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Henry had time to tinker in the garage before the meeting with Gonzo. Luckily, as long as he made an effort to keep his work quiet, he knew he wouldn’t wake Aodh in the corner. The kid slept like the dead.
Uluula arrived before Mareen got up. The Areva woman almost always arrived early to scheduled meetings. She was carrying her spear around with her as usual. When she saw Henry by himself her eyes tightened but she didn’t say anything.
It was obvious she figured out what happened, that Jason went out alone. The woman was quick witted. Jason was so screwed.
Oh well, better him than me.
As usual, Henry and Uluula didn’t really have much to say to each other. What do you talk to a space elf about? He didn’t dislike Uluula, not anymore and he was glad Jason was happy but he still had nothing in common with her. At least she didn’t feel the need to make things awkward by trying to be friendly. He did like that no-nonsense side of her. He respected her, she respected him, and that was good enough.
Mareen left Henry’s room a while later, her hair wet from a shower. Mirana city amenities sucked but at least they had running water and flushing toilets. There wasn’t much in the way of temperature control, though. Mareen looked gorgeous. Her dark skin glowed and she wore a light blue, short sleeve dress. The only thing marring her casual appearance was her baldric with Henry’s old blessed steel machete. Well, he supposed it was her machete now. Henry couldn’t see it, but he knew she probably had the dagger Jeth used to torture her somewhere on her too, maybe on the back of her baldric.
Henry agreed with being prepared, it was the reason he wore weapons despite not really needing them anymore. He didn’t want to be helpless if a Mo’hali Hero ever suppressed his magic. In theory, he also supported revenge, especially if it involved killing the fuckers that murdered George. However, he thought Mareen might be taking it a little too far. That sort of darkness could eat a person up.
But what right did he have to say anything? Henry Sato was many things, but he refused to be a hypocrite. The best he could do was just be there for her and try to keep her from flying apart. She did a good job hiding her grief around other people, though.
As soon as Mareen showed up, the normally stoic Uluula smiled and both women went off to talk in a corner. Henry briefly wondered what they were chatting about, probably stupid shit like clothes and shoes… then again, maybe not. Henry had to mentally amend that Mareen was becoming increasingly interested in cutty-stabby things, and Uluula was wound so goddamn tight she could double as a pointy-eared spring.
Weapons. They were probably talking about weapons. Henry approved.
The next to show up for the meeting were Bezzi-ibbi. The boy wore his showy, fancy clothing as usual and Rark-han followed the little Hero like a shadow. Bezzi-ibbi nodded at Henry, flashing a quick smile before he found a seat. Henry felt a little guilty again for letting a kid be an adventurer, but Bezz-ibbi was an adult now by Mo’hali law. He could do what he wanted, and what he wanted was to travel with Delvers LLC.
Henry already talked to the crazy little bastard about it, and Bezzi-ibbi’s mind was made up.
With the group there, Henry cleared his throat to make an announcement. All eyes turned to him and he decided to be blunt, to just say what was on his mind. “Look everyone, me and Jason are pretty much screwed here. I have no idea where all this is headed or how dangerous it’s going to be.
“I appreciate all of you and right now we all have had a good haul from Yanbei Cavern. None of us are really hurting for money. I want to make it clear that nobody is being forced to come with us to when we go with Gonzo. Bezzi-ibbi, I’m not sure if you have much choice, Hero or not.” Bezzi-ibbi nodded and Henry continued, “But anyone else can choose to stay behind, to leave the company.
“Past this point, everyone is a volunteer. If you want to leave, this is probably your best, last opportunity.”
Everyone stared at him like he was an idiot. After a second or two, the rest of the Delvers went back to what they’d been doing before. Well, that was interesting. Henry already pretty much knew that nobody would leave the company, but he wanted to make sure. He had a feeling the next few months would be intense.
Gonzo and Vitaliya arrived without much fuss. After the knock on the front door, Henry answered and the meeting started almost immediately. The Delvers stood in Henry and Jason’s small living room in a half circle. Henry knew Gonzo must have noticed Jason wasn’t present, but the spy didn’t show any reaction at all. This guy is hard to read.
After a few polite greetings, Gonzo said, “Good, obviously none of you have run away. I actually could have questions about that right now, but one of my informants updated me this morning.” He gave Henry a meaningful look.
Wow, Jason was right. Henry made a note to figure out a way to have private conversations easier in the future. Walking for several miles was inconvenient.
“Most of you have met me already. My name is Ryan Gonzolez, but I go by Gonzo for people that know me. You know me now, so you can call me Gonzo. I’m going to quickly update everyone in this group. Unfortunately, security in Mirana isn’t great so our best bet is to just get this conversation over quickly. Bezzi-ibbi, would you mind securing the room from magic?”
Bezzi-ibbi nodded, and Henry felt the weird, itchy feeling of the kid using his Hero power. He also felt his own magic reserves get suppressed like at the Jaguar Clan when Bezzi-ibbi flexed his Hero field there. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
Gonzo nodded briskly and got back to business. “Our mission is both simple and complex. We are going to be traveling to Berber, the country to the north and the central country of this continent. It is primarily settled by Terrans with a strong Areva presence in the ruling class, most of them nobles from Hanana to the northwest.
