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Bush with Death
Henry woke up before dawn, the shirt he threw over his alarm clock the night before kept it muted enough so Mareen could keep sleeping. Dolos wouldn’t let anyone on Ludus use electricity for some dickhead reason but at least there were plenty of mechanical inventions recreated from Earth’s history. Alarm clocks weren’t exactly cheap in Mirana, but they weren’t rare either.
As Henry got dressed, he shook his head. It’d been another long night. Mareen was holding up better in public now but she was still a raw bundle of nerves in private. Henry wasn’t very good at comforting people or with emotions in general but he tried to do his best to be there for Mareen. He hissed as he stubbed his toe. He really wished he had a lamp, but magic lights were expensive, candles took a while to get going and could be stinky, and electricity was forbidden.
When Henry first began building machines using magic power, he briefly thought about experimenting to get around the ban on electric technology. He wasn’t an expert, but he knew how simple things like lightbulbs worked. However, after he saw multiple warnings about the types of technology Dolos outlawed on Ludus and well as verifying that yes, the god was dead ass serious about enforcing it, Henry decided it would probably be a bad idea.
Dolosbots were known for wiping entire villages from the map and a single ‘bot could easily take out multiple orb-bonded. Henry wondered what kind of technology the Dolosbots used. He was convinced they didn’t run on the same principles of magic that people on Ludus were stuck with. The longer he was on Ludus, the more convinced Henry was that Dolos was more of an alien on a power trip than a god.
Either way, he was a piece of shit. Henry had to play by his rules because Dolos cured his mother of cancer. It didn’t mean he had to like the situation, though.
Henry padded out into their little rented house and knocked at Jason’s bedroom door. Uluula went home the night before, which was good because he had to knock for a while to wake Jason up.
Henry went outside to wait for his friend, mask in place, and eventually Jason joined him, wearing a pack and muttering groggily under his breath under his own mask. Jason was not a morning person.
Without another word, they began walking at a brisk pace. Neither of them said anything, which was probably for the best as Jason fully woke up. When they got to one of the gates to the city, Henry nodded in a friendly manner to the Guards on duty. They nodded back, most of them knew Henry.
It doesn’t matter what city or world you’re in, it always pays to be on good terms with the police, Henry thought smugly to himself. They walked for another few minutes until they neared the first evidence of farmland outside Mirana. Jason turned off the road and Henry followed.
Eventually, Jason stopped and said, “This should be good. We can talk here.”
Henry rolled his eyes. “I really don’t understand why we needed to come all the way out here just to have a chat.”
“This is more serious than that and you know it. Plus, we have literal spies involved in whatever it is we’re involved in now, and we needed to have a private conversation.”
“Yeah, I suppose we do.” Henry was aware that they’d hardly talked about business or anything serious for a while other than George’s murder. Everyone’s life and goals were turned upside down. “Okay, let’s start with the obvious. What the hell is going on?”
Jason took his pack off and set it to the side near a handy rock. He sat down and faced Henry, saying, “First, we both agree that I will be leaving after this meeting, right?” He gestured at his pack and said, “I’m ready to go, but that means you will need to tank the meeting with Gonzo later today.”
Henry groaned but he already knew about it. He still agreed with Jason that his friend should go, though. “Yeah, but that’s why we’re having this convo in the first place, right?”
“Yes. Okay, first thing’s first. We got the secret note from Gonzo stating the method to remove the left eye data feed, or LEDF from occurring if we have our faces uncovered.”
“I still think that’s a stupid acronym and we shouldn’t use it.”
“Well, everyone disagrees with you. Plus, it’s a discreet way to talk about these sorts of things. Not many people on Ludus use acronyms at all. Anyway, the tea we would need to make and drink to get rid of LEDF uses material from an extremely rare monster, materials that are ridiculously expensive and hard to come by on the market.”
“Yup, and we already ran into one.” Henry shivered at the memory. Their first day on Ludus, Henry saw a bush with pretty pink flowers and he got a weird feeling about it. They now knew it was actually the top of a blind ambush monster called a “flowertop popper.” Most of its body stayed buried in the ground until prey got close enough. They were native to Tolstey and only lived in remote areas, feeding on all animals or people that got too close.
Henry almost died even before fighting the goblins. The thought was chilling. Thank God for instincts. When he saw the bush, he hadn’t known why at the time but it made him nervous so they want around it.
Jason said, “Yes, we did. You saved our lives. Thank you, by the way. I don’t think I’ve been able to say that since we found out how close we came to dying.”
Henry felt a little uncomfortable. He hadn’t done anything all that special, just paid attention to a hunch. “Yeah, whatever. Don’t worry about it. Anyway, how are we sure that the note Gonzo gave us is legit?”
