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Change of Plans
It had been the better part of a week since Thirsty became part of the group, and Aodh liked him a lot.
When he first joined, Thirsty had seemed most fascinated by Bezzi-ibbi. Since Aodh and the Jaguar boy were friends, they all chatted together fairly often. At first, he could tell the dark man was taken aback by his appearance, but Aodh was used to that. Unfortunately, Aodh looked Fideli. Terrans from earth thought Fideli looked strange, even frightening, and others feared them by reputation.
But Aodh didn’t have a stereotypical Fideli temperament at all. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. It hadn’t even occurred to him that he would have to actually kill things while being an adventurer. Sure, he’d known that being an adventurer was violent and dangerous, but his idea of what that would be like had been different than reality. In his mind, he would have thumped monsters and bandits into submission, being praised while his enemies groaned on the ground.
He had not expected to be throwing terrifyingly powerful bombs that reduced monsters to bits of bone, ropy innards and other, unidentifiable pieces.
Luckily, Thirsty seemed to accept how Aodh looked quickly and they began having normal conversations. At first, Aodh hadn’t been sure about the strange, tall man, but as the days passed, he discovered an unexpected kinship.
They were both outcasts; Aodh for looking Fideli, and Thirsty for being a ponce.
Thirsty described growing up in a place called Ottawa and being sad in school. He never felt accepted and others were even cruel to him. Then Thirsty discovered, “drag” in New York, and eventually moved to a large city named Toronto. Toronto was where a lot of Thirsty’s friends lived. He’d been happy there for a while, but said he was starting to be sad again. Money was a problem.
Aodh didn’t understand why anyone would want to wear women’s clothing. He also didn’t understand how a man could be attracted to other men. However, he did understand being desperately unhappy and wanting to do something different, a change to reinvent his life.
Aodh had become an adventurer. Thirsty liked to wear pretty makeup, sing songs, and dance for other people. They were different people and they’d taken very different paths, but Aodh could understand why Thirsty felt secure in his new life.
Aodh felt like his realization about Thirsty meant he was growing up a little bit. He was proud of himself. After he understood how they were similar, he didn’t feel uncomfortable around Thirsty at all anymore, even when the man put on light makeup or asked Bezzi-ibbi about Ludus fashion.
Aodh ignored Thirsty if he tried asking about men back in his village.
In many ways, Thirsty stuck out and didn’t fit in on Ludus, but at the same time, he was acclimating and becoming useful to the group faster than Aodh. Thirsty was orb-Bonded and had started to learn how to use his magic. Aodh didn’t even know what his own power was. He still didn’t feel any different and he couldn’t use any magic other than the Fire school magic he was born with.
He watched Thirsty work with a few twinges of envy. Occasionally when their group would stop to relieve themselves or eat, Henry would make a new ring or bracelet for Thirsty to enchant while they traveled.
He was getting good at it. Aodh watched him work on his newest project, some sort of rod made of bronze cones. Thirsty was only chatting with Aodh; Bezzi-ibbi was on a magicycle. Uluula and Mareen were in the back of the Battlewagon too, but they were speaking quietly among themselves. They still didn’t talk to Thirsty much.
The tall, dark man was carefully rolling the pieces of bronze around in his hands. “It’s weird, you know,” he said. “How to do this stuff just pops into my head like an info bubble, but I can’t actually be any good at it unless I practice. It’s a good thing Henry’s been able to break down all the shitty stuff I’ve made so far so I could try again. He’s a sweatheart.”
Aodh nodded and continued to watch him work with the bronze. “Why are you rolling it around like that?”
“It’s like… I’m getting to know it. Now I kind of know what Henry meant before when he said building all the vehicles was like having a conversation. Like, I have an idea of what I want to do, and the more I play with the material, the more clear in my mind how to make something happen is.”
“So what are you making now?”
“Well, everyone keeps tellin’ me I need to have weapons and gear. If I gotta be stuck on this lame ass planet, I can make my gear look fabulous. I don’t got any cute dresses right now and I don’t wanna chance messing up the only one I have but I can still work on accessories. I’m gonna be serving up some hard core magic warrior girl realness, believe it. Yessiree.”
Aodh had no idea what any of that meant and wondered if he was misunderstanding Thirsty’s English. Thirsty could speak Luda now after being orb-Bonded, but he still spoke English most of the time and Aodh didn’t mind. It was good practice.
