Delvers LLC is one of Blaise Corvin's stories, the serial version of which can be located on his website: http://blaise-corvin.com/. The following is the first two professionally edited chapters of Delvers LLC: Welcome to Ludus. To continue reading the story, you can follow the unedited versions on Blaise's site, or buy his books.
Chapter 1 – Another Planet
Jason had no idea what the hell just happened. He blinked at Henry and slowly looked around, keeping the rest of his body completely still. When his eyes met Henry’s again, only the wild shock he saw on his friend’s face convinced him he was not imagining things. Well, that and his butt still itched from a mosquito bite he got earlier that day. The discomfort of the insect bite and the sound of the soft breeze rustling through the grass somehow drove home his reality.
He definitely wasn’t dreaming.
Both men stood in modern martial arts protective gear, holding polypropylene training swords in guard positions. The hill they stood on rose out of a small valley, surrounded by flowers poking up out of long grass that swayed in the light breeze. The clouds overhead served as a patchwork ceiling for the mountains in the distance. It was a beautiful place. The only problem was that seconds earlier, both men had been surrounded by a wooden fence in Jason’s back yard.
Jason glanced down at his feet, still keeping the rest of his body still and saw he was crushing some flowers. He thought back carefully to the moment he’d suddenly found himself in a field and barely remembered feeling a slight drop before hitting the ground again.
Almost at the same time he lowered his training sword, he saw Henry do the same. Henry’s short goatee complimented his Asian features and he looked casually comfortable in sweats and training gear, same as he always looked. Jason had always been at little jealous of how Henry could pull that off. Jason felt awkward and gangly in anything he wore.
He took his fencing mask and padded helmet off, turning in place to glance behind him. He couldn’t see any buildings or other signs of civilization anywhere. He was about to ask Henry what was going on when a loud voice thundered, “Hello!” Jason was almost startled out of his skin.
While he was still remembering how to breathe and putting his heart back in his chest, Jason realized the voice came from above him. He looked up and saw a huge man wearing odd clothing and a mocking grin hovering in midair about 30 feet off the ground. It was obvious the giant was aware how badly he startled both men on the ground. Jason immediately disliked him, the feeling transcending his surprise at meeting a 10 foot tall man who could defy gravity.
The man in the air wore clothes that left strange places like his knees uncovered, but flowed and gathered in other odd areas like his wrists. His clothing’s colors were all over the place too. It sort of looked like he tried wearing a few different outfits composed of every color of the rainbow all at once. And beneath all of that, Jason could see flashes of metal as well as tools of some sort hanging off of a belt. The huge man’s somehow graceful legs ended in stone sandals, and his head bore a crown of the same material. His face was completely hairless and his facial structure was subtly different than Jason had ever seen before. He looked like an idealized version of a man.
The man bowed in midair, spread his arms and said, “You’ll have to forgive me for skipping the small talk, but I’ve transported so many of you disgusting little Terrans to this planet that I no longer bother. It’s not personal. You may call me Dolos, The Great God Dolos!” He seemed to wait a few seconds for signs of recognition at the name but Jason and Henry were too busy staring with their mouths open. Dolos made an impatient gesture and grunted.
“Of course I already know who you two are.” He pointed at Jason and said, “Jason James Booth, 27 Terran years old, working in IT, single, nothing all that amazing about you. You have an embarrassing fondness for children’s cartoons and candy. I doubt that you will survive long.”
Then he pointed at Henry. “And you, Henry Mirai Sato, 29 years old, recently divorced, used to be a US Army combat medic but worked as an EMT for the last few years. You dropped out of college to work full time because your mother got cancer and your family needed money.” Dolos smiled grimly and said, “You probably have a better chance of survival than your friend, but I doubt you will live more than a week either.”
And just like that, Jason’s shock and fear began to evaporate. Rather than stun or amaze him as Dolos probably intended, the brief summaries of their lives just pissed him off; this floating guy was a dickhead. He began opening his mouth to say so, but Henry was already asking, “What do you want with us?”
Dolos rolled his eyes. “Me-me-me, I-I-I, that’s all you people ever say.”
Jason tried to suppress his irritation and confusion. He scowled and said, “Well, didn’t you just transport us here? Doesn’t that by definition make this about us?”
