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Mareen was glad she got to sleep in a real bed the night before, but she was still irritated with her hard-headed husband. The obstinate man refused to listen to reason about needing to protect his image. He wasn’t famous yet, but he soon would be; either as an adventurer, or a noble. Well, actually he already was a noble, technically.
Even after Gonzo official swore Henry and Jason into the Berban aristocracy, gave them deeds detailing the land they owned, maps of their holdings, and a quick rundown on etiquette, it still didn’t feel real to Mareen. If Henry was a noble, she was a noble now too.
It wasn’t something she could wrap her mind around yet.
Mareen was practicing with the hammer Henry made her in a small park. The rest of the group was resting or training outside of Pilk. Pilk was a large town, almost a city in its own right. The group hadn’t entered the town itself, just laid low to rest while taking advantage of how spread out Pilk was. They’d been able to get rooms in an inn and resupply after parking the Battlewagons almost a half mile outside of town.
Mareen had a lot on her mind, and she was still frustrated with Henry. The fact she knew she shouldn’t be so irritated with him, and that it was her own discomfort around Thirsty that was causing problems in the first place only increased her frustration. She savagely swung her heavy hammer down again, practicing the forms Henry showed her.
She knew swinging around a hardened bronze hammer that a normal person could barely lift was probably not the best way to hide she was orb-Bonded, but she desperately needed to get some of her frustration out of her system.
Suddenly, she spotted a glowing figure descending straight at her and sighed. Ever since Henry and Jason learned how to use a MMB, they’d started using them every time they needed to gather the group together. Magic messenger birds were paid in gold, and Henry could very easily find or produce gold from the land.
The MMB slowed and Mareen held her hand open in front of her. The creature gently alighted on her palm as Mareen waited patiently to hear its message. MMBs could carry notes, but most often, they just repeated simple messages.
The small, benign demon was bipedal, standing about ten inches tall with two sets of wings; one on its back, and one where its arms should be. Its avian head was small, but its eyes intelligent. This one was mostly blue with white trim.
It spoke, its voice strangely gravelly, “Seeking Mareen Jacobs.”
Mareen sighed and responded, “That is me.”
The little creature said, “Price has been paid. Message follows: Mareen, come to the inn we are staying at. We have business and need everyone here.
“Please respond to indicate you have received the message.”
“Yes, I go it,” said Mareen irritably. The creature dipped its upper body and took off, its speed was astonishing.
Mareen grumbled, her mood still sour. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, barely avoided pouting, and began walking. Seriously, had gotten into her lately? She knew her discomfort around homosexuals was only part of it. Henry had asked her why she was comfortable with homosexual women, but not with homosexual men.
She didn’t know. She didn’t have an answer. She felt like she spent her entire life in study and self-reflection, but her aggravating husband was pointing out things she’d never thought of before.
Mareen didn’t hate anyone. She definitely didn’t hate Thirsty, but she wished the man would hurry up and leave the group. She felt like he was taking advantage of her husband’s good nature. On the other hand, she wanted to help people in need.
Deeply conflicted within herself, Mareen stomped into the inn and up the stairs to the private meeting room their group booked for their entire stay. Once she entered the room, she saw the rest of the group sitting around the room’s U-shaped table. Thirsty was working on enchanting something while softly chatting with Aodh and Bezzi-ibbi, as usual. Yanno-ibbi was discussing something with Gonzo, but the rest of the room was quiet and apparently waiting for her; she was the last person in their group to arrive.
For some reason, this annoyed her. Uluula caught her eye and smiled thinly. Mareen appreciated the support, but her friend had her own problems to deal with. Especially now that they were suddenly nobles, their fool husbands needed to take the task of growing their household seriously. Unfortunately, Uluula said the Jason still refused to even talk about it. Meanwhile, every time Mareen trying to discuss the matter with Henry, he just listed off every type of woman there was. Apparently he liked most types, and it was obvious he found her irritation with him to be hilarious.
