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Henry took point as he, Gonzo, and Vitaliya sped through the forest on magicycles. Every once in a while he had to dodge rotten logs, hanging creepers, or low branches. If someone forced him to be honest, he’d have to admit he based a lot of the magicycles’ design on speeder bikes from one of his favorite movies of all time. As he maneuvered through the forest, he could almost imagine he was on Endor.
It wasn’t like Henry was ignorant about all nerdy things.
Building the magicycles had been surprisingly easy. Henry still wasn’t sure exactly how he was making them work, to run on magic stones. When he started tinkering, he just knew what would work and how to convince the metal to function with magic power running through it. When he asked other Earth mages in Mirana about the process, they had no idea what he was talking about. Henry was beginning to suspect it had something to do with who he was as much as his orb powers. Plus, the fact that his primary school was Metal might have something to do with it.
He kept a careful eye on Vitaliya and Gonzo as they traveled. He still didn’t really trust them, especially Vitaliya. From what he understood, Tony lived with her for years, being raised as de facto brother and sister, yet her job as a spy had been a shock to the young man.
Henry wasn’t sure why, but it bothered him.
He was also irritated by how bad he and Jason fucked up with Dolos. The grinning dickhead had them over a barrel. Henry definitely needed to talk to Jason later about it. He wasn’t blaming his friend for what happened, especially since he’d have a better chance than Henry at finding a silver lining somewhere in yet another new problem.
The symbol on Henry’s shoulder itched when he thought about it.
Suddenly, Henry heard screaming in the distance and he focused entirely on the present. He could sense Gonzo and Vitaliya speeding up behind him too. They burst into a clearing with a few large trees in the middle.
In the branches of the largest tree, Henry could barely spot a woman. Arranged around the tree was a pack of horned demon wolves. Fuck, these fucking things are everywhere!
Then Henry looked closer and noticed these ones were different looking. They seemed to have some kind of scales on their body in various places instead of fur. “Armored demon wolves,” Gonzo shouted behind him. “Stay alert. Their hide is tough.”
Great, it’s always something on this planet. Henry sighed. As he got nearer, he noticed that the monsters had been chewing on the trunk of the tree. It would only be a matter of time before they brought it down.
Henry jumped off his magicycle and ran forward, seeing Gonzo and Vitaliya do the same out of his peripheral vision. He knew Gonzo was orb-bonded, so he was sure the spy would be fine. Vitaliya on the other hand was just a mage. Henry was a little worried about her safety.
He really didn’t want to be responsible for getting Tony’s cousin killed. Natural mages all seemed to be fairly weak, after all.
Suddenly, Henry felt a bloom of heat, making his entire side feel uncomfortably hot. Vitaliya had wreathed her entire body in fire. She darted forward, scorching one of the armored demon wolves with a jet of flame from the blaze covering her body.
To Henry’s other side, Gonzo gestured up and a huge spear of ice grew from the ground before them, impaling another lupine monster. Henry blinked as he raised his strength from the earth and drew his sword. He’d thought he was going to do most of the fighting, but it turned out he wasn’t even really needed. It was a strange feeling.
* * *
Henry inwardly groaned. Nobody got hurt killing the handful of armored demon wolves. Their steaming, ruined bodies littered the clearing where they’d fought.
However, traveling back to the Battlewagon wasn’t pleasant. The woman who’d been in the tree was still in hysterics. All they’d gotten out of her was that her name was Emilia and she was from Chile. She seemed to only speak Spanish, but Gonzo was fluent.
Gonzo trying to talk to her wasn’t doing much good since she wouldn’t stop crying and screaming, though. She also refused to get on a magicycle, which was proving to be an enormous inconvenience. Gonzo walked with Emilia as she sobbed and stumbled forward. Henry and Vitaliya kept pace on magicycles. One of them would have to double up and take someone back to pick up the magicycle that Gonzo left behind.
Emilia seemed to be in her mid-twenties. She was pretty, with short, curly hair, olive skin, big eyes, and a curvy body. She wore a torn, dirty black dress and carried her pumps in her hand as she gingerly picked her steps through the forest. Her pantyhose were a mess, with sticks and leaves stuck in them.
She resolutely stared at the ground, sobbing and holding herself tightly like she would otherwise fly apart. Every time she glanced up and saw a magicycle, she’d shudder and wail, her sobbing getting harder.
Henry felt bad for her, but there were very few sounds he hated more than a crying woman. It was making his nerves raw.
When they got back to the Battlewagon, Jason and Keeja hadn’t returned yet, but the rest of the group was standing in the distance. Bezzi-ibbi was the first to notice their arrival and ran out to greet them. Henry thought the kid looked relieved, which was strange. As soon as Emilia saw the boy, she completely lost her composure again. She went into hysterics, screaming bloody murder. Gonzo tried to calm her down, but wasn’t having much success.