The man in the air sighed, “See, this is why I can’t stand Terrans. Instead of being appropriately awestruck and appreciative that I didn’t miscalculate your travel over hundreds of lightyears almost instantaneously, you give me cheek. Seriously, why aren’t you people on your knees or beginning for mercy or something? Where is the adoration? You aren’t even pissing yourselves. The Universe is going to hell, I swear.”
Jason glanced at Henry and saw his friend pressing his lips together. He recognized this expression; Henry was fighting down his temper in order to think. Jason screwed up his courage, controlled his frustration, and coughed before asking, “Uh sir, could you tell us why we’re here?”
“You’re where I wanted you to be. This is my experiment planet, Ludus. I really despise working with you filthy little Terrans, but at least your creation has furthered my own goals. I’m very proud of my research here. I needed new stock so here you are.”
“An experiment planet?” asked Jason.
“Yes. I don’t care what the other Griseus are doing on your squalid little Terra, but I’m thankful you were created. Throwing Terrans into the mix on Ludus has yielded some surprising data. Anyway, I’m sure you will figure it out, well, maybe not. Either way I’m hoping you’ll live long enough to rub two brain cells together. Terrans are resilient like cockroaches after all. Worst creature Lilith ever created, cockroaches.”
Dolos made a gesture and a bag fell out of midair a dozen feet away. “Here are some toys for you to play with. Please don’t die too fast or I won’t be able to get decent data from your short and meaningless lives.”
Henry broke his silence, shouting, “Listen asshole, hold on a minute. What reason do we have to do anything? You haven’t told us if we will ever see Earth again or even explained what any of this is about at all! Where the hell are we?”
Dolos narrowed his eyes and the ground began to shake. He said very quietly, “I don’t like being talked to that way. Why shouldn’t I just obliterate you right now?”
Henry clenched his jaw. Jason winced. When Henry was angry, very little could make him back down. His friend squared his shoulders and snarled, “Because you just complained about how it was a struggle to bring us here. You wouldn’t have spent any energy in the first place if it wasn’t worth it to you. Killing us would waste all that effort.
“You obviously had time to research us before you transported us here so we were either targeted or screened. And most import, I have no idea what the fuck is going on and if I can never get home, I’m not sure how much I care about living anyway. Either start talking or kill me, motherfucker!”
Jason looked down with as ground shook more, but he felt an odd sense of calm. He would have said his piece differently, but he agreed with Henry. What’s more, he was oddly okay with the idea of dying while spitting defiance in the face of a god. When the ground stopped shaking and he heard Dolos chuckle, he realized he wasn’t going to die after all. Well, at least not immediately, anyway.
Dolos shook his head. “Incentives huh? I will give Terrans this, you don’t lack for vigor. Okay fine— Jason Booth and Henry Sato, if you succeed in conquering and uniting all the kingdoms on this continent, I will send you back to the mudhole you came from. To have any hope, you’d better use the orbs in the bag over there wisely. Read the instructions. Whoever wrote them was very wise. Probably powerful and worth worshipping too.” Then without a further word, Dolos laughed as he ascended into the sky, eventually producing a sonic boom as he sped away into the distance.
After a few moments passed, Henry muttered, “Well, that just happened. What an asshole. Do you think he was really a god?”
Jason was still watching the point in the sky that Dolos disappeared to. He said, “Does it really matter at this point?” He was beginning to feel light headed.
“I guess not. It’s not like our situation is going to change. We really need to figure out what the fuck is going on.”
Jason nodded slowly. “I’m going to sit down for a minute.” He flopped down on the grass and both men were quiet for a while. Jason let his mind go blank, preparing to deal with the situation. He ruefully thought, Resetting your brain can work almost as well as resetting a PC.
Henry picked up a small stone and threw it as he stared off into the distance. He said, “What’s probably most important now is figuring out where we are. I still don’t understand how we were brought here in the first place.”
Jason looked down at his forearms thoughtfully. “I have an idea about that, actually.” He removed his forearm armor and carefully inspected it. “Nope, I’m not seeing anything out of place but I bet it was our armor.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you said that the two sets of HEMA gear you found online were super cheap. Maybe this Dolos wanted people from our planet who were interested in swords or hand to hand combat.” Jason cocked his head, he felt like he and his friend were forgetting something they should be doing. “Actually, shouldn’t we be freaking out or something? I mean, this did just happen.” He waved his hand, indicating the world around them.