“We don’t, but I think it’s worth it to find out, especially since we know where a flowertop monster is. Plus, I’ve never tried this before but I can move really fast by teleporting through the air. I should be gone a day or two max, and being a second rank Bonded means one ambush monster is not too much of a threat.”
“Speaking of which, didn’t we have this meeting to talk about the orbs and your level up?” Henry started looking around for his own rock to sit on.
“Yes. To be honest, it was one of the main reasons I wanted to keep this conversation semi-private. I’m beginning to realize that secrecy about what our orbs do is part of how the Holder culture works. It makes sense too. Someone will have a lot harder time killing you or planning for what you can do if they don’t know what your abilities are.”
“It’s cold, but I agree,” said Henry. He couldn’t find another rock big enough to sit on and remained standing. “Okay, so you never told me what you used your upgrade points for after you hit second rank. So spill. What did the purple cartoon cat give you?”
Jason frowned and Henry had to work hard to keep a straight face. He knew was being a dick, but making fun of Jason was really fun sometimes. His friend had about zero ability at hiding his emotions.
“Fine,” Jason said. “But first let me tell you why I did what I did. I gave it a lot of thought.” Henry nodded and Jason continued, “We keep getting surprised, and we still didn’t know much about the world. Plus, the fact we discovered the orks were intelligent enough to have their own written language in Yanbei Cavern kind of floored me.
“I started thinking about George’s notes and Bezzi-ibbi’s ability to learn languages. I think we did really well to survive so far, but we need to start planning our end game. I took some support skills.”
“What do you mean? I took that dungeon finding skill before and it hasn’t been too useful.”
“That doesn’t mean it won’t come in handy more in the future.” Jason thought for a minute before he said, “Second rank for us is 12 point, as you know. I took Magic Power (Rank 2, 2 points), Speed (Rank 1, 1 point), Magic Control (Consciousness/Space Rank 2, 3 points), Mind Strengthening (Rank 1, 1 point), and… Monster Lore, which was 1 point.”
“Monster Lore?” Henry hadn’t been expecting that. He gave Jason a flat look. “You probably already know what questions I’m going to ask, so just keep talking.”
“Okay, that works. Basically, I realized we’ve been acting reactionary and making choices without a lot of information. In the past it was a necessity, but it’s not anymore. The writing and ork journals I found in Yanbei Cavern made me realize we know nothing, but we’re surrounded by information if we can just recognize and understand it.
“I took a point in mind augmentation because we learn too slowly. Bezzi-ibbi basically learned another language in less than a month. Uluula can learn new things and actually retain them ridiculously fast. You and I both know part of that is because of the Areva hardware in her head, but that’s irrelevant. I’m not dumb, but I wanted an advantage.
“So far, that single point skill has been amazing. I learn things faster, I remember things easier, and I even understand my magic better.
“The other part you’re probably wondering about is the four points I didn’t use for my upgrades. This is one of the things we need to talk about most. I spent a lot of time talking to my orb—yes, the cartoon cat. It was hard to nail him down on any specific answers, but I figured out how to ask questions he couldn’t evade. I learned some really, really interesting things.”
Jason had Henry’s attention. He had to admit that he never really tried getting too much information out of his orb’s manifestation. Henry’s orb appeared as a childhood hero and the disrespect made him angry every time. He still told Jason that his orb appeared as a bikini model, though. Jason’s reaction was always hilarious. He said, “Okay, I’m listening.”
“Basically, what we see in our upgrade menu when we are in the orb dream is not complete. There are skills and abilities we can unlock.”
“Yes, it’s a pretty standard game mechanic and we know Dolos is modeling at least some of this world after an alien role playing game. Basically, it’s hard to pin my orb’s interface down on anything, but I think we can get new schools of magic by choosing to add another, basic school of magic. This will cost five points and having at least five or six levels of magic focus between two schools or subschools. Well, I think.”
“What?” Henry wasn’t following too well. He’d played games before, but was not a gamer like Jason. Plus, the whole abstract way the orbs and their rankings worked seemed strange to him.
Jason paused for a moment before answering. “It costs five points to add another magic school and subschool, or do what you did with Metal and actually reverse it so your subschool affinity is stronger. If we have our original magic plus another set, I think it will open up even more types that are hidden right now.
“In fact, I think we just saw evidence of this. Remember how Governor Holtz turned into sand?”
