CHAPTER 2 – Self-Discovery
The rest of the clan woke up as dawn broke, and I observed them better in the daylight. If you saw them from behind, only glimpsing their robes and the shapes of their bodies, you’d think they were human.
Looking at their faces robbed you of any idea of that though. These guys were about as human as creatures I was 89% convinced the government was keeping in Area 51.
The mages had green skin colored in different tones, with some pond-water green like Kaleb, some a more minty hue, and others like tree leaves. I guessed it must have been a family thing.
Some of them wore earrings in their pointy ears. A few of the men had grown their beards, styling them in all sorts of ways from untamed growths to oiled mustache points. The women were tall and toned. In fact, it occurred to me that a lot of the men were pretty slender and wiry, and the muscles in the clan belonged to the women.
Two things they all had in common were the cog work medallions around their necks and the different colored circles on their foreheads.
Seeing them, I couldn’t help but think about the circle on my forehead, and the stirring in my gut that said this clan had done it to me.
Mindfulness, I told myself. Worrying and getting mad won’t solve anything.
The thing about mindfulness is that it was invented by a guy who had never woken to find himself tied up by a bunch of green-skinned mages.
Nevertheless, I knew I had to think rationally and not emotionally, so I went through the steps of breathing in and out. When my pulsed calmed a little, I observed the people around me.
The clan was busy now, some of them eating what looked like strips of dried meat, some folding up their furs and putting them in their leather rucksacks, others leading bison away from camp and west to where the dawn sunlight gleamed off a stream.
They looked like a close people. Friendly with each other, and all of them knowing their own morning roles. They wore tight-fitting robes that looked warm yet light, and many of them had calloused palms from what I guessed must have been from physical work.
One of them, a younger mage with leaf-green skin, walk past me and hummed a song that I recognized. The tune, anyway. I listened like my life depended on it, and I swore he was humming the guitar notes of Whole Lotta Love.
Nah. It couldn’t be. It was just similar, that’s all. My mind was latching onto any familiarity it could find.
As well as seeing my captors, I got a good look at the landscape around me. At first, it didn’t show me much. There were patches of weedy-looking grass, but most of the ground was a kind of hard stone or mud, brown in places and orange in others. I couldn’t see anything else in the distance around me save the stream.
It was as I watched one mage leading the bison to the water, that I noticed something.
One of the bison got its foot snagged in a tangle of weeds and couldn’t get it free. It wheezed as it tried to pull its foot up.
The mage stopped. She was tall, and her robe hugged her athletic figure. Although she was bald like the rest and didn’t look so feminine in her body, her eyes gave away her gender.
The purple circle on her forehead began to glow, and light seeped from it and to her palm. She made a series of gestures with her arm, and then she spoke.
“Hrr-cyte,” she said.
A scythe appeared on the ground beside the bison’s foot. It slashed through the weeds, cutting them all but going through the animal’s foot without hurting it. Again and again, this scythe of light hacked at the weeds, until finally, the bison was free, and the mage patted its head and led it away.
It was then that I saw the patch of ground laid bare now that the weeds were gone. I saw a strip of yellow paint.
The kind they use for road markings.
Road markings? Was this Earth? If it was, it certainly wasn’t the one that I knew, unless I’d grown up ignorant of the fact that green-skinned mages existed.
Nah. Someone would have mentioned it.
I sat up. I was desperate to go get a look at the paint, but my ankles were tied by the rope, and I knew I’d fall over if I tried to get to my feet. Besides, although nobody was paying attention to me, I doubted the mages would just let me wander around.
Lacking any freedom of movement, I decided the best thing would be to study these guys. The more you know, the more powerful you are. Any knowledge I could glean might help me.
They looked like they all enjoyed each other’s company. As they ate their strips of meat they spoke with each other in their strange language, some laughing and joking, others locked in more serious discussion.
Given that they slept outside and had a pack of bison, I guessed they were travelers. Either that, or they did had a home someplace but were in the middle of a journey.
That begged the question of where they found me, and why I couldn’t remember it, but I knew those answers wouldn’t come right now.