Henry shook his head and said, “No, that won’t do us any good and we both know it. I have a few years of scraping people off the pavement to settle my nerves. You’re a computer geek so you’re automatically abnormal. I guess neither of us very normal, whatever the fuck normal means. We still need to figure out what’s going on. I keep thinking I’m dreaming, but my dreams usually don’t include sweat running down my back.”
“Well, you’re right that we need more information. There could be some clues over there in that bag.” Jason pointed at the duffle bag lying in the grass.
They dumped the duffle bag out and took a quick inventory. Inside was a cheap machete, an unfamiliar map, a medical kit from Target, a Swiss Army pocket knife, a rifle with no bullets, and a wooden box about the size of Tupperware container.
Henry scratched his head. “Well, this is underwhelming. What’s in the box?”
Jason opened the box and saw two rough, folded pieces of paper resting on top of what looked like two small metal marbles. “What the hell?” He unfolded the larger piece of paper and read it out loud,
You have been selected by the great god Dolos to colonize his pleasure planet, Ludus. Like any adventure worth having, living on Ludus has an element of danger!
Great God Dolos in his wisdom has seen fit to populate Ludus with most of the major human races, Areva, Mo’hali, Adom, Fideli, and Terrans. He has hidden great treasures all over Ludus for brave colonists to find, but they are all guarded by demons that have inhabited Ludus since the dawn of time!
Jason looked up from reading. “It is seriously obvious that Dolos wrote this thing by himself.”
Henry nodded. “Total assclown. What does the rest of it say?”
Jason continued reading,
The great god Dolos was searching for people like you to come to Ludus. You have been carefully selected by intricate arcane means to fulfill Dolos’ plans. You may find special gear to prepare you for your new life that the generous god Dolos has provided you! (While supplies last).
Under the printed message, Jason read a hand written note, presumably also by Dolos,
Too many people the last century who don’t know anything. Hair dressers can’t build siege weapons. The world is getting boring. Need fighting men. I guess you will do if you don’t die. Magic in the box. I will check on you in a year. If you are dead I will not care.
Jason looked up again and said, “This guy is just utterly charming.”
Henry picked up the second piece of paper and read,
Each device will confer one magic type of your choosing as well as the ability to understand and speak Luda, the official language of Ludus! When you are ready to accept your blessing from the great god Dolos, swallow one device and think of the magic you wish to learn all day and again right before you fall asleep.
Great God Dolos is merciful and powerful!
Henry eyed the two metal marbles sitting in the box warily. “What if they’re poison or something?”
“I don’t think they would be for the same reasons you told Dolos he won’t directly kill us. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to poison us with marbles when he probably could have just demolished us where we were standing.” Jason felt something tickling the back of his mind while he was answering Henry. He felt like he was missing something important.
“That’s true.” Henry started to reach for one of the marbles.
Jason held a hand out, stopping him. “We should probably wait until we have more data before using these. I’m getting a strange feeling of familiarity here and I want to think about this some more first.”
Henry nodded and the two of them gathered up all their new belongings. They kept their sports armor on and Henry kept the machete without either of them discussing it. Jason was actually the better swordsman, but Henry was a combat vet. Jason knew if it came to violence, Henry had seen more of it than Jason— including the consequences. Heck, Henry saw terrible stuff every other week with his EMT job.
Henry began walking and Jason followed while using his polypropylene sword as a walking stick. Jason asked, “Why are we going this direction?”
Henry pointed at the map in his hand. “We need to get to high ground so I can hopefully figure out where the fuck we are. There’s a mark on this map that might be our location, but I wanna double check. At least there are lots of landmarks around here.”
Jason nodded and kept his silence. They walked for a while longer when Henry suddenly said, “I’m sorry I probably almost got us both fried back there. I’m still surprised you’re keeping it together so well, too. I mean, I know I’m a weirdo, and because of what I do for a living not much phases me anymore… but what about you? To be clear, I’m definitely not complaining.”