Henry’s eyes widened as he remembered the feat. He hadn’t really thought of it since. “Yeah, now that you mention it, that’s not really anything I could do with Earth magic. In fact, from what I understand, it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Exactly. I have a theory that Governor Holtz’s orb confers two types of magic in a specialized way. You and I have orbs that are harder to optimize, but we have a lot more versatility. Basically, I’m playing a hunch that when I get to my next rank, by purchasing a new school of magic, I’ll be able to see some unlocked abilities. I want to save some points for that.”
“Okay, that makes sense.”
“Okay,” said Jason, “that covers the upgrade stuff I wanted to talk about. I suggest you take some extra time with your bikini model orb to figure out what direction you want to go. I don’t think I need to hold your hand. Even though this isn’t your thing, you’ve made relatively intelligent decisions so far.”
“Thanks, I think.” Henry wasn’t sure if Jason was being insulting or not. He decided to take everything said as a compliment. Life was easier that way.
Jason said, “So anyway, I took Monster Lore and I’m glad I did. It’s ridiculously over powered for only one point. Dolos would fail as a game designer. Well, never mind. We don’t know how any of this works. He might not be calling the shots with the points.
“Monster Lore gave me some background on monster information, general classifications, and several languages… all for a single point. I’ve been able to read the journals we found in Yanbei Caverns. This is what I really drug you out here for.
“Dolos was playing those orks. He found them on the planet they were on before, played to their religion so they’d do what he said, brought them here, and only took males so they couldn’t breed. He also didn’t warn them that their iron and steel would rot. Henry, those orks had their own technology back on their own world.”
“Yeah, it explains why Uluula hates them so much. She doesn’t really want to talk about it but I was wondering how creatures with stone clubs could bother a space-faring race like the Areva. Anyway, the orks are simple but they’re not nearly as stupid as I first assumed. Their leader, the closest translation I can find for his name is ‘Smartstrong’, was convinced that Dolos was a friend or messenger for their god, Tartooth.”
“Dolos is straight up lying to intelligent, if violent creatures, bringing them here, and making us all fight like a child throwing bugs together in a jar.”
“That mother fucker.” Henry thought he should feel more surprised than he did, but nothing really floored him anymore. Ludus had that kind of effect.
Jason continued, “And the assumption we had about Dolos testing us and making life harder on purpose was probably true anyway, but I’m even more convinced after reading the ork leader’s journal. I think learning more about monsters, maybe even talking to them might be a key to understanding this planet better. The more we understand, the better chances we have for keeping ourselves and everyone else alive.”
Henry nodded and said, “This is all good stuff to keep in mind, but we have a few other things to talk about and you need to go soon.”
“Yeah, like about what to do with our leftover loot.”
“We don’t have much left of it, which is good since the fucking Governor tied up the Adventurers Guild. Now they won’t buy any more of our shit.”
“Yes, and what we have left is pretty pricey.” Jason pulled a note out of his pocket. “I actually had Uluula write a quick list for us.”
Henry took the list and read through it, but everything was there he was expecting. “The list says we have a few enchanted items that we couldn’t sell right away, three in fact. Nobody knew what they did, us or the Guild. Pretty much all the weapons we and metal we recovered was sold. We only kept the material from the bronze doors.
We kept a good amount of magic stones to power the Battlewagon. The one spirit stone we found you already used.” Henry scanned the list again. “The only other thing worth mentioning is the Dolos orb. Are you sure Uluula doesn’t want it? It seems weird to have a Dolos orb just kicking around.”
Jason nodded. “She doesn’t want to be orb-bonded. I think she thinks it will interfere with whatever she really wants to achieve, and since she will live to be a few hundred years old anyway, she isn’t in a rush. I haven’t had a chance to really talk to her about it, I keep forgetting. That said, after I told her about Captain Haili, she wants to look into magic tech. She’s going to buy some books on the subject before we leave Mirana and maybe pick up some gear.”
“So we’re sure we’re going to leave, huh?”
“Yes. There’s really no way we can get out of this, Henry. I’ve looked at it from multiple directions. Plus, if we’re going to do what Dolos obligated us to do, we can’t just be low level, safe adventurers in Mirana forever. In fact, if we tried to do that, Dolos would probably make our lives even harder.
“I did some asking around and found out the highest rank orb-bonded anyone heard of before is like rank eight. That’s nuts. They could probably destroy us.”
“I just wonder what level of orb-bonded could actually go toe to toe with a Dolosbot. There really is a lot of stuff we don’t understand. But speaking of us leaving soon… you know Uluula is going to be mad as hell that you’re taking off. Especially without saying goodbye to her first.”
“Yes, but it’s necessary.”
“Yeah, and it prolongs the inevitable a little,” said Henry. “You know those girls are gonna want us to marry them soon. This is not Earth. Plus, you and Uluula have started fucking, right?”
