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Crouching Keeja, Little Aodh
Vitaliya was mildly entertained as she stood next to Gonzo, listening to Jason and Henry relate their meeting with Dolos. The various levels of shock, disbelief, and anger in the group amused her. Of course, she was a member of Berber Intelligence, trained for years as a native from another country. She had already been debriefed on Dolos, his High Priestesses, and every other god and monster that had visited Ludus for the last three thousand years.
As a result, she was wary of Keeja, but she knew exactly how helpless she’d be to stop the demigod from doing whatever she wanted. As such, it wasn’t worth worrying about. As for Dolos, it amused Vitaliya that even after hearing Dolos speaking in their mind earlier that year, many people on Ludus were still having a religious crisis.
As usual, Gonzo seemed entirely unperturbed by the new events, but the Delvers’ reactions were all over the place. Yanno-ibbi was by far the most shocked. On the other hand, the rest of the group seemed to be more angry at Jason and Henry than upset about Dolos visiting.
“Why didn’t you tell us what you were going to do?” Mareen seemed the most frustrated. The newlywed woman shook her head violently. “You really don’t understand how dangerous Dolos is. Have you ever even read any of the myths or history books I said you should?”
“No, but we’ve talked to him, what… three times now? Yeah, something like that.” Henry didn’t seem too concerned. Mareen started fuming again and Henry put an arm around her, saying, “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Next time I want to talk to the self-absorbed, floating asshole, I’ll let you know first.”
“And I’ll come,” said Mareen.
“The hell you will! You all saw what he did to the fucking forest, right? That was a temper tantrum. I love your spirit hon, I really do, but Dolos would probably kill you for it.”
“You have got to be kidding me, Henry Sato. You are telling me that I am too hot headed?”
“Yes, because I can get away with being a moron. If Dolos kills me or Jason, he’ll be making a ton of work for himself and it’ll also make himself look stupid. Ask her,” Henry said, pointing at Keeja. Keeja glanced up long enough to nod before furrowing her brow again, deep in obvious thought.
“Plus, he’s even less likely to kill us now because of these.” Henry pointed to the purple triangle on his upper arm.
“You don’t even understand what that means!” yelled Mareen.
“Yeah, you’re right. But we have an entire journey to learn about it while everyone yells at us and thinks we’re crazy and probably feel really bad again. But right now we should go looking for these transported people that may die if we continue sitting around with our thumbs in our asses.”
“As much as it pains me to say this, I agree with Henry,” Jason sighed. “Now is the time for action. We have to—”
“Wait a moment.” Keeja held up a hand to interrupt. “I need to explain something. Shut up and listen.”
Henry grumbled but the group quieted. Vitaliya was interested in what the High Priestess had to say. She hadn’t figured out what her angle was yet; neither had Gonzo.
She glanced over at Aodh to make sure he was doing okay. He looked terrified, but seemed to be holding up. He looked a little dirty, though. Vitaliya wondered if he was bathing enough. He also looked too skinny. It was getting harder and harder for her to give him space. She knew he’d get upset, but he truly needed someone to take care of him.
All the other kids had been so mean to Aodh back on the farm, sometimes Vitaliya had to go out after dark to teach them a lesson. A few singed eyebrows, some burned arms, no problem. Little Aodh… poor little Aodh.
When Vitaliya left to start her active duty tour as an Intelligence agent, she hadn’t thought she’d see Aodh for at least another year. She knew he wanted to be an adventurer, but she was sure nobody would hire such a frail, frightened boy.
The fact they met up again in such a coincidental circumstance was truly the gods’ way of reuniting her with her troubled cousin. He needed her help. He wanted her help. He just didn’t always know he did, didn’t know what was best for him, probably due to this Fideli blood. Poor thing.
Vitaliya began paying attention to the conversation again.
Keeja said, “My role has changed. When I first met you, I was only meant to give a piece or two of information within certain limitations. I really didn’t want to be involved. However… things are different now.”
Keeja breathed deeply. “Dolos is so happy with the data he is getting from Bonded hunting each other and a select few preparing for the attack on this world… Actually, it’s more accurate to say he’s happy with the data he is getting from the growing chaos in general.
“He has offered a two hundred year vacation to any High Priestess that sufficiently impresses him in some way, including shepherding one of the teams in play. What this actually means, I’m not sure. However, Dolos does not lie. I’m not entirely sure how to go about this. I still have all the same limitations I had before. I can’t just tell you things. In fact, I have reasons that I can’t tell you for why I can tell you things. On the other hand, now I am much more motivated to find loopholes.