Jason chuckled grimly. “We’ve known each other a long time, man. Don’t you remember how I had to take my mom to the women’s shelter when I was 15? I grew up with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. Dealing with some floating bully with bad fashion isn’t going to impress me much these days. Sure, the fact that he’s flying is new but the attitude isn’t anything I haven’t encountered before and I’m a grown man now. My freak out meter is either set really, really high or it’s completely broken now.”
Henry nodded and grunted. Jason wasn’t sure what it meant. He hadn’t mastered the grunt language that Henry defaulted to sometimes.
As they trudged along, Jason wondered why he brought up his stepfather. He usually didn’t talk much about things from that portion of his past. His nerves must be truly frayed to casually discuss the worst chapter of his life.
Both men kept walking until they reached the top of a large hill. The sun was beginning to set, and after Henry was sure they were oriented correctly using landmarks on the map, they realized the sun was actually setting to the east. That was going to take some getting used to. Jason was about to tell Henry they should think about making a camp or something when both men saw the goblins in the distance.
Chapter 2 – Goblins
Henry squinted and strained to observe the goblins walking through a clearing on a hillside about 150 yards away. They were small and green with huge ears and long noses. Henry judged they were about three and a half feet tall. He actually didn’t know what they were but their general appearance made “goblins” seem appropriate.
He and Jason were both flat on their stomachs, looking over the top of a hill. Both men hit the ground to be less visible as soon as they saw humanoid movement. Well, Henry did and he dragged Jason down with him. Luckily, his HEMA fencing armor was thick enough that the damp forest mulch wasn’t uncomfortable and wasn’t getting him wet.
Jason whispered, “What do we do?”
Henry frowned and whispered back, “Nothing for right now. We’re just being cautious. We don’t know for sure they’re hostile. For all we know those things are peaceful and just look weird to us.” Right about that time, a few more goblins emerged from the trees leading an old man, a young woman, and a little boy through the clearing. The prisoners were restrained and it was obvious that they were all in rough shape. A goblin holding a spear brought up the rear and prodded the young boy to walk faster. The boy cried out.
“Oh hell,” Henry quietly cursed.
Jason looked resigned, “You know… if we are actually going to survive in this place we shouldn’t get involved.”
“But we’re going to get involved anyway, aren’t we?”
Henry was conflicted. He really didn’t want to die. He was also extremely tired and still adjusting to the situation. He already had a full weekend before practicing sword drills with Jason before getting zapped to Ludus. He also just hiked through the woods for an hour. He had a suspicion that whatever Dolos did to get them here was affecting him too.
Unfortunately, there were some things he knew he couldn’t walk away from, certain things he couldn’t tolerate because he had to live with himself as long as he still breathed. His moral code was clear on the situation but he also had his friend to think about. He paused and asked Jason, “What do you think?”
Jason scratched his chin. His tall, lanky frame was sprawled out awkwardly, obviously not used to hiding from prying eyes. His brown hair was uncombed, as usual, and Henry thought he looked like a goof. However, in moments like these, Henry thought Jason’s intellect was obvious. He could practically see the gears turning in his friend’s mind. Henry would never understand why so many girls found his friend attractive, nor how Jason could be so oblivious to all the attention. It must be the thin air that tall people had to breathe.
Jason replied, “Well, those people obviously need help. I’ve never even been in much of a real fight as an adult, but I know a good reason for fighting when I see it. Plus, I know you want to go help those people and there are worse ways to die than doing something right with a friend.”
Henry was touched. He’d hung out with Jason a lot the last few years, especially after his divorce. It was nice to know that their friendship meant as much to Jason as it did to him. Plus it spoke volumes that Jason was willing to watch his back and possibly even die while doing so. They were in a ridiculous situation, they were probably both in shock, but his friend’s inherent goodness and integrity seemed to be immutable. Henry wished he was that good of a person.
“Okay, let’s move over to that clearing. Try to walk as quietly as possible. Look for straight sticks or small trees we can make into spears.”
Jason pointed at their polypropylene practice weapons. “Will these do us any good? You know I’m pretty good with a long sword but I’m not that great with a spear.”
Henry shook his head. He said, “No, those goblins or whatever the fuck they are had metal weapons. Metal will cut right through this stuff.” He demonstrated his point by easily cutting into the guard of his training sword with the machete. “Our HEMA armor should help a bit, though. I mean, I’d rather be wearing steel but this stuff beats a fuckin t-shirt.”