Thirsty pointed to a smaller piece of bronze, shaped like a cone. “I’m stacking these up on each other and using metal magic to hold them all together with Earth. My four main schools, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, are strongest. I can’t really mess with subschools yet. Anyway, I’m using air magic between each cone, storing power to shoot them ahead when it’s activated. Aiming is kinda hard, though.”
“Did Henry help you with it?”
“Yissiree! He also taught me about magic. Jason has helped a little too, but his lady had been demanding lately.” Thirsty gave a significant look out the corner of his eye at Uluula. “I don’t think everyone here is happy about little ol’ me being around.”
Aodh wanted to deny it, but Thirsty was right. The majority of their group still had not warmed to him. Luckily, Henry didn’t seem to care, although Mareen was annoyed with his attitude over it. Aodh had heard them yelling at each other in the distance during a rest stop the previous day. Ever since then, Mareen had been irritable and short with everyone, especially Henry.
Uluula had been acting distant. Yanno-ibbi had been keeping a physical distance. The spies, Gonzo and Vitaliya always kept to themselves, but they seemed more withdrawn than usual since Thirsty Zha Zha arrived. Aodh was thankful for that. Even if he hadn’t liked Thirsty, he would have stayed nearby just to keep his cousin away. He knew it was only a matter of time before she started acting like herself again. He could see the madness in her eyes when she thought nobody else was watching.
“It’s really my own fault,” Thirsty sighed. “When I first came to this planet, I was so fucking fabulous and beautiful that the goddess Rupaul herself would have approved.”
“What?” asked Aodh. He’d never heard of a goddess named Rupaul before. Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Zeus, God, and other names he recognized. Rupaul was definitely new. “Who is Rupaul?”
“Rupaul is the goddess of drag, honey. Everyone knows this. Like, if I could meet Ru in person one day, I would die a happy queen.”
“Uh, okay,” said Aodh. As usual now whenever Thirsty said something he didn’t understand, he changed the subject. “Okay, so I know what the rod is now, and most other things you’ve worked on got melted down again, but what about your bracelets?” Aodh pointed at the handful of bronze and copper bracelets on Thirsty’s wrists.
Thirsty began to answer but Keeja dropped out of the sky, landing gently next to Aodh and answered for him. “They are shields,” she said. “I’ve been watching Thirsty make them.” She turned to address the tall man directly. “You are most interested in defense, protection, yes? That would explain why you didn’t do anything except craft shield bracelets during the first few days you learned to use your power.”
Aodh swallowed. He didn’t pass out anymore when Keeja was around, but he didn’t feel comfortable either. He trusted Henry and Jason, he’d made a conscious decision to follow them. However, he didn’t think they realized how dangerous and unpredictable all the legends described Keeja as being.
Unfortunately, Thirsty was much worse than Henry and Jason. Aodh hadn’t even known it was possible. Thirsty took irreverence to a new level, almost like he was perfecting an art form.
The drag queen rolled his eyes, huffed at Keeja, and said, “Where the hell have you been, you little super-elf, crazy ass wanna be midget cowgirl? You are about a thousand years too late to be a Dallas Girl, girl. You should really dump those hideous boots.”
Aodh mildly wondered if it was possible to die of fright. He hoped not, he had so much more to do. He would die with a life full of regrets. He really wanted to get married before he died, or at least date. In fact, he’d settle for just losing his virginity.
Keeja cocked an eyebrow at Thirsty and drawled, “I’ve been flying, because I can do that. But I’m surprised that all this crazy coming out of your mouth. I mean, this from a random queen with some raggedy ass, budget wig and skinny jeans from inside a backpack? Don’t tell me, I already know. You were so broke on your planet, you had to use actual chalk instead of makeup, and that’s why you looked like someone dragged you through a corn field dusted with cocaine. From now on, whenever I see anyone look that busted, I’m going to say they look ‘Thirsty.’ You have your own look now, congratulations.”
Thirsty blinked and exchanged a smile with Keeja, all teeth. The tension shattered when Thirsty busted out laughing. He chortled, “Oh shit, I just got read didn’t I, you little mighty mouse-lookin’ elf bitch? That was fierce. Were you practicing?”
Keeja just sniffed and gave a slight shrug. Aodh had no idea what was going on, he was just glad the unpredictable demigoddess hadn’t killed them all.
Keeja held out a hand and said, “Tony, give me your dagger.”
