Chapter 4: The Future
04 October 2018 at 01:09:44 | [E]
Part of For Better or Worse
The next few days of my captivity were humiliating. I was confined in a cell with the blasted slave collar locked tight every evening. Each morning, I was woken with a bucket of cold water as my "bath" and marched to some kind of mess hall. The food was some kind of equivalent to oatmeal. It didn't taste bad so much as it tasted like nothing at all. I would be thrust into the room, and guards inside would order myself and many other slaves to eat the provided food. We would eat while standing in a line, and when we ran out of time, we were forced to leave the remaining food behind and file into the hall.
As a group we would be taken to a kind of rough lecture hall. Once there, we were secured by iron manacles to chairs, and our collars were loosened. Once my collar was loosened, I could think properly again and access my Aug Interface. I would take the time to check my Nanomachine Factory repair status and use the Retinal Interface to try and find a weak point in my captivity. The repairs were incredibly slow, due to the very small number of nanomachines I had left to actually do the repairing. I estimated that I would have to continue this charade for at least a month before one of the factories was repaired and I could begin producing nanomachines to run my more powerful Augs.
Each day in the lecture hall, instructors would teach us magical theory, proper slave behavior, and anything else that was deemed necessary for a slave-mage to know. Apparently I was property of a "Baron Tarsk", who singlehandedly controlled the biggest magical force in the empire of Adympia. Most of the other mage-slaves around me were elves, but there was also a stout creature called a dwarf. We were forbidden to speak to each other, with stern warnings that we would be deemed "untrainable" if we broke the rules.
Try NOT to be untrainable, because you will certainly not be unbreakable.
The Ugly's words echoed in my head. I certainly didn't want to find out what happened to untrainable slaves, so I was careful to be the perfect picture of compliance as I planned my escape.
Apparently, magic was a process by which "mana" was used to cause various changes in the world around a mage. Many of the mage-slaves, including myself, did not possess any innate mana with which to do magic. Instead, we were taught how to manipulate the ambient mana around ourselves to cause weak effects. We were told that once we were competent with ambient mana, we would be taught how to use other sources of power for more powerful spells. Enervation, or energy of the body, could be converted to mana. At a more effective conversion rate, Vitality, or the physical health of the body, could be used at the cost of injury. Lastly, one's very spirit could be converted to mana at an incredible conversion rate, at the cost of literal years of the caster's life.
Originally, it was not known that someone could have magical aptitude, but not have any mana. The staffs that were used to detect magical aptitude originally only detected the mana level of someone they were used on. There had been another human outsider nearly a year ago who had been enslaved by a noble near the border of Adympia. The original testing staffs failed to mark him as a magic user, because like me, he had no mana. He ended up escaping from the noble, joining a magical college, becoming one of the most powerful mages in history, and returning to disgrace the noble who enslaved him.
The story was a popular rumor among the nobles of Adympia, who loved to see one of their rivals struck down. Only Baron Tarsk noticed the opportunity, and discovered how the human had escaped detection. The Baron had commissioned a new staff design which was capable of detecting magical aptitude independent of mana levels. With it he had discovered and captured many new mage-slaves, most of which had no idea that they even had magical aptitude. This was also how I was discovered. It was theorized that all humans had no mana, but we had a disproportionate amount of enervation to make up for it. I suspected that with one missing lung, I wouldn't get that advantage.
Adympia was a slave-empire, but they liked to think that they were benevolent masters. Slaves had many rights, and were usually treated better than citizens of my homeland. Slaves with magical aptitude, however, had no rights and were treated with extreme discrimination. It was common to damage or even kill mage-slaves as a form of entertainment. Nobles would purchase them, and then satisfy their cruelty on the hapless slaves. As a result, mage-slaves were fairly uncommon in Adympia, as their life-expectancy was so low. Baron Tarsk realized the foolishness of this, and began a training program convert mage-slaves to powerful and useful tools.
We were not treated well, but our basic needs were met as long as we complied with the rules and any orders we were given. The training program was designed to produce fantastically loyal slave-mages, bound to serve Baron Tarsk. I was unsure how our current treatment was supposed to do that. Back in the United Conglomerate, Reeducation Centers used heavy brainwashing and hypnotic techniques to change dissenters and other "enemies of the state" into loyal citizens. Here, the Adympians simply didn't have the research or tools to produce a similar effect.
After many hours each day of instruction, we would be marched back to the mess hall to eat. When that was done, I would be taken individually to various places in the massive dungeon to have proper clothing, cuffs, and enchantments applied to me. My original clothing had been taken from me and burned. All I was given in replacement was a rough loincloth, still dirty from its previous wearer. I was fitted with rough iron cuffs, rusty and sharp around the edges. Apparently like the collar, they were enchanted for extreme durability and would mark me as a mage-slave. They didn't have a visible lock for me to pick, and were in-fact completely solid. I could not even find the seam where they joined around my wrists.
The enchantments were an interesting experience. Aside from my original capture, I had not seen magic usage since I arrived through the Banestorm. I was taken to a cell guarded by two soldiers. Inside sat an ancient elf slave-mage. He was provided a manastone by my guard, who pulled it from a pouch on his belt.
File that away for later. I may be able to use that for my advantage.
The slave-mage began chanting a long spell, only a few words of which I recognized due to my recent training. He waved his arms and stamped his feet and held the manastone before himself. I expected to feel something when the manastone grew dark and the slave-mage finished his spell. Instead, I was shoved roughly against the wall as one of the cell guards pulled a glowing piece of metal from a brazier. He looked at it for a moment before shoving it against my cheek. An acrid burning smell filled my nostrils as I struggled not to scream. Finally, the brand was removed and I was released from the wall.