“We’ll be crossing through the Tolstey mountains by way of the Stem River. This will lead us to Rose Lake. We have a party that will be waiting for us there to bolster our strength as security for the dangerous leg of the journey.
“We’ll be following the shortest route to Mensk, the capital city of Berber. We’ll follow the Berber Army road near the Berber Mountains, heading into the Fertile Valley where most of the farmland is. We’ll be resupplying in Tauris and then heading north to Mensk.
“Vitaliya and I,” he said, gesturing at the redhead girl, “came here on a flying ship that travels between Tolstey and Mensk once a year. The ship already left, so we have to travel on foot, or via magic powered vehicles.
“Your individual assignments and cover stories will vary. Your mission specifics are being left up to your group to decide. Your overall mission is to discover and expose terrorist and/or cultist activity and capture a leader alive for interrogation. Your secondary mission is to prevent any more loss of innocent life.
“You were chosen for this mission because you have a reputation for results, you are all unknown, and a number of you are Bonded, mages, and Heroes. This assignment will require infiltration of the Berber aristocracy, where we have reason to believe at least some funding for terrorist activity is originating.
“The only non-negotiable guidance I have is that at least one person must attend the Mensk Officer Academy, which is really just a magic and etiquette school for children of the aristocracy to play soldier at. This will be our primary means of infiltrating the ruling class.
“My government and Tolstey have several plans in motion to protect its interests. Your group is just one of them.”
There was a few moments of silence before Mareen asked, “But why us, or at least, why Henry and Jason?”
“Yeah, aren’t we a little old to be going back to school?” asked Henry.
“There are several answers to that question,” replied Gonzo, looking at Mareen. “The first is that Dolos orbs are rare and incredibly expensive. They’re usually very rare to come across. Meanwhile, your little group seems to be finding them practically under every rock.
“While it’s true that more orbs are on the market now ever since Dolos made his planet-wide announcement, the added danger of acquiring them has actually made the average price rise. Spirit stones can’t even be found. Since most aristocrats from notable Families are either powerful mages by ancestry or Bonded bu wealth, it makes agent placement difficult.
“Then there’s the fact that you are legitimately unknown. Agents from Berber always run the risk of being recognized or identified. Our only hope of infiltrating the aristocracy is to basically invent a new Family. This is only usually possible through a rapid rise in power from a new transplant. We can’t just create a Family out of nothing, it can’t be fake. It’s too easy to disprove. For a successful cover story, we will be legitimately creating noble houses.”
“We’re going to be nobles now?” Henry asked. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. When he was younger, the idea would have excited him but now it sounded like a huge pain in the ass.
“Effectively, yes. The Berber Crown has given me deeds to land and other documentation to make everything legitimate.”
“This doesn’t make much sense. Can’t you just buy information from informants you already have?” Uluula sounded extremely skeptical.
“We have already tried and our efforts have not been successful. Meanwhile, people continue to die or go missing in our larger cities.” Gonzo’s expression was serious. “This is not a game. I wouldn’t call the situation desperate yet, but the possibilities we shared with Governor Holtz are terrifying. My country’s ruler directly approached the Queen of Tolstey and came to an agreement.
Uluula said, “So basically, you couldn’t buy informants, so you’re creating them.”
“Exactly. Berber called in a favor. If some of you, probably Henry and Jason are Berber nobles, it will obviously make you citizens of Berber. To be honest, this is a power among the queens too. The Tolstey Queen is giving up resources to maintain security and prevent a possible cult uprising.
“As for your question about age,” Gonzo said, looking Henry in the eye, “aristocrats don’t really have to do anything. It’s not uncommon for noble sons and daughters to attend school later in life, especially while looking for marriage prospects. Additionally and more importantly, you are Bonded now. You will live for at least a few hundred years unless someone or something kills you.
“You need to stop thinking like an Earthling. You are on Ludus now. Age is a lot more difficult to pin down—”
Gonzo was interrupted by a shriek.
Henry quickly spun, his adrenaline spiking but calmed when he saw Tony in the doorway to the garage, shaking and pointing an unsteady finger. Henry absently thought, Huh, I forgot the kid was in there. My bad.
Tony sputtered for a couple seconds before uncharacteristically cursing, “What the hell is she doing here?”
“Nice to see you too, cousin Aodh.” Vitaliya smiled warmly. Henry felt a chill run down his spine.
I got a bad feeling about this.
* * *
Jason flew through the air, eventually pulling his new goggles out of a pocket and putting them on to protect his eyes. The goggles weren’t that great. When he commissioned them a week before, he got what he asked for, not what he wanted. They were made of glass and rubber, and weren’t easy to see out of. The glass was kind of smokey. It still beat freezing his eyeballs, though.
Jason had been flying for several hours. He was following the meandering trail that he traveled months before with the Georgetown village. The trail was hard to see sometimes through the trees and he had to backtrack occasionally. He was still making excellent time, though.
