Chapter 2: Into the Fire
04 October 2018 at 01:09:44
Part of For Better or Worse
I clawed through the haze of exhaustion, spurred onward by a burning ache in my shoulders. I cracked open my eyes, squinting at bright sunlight streaming through... bars? As I woke further, I discovered that my arms were shackled above my head with dull iron manacles chained to a ring above the bars. I was dangling by my arms with my knees brushing rough wooden floorboards. With a jolt of adrenalin, I came fully awake, remembering the events before I passed out.
"Took you long enough to wake up, Outsider", a voice muttered behind me.
I got my feet under me and spun, seeing a short man in dirty green robes chained similarly to myself. Now that I was more awake, I realized were in a small roughly made wooden cart. The ceiling was low enough that while standing, I had to stoop as not to bump my head.
"Speak quietly, the guards don't like prisoners talking", he hissed before I could speak.
"Guards? Are they Lawyers? Where are we and what's up with this joke of a cell?" I croaked with a dry throat, eyeing the cracked wooden walls and the scraps of dirty stray trampled into the floorboards. I glanced around, and saw that the floor, walls, and ceiling appeared to be made of faded and cracking wood. The only metal in sight was our bindings and the bars covering the 6-inch excuse for a window.
"Lawyers? I don't know where you came from Outsider, but here in Adympia slaves don't get legal representation. Outsiders especially. If you are lucky, you won't have any magical potential, and you'll just be sold as a curiosity. As for the cell, have you ever heard of a slaver that cares about the comfort of his goods? The only reason we aren't walking is that the cart is faster and more secure. Karkan likes the phrase "Time Is Money" and appears to run his business with that motto."
As I listened to him, I noticed that the man had pointed ears, just like the three I met before I passed out. I shook my head, trying to tell if I had a concussion, anything that may be causing hallucinations. All I succeed in doing was exacerbating my headache. I tried to look through the barred window, but all I could see was a stripe of the sky and green forest. Now that I was listening for it, I realized that there were people talking to each other and walking behind the cart, too distant to hear clearly.
"Where is Adympia in relation to the United Conglomerate of the Americas? Specifically, in relation to Chicago." I asked, still trying to get a feel for what was around the cart. I thought I could hear people walking ahead of the cart as well.
"Never heard of that place, Outsider. You came through a Banestorm, probably from another world. You're in the kingdom of Adympia now. I've heard of outsiders like you though, you're a human, right? You have the height and the round ears of one. I hate to surprise you like this, but better you know sooner than later. A slaver bought the location of the next Banestorm and got you as soon as you appeared. Outsiders are greatly coveted, especially if they turn out to have magic. We're headed into Baron Tarsk's lands, apparently he pays a lot for outsiders and... mages" The man looked down at his dirty and torn robes.
Forgetting the outside for a moment, I stared hard at the man. He looked like he was unused to this kind of treatment, clearly once fine robes now ruined and raw sores where his manacles bit into his arms. He was also the fourth unnaturally short person with pointed ears I had seen in a row.
"What do you mean when you say "another world", what is a "banestorm" and what is magic?" I asked, some amount of incredulity creeping into my voice. On one hand, I hadn't seen a single Lawyer since the green flash in the storm, but on the other I was hurt, exhausted, confused, and had no idea where I was. Now this guy was trying to convince me that I had woken up in a pre-industrial era fairy-tale complete with elves and magic.
"Banestorms are great magical storms which reach across planes to other lands and transport people to this one, usually without their consent. It is normal for outsiders to be confused after all this. Apparently other worlds don't have regular Banestorms like this one does. As for magic, well, does your world not have it? The ability to use mana to weave spells and make great change in your environment? Throwing fireballs, healing wounds, and summoning endless custard?" He again looked down at himself and sighed, shaking his head.
"I don't know how to begin to process what you are telling me, but no, I have never even heard of magic, except as a fairy-tale. I can't decide if you are crazy or just messing with me. Either way, I need to figure out how to escape. After what I did before I showed up here, the Lawyers aren't going to rest until they find me. I killed one of them, a Sergeant, I think. They won't let that go easy." I yanked on the chains above me, trying to pull the ring from the cracked wood of the ceiling. Instantly I felt blinding pain as invisible lines of fire pulsed from my wrists down my arms.
"AAARRRHHH", I yelled, involuntarily, as the pain wracked my body. A moment later, the pain disappeared, leaving me dangling there, just as I was when I woke up.
"Now you've done it, the bruises were just healing too, idiot! I told you to be quiet! Now we'll both get it!" growled the now irate man.
