Less than an hour later, Garth and his new lizard friend were rattling down the road, heading Beladia knew where. Garth couldn’t see anything with the wagon covers down. He’d successfully popped open his restraints and was rubbing his wrists.
“So, lizard, what’s your story?” Garth asked, talking just to talk. “Wife, kids? Owner maybe?”
“Got a name?” he asked.
The lizard stared at him in silence, unresponsive.
“I’m gonna call you Wilson, after Tom Hanks’ volleyball.”
The day went on like this for hours, chatting with a stupid animal punctuated by the occasional Kipling attack. The thing that slowed these guys down most about the flesh eaters was tearing them apart and storing their Heartstones. Garth wasn’t one hundred percent sure why they didn’t eat them all on the spot, but he could come up with some hypothesis:
- The stones were valuable enough to save.
- The soldiers couldn’t eat more than a certain amount each day without ill effects.
- Eating the stones ceased providing benefits beyond a certain point.
Garth was willing to bet on the first or the third, since if there was simply a limit per diem, they’d have some kind of ration, and he didn’t hear anything to that effect.
Another question that bothered Garth was why were there slavers at all? If the outposts were the only way back and forth between spheres, then how did these guys do it? Were they technically part of the army and paid the people running the outposts good money to look the other way when they dragged collared natives through the gates?
And was there a bounty for the capture of slave traders? They had to be criminals. Unless they weren’t. The only way Garth could singlehandedly capture a band this big was to wait until they arrived at the outpost, then expose/capture them right on their doorstep.
Unless this was sanctioned by the inner sphere governments. Garth was fairly confident he was about to find out.
Days passed as he pretended to remain imprisoned, eating some of the Thrask’s beef jerky as they travelled, using his key-shaped root for quick jaunts out of his cage to grab the treat. He amused himself by tossing pinky sized chunks to the lizard, who seemed to relish them. It was gamey, but it was the only meat he’d had in about a week.
They fed him a watery gruel once a day as he relaxed, waiting for the perfect opportunity.
Three days later it came.
“Get prepped for the outpost!” the leader roared one night as Garth was having a philosophical discussion with Wilson. “Get the blood washed off, set up the camouflage! Get the lead out of your asses! Sometimes those prissy bastards do surprise inspections, and I’ll gut anyone that jeopardizes our payday!”
Oooh, perfect, they’re on the wrong side of the law. Delicious.
Garth put his hands behind his back as he heard the camp burst into motion. A moment later, the back of the wagon was drawn open, the light of the fire stinging Garth’s eyes.
Garth was beneath their notice as they worked, climing into the back of the wagon and rearranging the cages, sliding him and Wilson further into the back, along with dozens of other specimens. They packed them in tight, pushing his door up against another cage. Now getting out was gonna be a bit harder.
Then they started arranging the last third of the wagon with crates that Garth hadn’t thought much of before. They took crowbars and popped the tops on the crates, allowing the most incredibly potent smell to rise and permeate the entire wagon.
Ah, Garth thought as he tried not to gag. The customs officers would open the first crates and then pass on the rest. A trick as old as time.
I see your nefarious plans, and I raise you my own. Garth thought, taking his key-seedling out of the corner of his cell. Once they had finished with his wagon, but while the camp was still relatively noisy, he grew the root into the joints of his cage, popping the top off and climbing out. That accomplished, Garth lured Wilson to him with a bit of jerky and scooped the lizard onto his shoulder.
“If things turn south, I might have to make a run for it, Wilson,” Garth whispered. “Gotta keep you where I can see you.”
Once the camp was quiet, Garth climbed the rest of the way out of the wagon, peering cautiously out of the flap. The slavers were sleeping around five low burning fires while half a dozen men stood watch.
Garth was tempted to use his peas on them then and there, wildly running around and stabbing people, but his time playing TRPGs had taught him that a wizard should use every part of the raider caravan. No sense letting them off easy when he could stand to profit even more. That and fifty heavily armed soldiers were bound to butcher him.
The slavers on watch were facing the darkness, their eyes alert for hidden danger while Garth snuck from wagon to wagon until he found a dozen head sized sacks of Heartstones.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Garth whispered, climbing up and making himself comfortable.
“Wilson.” Garth said between Heartstones, his stomach churning. “Remind me to never do this again.”
Wilson licked his eyeball in a gesture of agreement.
“Ooh, Beladia, this is weird.”
Garth stuffed a few more Heartstones in his mouth, swallowing with difficulty. Somehow the stones seemed to disappear as he swallowed them, because his stomach hadn’t felt a damn thing as he’d gobbled down the mercenaries ill-gotten loot, but after he’d passed a couple hundred, his body had started to feel cold, and sweat gathered on his brow, like he was running a fever.
“Think I should stop?”
Wilson blinked twice, telling him to keep going.