"There, Slave, you have been enchanted so that your aging has been delayed. Baron Tarsk is aware of a human's relatively short lifespan, and he wants to be able to use you for centuries to come. This enchantment will be reapplied yearly. The brand is to mark that you have received this enchantment and to further mark your slave status."
The guard turned away as he finished speaking and hung the brand from the edge of the brazier. That night, even through the fog of the slave collar, I could feel the ache of the burned flesh on my face.
Karkan, Slave Trader
The sound was all the louder for the silence in the room. My hand stung from the force of the strike as I berated my slave.
"You idiot girl, I clearly ordered you to bring me the Ashurian Red! This is a Karkan White! Can you not see colors? Maybe your sister can see colors! Maybe I should have sold you instead of her! I could certainly have gotten a better price. I am sure you saw the look in the whorehouse owner's eyes when I gave him her instead. I would even offer to trade her back to get rid of you, but she’s soiled goods by now. I will just have to try to beat proper behavior into you..."
My slave cowered down beneath me. When Baron Tarsk gave me one of his amazingly obedient slaves, I had no need for both of my original ones. I had sold one of the slave-mages to a local brothel. The two slaves had actually dared to protest with the excuse that they were sisters. I had beaten the one I kept, and the brothel owner had dragged his new slave, still wailing, into the darkness of his establishment. She wouldn't last long in that place, but that was hardly my concern. The gold I got for her would more than pay for my dinner that night.
I had had to hurt the remaining slave again that night when she wouldn't stop whimpering. The new one from the Baron had yet to arrive, and the one I had on hand was seemingly too distraught to serve. She finally learned her place and never broken a proper mage-slave's composure after that night, but she was left even more wretched after losing so many teeth. Once the new slave-mage arrived, I was delighted at her incredible training and absolute obedience. I found my workload heavily diminished as I didn't have to waste any time punishing her. Unfortunately, I found my patience for the old slave even thinner, as she refused to function to the standard of the new one.
I may have to see about earning another one of the Baron's marvelous mages. I don't think this pathetic wretch will last much longer. I wonder if that brothel owner will take damaged slaves...
As I stood before the macabre painting of the visions, I thought back to all that had happened in the previous year. I had taken my small power base and built from it a glorious city. I controlled a small army of slave-mages, loyal only to me, and capable of overtaking any or all of the neighboring baronies. My magical technology surpassed anything in Elardia, except for the mage colleges. I was not ready yet, but soon I would force the other nobles to recognize me as a Count as I expanded to consume my neighbors. That was but a step in the plan, and someday I would hold all of Adympia, strong and finally united, against the future...
You have grown greatly contemplative of late, my servant. What thoughts fill your tiny mind?
I swiftly knelt with my head pressed to the floor. His presence had no spatial source, but I would do my best to show devotion to my Master.
"Master, you grace such an insignificant maggot with your attention. I merely seek understanding. I am barely capable of comprehending your greater thoughts, but it is my duty and honor to serve. Order me, and I will obey"
I was careful to suppress the resonant power of my voice, bestowed by the very One whom I spoke to. It would have no effect on such a being, but to attempt to use it would mean slow and dishonorable death.
I notice that you have found the human I brought you. He will be instrumental in the future I have shown you. Take care that you do not squander such a resource. Soon you will be ready to reveal your power to your weak neighbors. When you have completed the task of uniting them under me, you will be bestowed another Boon.
The room cooled and a weight left my shoulders as the Presence left. I stood and again looked at the painting. I shuddered at the memory of the vision that inspired it. Black veined corpses crawling from the piles of dead. Red armored soldiers with my family crest desperately holding them at bay. Behind the soldiers, a curtain of smoke rising from the capital city. I did not have a sense of how far this was in the future, but every day as I stood here I wondered how much time was left.
A year ago I was just a Baron with now real influence on the political climate. Then one day at a ball, I heard a rumor. Chypia, a noble several ranks higher than me, had stumbled into a small village. She had been alchemically dyed a deep blue. Over time the story had come out that she had been marked by a former slave of hers. A human with magic, who had somehow fooled our detection staffs. I laughed with the rest of the nobles, but that night I saw the truth.
As I stood before a roiling red mist in my dreams, the voice of a great being had told me the Truth. He spoke of humans and of mana. He spoke of Banestorms and how they were used by gods to bring champions from other lands. He told me how to consolidate my power. He taught me strange things, secrets no other elf knew. He bestowed upon me a Boon. The power to weigh upon men with my voice, breaking their wills until they had to obey me.
Finally, the red mist advanced over me and I saw the Future. I saw myself, red mist seeping from my eyes, sitting on the Imperial throne. The Imperial palace flying my family crest. An era of great prosperity as Adympia worked together to become powerful. Then the mist grew dark and I saw strange white corpses with black veins floating in a river. A pile of similar corpses outside a small city. A corpse with black dust rising from its skin jerkily rising up and stumbling down a dirt road. A massive horde of corpses flowing towards the Imperial city. Finally, I saw the scene I had painted in my viewing room. Pale corpses overrunning my soldiers, black veins pulsing with a shroud of black dust following them.
When I awoke, I found I had an obsession with my dream. I found I could command men, and my voice would weigh so heavily on their minds that they had to obey. I commissioned staffs to find new mages. I established an iron rule and expanded my city to support my mage-training program. It had all come together so well, just as He had told me. The Future still troubled me, but we had a plan. I turned and strode from my viewing room.
I have work to do.