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Jason wasn’t quite as surprised as everyone else when Henry stepped forward with the coin. He’d known Henry still had it and he recognized the mark on the wall in George’s house after all the carnage was removed. However, he was curious what the Governor would say.
“Not so fast, young man,” the Governor quickly recovered from her surprise and shook her head reprovingly. “You know, I understand the anger, I understand wanting to avenge your friend, but you really have no idea what I’m about to tell you. If you want to survive on Ludus, you need to keep a clear head.”
“I dunno, we’ve done pretty good so far,” Henry grated.
Governor Holtz shook her head, “No, you’ve gotten incredibly lucky. Even if I told you exactly where to go, even if you took your entire posse with you including your very impressive bronze tank, you’d still be destroyed. You know nothing about this world. In fact, perhaps I can ask our guest to explain it to you.” She gestured at the larger of the robed figures on the couch.
As they focused on him and the man threw his cowl back, Henry hissed and whispered, “I’m sensing a shit ton of magic from that guy.” Jason nodded.
The man had dark hair, dark eyes, slightly tan skin, a triangular face, and a hooked nose. He was clean shaven, kept his hair short, and stood average height for a Terran. He cocked an eyebrow at Henry and pronounced, “You got lucky.” Then he shrugged.
The Governor rolled her eyes, “Can you please elaborate, Gonzo? Maybe introduce yourself, even speculate on this coin Henry has showed us? You were the one that delivered this request in the first place.”
“No problem. My name is Ryan Gonzolez, but everyone calls me Gonzo. I’m originally from Earth and I came to Ludus about ten years ago. My background on Earth is US Air Force Med Lab Tech After I got out I was a Sheriff for a few years until I found myself on Ludus. Now I’m a Berber Intelligence Officer. You are going to be working with me and travelling to Berber, the country to the north.”
Jason wasn’t sure what to think at this point. The conversation wasn’t going as he expected.
Gonzo gestured at the other person on the couch, “This is my apprentice, Vitaliya.” The smaller cloaked figure threw her hood back and revealed a pretty redhead girl in her late teens or early 20s. Jason mentally shook his head, no this was Ludus so she could be any age. He had a feeling he was right about her age, though. He also had a feeling she was an orb-bonded or a mage too. He glanced at Henry and his friend gave a tiny nod, affirming Jason’s suspicion that she had some kind of magic mojo.
After Vitalya nodded to everyone in the room, Gonzo continued, “A demonstration of how little you know might help. Henry, why don’t you spar with Captain Haili over there?”
Henry was silent a moment before replying, “No.”
Jason inwardly smiled as Gonzo sputtered for a moment. The man had obviously not been expecting a refusal. A lot of people assumed that Henry was stupid or simple for some reason, but that was not the case. Not at all.
Henry’s answer was delivered evenly, “Because I’m not an idiot. You wouldn’t be telling me to fight her if you didn’t think she would beat me. This is obviously to prove a point, especially since she’s so cute and tiny. What’s more, I caught the governor saying the Captain is older than all of us, and I’m automatically wary of anyone the leader of the entire city seems to respect. Last but not least, if something went wrong and you misjudged her ability to beat me, this is a tiny room. I don’t want to sling magic around near so many people I definitely don’t want to injure or piss off.”
Captain Haili laughed, the sound like bells falling on concrete. “Maryanne, you may not like this kid but I’m taking a shine to him. This group seems to be full of Innovative survivors with brains. Perhaps the future isn’t so bleak after all.” The Governor ignored her.
Gonzo blinked but to his credit, he readjusted quickly. “Fine. Be that way. We still need a demonstration, though. I’m going to ask again, could you please attack the Captain?”
Henry gave the man a deadpan look at turned his attention to Captain Haili, “Really?”
“It might not be a bad idea to see this with your own eyes. I was planning on kicking you through the doorway if you actually attacked me, but you’re not an idiot. I hear you can shoot projectiles. Just do that.”
Jason’s raw nerves grew more frayed as Henry unslung his rifle from his shoulder. Over the last week, Henry tinkered with all his inventions, probably as part of his own way to deal with grief over George’s murder. One result was that his rifle now featured a pump action mechanism. Henry also practiced with it—a lot.
Henry shouldered the rifle and hesitated, but Captain Haili made a beckoning motion. Henry shrugged, muttered, “Fuck it,” and the air-splitting crack of a sonic boom rattled the entire room. The air in front of Captain Haili grew opaque and Henry’s projectile slammed into the barrier surrounding the dark Areva woman before pieces of gold were directed to the side, embedding into the wall. However, Henry didn’t stop there. He pumped through his entire magazine, sending slug after slug screaming towards his target at hypersonic speeds.