The rear wall of the cell swung open on exterior hinges. Silhouetted in the blinding sunlight streaming in the door was a short, burly man wearing dark rough leather armor covered in tarnished bronze rings. He was brandishing a dirty bronze-studded wooden cudgel.
"BE QUIET, FILTHY MAGE! I'D CUT YOUR TONGUE OUT IF IT WOULDN'T CUT MY PAY!" he snarled, then whacked the whimpering elf in the ribs. Then he noticed me and smiled wickedly.
"So yer awake, Outsider? You'll be quiet now, ya hear? Karkan don't like it when slaves talk. Dangerous if they turn out to got magic and start their tongues a waggin'." Then he cackled and jabbed me in the side, nearly cracking a rib. I gasped as the wind knocked out of me.
"I SAID QUIET, SLAVE!" the guard bellowed, and the last thing I felt was the cudgel as it connected with the back of my head.
Karkan, Slave Trader
Waking at the sound of one of the guards beating my property, I grumpily sighed and prepared to stop him. It was important to let the guards get their aggression out, but damaged slaves were worth less. I poked my head out the carriage window, seeing that, of course, it was Heldan again. I might have to replace him when we finished this run. He took a frightening amount of pleasure in the more sadistic obligations of his job.
"Heldan... HELDAN! Stop breaking my slaves, or I'll take any reduction in their value out of your pay" I threatened. "Miserable lout", I added under my breath. Heldan stopped and glared at me, causing a shiver to run down my spine. I would definitely have to replace him when we got to the city...
"Aw Boss, they was yellin and stuff", Heldan drawled, "I thought they coulda been doin that enchanting stuff, yah know". Heldan wiggled his fingers in a clumsy approximation of a mage gesturing a spell.
"Of course not you oaf, the mage isn't even trained, apparently he was as surprised as the town guards when the staff marked him. He used to be a regular trader through that town and the staffs had never so much as twinkled before. The new staffs Lord Tarsk has been distributing apparently detect magic better than the old ones. Either way, more money for us. As for the Outsider, he's a Human. Apparently they're rather uncommon, but their worlds don't even have magic. The bounties Lord Tarsk has on Humans are huge, though, and I'll not have you killing him. He's worth more than you've ever seen in your life."
I pulled my head back in the carriage, grumbling as I made myself comfortable again. I hated to waste time explaining myself to a commoner like Heldan, but that human was a fortune just waiting to be sold. It was worth the minor inconvenience to ensure his survival.
I glanced down at my two slave mages, kneeling with their foreheads pressed to the floor of the carriage. I left them in that position when I went to sleep, and they knew better than to move, no matter how their muscles ached, until I allowed them. Satisfied that they had not disobeyed their orders, I reclined in my seat, stretching my legs across their backs as I began to drift back to sleep.
I awoke in darkness, once again dangling by my wrists. A splitting headache emanated from where the guard had struck me. My ribs were bruised, but not broken. I stood again, taking the strain off my arms. I looked at my cellmate, seeing that he was slumped against the far wall, apparently asleep as best as he could be while standing. It felt like it was the middle of the night, and the cart wasn't moving. I peered out of the window, but couldn't see anything in the darkness. Distant snoring confirmed that it was the dead of night. I wasn't sure if I believed what I had been told about this being a different world, but I had to admit that the evidence was pretty convincing. If there were really no Lawyers here, then I could risk Auging.
Startup, Authorization: Erin go Bragh.
I waited for the audio cue that my Aug system was responding. I had been jabbed on the right side, where my real lung was. My left side appeared to be relatively fine, so the processing hardware replacing that lung should work fine. I was pretty much used to being short of breath unless my Oxygenation Aug was enabled. My remaining lung was optimized, but even so one lung just can't do the work of two. I heard a quiet ding as my Aug controller came online.
Enable Oxygenation Augment and set to preset 1. Run full systems diagnostics. Engage Retinal Display.
I sighed in relief as I felt the Oxygenation Aug due its work. The first preset was perfectly legal in the United Conglomeration, and it kept me on the level of a normal 2-lunged person. Higher presets were black market mods and allowed for things like underwater breathing and extended cardio activity. When the retinal display activated, I cursed under my breath. Smears of shifting color obscured my left eye's vision, emanating from the area of my nose and extending nearly to the edge. I could just barely see the diagnostics running on the still functioning top edge of the display. Apparently the guard had damaged the neural lattice interfacing with my Aug Controller when he struck the back of my head.
