The light fled from the fertile lands of Emanai.
Fortunately for its residents, this had been a common occurrence. Murk, wer, and wermage alike simply shrugged their collective shoulders, called it a night and went off to sleep.
But some chose to do their deeds under the cover of darkness. Noble ones or otherwise.
A mere day-travel away from Samat, the Capital of Emanai, an even darker forest lied. The thick canopy of trees was blocking the remaining starlight. And in that forest lied a cave.
Brightly lit obviously. It would be a boring cave otherwise.
Two men had chosen to stay awake that night. One human, or murk in the native language, was occupied by a noble trade of looting. While a wermage nearby had chosen an equally noble task of being a light bulb. Like a mythical yogi, he floated cross-legged in midair. If yogis had fleshy tails and large draconic horns that is. A veritable belt of cards orbiting around him, constantly flowing out of the deck in his hands only to return back after a couple of rotations.
Mages. They couldn’t even shuffle like normal people.
“So, what are you going to do, Erf.”
I put aside one of the bags I was collecting the scrap metal into or, specifically, the flakes of rust. And considered my floating friend. This place had been rotting for a few centuries, it could wait a few more minutes.
Albin Shebet Chasya wasn’t just an average wermage. Even when an ‘average wermage’ already belonged to the ruling caste of Emanai. An ability to wield magic, punch holes in rocks and live for centuries had cemented their hegemony in this world. Apart from all that, he was also a Speaker of the Pillar Manor and a lot of other fancy words which essentially boiled down to him being one of the seven that jointly ruled this country. Or at least were direct representatives of their families when it came to decision-making. Usual politics in action.
This is why his question wasn’t just a casual one.
“Honestly? Very little in the immediate future,” I sighed, “This is not something I could just rush into and suddenly make the world and everything in it better. If I force my hand many would die or the entire country would implode and get overrun by the creatures of the Forest.”
There was a reason why someone of his status was asking these questions from me. For I wasn’t an average murk either. Most murks, who were called this way for the absence of a magical Spark within, had the standard option of being a slave in this society. Reliant on other races to keep them safe from the magical creatures, murks had been forced into a path of Servitude a long time ago. Technically I was still a slave myself too. But now I had a rank of an Alchemist and a Teacher with other perks that even some free wer and wermages dreamt to have. I was held in high regard by my master — Domina of Kiymetl Manor. And I could call the Speaker of Shebet my friend.
There was a reason for my meteoric rise. Quite an apt description since a part of me literally came here from space. This ‘cave’ was nothing more than my old shuttle. Slowly rotting away until rain uncovered the entrance for a hapless murk slave to stumble inside.
And then I was born. A consequence of desperation from both sides and an unlikely result that none of them expected. I was neither and both of them at once.
Erf was my name. Murk and Human. A slave and a Navigator.
And I had big shoes to fill into.
Albin snatched the floating card and frowned, “I don’t think you have the option to lay low anymore. Not after all the ruckus you have stirred already.”
“Nor will I.” I resumed my task of shovelling the corroded parts. “I have little desire for using an outhouse in the middle of the night or during the chill mornings. And I refuse to keep smelly chamber pots in my bedroom. I have standards, Albin. And if said standards require me to step on some toes so be it. I could’ve avoided problems with your sister if I didn’t talk about numbers and math, or troubles with Esca if I haven’t started glass manufacturing, but then I would’ve remained a nobody, a slave boy among hundreds, only fit for manual labour and pleasure of his masters.”
“Oh I agree wholeheartedly myself,” He grinned “The great thing about you is that you aren’t boring! With just enough weirdness to stoke my curiosity. For example: why are you gathering all this garbage?”
“Think of it as a very rich ore. I can buy things like iron and copper anywhere in the city. But finding other metals like nickel, chromium, and platinum or a whole family of rare-earth elements would be impossible without scouring the land to find deposits and praying that I would be lucky enough to find any at all. And then spending years mining and refining these.”
I frowned and punched a wall near the door frame, my fist easily making a hole only to pull out a large servomotor. “Neodymium and niobium too.”
Albin looked at the lump of metal and wires in my hand, “Can you forge weapons out of these metals?”
Into the bag, it flew, “Would be a waste to do so, most of them would make worse blades than what you have now. However, you can improve steel by adding some of these into the alloy. As long as you mix them properly.”
“Huh, there are rumours of the star metal in the south. I have heard that weapons made out of it are exceptionally strong. Do you think they had found another ship like this one?”
I scratched my chin. Most of my actual ship wasn’t metallic, to begin with. Even this wreck was only the metal ‘skeleton’ of a bigger shuttle body. An organic body that rotted away into nothingness ages ago. Lif, the living core of my Tree-ship, had landed far away but she had even fewer metal parts. Since, well, she was a tree.