He judged he was travelling over 100 miles an hour since he spent so long in freefall between teleports. His travel was hard to control but from high in the air, following a path through the forest, he could manage it.
He was really impressed by his endurance now that he was second rank with his orb. There was no way he could have hoped to travel so far before he was second rank. Second rank not only gave him more power, it also helped with his control. Jason calibrated each teleport vector to make the most of his speed, getting the greatest distance possible.
He would shoot forward at a 45 degree angle, eventually plummeting back towards the ground and as soon as he thought he hit terminal velocity, he would repeat the process as far away as he could teleport.
Jason was glad he didn’t get motion sickness or he’d be miserable.
He figured it was going to take at least the entire day to reach his destination. What he was most concerned about was where he would spend the night. Security was definitely an issue. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
The trip was boring after a while. Other than the handful of times he couldn’t see the old road anymore and had to search for it, he got into a groove. It gave him time to think.
He wasn’t entirely sure what to do. He was obviously going to travel to Berber with Henry and help root out the cult-based conspiracy, but it felt small to him. It was important, but if he and Henry ever wanted to get home, they had to unite the world. Hell, they probably needed to do something significant just to survive. He was starting to think of this as their “main quest.”
War was coming.
Jason pondered the favor the Dolos still owed him. He wondered what he should do with it. In fact, he wondered how he could even call it in. Keeja was supposed to be their liaison with Dolos but she’d been gone for weeks.
Jason wasn’t sure what to do about the main quest, but at least he was doing something productive now. He considered his current mission a side quest. Having a task and a clear goal was refreshing.
It was especially handy that he could travel so fast. Jason had been doing some reading about magic, at least what he could. The Air school of magic was common so there was a good deal of information on it.
When air mages flew, the amount of effort sounded similar to the null-time shields Jason could create. He didn’t even want to imagine creating null-time shields all day. Plus, flying required a constant effort whereas Jason’s teleport travel was just brief bursts of magic between gliding and free falling.
When Jason thought about it, he was really a lot faster than he had any right to be. For an air mage to replicate his speed and range, they’d probably have to be at least a 6th rank orb-Bonded. He wasn’t even sure if natural mages of such power existed on Ludus. He should find out.
When Jason finally reached the abandoned little farming village where he spent his first night on Ludus, he was overcome by nostalgia. He took a break on top of a roof, resting his freezing, aching joints. Even with his endurance skill, the trip had been grueling.
It was obvious that monsters, probably goblins had visited. Shutters were hacked to pieces, furniture had been pulled out of buildings and torn apart. The villagers were wise to leave when they did.
The village itself was already being overgrown by the forest. A small tree was growing right outside George’s old front door.
Jason sat down with his chin in his hand and just rested. He knew he only had a few hours of daylight left, but he was suddenly emotionally exhausted. This was where it all began. This little village out in the middle of nowhere… if they hadn’t come to this place, he might be alive to feel so melancholy about the place.
It was a sobering thought. Not for the first time since coming to Ludus, Jason felt incredibly lucky. However, with his new suspicions about Dolos, he wondered how much of their good fortune was actually luck. Just how far did the manipulation go, if there was manipulation. They had no proof.
Jason sighed. He couldn’t sit around feeling melancholy all day, he had a job to do. He teleported into the air and a few minute later, he found the clearing he first saw Mareen and George in. The trail remained; there were probably goblins nearby.
As Jason started walking through the forest towards his destination, he realized the flower top demon probably survived off of goblins.
As soon as he saw his objective, he stopped. About 50 yards ahead of him, Jason saw the bush with pink flowers. It looked interesting, like something he’d walk up to just to study. That was probably the point.
He drew his sword Breeze and advanced slowly. He wasn’t too worried. If the monster did anything too surprising he was just going to teleport away.
About 25 yards away from the creature, Jason realized he was being an idiot, an arrogant idiot. He sheathed his sword. Why fight if you don’t have to?
He teleported to the top of a tree near his target. Even so close, it just looked like a bush with pretty flowers. However, when he threw a throwing knife to the ground, a split second after it landed, the whole ground erupted.
Tentacles lifted from soil in an explosion of dirt and leaves, grasping blindly around the creature as it lifted itself from its hole. Jason was sickly fascinated. The bush seemed to actually be growing from a depression in the monster’s head. The rest of it was blocky, with thick leathery skin. It almost looked like a worm with its mouth in the wrong place on the side of its body.
Tentacles whipped around, coiling around trees, poking into the foliage, searching everywhere for food. The tentacles all had thick hairs at the end too that Jason figured was for sensing prey. The monster itself was blind.
As Jason observed the creature, he was glad he’d been smart enough not to deal with the chaos on the ground. He didn’t think he would have been in real danger since he knew he was going to be ambushed, but the tentacles looked strong and the creature’s mouth was huge and full of sharp teeth. Discretion is the better part of valor. He decided to use a new skill to kill it.
Jason held up a throwing knife and concentrated, causing the blade to shimmer with null-time. The monster was currently at the farthest range that Jason could maintain null-time fields attached to objects after leaving his control.
It would be enough.