Henry didn’t speak much Spanish, but he heard “Diablo” and several other interesting words. Great. This should be wonderful.
Gonzo led the traumatized woman away, speaking quickly and quietly. Henry gestured the very confused looking Bezzi-ibbi closer and softly said, “Hey kid, do me a favor. Go with Vitaliya and pick up the magicycle we left behind.”
Bezzi-ibbi nodded and got on the back of Vitaliya’s magicycle behind her. The red haired woman seemed to be dividing her attention between Gonzo, and trying to see on the other side of the Battlewagon. Henry assumed she was probably looking for Tony. A flash of annoyance crossed her face, but as soon as Bezzi-ibbi was settled, she gunned the throttle and headed back so Bezzi-ibbi could fetch Gonzo’s vehicle.
Henry rounded the Battlewagon and saw most of the group standing off to one side, staring at a tall, black woman in a dark, sequined dress. She wore a little black backpack. She was really tall, maybe even a little taller than Jason. She had fantastic legs.
Then she turned around, smiling. Henry smiled back and thought, That is definitely a drag queen. He thought about how he was looking at her legs and shrugged. Things happen.
The tall queen was wearing purple lipstick and eyeshadow with white highlights. Her hair, probably a wig, was straightened and fanned out around her, an artistic fake flower woven into one strand. She said, “Oh, another one. Are you gonna give me the cold shoulder too? All these other people keep staring at me. It’s like they’d never seen such a fierce girl before.
“I mean, I know I’m on another world. You’d think that with animal people walking around, people would have more interesting things to look at than lil’ ol’ me.”
Henry quickly adapted to the situation. “It’s okay girl, it must be hard to be fabulous.”
“Oh, it most definitely is. And here I am, stuck on some busta ass planet and the Scoobie Gang that saved me is acting all goofy.”
“What did they save you from?”
“I was feeling hungry. I was thinking about eating some berries. It turns out they’re poisonous. Silly me!” The tall queen giggled. “My name is Thirsty. Thirsty Zha Zha.”
“Nice to meet you! Someone will finally talk to me!”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“So can you tell me what the hell happens now?” Thirsty adjusted her backpack’s straps.
Henry really did have to admit she was well put together. He actually knew something about drag queens.
He’d gotten bored in the past after his divorce and watched some Drag Race on TV. Ever since he was close friends with his gay battle buddy Benjamin in the Army, he was comfortable about gay people and gay TV programming in the US. After discovering drag culture, Henry was actually surprised to realize it interested him. He himself would never be an artist, but he could recognize real art in others.
Being able to actually act on creativity was one of the things that Henry most envied about Jason, in fact. From coding, to drawing, to singing, it seemed like Jason could express himself any way he wanted. Henry knew he sang like a stepped on frog. It was awful. He hated even hearing recordings of his regular speaking voice.
He said, “Calm down girl. Let me go talk to my people.”
“Okay honey, I’ll be right here. It’s not like I’m going anywhere else.”
Henry walked over to the rest of the group who mostly looked freaked out and uncomfortable. He nudged Mareen and whispered, “Babe, why are you all just standing around and staring at Thirsty?”
Mareen put her mouth right in Henry’s ear and whispered, “Henry, I don’t think that woman is really a woman.”
“No shit. That’s a guy in drag.”
“You mean a… a homosexual?” Mareen sounded like she couldn’t believe it.
Uluula drifted over and must have heard Mareen. “That is a man? Why is he wearing women’s clothing? Why did you call him, ‘girl’ in English?”
That’s right, most everyone can speak English now. “He is what’s called a drag queen. While he’s in drag, calling him female pronouns is appropriate.”
“But why?” Uluula was frowning and staring at Thirsty.
“It’s a type of performance, a type of art. And stop staring. It’s rude.”
“Henry Sato, I am not staring.”
Henry sighed and gave his attention back to Mareen. “So you saved her from some berries or something?”
“Yes,” Mareen said, trying to watch Thirsty without staring. “He had a whole pile of poisonous berries and he was going to eat them. If we got there a few minutes later he would have been dead.”
“Well, good thing you got there in time.”
“Dying might have been for the best.” Mareen didn’t meet Henry’s eyes.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Henry was aghast. He knew Uluula was homophobic but that was apparently a normal Areva thing. Mareen was a big hearted human girl. What the hell?
“Henry, this planet is not the planet you come from. Women outnumber men three to one here. If a homosexual man… partners… he will leave 6 more women to be absorbed into other family or left adrift.”
Henry got the math but he shook his head and asked, “What does that matter? There are still gay people, right? What about women?”
Mareen looked uncomfortable. “Women who… prefer the company of women are usually absorbed into families, often with a sister or family member. But even if they aren’t, they live and let live. It isn’t uncommon for them to have a long term partner.”