While Henry was firing, Gonzo and Vitaliya plugged their ears after a moment of confusion but didn’t react much other than that. Lieutenant Boon fell to the floor and scampered away from Captain Haili as fast as he could. Governor Holtz’s reaction was most interesting. Her eyes widened and her entire form exploded into dust, hanging in the air before it moved to one corner of the room and re-solidifying into the form of the Governor, her white dress unmarred.
Everyone in Jason’s group was accustomed to Henry’s inventions by now and simply covered their ears.
After Henry was out of ammo, he slapped another magazine into place and shouldered his weapon again, but Captain Haili held up a forestalling hand. “I think that’s enough. You get the point and I think a few more shots would actually take my shield down. Let’s not go that far. However, I should probably show you this, too.”
The door to the chamber burst open and the Mo’hali guards rushed in, spears at the ready. Jason began feeling a strange tingle in the back of his head, almost like his magic was writhing around. It seemed he was right that at least one of the guards outside was a Hero. The Governor’s voice cracked out like a whip, “Get out of here at this instant! I ordered you not to disturb us regardless of any noise!” The pressure on the back of Jason’s mind eased and the guards immediately left the room with sheepish expressions, closing the door behind them.
Captain Haili shook her head and said, “That was exciting. Now watch, please.” She held her wrist up and several small beads detached from a bracelet, hung in the air for a second, then zipped forward, embedding into the stone wall to one side of the room. After that she drew her sword and cut in one smooth motion, the blade generating a thin wave of air that rushed forward and cut the wall over 20 feet away. “I think you get the point now.”
Henry nodded and Jason was fascinated. Now that he was looking for it, he noticed that Captain Haili was covered in jewelry and various straps or buckles that could all be magic devices. Jason scratched his head and asked, “How many people have items like you do, Captain Haili?”
The Areva woman grimaced, “You can call me Naloo when we’re in private. I get tired of hearing my title all the time.” She glanced sternly at Lieutenant Boone, “I’m still ‘Captain’ to you, though, understand?” The other Guard nodded.
Captain Haili continued, “Less people than you might think, actually. See, every magic item, whether a burning sword or a ring that creates shield is considered a magic item, and on Ludus, enchanted items can only have a certain number of owners.”
Jason nodded, he’d already heard this. “Three, right?”
“Correct. So if you see a magic item for sale, it can accept at least one more owner. However, if someone is using one and you take it or they give it to you, it could be yours or it could crumble to dust depending on how many owners it’s had.
“The rarity of enchanted items plus their average costs makes it hard for most people to have many. But like Maryanne said, I’m fairly old. I could probably get older if I bonded with an orb, but I hate Dolos and I want nothing to do with that, what do you say? Rat bastard.” She said the last portion in heavily accented English.
“English?” Henry asked.
“Yes, I taught her some years ago. I guess I can’t completely forget the teacher in me,” the Governor spoke in English with a Welsh accent. She looked wistful for a moment before switching back to Ludan, “This is another reason I hate running into people from Earth. It reminds me of my Cardiff…” Her voice trailed off into silence.
Henry spoke up, his voice terse, “That was really impressive and all, but what the hell does it prove?”
“It proves you don’t know much about this world,” Captain Haili shrugged. “I’ve heard about everything you’ve done so far. You’ve done a great job surviving, but you’ve only fought small fry. We don’t even know the highest rank of any Bonded on Ludus. There are entire strike teams of highly trained soldiers like me out there with weapons like mine. They could be Areva, warriors who can literally train over one hundred years to master combat on Ludus.
“There are other countries with entire armies, well small armies of Bonded that train together for war! Despite how Maryanne talks about me, I’m just a Mirana Guard with a few handy gadgets and I could at least be a threat to you, if not kill you both. What’s more, enchanted tools aren’t affect as strongly by Mo’hali Heroes as Bonded are. Trust me when I say I would not go down easy in a fight.
“And on that note, you probably still think of every conflict as a slugging match or throwing power around. Ludus doesn’t work that way.
“You saw what Maryanne just did. I wouldn’t bring this up if you hadn’t already seen her power, but imagine a sandstorm approaching you and sand filling your lungs. How would you fight that? Not with a rifle,” she pointed at Henry’s weapon, “although that is such a fine weapon I kind of want to marry this boy right now so I can touch all his inventions.” She licked her lips.
What in the hell is with Henry attracting all these scary older women? Jason was bemused. Henry looked uncomfortable.
Governor Holtz clapped her hands and announced, “That’s enough! I’m going to end this now before my Guard Captain starts preying on confused, defenseless boys that haven’t even been on Ludus for a year. Seriously, Naloo, do you have any shame?”
Captain Haili shrugged, “Nope, don’t think so. And he did say I was small and cute.” She made some kind of sound, almost a purr. Jason wasn’t sure who looked more uncomfortable, Henry or Lieutenant Boone.
“Fuck me…” muttered Henry.