“I can’t really say that it is outright impossible, but it is much more likely that it was a simple rock that fell from the sky. Space is full of them and some are nothing but a pure iron-nickel alloy. Or they have found deposits of native iron.”
Iron and Nickel were rather abundant elements in space. They were the soot of the starfire, the final result of a normal star’s life. The only reason why they weren’t even more common on the surface was that the crust was largely composed of lighter elements floating on top of the metallic core. The same molten and convecting core generated a geomagnetic field and was essential for the continued existence of organic life in general and the atmosphere specifically.
This wasn’t Earth but some things were extremely common in space. Moreover, I had a hunch that this planet was settled by the early colonists exactly because it was so similar to what I knew as the cradle of Humanity. Only to be met with some unknown fate that pushed their progress thousands of years backwards and gave rise to magical animals and magical versions of humans in the process.
“I would be happy to have one of your blades, then.” He nodded and turned back to his card juggling. “What about the fulad steel?”
“Prepare for disappointment, then. I am a shitty smith. What I could possibly do is get a decent blank or ingot for someone else to forge into a blade. You have earned enough of my gratitude for that and more.”
I waved in the direction of our campsite where my mother and my uncle slept and at the rune-engraved orb resting on the nearby surface. “Both for helping me to reunite with my family and for this artefact to keep the wreck hidden from the prying eyes. Eventually, however. If this was simple or easy, your smiths would have figured it out a long time ago. And I am unfamiliar with that name for steel.”
“Ask your Domina, these rarely arrive at Emanai from beyond the bay of Tir. One of her sisters or even the Matriarch of her Manor herself definitely deals with the merchants of the northern lands. These blades have wave-like patterns on the surface and are just as sharp as they are flexible.”
“So, Damascus or Wootz steel.” I nodded in understanding. “Or something similar. Which is mostly iron and coal and a lot of heat involved and work done by the smith himself. While I have a general idea of how it is made, that won’t be something I could replicate anytime soon.”
“Don’t even try,” He shook his horns, “Or your altercation with Esca would feel like pleasant conversation. Esca had a monopoly on glass and the associated wealth it provided. Fulad daggers and swords are prized enough to be offered to gods. You can guess how they are received both by Matriarchs of Emanai and the Queens of other countries. Your experiments, if they ever end up being made public, won’t just bring a Collector or two after your heart. You will have armies rattling their steel at our walls — demanding your flesh. And they will likely have it, for neither me nor your Domina would be able to save you.”
His tail unfurled from his floating form and poked me in the chest, straight into my second skinsuit that my nanites had been growing for a while now. “Emanai Manorat is strong and it can repel these hordes. The women of the north might make better weapons for their rulers but we can equip every soldier with a good spear and sword. Soldiers won’t just risk their lives unless they value yours much more, however. You will need to make yourself invaluable to Emanai as a whole to have its arms march to save you. Not just a branch Manor of Kiymetl.”
He thought to himself for a moment then grinned back, “Or grow strong enough yourself.”
I looked at him incredulously, unable to stop my raising eyebrows, “Is that what a Speaker of Shebet should say? And a successful general to boot? Aren’t you supposed to make sure that Emanai prospers no matter what?”
He scoffed, “I have been ensuring Emanai prosperity for centuries, trust me it gets boring fast. And why would you assume that Emanai won’t prosper if you are stronger than you are right now? I’ve seen plenty of hot-headed idealists in my life that were eager to fix everything immediately, the fact that you are choosing a more cautious approach already speaks plenty for yourself.
“You can’t do this alone either: you are not a mage that doesn’t need anyone to grow strong. You are a teacher and a tool-maker, your strength grows by empowering others around you and borrowing their power in return. And you have already started to grow roots within this land.”
He leaned backwards and assumed a more comfortable position. lounging in midair. “I’ve heard the news, you somehow had ended up in a sadaq with two wives already. And I could see the glares that Domina’s daughter had been sending your way. So believe me, they’ve got you now.”
“Not like it wasn’t my decision either,” I grumbled black. His words had a kernel of truth within, I knew that I was a very promising marriage material back then and Irje and Yeva had capitalized on it greatly. But it wasn’t like there were no feelings of love between us either.
At least they chose to pursue me for the personal qualities that I had, and not for my inheritance or status. And I have found their companionship just as enjoyable beyond the pleasures of the flesh.
The issue with Anaise was a little bit more delicate. Back then I couldn’t count on her mother not to abuse her status and so, under the approval of my wives-to-be, I set off to build rapport with her daughter too. And I used the entire expertise crammed into my recently-murk mind by nanite technology. Before I could recognize the slippery slope I set out on, the Lady of the House was already smitten.
Seduced by a slave that choose his sadaq instead of joining hers.