“So only gay men are discriminated against?”
Uluula spoke up, her voice a deadpan, “In most Areva controlled territories, they are sent away to colonize new worlds or work in space stations.”
“So they’re segregated.” Henry blinked rapidly. He glanced around at the others. Even Yanno-ibbi seemed extremely uncomfortable and wouldn’t look at Thirsty.
I can’t fucking believe this. I’m the most tolerant person here? Henry walked back to Thirsty Zha Zha. He had a feeling the situation was going to get progressively more awkward.
Jason was almost finished being towed back to camp by Keeja. Running through a dungeon with her was one of the strangest things he’d done on Ludus so far. He felt like he was walking around in a game with a high level player using a God mode cheat. It was utterly ridiculous how easily Keeja wrecked the whole dungeon, demolished every challenge. Jason even got a very impressive amount of loot to bring back. Keeja only took the music player from the treasure room.
Jason had also been able to witness a number of abilities he might be able to replicate with his magic. He was happy that he had so much research to do, but he thought the whole experience of being power leveled in real life on an alien planet was one of the weirdest things he’d ever experienced.
However, then he got back to the Battlewagon and saw Henry chatting with a drag queen while Gonzo had a strange, sniffling woman off to one side, talking softly. The rest of the group was standing to one side, staring at Henry and the drag queen while trying to hide it with various degrees of success.
What in the hell is this? As Keeja flew in for a landing, she finally released control of Jason and he teleported down to the ground. As soon as the woman Gonzo was comforting saw them, she started screaming at the top of her lungs, tearing at her hair.
What the f… Jason was stunned to immobility.
In the next few minutes, Jason met with Henry and stepped away to fill each other in on new developments. The whole time they had their quick conversation, Emilia continued to wail and the majority of the group maintained their strange standoff with Thirsty Zha Zha. Thirsty took a mirror out of her backpack and played with her hair.
Jason felt a headache developing, especially when Henry relayed the depths of the bigotry against gay men on Ludus and apparently the rest of the universe. What the hell are we going to do about this? Jason was absently disappointed with people in general and Uluula in particular.
One thing he knew for sure: They were going to help other people from earth, period. If he was honest with himself, Thirsty made him a little nervous too. He didn’t hate gay people or anything, but he wasn’t like Henry. He couldn’t just meet random new people everywhere he went and make friends at the drop of a hat. Jason could be socially awkward even around people he related to.
But Thirsty was from California. Not only was he, she, whatever from Earth, he was even an American. They were going to help him. Jason wished that for once on Ludus, there would be a problem that wasn’t complicated by culture clashes.
Jason walked over to Gonzo and gestured him over. Emilia tried to grab at the spy, trying to make him stay, but he gently removed her hands.
“How is it going?” Jason asked.
Gonzo frowned. “I’ve tried to tell her that she isn’t dreaming, that this is real and it isn’t Hell, but she’s hysterical. She didn’t meet Dolos or get an orb. She just appeared in the middle of the forest with a note in Spanish about settling Ludus and warning her to beware of monsters. Then she stumbled around for a long time until the demon wolves almost got her. She’s been in a tree for half a day. Best I can tell, she hadn’t eaten or drank anything for 36 hours or so.”
“Wow. That… really sucks. You gave her food and water, right?”
“Of course,” Gonzo replied.
Keeja walked over, joining them. “What about the homosexual. Is he hurt?”
Jason frowned. “That’s kind of rude and Henry didn’t tell me…”
Keeja shouted, “Hey, homosexual!”
Thirsty Zha Zha slowly lowered the mirror and said, “I know you are not talking to me with that rude ass tone of voice little sister. You best come correct before we have issues.”
“Shut up and answer a question. Are you hurt?”
“No, but if you think–”
“Did you take an orb?”
“You mean that silver pill thing in the box? Hell yeah, it sounded cool. Nothing happened, though.”
“Didn’t the directions say to take the orb before bed?”
“Yes, but why does a–”
Thirsty didn’t get a chance to utter another word. Keeja dashed forward, jumping up to touch the queen’s forehead. Thirsty immediately collapsed in a boneless heap.
Keeja dusted her hands. “I hope I got here fast enough. The fool was courting death or worse. Always follow directions when dealing with magical weapons.”
Jason internally groaned. Things had been difficult enough, but the group had settled into a routine. However, he could tell everything was just going to get more complicated.
The rest of the day was a blur. They didn’t travel any further and just tried to make sure everyone had a place to sleep as well as necessary basic gear. Finally, night fell and nobody stayed up late. The whole group awkwardly went to sleep, minus the first Mo’hali on watch.
The next morning, Gonzo found Emilia dead in her blankets. She’d found a knife and slashed her wrists. She looked peaceful, but Jason felt his heart grow cold. Ludus had claimed another victim.