Aodh immediately complied, grabbing his dagger where he kept it behind his back, and slowing down in panic when he realized Keeja might think he was attacking her. Her amused smile at his nervousness made him flush down to his neck in embarrassment. He presented the dagger on the palms of both hands and noticed Uluula and Mareen watching them with interest out the corner of his eye. “Lady Priestess, my dagger,” he said formally.
Keeja plucked it out of his hands and held it up to examine. Aodh had seen the dagger many times and he loved it. He’d been incredibly fortunate to find it randomly in the middle of nowhere. The weapon’s blade was wavy, like a snake. The handle was all one piece, made with the same metal as the bronze blade, and the pommel was fashioned after the head of a horse.
Keeja held the weapon towards Thristy and said, “Work on this. You should be able to imbue a dagger with several powers at once and this will allow you to train your abilities much faster than making the same things over and over again.”
Thirsty accepted the dagger and slowly nodded. “I don’t know how, but I can sense you’re right. I have something for you too.” Thirsty took one of the bracelets off his wrist and bounced it on his palm, his expression hesitant. Eventually he held it out to Keeja and said, “I want you to have this. It’s not very good and you probably don’t need it, but when you knocked me the fuck out the first time we met, you probably saved my life.”
Aodh’s breath caught in his throat. Thirsty was trying to give Keeja, High Priestess Keeja a bronze bracelet? Aodh braced himself for an explosion of anger or force, but nothing happened. Keeja just cocked her head and continued listening to Thirsty.
“I don’t have much on this wack-ass planet,” said Thirsty. “All I have is what I’ve been given from charity and what I can do. Well, my phone too, but I dropped it in a puddle when I first got transported and fell on my ass. I haven’t been able to turn it on.”
Keeja had been slowly reaching out to accept the bracelet but her head snapped up. She snatched the bracelet, put it on her wrist, and said, “Give me your phone, you fool. You truly do have a death wish.”
Thirsty frowned, but didn’t argue. He dug in his backpack and produced a square object the likes of which Aodh had never seen. Keeja picked it up gingerly between two fingers. She said, “I need to give this to Jason or Henry. You’re lucky you never turned this on or you would have been framing your death. I need to think about what to do with this.”
Thirsty grunted and said, “And now people are stealing my cellphone like it ain’t no thang. Fine, take everything. Do you want the panties from my backpack too?”
Keeja smiled like she was going to say something, but glanced at the bracelet on her wrist and just shook her head. Instead she said, “It’s for your own good, you silly homosexual.” She chuckled and floated upwards. “I’m going to fly again, because I can do that.”
As Keeja floated away, Thirsty frowned and growled, “Yeah, you better get your cheerleader wannabe, oompa loompa ass out of here! That’s right, I see you running off, bitch. Ain’t that some shit.”
Keeja didn’t even turn around, just chuckled more and Aodh began having second thoughts about his friendship with Thirsty. If Thristy couldn’t keep his… sass under control, he was going to get them all killed.
After Keeja was gone, Aodh began pondering again how he really didn’t want to die without ever having a girlfriend when the caravan began to slow down. This usually meant it was time for another rest stop.
Aodh looked forward to rest stops. The novelty of traveling quickly and smoothly over long stretches of land had worn off long ago. Now Aodh wouldn’t wait to take breaks and stretch. He usually looked forward most to ending travel for the day so he could train with his staff or practice other adventuring skills.
This break, after the caravan was ready to get going again, Jason called a meeting. Everyone gathered facing one side of the Battlewagon. Jason stood in front of everyone while Henry sat on the side of the turret keeping watch, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Okay folks,” said Jason. “I know this is sudden, but Henry and I have been talking about our route. I’ve been thinking about it, and now that I’ve made up my mind, there’s no point in continuing this direction.”
Aodh wasn’t sure what Jason was talking about. He looked around quickly and noticed the rest of the group looked as confused as he felt. Jason held up a hand to keep anyone else from speaking yet. “Look, I know this is sudden. Please hear me out until you start asking questions. Give me a chance to explain myself, okay?
“Basically, we’ve been making terrible time. We keep going around entire wooded areas because the Battlewagon is so big. We haven’t been following any roads for a while, but driving through the wilderness should have been quicker to get to the Stem River because there’s a lot less distance.
“Instead, not only is it slower, we’ve been dealing with an increasing number of monster attacks too. We can bypass most monsters while travelling, but clearing them out in the evening before we camp is starting to take its toll on our resources.
“Which is the last point: we need to restock. We’re running low on supplies that we’ll need later. Plus, winter is starting to set in so we need to get some of us some warmer.