Mareen knew he was just teasing her, and normally she wouldn’t mind, but it was driving her crazy that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how serious the matter was. Finding a sister wife was about building the strength of their family, but Henry didn’t get it. She kept trying to explain it to him, but she was starting to understand he had no cultural foundation to understand any of it at all.
Where he was from, small families were commonplace, there was very little danger in the civilized world, and people got married and divorced all the time. She kept trying to explain to him that divorce was extremely rare on Ludus, and family was extremely important, but he didn’t understand. It wasn’t that he was trying to ignore her, he literally didn’t understand, so when she got frustrated, she felt guilty about that too.
It felt like she felt constantly guilty or angry the past few days. She hated it. She wanted to just cuddle with Henry and hear more about silly things from his childhood like “Gilligan’s Island” but she was running out of ideas of how to make Henry understand how important growing his family was. He didn’t understand his role as the head of a family, much less a noble family.
Mareen wished she could be more eloquent, more patient. She could explain numbers, and she understood complicated matters in her heart, but it seemed like when she tried to explain important things to Henry, she mixed up her words. Then when she got upset, she’d think of George, and how easy it was for him to explain anything to anyone, and this would bring the crushing sorrow back. The fact Henry dealt with all of her mood swings and just… continued to love her made her feel like a terrible person.
When Jason cleared his throat and began to speak, Mareen shook her head slightly and focused on the matter at hand. A meeting like this wouldn’t have been called unless there was something legitimately important to talk about. Mareen tried to settle herself. She wouldn’t let anyone or anything control her, much less her own emotions.
Jason said, “Okay, we’ve actually needed to have this meeting for a while. A long time ago, Henry and I decided to be completely transparent with our plans and with loot distribution. As you all know, I went off with Keeja on the day we found Thirsty and acquired some loot. This was at the same place that Keeja found her music player that we’ve all been enjoying the last few days.”
Mareen nodded slowly as the thought about the music player. Whenever Keeja actually traveled with them anymore and wasn’t flying around somewhere, she hooked her music player up to a cone contraption Henry made of thin bronze to amplify its sound. The group had been able to hear a large number of popular Areva and Terrans songs.
It turned out the best singers in the group were Jason and Thirsty. Everyone in the group seemed to prefer Terran music, even the Mo’hali and Areva. Nobody really liked Areva music, which was almost uniformly precise and martial.
Keeja was a big fan of Bonnie Tyler and some Indian artist whose name Mareen always forgot. She also liked something called “disco”, which upset Henry and Jason. Henry had started calling Keeja, “Grandma,” but so far she just ignored him.
Mareen shook herself and focused on what her husband’s friend was saying again. Jason said, “We have some loot to divvy up.” He paused before continuing. “So far, we have an unspoken rule within Delvers LLC that orbs or spirit stones found by individuals belong to those individuals.” He gestured at Mareen to make his point, and a few pairs of eyes turned to her before focusing on Jason again.
“However, I recently came in possession of four spirit stones.” There were a few gasps, but he ignored them and said, “The last few days, I’ve been talking to Henry about how we should handle this. We even asked Keeja’s advice.” He gestured to the demigoddess in the corner, who nodded before going back to listening to her music device.
“The spirit stones I found are technically mine to do with as I please. I really struggled with whether to give some to our first rank orb-Bonded like Mareen, or increase my own strength. No offense to Berban Intelligence, but giving them any stones was never a consideration.”
“No offense taken,” said Gonzo.
Jason sighed and said, “My decision is to split the spirit stones between myself and Henry. Keeja told us this should be enough to bring us both to the next rank.” Jason paused again and said, “I’m still not really happy about this, but it makes the most sense right now. Gonzo and Vitaliya can hold their own, Mareen is tough as nails, and we don’t even know what Aodh can do yet.