Granted, none of us even expected her to present such an offer. Murks didn’t live past a hundred, while wermages would still be considered young adults at such age. We were too fleeting for them to establish families with. But the almost-twenty Anaise hadn’t noticed the difference just yet. And now, since my nanite-infused body was nearly immortal, I had a sinking feeling that this incident would rear its ugly head anew.
“No matter, what's done is done and reasons are not as important anymore,” Albin waved me off while collecting his flying cards and finally touched the ground, “We should probably head back to the camp so that we can reach the city tomorrow by early evening.”
“Give me a moment, I only have a few boxes left to salvage,” I sped up my movements, “Don’t want to leave this place thinking that I missed anything still usable.”
So far I had found two working batteries and living-tech seeds that I could cultivate into bio-printers. And the Harald that was busy establishing itself into my nervous system. An organic interface that allowed my nerves to connect to external hardware. Although all it could potentially do right now was establish a faint connection to my Tree-ship. Strong enough for me to be aware that she was still alive.
My words turned prophetic as I pulled out a lithoscanner in a rather decent condition. Unlike the batteries, which had a different approach to planned obsolescence due to the radioactive content within, this was probably designed as one of the survival tools for any possibility of shit hitting the fan. Including the shuttle crash-landing and laying dormant for multiple centuries while nanites patiently waited for a possible host.
“See? What did I say,” I grinned and immediately started to jury rig it to the available source of power hoping to get any response.
“What is it?” Albin looked curiously at the beeping tube.
“A scanner. If you point it at a rock it would tell you what is it made out of.”
“You know, you don’t really need a chunk of chirping metal to tell you what the rock is made out of, You just need to know rock names.”
I raised my eyes from an angrily beeping piece of junk. “You can also point it at the ground and it should tell what other rocks are there underground.”
“Oh. That does sound useful,” He frowned, “But does it have to be this annoyingly loud?”
“No. It looks like it didn’t survive unscathed, unfortunately. Readings are all over the place.” I sighed and pulled the power out. “I will take a look at it at a later time, perhaps I could recalibrate it somehow, or use the working parts for something else.”
I could see that it did manage to scan the ground but had issues trying to understand what it was doing, or sort the layers accordingly. In fact, it was adamant that I wasn’t pointing it down at the ground but that I was somehow deep underground pointing it upward.
“What a peculiar artefact. It is interesting to see how these ‘humans’ of yours try to replicate magic.”
I shrugged and started tying the overflowing bags, “You need to use what is available to you, can’t just sit and whine for things you are deprived of. Or never had, to begin with. Knowledge of where ores lie is equally important if you have Spark or not, if you can control the Flow or can’t even sense it. I might argue that material tools are even more useful to us as we can’t just rely on magical strength or the ability to spit fire. Or float like a balloon.”
“Hey now! Let me stretch myself. Do you know how many laws are there that prohibit magic within the city walls? Mostly written by some layabouts who couldn’t even last a single real battle without puking their guts out from depletion.” He looked at me sideways, “And keep it secret, will you? Compared to you I have no desire to get married any time soon.”
“Har, har. My lips are sealed.”
“Good, because if I suddenly find myself being chased by an even larger horde of powerful Dominas that still weren’t used to others telling them ‘no’, I will haunt your dreams. Or worse, sic my sister on you.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“You would be surprised what I am capable of, especially when I have to resort to drastic measures.” Albin deftly dodged the flying hunk of wires. “By the way, are you going to leave the bones here?”
I looked at the desiccated bones lying in the corner and shrugged, “Might as well. With a Sphere of Negation in place and a properly hidden entrance, nothing would disturb them.”
“A rather morbid thing to say about the remains you claimed as your own,” He scratched his head, “Are you sure you don’t want to make a pyre then?”
Many would consider my approach rather morbid, but I’ve seen plenty of death in both of my lives. As a young slave, I’ve seen others succumbing to hunger and weakness or receive local justice. Slaves were rarely killed as it would mean loss of workforce for the masters, but the very few would be simply tied to the tree and stabbed to death. Usually near the forest so that the local wildlife would clean the body quickly, preventing the spread of any diseases without wasting any firewood.
Navigators were comfortable with shedding their old bodies. For them, the cycle of death and rebirth was a matter of everyday life, and my old remains caused me as much discomfort as some nail clippings. Just another thing my ‘self’ had discarded over time. Especially since the bones didn’t contain any rare elements I currently lacked and the ocular implant was already tucked between my sash and the tunic.
“Because you are right: I am not there. I am here in this flesh, both as Erf and as a Navigator.” I sighed, “And I will call myself their son and nephew. Whether they would accept me or not… Let’s leave, Albin. I got as much as I could stuff into these bags and there is no need to stay here any longer.”
I will be back here eventually, at least with the proper tools to crack the engine block open. Perhaps then I will deal with my past. I had plenty of present and future on my plate right now.