Jason nodded glumly and after hiding the useless training weapons in a bush, the pair started moving through the forest to where they saw the goblins. While they walked, they fashioned a few makeshift spears using the pocket knife from the duffle bag.
Henry noticed that some of the foliage was unlike any he’d ever seen before. Sunlight from the greenish blue sky slanted through trees and lighted on a bush with pretty pink flowers about thirty feet ahead of them. He suddenly froze in his tracks and put an arm out to stop Jason too. Jason looked at him questioningly, but Henry just shook his head.
He wasn’t quite sure why he stopped and he wasn’t getting any clues from just staring at the bush. Eventually he grunted, motioning Jason to follow him in a path around the bush and the flowers. Henry learned to listen to his hunches through painful experience. He was damn sure not going to ignore his gut on a strange planet while moving towards a fight.
When the two men reached the clearing they saw the goblins and prisoners pass through, they discovered a well-worn trail. Henry knew that if he and Jason were smart, they’d scout the area around them, do a few days of recon, then formulate a plan of attack with at least ten other people. Unfortunately, their situation sucked. They had no backup, just a cheap machete and a handful of makeshift spears.
Not for the first time, Henry wished he could just walk away from helping other people in terrible circumstances. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it, though. Henry knew he was a lot of no-so-great things, but a coward was not one of them.
He was having serious doubts they were going to survive attacking the goblin creatures. He and Jason had only been on another world for a couple hours! He was even thinking about telling Jason to turn back so he could just go ahead by himself until he saw the blood. He squatted down and bent closer, yes, he could see blood in and around the human footprints. At least one of the prisoners was badly injured.
These people didn’t need a martyr, they needed a rescue.
Henry steeled his resolve and felt the strange but familiar calm he always experienced in combat or car crashes, car crashes that most definitely were not his fault. Definitely not his fault. He gestured Jason over and whispered, “We have to be really quiet now while we follow this trail. For all we know, they have a camp a few dozen feet away.”
Jason nodded. He asked, “Do we have a plan?”
“I don’t, do you?”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Jason sighed.
Both men began slowly, carefully following the trail through the woods. They walked for about fifteen minutes until the path began to snake around a hill. Henry got a bad feeling as they approached a blind corner around a rock outcropping and motioned Jason to be careful.
Jason nervously nodded and readied one of his makeshift spears in one hand, the rest held under his other arm. As they crept forward, Henry smelled a new, acrid odor under the normal, loamy scent of the forest. In two more steps, they came upon a goblin relieving itself against a tree just off the trail. The goblin turned its head as the two men rounded the bend. It was hard to tell which party was more surprised, but Jason acted first.
With a grunt of effort, he whipped his long arm forward and more by luck than skill, his makeshift spear went right through the goblin’s neck. Dark ichor welled up from the terrible wound and the goblin fell to the ground, trashing around, its eyes dilated and its mouth open as it tried to scream. Luckily, all it could manage was a tortured gurgle. The goblin’s loincloth flipped up and Henry amended, Ah, it’s a “he”, not an “it”.
Henry stepped forward quickly to end the goblin’s suffering with his machete. When he turned around, he saw Jason staring at the goblin in sick fascination for a full five seconds before throwing up. Henry left his friend alone to get control of himself and began checking the goblin’s gear with clinical detachment. The creature was a mess and smelled horrible, but Henry had seen worse.
Along with the loincloth, the goblin was wearing a crude vest made of hide. The creature also had a small bag with some near-rancid, dried meat and a little stoneware water bottle corked with wax. For weapons, the gobline was carrying a flint spear and a long, bronze, seax-style knife. Henry thought this goblin could have been the one that stabbed the boy in the clearing. “Serves the little motherfucker right,” he muttered.
He stood up and saw Jason was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His friend was still a little green, but he was pulling himself back together. Henry tossed him the long bronze knife and kept the flint spear for himself.
“I’m sorry,” Jason whispered. He didn’t look at the goblin and kept his eyes on the trail. “It’s really dead, right?”
Henry nodded and said, “Yeah, it’s dead. Don’t worry about it— your reaction is pretty normal. You’ve never even gone hunting, have you?”
Jason shook his head. “No. I think what really bothers me is that we don’t even know if we are the good guys here. We might have just committed murder.”