“What does this mean?” asked Yanno-ibbi. “We are still heading to Berber, correct?”
“Yes, I am curious as well,” said Gonzo.
From above them, Keeja startled most of the group when she spoke. She said, “He’s talking about heading back to the road between Mirana and Taretha. If you travel the longer, safer route, you’ll be able to resupply more often, travel faster, and avoid monsters.”
Jason nodded up at Keeja and said, “Precisely.”
A few members of the group asked Jason questions. Henry looked exra grumpy, frowning everywhere. Thristy was apparently was getting bored and starting to noisily complain about bugs and, “dirty ass shoes.”
Aodh shrugged and accepted the decision. There was no point arguing even if he disagreed, which he didn’t. The decision had been made.
He was secretly happy that the caravan was setting a new course. He was getting really tired of trail rations and eating vegetables in the wilderness. Henry was right about how they tasted. There was a reason farmers grew crops. Edible, wild Ludan plants were all over the place, but Aodh would be happy to never eat them again in his life.
He decided in that moment that he wanted to be rich one day just to avoid eating wild vegetables ever again. With a big house and guards, maybe he could also keep Vitalilya from bothering him. He could give his aunt and his uncle some money for taking care of him after his parents died too. Aodh daydreamed as Thirsty began imbuing magic power into the wavy bladed dagger, the countryside flashing by again as the group headed back towards the road.
Liangyu held out a hand to accept the note from Raquel, the leader of her four mercenaries. The average-looking woman would not have made an impression on most, but Liangyu noticed the sharp glint of ambition in the other woman’s eyes. I must be careful around this one, she thought.
She opened up the note, skimmed it, and grunted. “Where did you find this?” she asked. The look in Raquel’s eyes was replaced by fear when their met gazes. Good, thought Liangyu.
“My lady, a priestess of Dolos delivered it to me and said it was for you.”
“Just a priestess, not a High Priestess like Biivan?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Liangyu frowned and tapped her chin. She said, “Go find Ghinsja and bring her to me. See if you can find Biivin too.”
“Yes my lady.”
After Raquel scampered off, Liangyu settled in to wait. She was good at waiting; it came more natural the older she got too.
She decided it probably wouldn’t be very long before her second in command and the High Priestess were found. Despite keeping a low profile in Tolstey’s capital, Taretha, most of Liangyu’s team would probably be nearby. Old habits died hard, and she managed her group like an adventuring company, just like she’d led long ago.
Of course, these days they hunted people, not monsters.
She smiled ruefully through her veil, the fabric obscuring her face enough to keep strangers from identifying her as orb-Bonded. For her, the mask was a necessity. Luckily, the mewling cattle of Taretha had no idea how serious the struggle between orb-Bonded could be. Some of the masses had even taken to covering their face as a fashion statement. It was considered very stylish and daring. Some adventurers thought it made their group look stronger.
Fools, the lot of them. It served her purpose, though.
As she settled in to wait, she was thankful that her surroundings were pleasant. The owner of the tea shop had been kind enough to let her entire party stay in the back rooms, rent free. They were provided with tea and basic food every day as well. Of course, the shop owner hadn’t had much of a choice. If the foolish woman had refused, Liangyu would have killed her.
It was not her fault for being ruthless; Ludus made her that way.
She’d come a long way from a scared farmgirl deposited in the middle of nowhere by a peacock-dressed god. Dolos… she tapped the letter and smiled, the expression was not friendly.
Liangyu missed her native China for the first 50 years she was on Ludus. She’d had a different name back then. That was also before she began to do what she had to, began to kill. She’d been naive in the past. It took a long time for her to realize that only the strong survive, only the cold-blooded prospered.
Now she had a very simple goal. She had family in Berber, several generations removed from her only child, long dead. Liangyu had massive amounts of blood on her hands already, what was a bit more in order to secure the future of her descendants? Of course, buying a noble house would be very expensive, especially for several families, but she had time, and she had power.
Her musings were cut short as Ghinsja and Biivin arrived. Biivan looked as haughty and frumpy as usual, her slight Areva frame draped in a shapeless, hooded jacket that covered her golden necklace. She walked in like she owned the place, secure in her power. Liangyu was glad she had a way to control the demigoddess, otherwise she would be a problem.