There wasn’t much else to gleam. They didn’t carry many weapons, but I doubted they needed them anyway.
The most interesting thing was the stares that kept coming my way. Almost all the campers stared at me at various points, which meant something; this was an uncommon event. They weren’t accustomed to finding guys like me and tying them up.
It made me think that they hadn’t gouged the circle on my forehead. For one thing, how could they have done it, and then made it heal so quickly? It had already scarred over.
Oh, yeah. Magic. They could have used magic to heal it. Magic is a pretty convenient way of saying F-you to logic. Impossible and rational were stupid words when you were dealing with guys who shot magic out of their palms.
Kaleb was standing by Pendras. I had watched Pendras more than the rest, and one thing was clear; he was in charge of the clan. He spent the morning giving orders, and now he seemed to be giving one to Kaleb.
“Gou Dipak, Kaleb. War lave knar lunch.”
Kaleb nodded. “Yap, Pendras.”
Kaleb walked to where the clan had piled lots of rucksacks of different sizes and made from different materials. One rucksack was black but with a fluorescent yellow cover and a brand name tag sewn onto it. It was the kind you’d see in outdoor hobbyist stores.
This was Earth. It had to be. I doubted even the biggest rucksack companies had penetrated the intergalactic market yet. Man, what the hell was going on?
Kaleb took three glass jars and a gardening trowel from a bag. He used the trowel to loosen mud in the ground, and then he scooped it into a jar.
After that, he filled one more jar with soil from a different spot nearby, and then he combed through the camp. He stared at the ground intensely, stopping every so often to pick something up and put it in the jar.
By the end, he had two jars filled with soil, another with various bugs including worms, beetles, and ants.
The only thing I could think was that they were testing for something. Maybe if Kaleb had filled all three jars with just bugs, I’d have said it was for food. Bugs were a protein source, after all. But the soil? No, they had to be checking for something.
When he’d put the jars back in the rucksack, Kaleb collected the pile of unused fire logs and laid them out on the ground in a rectangle shape, as though making a strange diagram out of them.
“Hrr-arte,” he said.
Nothing happened at first, and a flicker of anger crossed his face. “Hrr-arte,” he said, more forcefully this time, putting emphasis on each syllable.
In the same way as when he’d crumbled the log last night, and similar to the female mage freeing her bison, the cogs in the medallion around Kaleb’s neck began to click as the gears moved, and flashes of light left him.
The firewood transformed, melding together and rising until, seconds later, it had turned into a wooden cart with wheels.
I felt my blood run cold and my face go pale. I still wasn’t used to seeing such impossible things. It made me wonder if I was still dreaming. Or drunk. Or dreaming whilst drunk.
Now, a glimmer of a memory of myself came back. The word drunk echoed in my head again and again, leading to me learning a deep truth about myself, about who I was.
Drunk. Drink. Beer.
I liked beer. I really, really liked beer.
Yeah, it wasn’t the deepest of self-discoveries, but I remembered that I loved beer.
But I wasn’t drunk now, and as much as a few beers might help me get more comfortable around this insanity, I didn’t have any. So, I needed to stay calm and to think rationally.
After watching Kaleb, something had occurred to me. I had seen three spells be cast now; one to shatter a log, another to scythe a tangle of weeds, another to create a cart from logs.
Each spell had been composed of two words, and the first words had always been hrr. Did hrr mean cast, or something similar?
Maybe. At least I was getting somewhere. I could say my name, yes, no, and I maybe knew the word for cast or spell. Small steps. If only I had a language dictionary.
So, you want to learn more about their strange tongue, huh? Yes, it is I, the All-Knowing. I understand how disconcerting this must be for you, Isaac. So, I will offer you aid. If we are to ever accomplish anything together, I must get a sense of your potential.
Quest Received: Escape your bonds
The Lonehill clan will no doubt cut your bonds soon when they realize how little of a threat you are. But, if you can free yourself first, I will get a measure of the kind of man you are.
Task: Find a way to get loose from the ropes around your wrists and ankles.
Reward: Some knowledge of the language of the Lonehill language.