“That’s the idea,” the woman’s eyes sparkled.
The governor cleared her throat and announced, “That is quite enough. I’m very busy and I have another meeting soon. Henry, Jason, you have your orders. Once again, congratulations for joining the Tolstey Intelligence Corps! You are technically in the Guard for the duration of your mission as well. Your direct superior is Agent Gonzo, your contacts in the Mirana Guard are Lieutenant Boone and Captain Haili. Do you have any questions?”
Henry shook his head, “Why us? And this sounds important, why not give us a choice? In fact, why not send a hundred, no a thousand people on this mission?”
The Governor tapped her chin and shook her head, “When you get to be as old as I am, you prefer forcing people to do things instead of asking for volunteers. I prefer predictable results and not being disappointed. I understand your confusion, but I have a lifetime of experience at this. For everything else, Agent Gonzo can explain. Now shoo.”
The guards and the spies started began walking towards the door. Jason quickly asked, “So you’re giving us money?”
Governor Holz looked at Jason like he was an idiot. “I am sending you on a mission to possibly stop a war before it starts and prevent utter catastrophe. Your mission involves evil magic and cults. Of course you get a bloody budget! What, did you think I was going to send you on a critical quest with no help or money?”
“Well, kind of.” Jason had a lifetime of expectations from video games. This audience wasn’t going exactly as he expected it to and he had to admit he was relieved.
“Just follow Gonzo’s directions,” the Governor rolled her eyes, “dismissed.”
* * *
In the hallway, Gonzo bowed to Bezzi-ibbi, his mother Banna-ibbi, and his rekke, his non-birth mother Henna-ibbi. “I apologize for being rude in the room out of necessity. I greet the Jaguar Clan.”
“At least you have some manners,” Henna-ibbi grunted.
“Sister, leave it. You should get back to the Clan House and eat,” Banna-ibbi gently took her arm.
“Yes, fine. Let’s go. Jason-ibbi, Henry-ibbi, please come see us when you are done. The Governor made this a Clan matter by inviting us here.” She turned to Bezzi-ibbi, “Since this one is a Hero,” she snarled the world, “he may go where he will.”
The two Jaguar Clan women left at a stately pace, following a servant that materialized out of nowhere to guide them.
When they were far out of earshot, Henry muttered, “I’m glad she’s not my mom, rekke or otherwise.” Jason could only silently agree.
Off to the side, the two Berber agents stood silently. Jason approached and asked, “Ryan, er—Mr. Gonzalez, could you please tell me what the hell is going on?”
The man smiled and Jason sensed some legitimate compassion from him, “Please, call me Gonzo. I know this is probably a lot to take in and I promise you that I’ll explain everything, including how you got conscripted into this. However, I think first you need to have a conversation with the Jaguar Clan. I will meet you tomorrow morning for our first meeting.
“That said, I have seen your Battlewagon and I am very impressed. First I should probably explain something. I used to play a few games when I was a kid and I recognize some of the similarities on Ludus. If Ludus was an RPG, Tolstey would be the starting zone.”
“The starting zone?” Every near death experience Jason had since his arrival on Ludus suddenly flashed through his mind, “Seriously?”
“Yes,” Gonzo’s expression was entirely serious. “You see, we have much greater technology and magical devices in Berber than here in Tolstey. There are also barely any people in Tolstey… but we can talk about all that tomorrow. For now, I need to give you some instruction and ask you for a trade.”
“We’re listening,” Henry’s voice was short, but Jason appreciated his friend trying to be polite.
“Your instruction for now is that you need to talk to Captain Haili and the Lieutant over there for your budget from the city. Actually, this is money the Tolstey Queen earmarked for this mission, so they don’t have much of a choice.” He chuckled, the sound surprisingly warm. Jason wasn’t expecting a legit spy to act so likable.
“And the favor?” Henry urged.
“Yes, as I said, Berber has many things that Tolstey doesn’t have. However, most Magi-artisans, mages that craft magic tools usually only create machines for important work or public transport. There are weapons and vehicles for war too, but those belong to the military. Your Battlewagon is somewhat unique.”
“Spit it out.” Henry was beginning to sound less patient.
“Okay, okay,” Gonzo held his hands up, “I want a motorcycle.”
“A what?” Henry frowned.
Well, that came out of left field, Jason felt bemused watching his friend and the spy continue their bizarre conversation.
“Yes, you see, back on earth I used to love riding my dirt bike for fun.” Gonzo’s eyes positively gleamed as he continued, “I think you can probably make a vehicle smaller than your Battlewagon while using the same tech, right?”
Henry seemed to think about it for a while before replying, “You seem very well informed, but I guess I should expect this from a spy. Maybe. What’s in it for us?”
Gonzo grinned and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his trouser pocket. “This is a note explaining how to hide your Holder or Hero status from casual detection like I am.”
