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Jason was nervous, even with a longsword riding on his hip. He gaped at the ornate hallway of the Mirana Government Building, thinking it resembled a palace more than anything. His friend Henry was walking next to him and they both followed their young friend Bezzi-ibbi, his mother Henna-ibbi, and his birth-mother Banna-ibbi. Jason had no idea why two of Bezzi-ibbi’s mothers came with them and his father, Hajim-ibbi stayed behind.
Mo’hali customs and leadership roles were weird. Every time Jason thought he had the Jaguar Clan figured out, he was proven wrong.
Everyone in their group was wearing fancy clothing. Since Jason and Henry were adopted members of the Jaguar Clan, they wore the same fine robes of black and green as Bezi-ibbi and his mothers. They all wore weapons as well. This surprised him at first, but then Jason reasoned that on a world where people could use magic, trying to control weapons would be fairly silly.
Of course, Mo’hali Heroes could suppress magic in an area, but only if they were near the same strength as a mage or stronger, and Jason was beginning to realize just how rare Heroes were. Jason snapped himself out of his wandering thoughts and began studying his opulent surroundings again. His group was silent as they followed their guide, a friendly, long faced Terran woman in her middle years.
Jason absently noted that their guide was wearing the same red uniform as every other Mirana city worker. The black pants, red shirt, and red vest were all the same with the exception of different badges sewn on the chest. Jason reasoned the badges noted rank or position or both. Their guide’s bobbing ponytail was a welcome distraction for Jason to focus on so he could distract himself from thinking about darker, more upsetting things.
The whole group was still reeling from tragedy.
It had been two weeks since Henry discovered George Jacobs killed and the entire farming village slaughtered. Since then, Mareen threw herself into providing the villagers proper burial, paying off their debts, and hiring investigators to discover who killed her grandfather and friends.
So far they’d gotten no new information back. In fact, one highly recommended investigator disappeared altogether. He wasn’t turning in reports anymore.
Mareen even called in a favor at the Adventurers Guild, putting out a notice that her grandfather, the late adventurer Thato Jacobs’ father had been murdered. A large number of adventurers were shocked and tried to help, especially because it happened so close to the city. The fact the murder was actually part of a full-fledged massacre was not advertised, but some adventurers found out anyway.
Truth be told, Jason was actually expecting to be summoned somewhere for questioning. He wasn’t entirely sure how law enforcement worked on Ludus or in the country of Tolstey in particular, but a massacre right outside the Mirana city walls definitely had to be of interest to somebody. The night Henry and Mareen discovered the carnage visited upon Mareen’s grandfather and friends, Aodh’s nearby family, the O’Breen’s alerted the Guard.
However, Jason thought he would have to answer questions with the Guard, not be summoned by Mirana’s governor.
Aodh and Mareen both were invited to the audience as well, attendance optional, but neither of them chose to attend. Mareen was buried in responsibility but the way her eyes were puffy every morning made it obvious she was crying every night. Henry looked haggard too, probably doing his best to comfort his girlfriend while working through his own grief. Jason felt heartbroken, but at least he hadn’t seen George’s remains.
He could go without that memory in his head for the rest of his life.
Aodh hadn’t come out of his room much for the past week. The boy was listless. Jason honestly didn’t know what to do to raise morale for the members of their company, Delvers LLC.
After walking down multiple corridors that all looked the same to Jason, they came to a heavy, metal bound door flanked by masked, spear-wielding guards. The guards were Mo’hali, both of them rabbit-race, and Jason wondered if at least one was a Hero. Celine, their guide through the Government Building pushed open the doors and ushered them inside before vanishing down the hall.
The room was not as opulent as the rest of the building, it was actually fairly plain. It looked like a generic family room on Earth with the addition of a large desk in the corner and a solid looking table against one wall.
Two people in cloaks were sitting on the vintage looking Earth-style couch to one side. Two Mirana Guards in red uniforms stood at the end of the room. One, a young Terran man stood stiffly, eyes darting around. The other Guard, an Areva woman with dusky skin looked bored and picked at her fingernails.
The last person in the room, a Terran woman with blond hair in her late 30’s sat at the head of the table. She had sheathes of paperwork before her and muttered as she flipped through a document. She wore a white halter dress with embroidered red flowers. Her red fingernails tapped on the table as she read.
It didn’t take Jason long to figure out the woman at the table was probably the Governor of Mirana. She was thin, with pale skin, an upturned nose, low cheekbones, freckles, and a well-defined chin. Her hair was gathered in a bun on top of her head with two thin knives stuck through to keep it in place. An ornate staff leaned against the wall. The fact it was white and decorated with flowers declared who its owner was.
Jason decided the Governor looked like an irritated librarian wearing knives in her hair. The thought didn’t help his nerves.