Her second in command, Ghinsja, was as fair as Biivin was dark. She dyed her light blond hair into pink stripes and wore heavy pink eyeshadow. Liangyu thought it looked hideous, but she’d never say so. Ghinsja had also been in love with her for 20 years, and Liangyu pretended not to notice. She took care not to offend the other woman, nor let slip she was not interested in other women. Love was a very powerful tool… if used correctly.
Ghinsja also wore a veil, the grey of the fabric matched her dress. Liangyu thought it was overly dramatic for Ghinsja to always dress in grey, but the woman was extremely competent. It was useful to humor her.
Both powerful women came to a stop before Liangyu, who continued to calmly sip her tea. Ghinsja merely stood by patiently, but Biivin was not accustomed to waiting on a mere orb-Bonded. “What is this about? My time is precious. You will not waste it.”
Ghinsja arched and eyebrow and said, “I will do as I please. Do not forget our relationship. Due to the rules you live under, you cannot procure your own… toys. As distasteful as it is, I will continue to provide you with what you so obviously desire as long as you continue to assist my team in every way you can.”
Biivan scowled and growled, “You’d best watch yourself, orb-Bonded. You are just one of many that Dolos has blessed with a High Priestess, but my patience will not last forever. I will live a long time, and my memory will not fade.”
Liangyu took a sip of tea. Slowly. Biivan gritted her teeth and crossed her arms. Liangyu finally said, “You have a long memory? So do I. So, are we going to continue sparring with words? A word spoken can never be taken back.”
“No, get on with it. Why did you call us here?” Biivan huffed. Ghinsja remained silent. Liangyu approved, her second in command had learned some wisdom over the years.
Liangyu smiled lightly. “I called you because I got a message from Dolos.” She tapped the letter.
“From Dolos, are you sure?” Biivan’s haughty manner had disappeared.
“Yes. I received a note from Dolos once before about 210 years ago. I would immediately recognize another. This one was addressed directly to me.”
Ghinsja’s eyes were full of awe, her mouth open. Biivan snorted and asked, “Why didn’t he send the communication through me?”
“I do not know. However, we have been gifted with a couple facts. As we all know, Dolos is encouraging orb-Bonded and Heroes to fight each other. In fact, we have been profiting from this very state of affairs.” Liangyu briefly thought about the four boxes that she kept in a safe place, each holding a spirit stone or Dolos orb, each worth a fortune.
“This letter,” she said, holding the note up for them to see, “describes a group of adventurers that will be heading this direction soon on the Mirana road. We can catch up to them and assess their strength outside Harmly if we spend some magic stones to buy a rail car.”
“There is more to it, right my lady?” Ghinsja’s tone was respectful.
“Of course. We know for sure that one of their number is orb-Bonded, a young man named Aodh Antonni O’Breen. The letter is worded such that there could be other orb-Bonded with him as well. We will need to do surveillance before making a move.
This is an opportune time for us to act on this information since we need to leave anyway. Coming from Berber to Tolstey to hunt weaker orb-Bonded was a great idea, but our time here is done.
It’s too dangerous to hunt in Taretha anymore. Plus, if there really are two or more orb-Bonded in Aodh Antonni O’breen’s group, we can head back to Berber once Dolos gives us our reward. We will have to be careful. This Aodh is probably very crafty and dangerous.”
Biivan narrowed her eyes, thinking. She said, “I can’t fault your logic.”
“That’s great, but it wasn’t your decision anyway. To be clear, I expect you to help as much as you can without breaking your rules.”
The hooded demigoddess curled her lip. “Fine, but you will supply my payment.”
“Yes, one child for you to experiment on.” Liangyu frowned; their arrangement was distasteful, even for her. She didn’t understand what prevented the ancient woman from stealing her own children to butcher, but the arrangement benefited Liangyu… for the moment. As long as the twisted demigodess desired her sacrifices, and as long as Liangyu could provide them as gifts, she maintained a powerful ally, even in such a diminished capacity.
“Are there any other questions?” The other women were staring off into the distance, probably mentally listing what they needed to do in order to get the group on the road again. Liuangyu smiled and said, “Good. Please begin preparations at once. The sooner we arrive at the ambush point, the sooner I can prepare my tools.”
Ghinsja shuddered slightly. She still did that after all these years whenever Liangyu mentioned her power.
Liangyu smiled and poured more tea for herself. She smoothed her robes as she watched the other two women leave, intent on their tasks. It would feel good to hunt again, especially since this could mean they could go back to Berber. She might finally be able to give her surviving family a legacy, a chance she never had.