“Anyway, that brings me to the other loot.” Jason pulled a sheet off a side table to reveal what was on it. “We have two more health potions like the one Mareen has. I am going to claim one for myself and for Henry. The rest is up for grabs. There is even another magic flashlight like the one Mareen has too.”
Mareen narrowed her eyes and asked the first question that came to mind, “This is it? Yanbei had a full Battlewagon worth of stuff.”
“Well, I had to leave a few things behind, the bigger items,” replied Jason. “However, I think the fact there were four spirit stones explains why there was a lot less loot in general. The amount of wealth was still roughly appropriate for a dungeon. Some of the stuff I had to leave behind was full suits of armor. I didn’t see any weapons, but we can’t go back to check.”
“Why can’t we go back?” asked Aodh.
Jason got a haunted look. “I’m not going anywhere near that place without Keeja to protect me. You guys wouldn’t understand since you didn’t see it. There are challenges out there that our group is not ready to handle yet.”
The atmosphere of sobered. Jason smiled, obviously trying to lighten the mood. He patted the table with loot on it and said, “There are a few small magic devices here like fire starters, a pair of magic binoculars, and some other stuff. There are a few small blessed steel folding knives too. They’re worth a lot of money, but since we use knives all the time, I figured this could be a bonus for our Delvers members.”
Gonzo, Vitaliya, and Keeja stayed seated, but the rest of the group surged forward to check the table for anything they wanted. The situation seemed surreal to Mareen. Jason was casually giving away incredible wealth, and the rest of the group was just as casually accepting it.
Mareen shook her head and moved forward. She honestly could use another knife for mundane tasks.
She couldn’t find it in herself to use the blessed steel dagger at the small of her back as anything other than a backup weapon. The idea of using a blade that had almost ended her life to trim her nails or eat with was not… comfortable.
Jason regarded the spirit stones in his palm and sighed. Uluula was already asleep in the bed beside him, a testament to how long he’d been awake and thinking about upgrading his orb powers. He couldn’t help but feel guilty for hogging the stone for himself and Henry, but he really did think he could better ensure the survival of the group if he grew more powerful.
He sighed again and finally swallowed the spirit stones before lying down. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The transition to sleep was so sudden, Jason felt like one moment he was in bed, and the next he was in the Space Needle restaurant in Seattle. The city skyline out the window next to him was gorgeous, the dawn light casting shadows over the trees and parking lots below. The restaurant was empty other than a familiar purple cartoon cat sitting across the table from him.
“You,” he said.
“Yes, me,” the cat responded.
“So, shall we get on with this?” Jason tapped the table with a finger in annoyance.
“With what? Upgrading? We can’t do that right now.”
“What?” Jason blinked. “But I just swallowed two spirit stones.”
“True, and normally that would meet the requirement, but part of my job is to guide your evolution. Modular orbs like myself are a little different. Plus, the rate at which you are acquiring more spirit stones is very unusual. I can’t allow you to rise in rank yet.”
“What?” The cat’s answer was so unexpected, Jason wasn’t sure what to say.
“Yes, see, you have been developing your power quite a bit. If I were to force you into third rank now, you’d lose a lot of potential power. You need to continue to practice and grow your abilities organically before I take you to the next level. An analogy you might understand would be… you need to reach a higher RPM before switching to a higher gear.”
“I am not an engine.”
“Ah, but how do you know that? What are you actually? How does your power function? You are still ignorant of many things.”
“Okay… fine. I guess I can live with this since it means I can still keep getting stronger on my own. So when am I going to level up, though?”
“I will initiate your ascension to the next rank as soon as you’re ready.” The cat settled back in his chair, eating candy from a bowl that appeared from nowhere.
Jason discovered he was beginning to get angry. “So what is all this then?” He gestured around the restaurant.
“This place holds pleasant memories for you, same reason I appear the way I do. As for the implied question you’re not asking, swallowing more spirit stones allowed me to communicate directly with you again. I figured you would want to hear about your situation instead of just waking up in the morning with no changes.”