“However, Dolos also does not play fair. At all. Ever. I’ve been asking for a music playback device for over six hundred years. The other Priestesses have too.
“If I act, if I get this music device for myself, it will mean I will not be able to interfere in your affair for a long time afterwards except in self-defense. I’ll also be a target for others that will want it too. However, I can’t pass up this opportunity and Dolos knows it.”
“Excuse me, but I am not sure what you’re talking about,” said Jason.
Keeja smiled sadly. “This is a story thousands of years in the making. We don’t have time for it right now, nor do you have the context to understand it. I’m not sure I want to pry open old memories anyway. The point is, I’m a more willing participant in helping you now, but I still have to abide by strict rules.”
Jason nodded thoughtfully. “Like not being around until we figured out you were there, probably for some reason you can’t tell us.”
Henry frowned and said, “Okay, enough Kumbayah bullshit. It sounds like we need three teams, one of them being Keeja, and—”
“I’m taking Jason,” Keeja said.
“You’re what?” asked Uluula. The diminutive woman was calm, but Vitaliya noticed she held her strange spear with an iron grip.
Keeja rolled her eyes. “Oh, simmer down little girl. I’m not taking your Terran toy. Besides, this one is much more my type.” She took a quick step toward Henry and squeezed his upper arm before he stumbled back with a yelp. Keeja chuckled. “I just said I am more willing to help now. Take this on faith. Also, here.” Keeja seemingly pulled a map out of thin air and handed it to the dubious Henry.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“You can find dungeons on a map, yes? You have the skill?”
“Oh, yeah. Hold on a sec.”
“Also, Dolos said the dungeon was ‘nearby,’ yes?” Keeja asked.
“That means nearby for him, not you. Henry, what dungeons you see up to about 300 miles away?”
“What makes three hundred miles so special—”
“Just do it, Terran.” Keeja let iron command bleed into her voice.
As Henry grumbled about “Terrans” and “uppity hobbits,” Vitaliya watched with interest. This side of Keeja was a lot closer to myth and legend. Keeja the destroyer, the selfish general. Vitaliya thought it was fascinating to observe the creation of new legends in her lifetime.
She watched Aodh out the corner of her eye and clucked her tongue. The poor thing was still so scared. He was so small and defenseless. She wanted to walk over and give him a hug. Of course, he sometimes didn’t know what was good for him and she might have to persuade him to cooperate, but it was truly for his own good.
She wasn’t looking forward to telling little Aodh that their entire family for the most part had been working as Intelligence officers for generations. In fact, it kind of amazed her that he never wondered how his Da, a farmer, had ever been able to meet Aodh’s beautiful, half-Fideli Ma while abroad. Oh well, at least his lack of curiosity was convenient. Plus, they were travelling for a while now so their family’s secret was a moot point for now. Vitaliya had to think carefully how to break the news.
Aodh was probably going to be upset. He always was when he found out she hadn’t told him something, but Vitaliya knew what was best for him. That terrible man, Henry might have been making things worse, though. He even called little Aodh, “Tony” and gave him weapons! The entire grouped treated Aodh like he was a real adventurer! It was incredibly irresponsible.
But it was fine. Now that Vitaliya was here with him, she could watch over him and make sure he was okay. Of course, her job had to come first, but she was very good at multitasking. She would always take care of little Aodh.
Henry listed off the dungeon locations he was seeing and Keeja thought for a moment before she said, “I think I know which one that old snake hid my music player in. It’s the one about two hundred twenty miles away, one hundred fifty Ludan turns, or about 350 kilometers. What measurements should I use anyway?”
“Around us, use miles,” Henry growled. “So you’re going with Jason to this dungeon in the middle of nowhere so you can get your magic walkman or whatever, then you’ll become even more useless than usual.”
Vitaliya was accustomed to Keeja’s presence, but she still cringed on the inside as Henry talked so familiarly. She spared a glance at Gonzo but he still hadn’t reacted at all. He was probably in observation mode, just storing away data.
Uluula bristled and said, “Jason doesn’t have to fight, does he?”
“Of course not.” Keeja scowled. “Really? That was your question. You think I’ll need your Terran husband’s help? Your second rank orb-Bonded husband? Really? Have the Baglan Blue gone senile?”
Uluula looked embarrassed but Vitaliya had no idea what the exchange meant. She decided it might have something to do with Areva politics so she needed to include it in her daily report that she would eventually turn in to her superiors.