“Do you have to be so crude?” Jason winced. “You know, you don’t always have to phrase things in such an abrasive way, especially when you’re not even speaking English.”
“Whatever. I have to be in this shitty world, I have to work for shitty Dolos, I am damn sure not changing who I am to do it. But that doesn’t answer the question. You’re pretty sure Uluula is going to push marriage, right?” Henry couldn’t believe his friend was so uptight. In the past, he thought Jason needed to get laid or something, but now he had a girlfriend and was still acting like he had a stick up his butt.
“Yes,” replied Jason.
“Me too. And the other day when I was walking to the house, the girls were talking and being all sneaky-like. I couldn’t hear what they were saying even with my hearing cranked up.”
“Probably because they know you keep spying on everyone.”
“Yeah, but Tony was also acting really squirrely after that and wouldn’t look at me.”
“Hmmm. They probably will bring it up soon then. However, more importantly, how are you noticing all this stuff? You used to be the densest person on the face of the planet.”
“Well, after I spent a few weeks with a hot chick wanting to jump me every day and not even noticing, I decided it was time to stop being so retarded. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a matter of paying attention.” It seemed obvious to Henry. He didn’t like being surprised by things, so he simply adjusted his thinking. It was past time he got over his divorce and stopped acting like a pussy.
“Well, on that subject, I’ve been doing some research,” said Jason. “You know I’m a little wigged out by the whole multiple wives thing. It’s not that I don’t want to marry Uluula or that I’m not willing to adapt, I just… need more time.”
Henry had a flash of insight. “I think you’re full of shit. You are a dude. I think what probably really bothers you is that you might like having multiple wives or you think it might cheapen what you have with Uluula.”
Jason paused before answering. “You’re being kind of a dick, but yes, the thought has occurred to me. I really care about Uluula. I know this is all her idea, but I also know that she is still a person with feelings and I don’t want to hurt them. I also don’t know if I could go through with it and not feel guilty or feel like I’m a terrible man.
“But with Ludan and Areva culture, we should have married both our girlfriends a while ago. And in the rest of the universe, women are looked down on if they have a husband and no sister wives. Hell, I might hurt Uluula’s feelings if I don’t go through with all of this. You heard what the Governor said. I bet women from Earth that come to Ludus are all either outcasts, unhappy, or have to adapt.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re getting ready to adapt too but I’m also guessing you have a plan,” said Henry. “You sound like you have a plan, anyway.”
“Yes. We’re not going to wait for them to bring it up. We’re going to propose to them, which as males is unusual for Areva and Ludan culture, probably because Terrans on this planet picked up a lot of mannerisms from Areva. Anyway, whoever does the asking has more control over when the actual marriage takes place.
“We can get engaged, then tell them we will get married after this mission is over. It’s a reasonable request, and should give me more time to adjust. Plus, if more than one woman is engaged to a man and get married at the same time, the roles in the household are a little more murky. Usually the first wife has more control of the household than the second wife, and so on and so forth.
“There are exceptions, but usually if a woman is engaged, she doesn’t try as hard to find a sister wife until she’s married.”
“Okay, that could work.” Henry wasn’t as worried about Mareen going off and trying to find a bajillion other women to fill his house like Jason seemed afraid Uluula would do. Henry was just not in a big hurry to get married again. “I do think it’s kind of funny that you seem to be growing balls, though. I thought you were going to just roll over and do whatever your elf girl wanted you to do.”
“Don’t call her an elf.” Jason glared at him. “And fuck you. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Try to handle that meeting later today with Gonzo without me.”
“Okay, before you leave, what should we do about outfitting for the trip?”
“Well, all our money isn’t much good if we’re dead. Since we’re going to be traveling anyway, as far as I’m concerned we can use almost all of it as long as we keep a little extra on the side. Make sure everyone in the company is going to stay with us, and if they are, let’s gear everyone up. It may not be the best for business, but we always knew that Delvers LLC was just the first step towards our endgame.”
“I’m assuming you already told Uluula all this stuff too?”
“Yes. Okay I need to go now, the sun is starting to come up.” Without warning, Jason took off, teleporting with a bamf of displaced air. Henry saw his friend reappear in the distance up in the sky.
Wow, he’s a lot more powerful now. Henry shook his head and started walking back to the city. It was almost time to wake up Mareen. For the first time since they got to Ludus, he wished he had Jason’s magic instead of his own. If he could teleport, he could be going off to kill a monster 1 on 1 instead of dealing with meetings. And shopping.
Henry shuddered. He’d much rather be fighting monsters.