Without looking up, the Governor said, “Right on time. I appreciate that, especially since nobody in this God-forsaken place has wristwatches. Do you know how hard it is to schedule anything around here when nobody ever knows what time it is?
“The two Mirana Guards are Captain Haili and Lieutenant Boone. They have my full trust, and I believe one of you has met them already.”
Henry cleared his throat and waved, “Nice to see you again.”
Lieutenant Boone nodded. Captain Haili continued to pick at her fingernails. Jason watched the scene with interest, especially the way Bezzi-ibbi’s mothers said and did nothing. In Mo’hali culture, the guards were acting very rude. This behavior would not be tolerated at the Jaguar Clan house. Jason was fascinated by how the Mo’hali women adapted to the situation. Of course, he realized Mo’hali merchant Families would have to be skilled in multiple social settings or they couldn’t be so influential and successful.
The next exchange proved Jason still had a lot to learn. The Governor briefly glanced up before shaking her head and rolling her eyes. Her voice cracked out, “Henna-ibbi, you put those claws away right now! This is my house, and you are not allowed to go rampaging around because someone hurt your feelings or insulted someone’s honor. You want to show honor? Calm down.
“Besides, Captain Haili is probably older than all of us in this room put together so even by your own standards, she can act how she wants. Plus, I had to beat her at chess on a bet just to get her to come here. You are not allowed to kill her, that was too much work. Besides, she can probably kick your ass.”
Jason was aghast but the Governor didn’t stop there. “You there—boy, Jason right? Close your mouth or you might catch flies. You just came from Earth? The US? How much does gas cost now? Actually, never mind, I don’t want to know.
“You know, when that charlatan Dolos abducts new people it actually makes being stuck on Ludus worse. Every time I hear about home it’s like I just got trapped here all over again. But you know the worst part? I had a husband once on this planet, and before he died, it seemed like every other woman around was angry at me. They thought I was selfish, that I was ‘hoarding’ him for myself. I’m afraid to get married again or I might get run out of office. This world is a hell hole.”
Captain Haili sighed and said, “You know, this is one reason I hate coming to these things with you, Maryanne. All you ever do is complain about Ludus like somehow we’re not all stuck here too. You moan about missing electricity and ‘television’ like your primitive, backwards technology can even compare to the Empire I left behind. You should quit whining before I stick my boot up your butt.”
“I could have you arrested.”
“I’m one of the people that does your arresting and leads the other people that do the arresting. Act like a grownup or I’ll douse you with water.” Lieutenant Boone looked incredibly uncomfortable as he stood next to his superior.
“I’ll call you an elf,” the Governor’s nose twitched.
Captain Haili narrowed her eyes, “You. Wouldn’t. Dare.”
Suddenly, the Governor grinned and stood up, putting her work down. “You’re right, I wouldn’t. I suppose I should introduce myself.”
The Governor met the gaze of each member of Jason’s group, slowly placing her hands on her hips as she faced them. She effortlessly exuded self-confidence and authority. “My name is Governor Maryanne Holtz. For now, you may refer to me as Governor Holtz or ‘Madam.’
“I have been the Governor, the ruler of Mirana for over ten years local time. I came to Ludus in my mid 30s in 1965. I was an art teacher. Now I’ve probably killed more people than the Boston Strangler.
“You probably noticed I’m looking pretty damn good for an old lady. Well, that’s because I’m an orb-Bonded. True, I’m not wearing a mask like the rest of you,” she gestured at the masks Jason, Henry, and Bezzi-ibbi wore, “but you still aren’t picking up my name or orb information over your left eye. This is because I know things you don’t.
“And this brings us to why I sent for you to come today. You’ve been conscripted. Congratulations! You just joined the Tolstey Intelligence Agency. I’ve taken the liberty of submitting a discreet request to the Adventurers Guild and already let them know you took the contract. It’s quite lucrative, but unfortunately this means the Guild will not be able to give you any more work or buy any dungeon treasure from you while the contract is open.”
Henry managed to get a word in edgewise, “What are you–”
Governor Holtz talked right over him, “Calm down, young man. This will be easier for all of us if you shut up and listen until I’m done.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. You’ve just been conscripted. While I am the bearer of bad news, I was not the one who came up with this decision. That would be Queen Smrithi and she—“
“Is that her first name?” asked Henry. Jason mentally face palmed.
“Yes,” Governor Holtz answered slowly, not trying to hide her irritation.
“If she goes by her first name, why did you tell us to call you by your last name? She’s your boss, right?”
“Young man, I sincerely hope I’m mistaken, but I have the feeling we might not get along. Your name is Henry, right?” Henry nodded. “Let me make this clear. I am a terribly petty person with a slow, but very potent temper. If you interrupt me one more time, bad things will happen to you. Am I making myself clear?” Henry nodded and Jason sincerely hoped his stony faced friend would shut the hell up.
