up there,” Henry snorted.  “Next time, feel free to take control and you can do it your way.”  Henry briefly felt bad for shaming his friend, but he steeled himself.  This was a harsh, shitty world and Jason was not used to this sort of thing.  Henry really wanted his friend to survive.  He figured that honesty and pragmatism at all times were probably the best ways to help Jason adapt; feelings were less important than learning the rules of combat right now.

The villagers were almost to the clearing by the time everyone else could hear the howls too.  If they had waited to move, it would have been too late.  As it was, they barely got to the clearing in time.  The wagons were formed up into a rough triangle with the villagers and animals in the middle right before the first demon wolves were visible.

Henry blinked.  He stood with Jason between the wolves and the wagons.  Out the corner of his eye, he saw George nervously holding a cudgel, obviously wondering whether he should be standing between the wagons and the wolves.  Henry called back, “George, guard the wagons and get a few people to help you.”  Then he pulled his machete out of its sheath.  After some of the villagers gasped, Jason realized that despite while everyone in the caravan had seen him wearing it the last few days, most of them probably hadn’t realized it was steel;  err… blessed steel.

The demon wolves were huge.  Each of them probably weighed at least 300 lbs.  They were the size of a Great Dane with the build of a bulldog.  Each of them had dark, mottled fur that would probably blend in with the forest well, and between each of their shining pairs of eyes, a horn grew out of their foreheads.

Suddenly next to him, Jason gasped, “horned wolves!”

As Henry watched a handful of the wolves watching him, Jason pulled his bronze sword out of its crude sheath, “horned wolves.  I always thought the monster type was kind of stupid but they are in a lot of fiction.”

“Stupid how?” asked Henry.  “They look pretty dangerous to me.”

Jason wearily watched the wolves as he talked, “Yeah, but that’s because they’re big and they have teeth.  Why the horn, though?  Like, what purpose does a horn serve on a canine’s head other than to get caught on stuff and inconvenience them?”

“Well…” Henry though thought about it.  “That’s a good point.  Maybe they hit things with their heads?”

“No, no, that makes no sense.  Wolves already have big teeth, they drag prey down, and wolves hunt in packs, apparently even demon wolves.”

Henry nodded his head, “I see your point.  Um… I guess they look cool?”

“Exactly!  That means these things were probably manufactured.  They aren’t natural.”

Henry shook his head, “Dude, they are called ‘demon wolves’ and their eyes are literally glowing.  What was your first clue they weren’t natural?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Jason sighed.  “Demon wolves are a trope in fiction.  Seeing them in person, especially the horned variety is scary, exciting, and confusing all at once.”

“It must be tough being such a geek.”

Jason nodded seriously, “It can be. On a more serious note, why are they all just standing there staring at us?  I count about 14 of them.”

“I got the same number,” replied Henry.  “You know, if we hadn’t taken our orbs, we would be totally fucked right now.”

“Yeah,” said Jason.  “Let’s not go congratulating ourselves until we survive this, though.”

“Good plan,” growled Henry.  “Come on motherfuckers, let’s tango!” he yelled at the wolves.

And suddenly the wolves attacked.  As they all seemed to move at the same time, directly at him, Henry thought, Sometimes I wish I could just keep my mouth shut.

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