There he was again, this All-Knowing guy. Or was it a guy? Maybe spirit was a better word. Whatever he was, I was sure his existence wasn’t straight forward, because the words in front of me were conspicuous but nobody else was staring at them. It looked like only I could see them.
“Can you at least tell me where I am?” I said in a low voice, so as not to draw attention.
There were no answers.
Yep - or should I say yap around here? – that figures.
At least I had hope, though. Something to do. The promise of understanding more of the clan’s speech if I could just get free. How would I do that?
I lifted my hands and looked at the ropes. They were an inch thick and looked like they were made from thousands of strands of hair woven together.
Is that how people make rope? Maybe they use hemp.
Not important right now.
The most disconcerting thing was how rough and shoddy the ropes were. It made me certain they had been used before, and that maybe the clan had taken prisoners before now.
It was a worrying thought, and I was going back and forth on that. I just didn’t know much of a threat these people were.
Glancing around to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I lifted my hands and bit the rope and tried to tear it with my teeth.
Nope; it was tougher than Grandma’s chicken. I wouldn’t be able to bite through it.
Next, I looked around for a stone or something like that, but there was nothing. Lacking anything to cut with, I put my hands on the ground and rubbed the rope back and forth along it, hoping it would start to wear away.
Nah, not going to happen.
Damn it. What else could I try?
Maybe I should just try asking. “Hey, could you cut the ropes, please?”
Then again, the quest said I had to free myself before the clan cut me loose. Something about testing my initiative.
Think, Isaac, I said, growing more and more certain that really was my name. And that thinking the word think was an act of thinking in itself, and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It was then that I spotted the fire. The flames were gone, but the base layer of charred wood was still glowing hot. Hmm. Maybe that was the answer.
I just needed to get over to it, but the fact I couldn’t get to my feet, much less walk, was a bit of a problem.
“Kaleb,” I said.
The young boy had finished stacking furs and leather rucksacks onto the cart now. It looked like he was the dog’s body of the clan.
He walked over to me. “Okiya, Isaac?” he said.
I mimed being cold. I wracked my brain for something Kaleb had said to me last night. What was the word, the one Kaleb had said before he had put wood on the fire?
“Isaac caild,” I said, aware that with my bare minimum of vocabulary I must have sounded like an idiot.
I pretended to shiver. “Very, very caild.”
Kaleb patted me on the shoulder and said something, but I didn’t pick out a single word.
He held his hand out to me. I reached out, and he pulled me to my feet and then steadied me. He led me shuffling along, to the fire, and then gently pushed me down beside it.
That must mean okay. “Yap,” I said.
He smiled and then left me. Alone and next to the fire, I waited a while to choose my moment carefully.
When I was satisfied that none of the mages were watching, I carefully stretched out my arms and then lowered my wrists to the glowing wood. The rope began to burn, and the smell was so pungent I was sure someone would notice soon.
No going back now. I pressed the rope harder against the wood and soon enough burned away that I could strain against the bonds and free my hands.
Ah, that felt good!
Wasting no time, I untied the rope around my ankles.
And there I was. A free man once again. A free man surrounded by mages in a place he’d never visited before.
Weaponless, and dressed in a wafer-thin shirt and trousers.
My situation hadn’t improved so much, really.
You have found a way to shed your bonds and thus have earned your reward.
Reward: You now understand a little more of the Lonehill clan’s language.
I listened to the chatter around me, but I found that the All-Knowing hadn’t rewarded me with anything but the barest scattering of vocabulary.
Even so, I watched Pendras talking to one of his men, and I heard a few words that made me a little more excited.
“Leave an middedai, wir nafan a bieter plaa. Isaac moh syen learn. Kaleb shuire spell cast.”
Leave, learn, and spell cast. Just as I’d guessed, the translation for cast was hrr.
Not much I could decipher from that, but it was a start.
“Pendras!” shoute a mage from across the camp. I realized he was pointing at me now. “Pyrizonip cutte elyrope!”
More and more of them turned to face me now, and I wished that I was a mage so I could cast a spell that would let me sink into the ground. Pendras fixed me one of his soul-boring stares.
He pointed at me.
And then, he curled a finger. “Caim hoore, Isaac.”