Henry’s eyes widened, “Casual detection, you mean like the info scrolling over people’s eye?”
“The very same.”
Gonzo definitely had Jason’s attention. Out the corner of his eye, he caught Bezzi-ibbi focusing on the conversation as well. Every member of Delvers LLC were used to wearing their distinctive masks, but they all thought it’d be nice if they could take them off if they wanted to. Plus, a few other adventuring companies had already begun copying them. The look wasn’t as unique as it was before.
Jason spoke up, “That won’t be cheap.”
Gonzo shrugged, “After you talk to Captain Haili, I doubt you will have any money problems. What say you?”
“Just one bike?” asked Henry.
“Two if possible, one for me and one for my apprentice,” Gonzo gestured towards the red haired girl. She slightly narrowed her eyes, showing no other reaction.
Jason asked, “How long do we have until we leave?”
“You mean if you decide not to run away?” Gonzo smiled, “I was thinking we could head out in about two weeks. It will be a long journey and we need to leave as soon as possible, but we don’t want to be stupid about it.”
“Okay… done,” Henry held his hand out for the paper.
Gonzo placed the note in Henry’s hand, but before he let go, his entire demeanor changed. His jaw tensed, his eyes grew flat and Jason thought the man suddenly looked very dangerous. Gonzo quietly said, “I suggest you destroy this after you read it. If you share this information with anyone outside of your company, I’ll be forced to kill you and hunt down anyone you told. Information this powerful is guarded jealously. Please don’t test my resolve.”
Over his time on Ludus so far, Jason had gotten used to listening to his instincts about approaching danger. His instincts were currently screaming at him to take this man seriously.
“Alright,” Henry pocketed the note.
“Good, good,” Gonzo was smiling again. “I’ll see you at your house tomorrow morning if you haven’t run away. Please don’t run away. I will find you, and it won’t be pleasant. Goodbye,” With that, he began walking away, his apprentice following him. No government worker or servant came to lead them. For the first time, Jason noticed that the passing servants didn’t look at Gonzo at all. They all seemed terrified.
How did I miss that before? Jason thought.
Jason, Henry, and Bezzi-ibbi were heading to the Jaguar Clan House from the government building. On their way out, they took a letter of credit from Captain Haili who said she’d be in touch. Lieutenant Boone sighed and told them to come find him if they needed anything other than money. He cautioned that they wouldn’t get any more than what was promised in the letter.
The letter of credit was riding in Jason’s pocket. He still didn’t really understand Tolstey currency and didn’t really want to. He was planning to give the note to Mareen and be done with it. As he walked, their group got some attention. Two men in opulent robes, armed to the teeth, traveling with a Jaguar Clan boy, all wearing masks was probably a bit of a sight. Jason ignored the murmurs and the finger pointing.
He hoped that Henry had his super senses turned up to pick up any potential danger, but he knew better than to ask. Henry still felt their capture and imprisonment in the storage building when they first got to Mirana was partially his fault, and Jason agreed with him. He’d never say so out loud, though.
“Hey,” he tapped Henry on the shoulder, “are you going to grab Mareen and Aodh?” Mareen, Henry’s girlfriend and their company’s treasurer lived with Henry in his room. Aodh, the Delvers LLC explosive triggerman, a 16 year old mediocre fire mage usually stayed in the garage. Through a cruel twist of fate, he looked almost entirely Fideli despite actually being mostly Terran. The non-human physical traits he inherited could be useful, but they also made him an outcast for most of his life.
Bezzi-ibbi suddenly spoke in broken English, “Rark-han too, please.” Jason’s eyebrows went up. The kid was getting better at English, which was fantastic since he refused to speak Ludan like everyone else.
Yes, Jason figured Bezzi-ibbi was right. They should get Rark-han. The one armed wolf-race Mo’hali man followed Bezzi-ibbi as some sort of religious servant. He had simple quarters in the small home Bezzi-ibbi rented near Henry and Jason’s house. Jason still wasn’t sure he completely trusted the big wolf man yet, but he was a part of their company.
Plus, Jason knew this new conscription affected them all. Every member of Delvers LLC deserved to be involved in the meeting. There was no use getting upset about it yet, but they were all pretty much over a barrel. Jason had felt the jaws of inevitability closing in on them ever since they got the summons to see the Governor. He was disappointed that the feeling had been accurate.
“Yeah, I’ll go,” Henry replied. “Meet you there.”
At the next street, Henry took a turn and Jason went the other way with Bezzi-ibbi. Jason knew Bezzi-ibbi was intelligent and could display a startling amount of wisdom, but he didn’t want to burden the boy with his problems. Bezzi-ibbi was apparently lost in his own thoughts as well. The rest of the way to the Jaguar Clan House was quiet and Jason wondered how the meeting with the Jaguar Clan would unfold.