Diagnostics Completed, Log Available
Disengage Retinal Display, enable audio interface, playback diagnostics log
A flat synthetic voice began dictating:
Acceleration: passed ATP Reserve: passed, supplies exhausted Auto-Reflexes: passed Countermeasures Suite: passed Dermal Ground: passed Oxygenation: passed
Nanomachine Storage Array: 5% Nanomachine Factory 0: failed Nanomachine Factory 1: failed Nanolathe: passed
Aug Interface: passed Retinal Interface: failed Personal Computing System: passed
My augs seemed to be mostly fine, but both nanomachine factories were damaged. There was one located in each arm, inside the bone of my upper arm, replacing part of the marrow. If I had to guess, whatever had hurt me when I tried to pull my chains down had fried both factories. I was almost out of nanomachines as well. Running my augs at such a high level before had used up most of my supply. The lathe was fine, but without nanomachines to run it I couldn't do much.
Engage Nanomachine repair systems. Order of priority: Retinal Interface, Nanomachine Factory 0, Nanomachine Factory 1. Notify on each completion.
My ATP reserves would replenish on their own as I consumed excess calories. I wasn't sure how the anti-tamper system worked on the manacles, but I figured my Dermal Ground could handle it.
Engage Dermal Ground, conserve 1% of nanomachine reserve.
After feeling my skin tingle as the Dermal Ground activated, I carefully pulled against my chains, attempting to see if I could pull the ring from the ceiling. No pain ran down my arms, but my total weight wasn't enough to budge it. I gave the chains a jerk to try and apply more force to the ring. Immediately I regretted it as fire again burned down my arms. I was barely able to stop myself from screaming this time. The pain cut off, and I slouched there, shaking in pain. Clearly the chains did not operate on electricity. I could hardly believe it, but the only thing that made sense was that magic was real and these manacles were enchanted. I was out of things to try, and despite my periods of unconsciousness, I was still exhausted. Giving it up for the night, I imitated my cell mate by slouching against the wall and forcing myself to sleep.
I awoke to sunlight again and the sound of hoofs clopping on road. I was still in excessive pain from my injuries and felt like I had barely slept. I did my best to look out the window, and could see rustic village houses as we passed by. There were groups of people going about their business and children playing. Everyone I saw appeared to be rather short and had pointed ears. I saw several people with smooth silver cuffs among the adults.
Suddenly, we came to a stop, and straining my vision towards the front, I could just see the edge of a high reddish stone wall ahead of us. I remembered my cellmate and looked towards him, but he was just huddled in the corner whimpering to himself. I heard the latch on the carts door click, and I was blinded by the sudden light as it opened. As I tried to adjust to the light, rough hands grabbed my chains and disconnected them from the ring. I was hauled outside and lined up next to several other manacled people. We were all attached to a massive chain attached to an Ox.
I looked around, seeing that there were ten of us in chains. There were several other carts in our line, all pulled by dirty mules. The lead cart was actually a carriage pulled by a horse. I counted five guards around us, including the angry one from before. Ahead of us were huge reddish stonework walls. Behind us was the village I saw as we arrived. As I watched, the fat man from the storm came around the carriage trailing the his two wretched slaves. Behind him were three guards that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Roman play, except for their short height and the lack of the silly red broom things that the Romans wore. In addition to their bronze weapons, two of them carried staffs.
The first staff-wielder came down the line, pointing his staff at each prisoner. Nothing happened each time. I held my breath as he pointed it at me, but nothing seemed to happen. My cellmate was segregated from us, but when the staff was pointed at him nothing happened. I was a bit surprised, because I gathered that this was how magical aptitude was detected. The angry guard had clearly called my cell-mate a mage. Then the fat slave trader pointed at the second guard, whose staff was considerable more ornate than the first's, and gesticulated at my cellmate. I was too far away to hear what was said, but the meaning was clear. The second guard lazily walked over. I watched as my cellmate cowered back and weakly tried to stay away from the advancing guard. The guard raised his staff, and a few seconds later, the end began to glow faintly.
"NO! IT'S NOT TRUE! I AM JUST A SIMPLE TRADER! I HAVE NEVER DONE MAGIC IN MY LIFE!" the green-robed man screamed.
He fell to his knees, begging the guard for mercy. The third guard produced two halves of a collar identical to the ones worn by the slave trader's pets. The collar was placed around my cellmate’s neck, and as the click of the pieces joining rang out, he slumped into unconsciousness. He was dragged away towards the massive gate in the walls as the second guard began repeating the actions of the first. His staff did not glow any more as he worked down the line. When he reached me, at the end of the line, he looked at me with puzzlement.
"An Outsider, huh?" he stated, raising the staff. At first nothing happened, but then the end began to glow brilliantly. It rapidly increased in brightness as a high pure note began to sound. The light became bright enough to drown out all other vision and the note reached ultrasonic.
A moment later, the staff exploded.