“No, for better for worse we’ve decided to war on these things.” He grimaced. “It’s true we’re in a new place and this is pretty intense, but it was obvious that those people we saw needed help. Restraining people, making them march while bleeding, and wounding children with weapons are all pretty good signs of being an asshole.”
Jason nodded thoughtfully and examined the bronze knife. “This thing is pretty crude but it actually has good balance for throwing.”
“Good, maybe you can throw it then. I know you practice that stuff.” Henry nudged the dead goblin with his foot. “This thing didn’t have any armor but we can’t be sure that will be the case up ahead.”
Jason nodded and the two men began following the trail again. Adrenaline made Henry’s heart beat like crazy but he tried to be calm. They pushed forward like this for another ten minutes before the trail ended at the entrance to a creepy cave. Two skulls sat on the ground to either side of the opening and they could see a torch sputtering a few steps inside. There was a faint, animal-like smell coming from inside.
Jason gave Henry a questioning glance and he briefly considered what they should do. In the end, he couldn’t think of anything clever and shrugged. He pantomimed walking slowly and looking around, then he put a finger over his lips. Jason nodded and both men entered the cave, weapons at the ready.
As they moved forward, Henry surreptitiously watched Jason to see whether his friend was going to crack under stress. However, while Jason’s hands were shaking and he was swallowing in fear, his eyes were steady and his jaw was clenched. Henry was impressed. The first time he saw combat in the Middle East, one of his friends in the Army pissed himself. Jason was handing his first WTF moment fairly well, especially since they were walking into a dark, fucked up, creepy ass cave, tracking down fantasy creatures for a fight to the death.
Henry thought it was strange that the goblins didn’t have a lookout posted. He cocked his head and listened while the nearby torch cast shadows against the wall next to him. He thought he could hear something in the distance. The little bits of noise he caught made his hackles rise.
They continued deeper into the cave, the smell kept growing worse the deeper they got. The lonely pools of torchlight gave barely enough illumination to see by as they crept forward. The walls perspired with dirty water and the cave’s stone floor was pitted with random, shallow holes. A deep, natural rut almost twisted Henry’s ankle but he was barely able to steady himself in time.
The cave eventually turned into a natural tunnel and the noises ahead bounced around in disconcerting ways. Henry could see more concentrated torchlight coming from where the cave started to open up again. He got low, motioning for Jason to do the same and they moved forward cautiously until they could see into the area ahead.
The scene they were greeted with was horrific. The chamber before them was actually a few feet lower than where they were crouched down, a natural ramp leading from the tunnel down to the floor. The old man they saw earlier in the clearing was lying in a heap against the wall, a bump on his head and blood leaking from his temple. The woman was being held down by two goblins while a third was cutting off her clothes with a stone knife. She was screaming, her voice weak and desperate. Every time she tried to struggle, one of the goblins casually hit her in the face with the back of its hand. The little boy…
Henry swallowed. He’d seen some terrible things in war and while working as an emergency responder, but it always hit him hardest when kids got hurt. What he was seeing… he knew he was going to have nightmares. More nightmares. The boy was dead and two goblins were butchering the body as if it was the carcass of an animal. Blood spread in an enormous pool on the floor in an area that seemed dug out as a fire pit.
Henry noted in a detached sort of way that the goblins probably butchered things in the fire pits while they weren’t being used and then built fires to burn up the offal.
One goblin that was bigger than the others wore crude bone armor and stood by a torch, observing the butchery with a smile. Henry figured he was the boss goblin. He counted a total of six goblins including the armored boss; he assumed all of them were male. Henry glanced at Jason and saw tears in his friend’s eyes. He had a feeling that Jason was no longer conflicted with the morality of killing goblins, or whatever these fucking things were.
Henry held out a hand and Jason handed him one of the crude, green wood spears. He held up three fingers, then two, then one, counting down. Jason’s eyes were wild, but his shoulders were square and his nostrils flared. For the second time that day, Henry felt honored to know his friend. He knew they might die in the next few minutes, but he felt deep pride in the course of action they were taking. He was damn sure not going to walk away from evil like this and he respected his friend’s courage in joining him.
As soon as Henry made a fist, both men jumped up and attacked, their yells blending with the screams of the woman on the floor and the chittering of goblins.