Jason narrowed his eyes. “You actually can talk to me whenever you want, can’t you? You’re under some sort of rules just like Keeja.”
“Well reasoned,” answered the cat. “It’s not the same thing, but somewhat, yes. However, my limitation are less based on fairness or rules between competitors, and more because I don’t want to melt your brain. Killing you is the exact opposite of my purpose.”
“So talking to you puts strain on me?”
“Enormously so, yes.”
Jason shook his head, the strangeness of such a silly cartoon character peaking to him so eloquently momentarily drove home the ridiculousness of his situation. Finally he asked, “Well, since you’re here anyway, can I ask you a question or two?”
“Actually, yes. I have some time left and I can probably answer some more questions so long as they are related to your development with your orb.”
“I have a feeling you can’t answer certain things unless I know to ask the questions in the first place, right?”
“And this is why you didn’t mention certain things to me when we talked earlier?”
“Okay,” Jason said, smiling. His expression was predatory. “I’d like to know about combining magic schools and how that would work with my advancement in the future.”
“Ah, that is an excellent question!” said the cat. He held up one pudgy cartoon finger, extending a sharp claw. He began drawing a grid on the table and said, “It’s quite simple, see…”
Jason paid rapt attention.
Liangyu sipped tea from her room in Harmly. Things were going smoothly, perhaps even too smoothly. Her mercenaries had an ambush site scouted out about a day outside of town and she was about to move her entire operation there to prepare for their ambush.
Aodh’s group moved faster than she thought it would getting to Pilk, but they were staying on the outskirts of town longer than she had thought they would. Luckily, the distance between Harmly and Pilk was barely within Ghinsja’s power, although reaching so far was exhausting the Areva orb-Bonded every night.
No matter, she can just rest during the day. Liangyu sipped her tea some more as Ghinsja stumbled into the room, fatigue written upon her face.
“I was able to see them again, but this will be a lot easier when we are closer,” she said, dropping to the floor and guzzling a large cup of lukewarm tea that Liangyu had left out for her.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, but I was able to see a few things. First off, they definitely have more than one orb-Bonded in their group. The darker skinned girl obviously has enhanced strength and hasn’t demonstrated any magic that would account for it.”
“Good, that helps. So far, what do you think?”
“I think it will be difficult to get reliable information in the time we have even if I continue to watch them every night.” Ghinsja swallowed another mouthful of tea. “They actually have a fairly large group, and they’re using vehicles unlike any I’d ever seen before.”
“What about scrolling orb messages, have you gotten a chance to look them in the eyes?” This was the question Liyangyu was most curious about. The fact Ghinsja hadn’t said anything about it and had to be asked in the first place was interesting in itself.
“Yes, I’ve looked in almost all their eyes and I have not seen any messages,” Ghinsja said, her voice flat.
“I see, so Aodh, and perhaps a companion or two are nobles, then. Only nobles or extremely rich people know the secret to hiding the messages.” Liangyu tapped her chin with a dark nail. “This has suddenly become more personal to me.”
“I thought you might say that.”
“Yes, and I’d like to move out to our ambush point immediately so I can start creating my tools.”
“I thought you’d say that too,” said Ghinsja. “I’ve had the mercenaries start working on it for you since the last time I talked to them.”
Liangyu smiled. She was lucky to have Ghinsja; capable help was so hard to find these days. She agreed with Ghinsja’s unspoken assessment that there would be a great deal of risk involved with attacking a large group with so many unknowns. However, Liangyu’s magic worked best if she could prepare for combat before it occurred. Knowing exactly where her prey was headed, and the route they’d take to get there was a huge advantage.
Liangyu smiled. Getting enough orbs and spirit stones to justify heading back to Berber would be sweet, but the opportunity to kill more spoiled nobles would definitely make her team’s efforts all the more worthwhile.
She’d never loved nor hated Dolos. However, she was thankful he’d sent her the note about Aodh’s group. She was rather enjoying this hunt.