From the back of the room, Captain Haili was chuckling softly and the Governor ignored her. She cleared her throat and continued, “Okay, I’m going to skip some of the other things I was planning to say and get right to the heart of the matter since you seem like simple, I mean blunt folks.
“Tolstey is not a powerful country. In fact, we might be the least powerful country on this whole planet. We have the weakest dungeons, the weakest adventurers, the weakest army, and we just don’t have that many people. However, most of the country is run by humans, Terrans, and we have a good relationship with Berber to the north. They’re another Terran-run country.
“The mountain range between our countries makes it unlikely they’ll ever invade and we don’t have much for them to bother with here anyway. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The fact Berber keeps a nasty groups of monsters from growing out of control and running amok across the whole continent makes us appreciate them staying right where they are too.
“Recently, someone has been trying to attack our countries from within. He have a suspicion who it was, but we don’t know for sure. And not knowing things is bad.
“See, Tolstey may possibly be the weakest country on Ludus, but we have an excellent Intelligence network. We know about the war coming between Dolos and his rival. We know all about your exploits and about Delvers LLC, which I think is kind of a stupid name, by the way. Then again, our adventuring group called ourselves, “Bedrock Stone Age Family.”
Captain Haili snorted, “I still don’t understand that reference.”
“That’s fine dear, you don’t have to. Don’t try thinking too hard, I’m sure there will be something for you to break sooner or later.” The Governor sniffed, “Anyway, the point is that we know most of what happens in Tolstey and on Ludus in general.
“This means we know all about the massacre at Georgetown farm two weeks ago and the murder of George Jacobs, one of our retired Intelligence agents.”
Jason was shocked. George was a spy? If that was the case, what was he doing out in the middle of nowhere when they met him? Then again, this explained the man’s uncommon knack for learning languages and writing everything down. Mareen had all of George’s old books. Maybe they could find some more clues about the man’s past life in them later on.
Governor Holtz rolled her eyes, “I can already see what you’re all thinking. You obviously didn’t hear me say, ‘retired.’ George served faithfully and was no longer activated, in fact he quit when his son was murdered and he began caring for his granddaughter. However, we keep tabs on our past operatives. They tend to retire with secrets and we want to keep it that way. You know, he actually sent me a note endorsing Delvers LLC, which was why I largely left you alone until now.
“Things change. George was murdered and we have reason to believe it’s linked to the bandits you wiped out, the warehouse you burned down, and a few other things that have happened in Mirana and the capital of Tolstey, Taretha.
“Your exploits have proven that you’re fairly capable and more importantly, you have history with these insurgents now. Our friend from Berber,” she gestured at the larger cloaked figure sitting on the couch, “has asked for reinforcements. Berber has its own problems.
“In fact, all of this is happening at the worst possible time. There are three continents on Ludus, which is about half the size of Earth. Right now, our continent is experiencing a huge surge in monster activity within Berber. Another continent is at war, and the third and most dangerous continent we barely hear anything from. Now we have a war of the gods in a few years to prepare for, and on top of all that, we have this new problem.
“See, at first glance, all the assassination attempts, organized crime, manufacturing of gunpowder, all these things seem like ham-handed attempts by a country across the ocean to weaken us. However, we may have bigger problems on our hands.
“Some of our best people have been gathering information on the insurgents for a while. Quite a few of them have disappeared. However, we learned something disturbing recently. Some of these people were holding dark, religious ceremonies, some even involving human sacrifice.
“We think they might be a cult worshipping a dark god. What’s more, we’re not sure why they’re doing what they’re doing yet, but they could be trying to involve their god as a third player into Dolos’ pissing contest.
Henna-ibbi’s fur bristled, “Dark magic.” She growled, the sound so low it made Jason’s eyeballs vibrate. “Which god? What does it look like?”
Captain Haili answered, “Asag. A really nasty one. His symbol is a diagram-looking thing with crosses up top and circles on the bottom. So far we just have confessions, though. There’s nothing to actually verify that we’re dealing with cultists and not insurgents.”
“Captain Haili is correct,” Governor Holtz nodded, “but Asag’s symbol was drawn on the wall of George’s house in blood. We still don’t have anything to tie the Georgetown massacre to any of the other occurrences, but the symbol showing up after the name was mentioned during an interrogation is concerning.”
Suddenly, Henry stepped forward and placed a large coin on the Governor’s desk. When she saw it, she gasped. “It looks like you have verification now,” grated Henry. “I found this on the body of a man we killed while escaping the gunpowder warehouse. If these are the people who killed George, just tell me where they are and get out of my way.”