“You’re right, it’s not often you get the opportunity to so –“ he swallowed another palmful “Thoroughly screw over someone who deserves it.”
Garth let out a quiet chuckle as he scooped another handful of Heartstones into his mouth. It was maybe three in the morning, the watch had just changed, and he had maybe two hours before it started getting light outside again. The fires were low, and the only other light was that of the stars. After he’d taken whatever he could from here, he’d rearrange the sack in a way that looked less conspicuous and go back to his wagon.
Garth started getting dizzy. Maybe these things had an alcohol content or something.
“One more?” Garth asked Wilson, debating. Signs were pointing to there being some kind of limit to the number one could eat at a time, and Garth didn’t want to know what happened to someone who O.D.ed. He was a bit preoccupied to care though.
Wilson nodded with an enthusiastic grin, his colors shifting rapidly. Was Wilson a chameleon? Whatever. He thinks we should keep going.
Garth took another handful, and swallowed.
A twitch started in his back, spreading to his shoulders, then legs, causing him to shake all over while the ceiling lights in the wagon swirled above him. Where there ceiling lights when he started? He was pretty sure the answer was ‘no’.
“Uhh, Wilson, what’s going on?” he asked, looking over at Wilson, who was no longer standing on his shoulder. No, the lizard was standing on the floor, about three inches from where Garth’s head rested as the rest of his body shivered violently. Watching him suffer.
“You lied to me!” Garth accused Wilson with a harsh whisper, trying to control his body’s shaking. If his foot caught the wrong thing and alerted the Thrask, he’d be up shit creek in a matter of seconds.
Garth focused on his breathing, struggling to regain control of his body, even as his eyes began to slowly roll into the back of his head. The last Garth remembered was blackness dotted with bursts of light where his optic nerves were hyperextending, and the sound of Wilson’s laughter.
Garth didn’t dream about Beladia that night. There were no dreams at all, apart from an odd aching sensation that seemed to come from everywhere at once, and a feeling like he was trying to move through syrup.
Garth opened his eyes to the sound of the Thrask breaking down the camp. Lying beside him was Wilson, looking totally innocent. A beam of sunlight streamed in from a crack in the cover.
“uuugh,” he groaned, sitting up. His mouth felt like he’d slept with it wide open. Garth tried to work his tongue around and think about nice sour lemons while he glanced around. By some miracle, no one had noticed him, and he hadn’t died.
“I blame you for this.” Garth said, glaring at the green, scaly bastard who’d misled him.
“Is someone in there?” Garth heard gravel crunch underfoot outside the tent and he launched himself to his feet, looking for a place to hide. Garth dove over the boxes in the supply wagon, gracefully flattening himself on top of one of the shorter crates, just outside eyeshot of the entrance.
With a flap of cloth, the morning light poured into Garth’s eyes, nearly making him cry out. There was some golden thing spinning in the light itself. It looked like a helix made of ideas, and it felt like it was trying to worm its way into his eyeballs and take up residence there.
What the fuck? Garth slapped his hand over his eyes.
“Huh,” the Thrask grunted, not seeing anyone. Wilson was on his own, the little traitor. The Thrask must not have seen him, because a second later the flap closed, and Garth took his hand off his eyes, glancing around the wagon.
Everything he looked at in the dim wagon began to wibble-wobble, like eddies of water were flowing inside the rigid structure of their form.
“I’m still tripping balls,” Garth whispered, looking at his own hand, watching the eddies of green flowing inside his purple skin. They reminded him of Beladia’s hair.
The wagons began to move, lurching the boxes around the cabin, and nearly tossing Garth onto the floor. He managed to hold on until the shaking became more of a steady rocking that he could navigate without losing a finger in between the crates he’d perched on.
Once he was able, Garth grabbed Wilson, who was still sitting dumbly in the center of the wagon, before crawling over the crates to the front of the wagon. The lizard didn’t seem to mind it when he used its claws to poke a hole in the canvas and look out.
His first look at the outside world nearly made Garth throw up. Shifting patterns overlay the sight he’d grown accustomed to, they weren’t colors, exactly, otherwise how could he see the green pattern on top of the green grass so easily? Maybe what he was looking at just felt green.
Like people who were really high could taste colors. That sort of thing. But how was he seeing colors on top of the colors that were already there? Maybe something wrong with his eyes? If not, he was looking at something wrong with his brain, and that was a little harder to swallow.
Maybe it would go away in a few hours.
“This is fucked up, Wilson.” Garth said as they peeked out the little holes. The lizard twitched its tail against his back to tell him it wanted to see.
Garth shifted his shoulder so Wilson could get a good view, holding the lizard’s eye up to the hole.
“Can you see that weird stuff, with the swirly patterns?”
Wilson nodded in agreement, causing Garth to sigh in relief.
“Thank Beladia. I’m not going crazy.”