She kept a separate report on her cousin Aodh. She needed to jot down everything she saw him eat that day. She also had to make sure he never found her notes. He wouldn’t understand.
“Okay, enough grab assing.” When Keeja’s eyes lit up and she opened her mouth to respond, Henry just growled at her and the woman just smiled. Henry continued, “This is how the op is going to play out.
“Jason and Keeja are going to…“ He consulted his map. “They’re going to Halls of Grief. Since Dolos apparently tells the truth according to Keeja, which doesn’t make any sense to me since he lied to us in the first ten fucking minutes we met him, I’m assuming these folks from Earth are legitimately in danger.”
“What I meant is he doesn’t lie within the realm of a deal or a bargain being struck.” Keeja looked amused.
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t care. Losing Jason stretches us thin. It also grounds the Battlewagon. Are you sure you’re going with her, Jason?”
Jason looked at Keeja for a couple seconds before replying, “Yeah, I think I’m going to chance it, man.”
Henry said, “Fine. I’m going northwest with Gonzo and Vitaliya on magicycles. They’ve been riding them and I invented the things. We’ll make great time.
“The rest of you will go east to see what you can find. It’s close by. If anyone runs into trouble, fall back here to the Battlewagon.”
Vitaliya was curious. “Why don’t you have someone else pilot the Battlewagon so you can operate its guns?”
Henry sighed. “Because this is a rescue, not a combat op. I have enhanced senses and the Mo’hali do too. I still don’t really know what you and Gonzo do but I doubt you’ll just tell me.”
Gonzo finally spoke, “In this situation, sharing information would be ideal.”
“Oh,” said Henry. “I thought you wouldn’t care about stranded people from Earth.”
Gonzo smiled grimly. “I may be a spy, but I’m still originally from Earth too. Plus, one directive of Berber Intelligence is to make contact with new refugees to Ludus whenever possible.”
“I’m sure finding new orbs wouldn’t hurt either, right?” Uluula sounded skeptical.
Gonzo ignored her. He said, “I am a Water and Life mage. I specialize in ice. Vitaliya is a fire mage.”
Vitaliya noticed how much information Gonzo held back and approved on principal. She really had gotten lucky to be paired with Gonzolez as her first partner.
“And do either of you have tracking abilities?” asked Henry.
“No,” Gonzo lied.
Once again, Vitaliya approved.
“Okay fine, my decision stands. Everyone saddle up and go. If these Earth people really exist and Dolos isn’t just playing games, who knows what we’ll find? Remember, if you run into trouble you can’t handle, head back to the Battlewagon and send a MMB to the other group. Each team has a mage and at these distances, a MMB will take no time. Don’t bother sending anything to Jason or Keeja if that happens. They’re doing whatever it is Keeja wants to do.”
“Damn right,” the demigoddess purred.
Henry didn’t respond to her. He just said, “Okay, let’s go!”
Vitaliya noticed how Henry placed Gonzo and herself in his team, probably to keep an eye on them. He even found a way to ask them what their abilities were in a way they couldn’t refuse answering without ruining goodwill. Vitaliya actually thought it was fairly well done, even if a little ham fisted; it worried her. Aodh was spending a lot of time with Henry, almost like a surrogate older brother. Vitaliya would have to be careful around the man.
Henry could be a lot smarter than she originally believed.
That could be a problem both for Aodh’s safety and her future plans
* * *
Jason flew through the air as fast as he could while using a reasonable amount of magic power but Keeja easily kept pace, scowling at him and motioning him to go faster. The most disturbing thing was after each teleport, she was almost instantly near his side again. Just how fast can this chick fly? Jason felt a chill.
He had not forgotten the display of power Keeja gave within the first few days he met her. He remembered the awesome beam of energy. Jason had a very, very bad feeling about what was to come. On the other hand, he also believed Keeja that it would be in his best interest to come with her.
Suddenly, Jason felt himself slowing down until he eventually stopped, floating in midair. Keeja hovered into view and said, “You can’t hear me when you’re darting all over the place like a minnow. This is way too slow and it’s boring me.
“Keep your goggles on and don’t teleport. I’m going to gradually speed up for a while before slowing down. After that, give me a thumbs up when you’re ready to go fast again. You won’t be able to breathe when we are accelerated. Just focus on breathing when we slow down and holding your breath when we start going fast again.”
“Wait, what are you–”
Jason began accelerating forward at a terrifying rate so he quickly gulped some air and held his breath. What the hell did I get myself into this time?