“How is this possible?” asked the deity in golden robes.
“Eterna, my queen, I humbly apologise for my subordinate’s failure and beg your forgiveness,” intoned the armoured knight in glossy black armour. His name was Law, and he was in charge of all the guardians protecting the Primordial Force of Order.
“A mere human kills my Eternal creation, breaks divine law, and suffers not even a curse? This is an affront to all of the higher beings!” Eterna’s voice rose as she spoke.
“We cannot detect, control, or affect him in any way,” Law simply stated.
“What?“ she looked shocked.
“He’s outside of The Wheel’s control,” Law said without inflection.
“How is this possible?” Eterna’s face reddened and she started sputtering, her anger surely wreaking havoc on some unfortunate plane of existence somewhere.
Eterna, the goddess of order and all things eternal, was extremely furious. A lowly mortal… how could a lowly mortal stay outside of The Wheel’s control? It was impossible. The Wheel was the fair solution implemented by her to govern the mortal worlds. She was especially proud of her own creations, and The Wheel was her magnum opus, her greatest achievement to date.
It was a massive, intelligent system that distributed abilities and balanced the powers of all the mortals of every world. Before The Wheel, the gods used to gift their followers with unreal powers and abilities, strengthening them to compete with the other gods for dominance. Unchecked, this had resulted in the emergence of true monsters that rebelled and eventually tried to challenge the gods.
They were all crushed, of course.
Then The Divine Assembly—the closest things that higher beings had to a government, issued a decree: no more direct meddling in mortal affairs. No more divine boons. They spent aeons trying to enforce the new rule and failed repeatedly. That was until Eterna came forth with her idea for The Wheel; a system to impose Order and limit how much power a given mortal could wield. No more easy boons from greedy gods playing favourites.
If a mortal wanted power, they had to gain it themselves.
The Wheel was supposed to control everyone and everything, ensuring that all creatures developed with an equal chance, without exception. It further rewarded specialists and punished generalists, thus preventing the emergence of powerhouses. The Wheel did not play favourites or give unfair advantages. It was eternal, tyrannical, and immutable; and it was hers. But now, a single mortal was running amok outside of its control.
And she had no idea what to do about it.
Ethan sat on a log around the central bonfire. Although he sat next to the elders, he was drowning in a sea of the Krell people. After cleaning him and giving him a flax shirt, leather jerkins, and well-fitting leather pants, the tribeswomen had escorted him here, where the elders had received him and seated him amongst them. Kothar had given him a nod, indicating that this was a great honour.
The Matriarch had yet to make an appearance, but the atmosphere was very festive, as evidenced by the abundance of food and drinks, and the general cheer in the air. The drumbeats were also a big hint. They rose in tempo, then came to a crescendo when a distant animalistic roar was heard. Many seated shamans stood up and started to sing in a strange primaeval tongue. Ethan ordered his AI to record everything that was happening and tried to attentively observe, but the elders kept telling him to eat and he had trouble looking in two directions at once. He gave up when elder Ro smacked him on the head and told him to eat or be force-fed.
The language they sang in was beautiful, though, and the song was strangely uplifting on a subconscious level. It seeped into his consciousness like a battle hymn. Everyone started singing along with the second round of the chorus, even children, and with his eidetic memory—a side effect of his implants—he found his voice rising in song along with them.
<Detecting high particle emissions from the host. Particles determined to be Mana. Would you like to suppress the emissions?> Ethan’s AI queried with urgency; but for once, he completely ignored it.
He was entranced and continued to sing. He felt like his soul was being wrenched out of him and poured into the song.
<An unknown phenomenon in progress. Host unresponsive. Recording data…>
Ethan felt something quivering and resonating deep within his soul, and suddenly, a new crescendo was upon them.
<Foreign interface output region recorded. Mapping progress is at 96%… 98%… 99%…>
He felt their collective emotions in the air like a tangible thing that writhed and swayed. Thousands of colourful lights danced in the air above their heads.
<Analysis of output region #3899 of the foreign interface is complete, resuming a scan of other regions.>
The balls of light danced, mingled, and swayed. Then they coalesced into a gigantic kaleidoscopic ball of swirling colours and majestic patterns that hovered above the volcano.
<Detecting heavy Mana emissions in output region #3899>
Ethan experienced a feeling of release, and the giant ball shot away somewhere out of sight.
<Recording of high activity in output region #3899 complete. Beginning analysis of collected data…>
He wiped tears from his eyes and looked down, long after the ball of light had disappeared and the song had ended. Everyone was cheery, but he felt completely drained and strangely… enlightened. So this was how shamanistic magic was cast? Although he did not understand how, he knew he had just cast his first spell, and taken his first step toward an understanding of how magic truly worked.
A mature black dragon slowly emerged from the distant rip in the mountainside. It unfurled the wings on its back and took to the air in two powerful beats. Thought to be extinct, no dragon had been sighted for 300 years, yet all the books had the same description for them; when summarised in one word, it would be ‘majestic’. This was now confirmed deep within Talius’ mind. The terrifying power and awe this dragon radiated with another roar almost got to [Commander] Talius, but he recovered immediately.
“[Rallying Call]!” he bellowed once he heard the dragon’s roar.
His fleeing men immediately halted in their tracks. They turned toward the dragon and yelled in defiance as they converged on his position. Such was the effect of the skill—It rallied the soldiers to his banner, even Jarret. An unorganised, scattered retreat against such a foe only meant certain death for all of them. They would become easy pickings for the aerial beast. Talius was extremely aware of this fact, and it was why he chose to stand his ground.
“Acolyte Jarret, do you know any air magic?” he asked the terrified [Hydromancer] next to him.
“Not enough to fight that,” Jarret responded shakily.
“Just make it difficult for it to fly. We’ll support you,” Talius ordered, then issued a few terse commands and arranged his men into a tight shield formation with Jarret at its core.
Jarret had a look of intense concentration as he constructed the Mind Runes from memory. His experience with air magic had not gone past theoretical studies at The Magisterium, and he found it difficult to recall the Runes under the stress. It took him longer than usual to summon forth the power of water and air, during which time the dragon kept harrying the shield of ice he’d erected around the formation.
The dragon was breathing fire, clawing, and biting incessantly at the shield in its rage to break through, and before long, tiny cracks started to appear in the magical ice. But then a ray of light shot skywards from the centre of the shield formation—more specifically, from Jarret’s hands—and the sky quickly started to darken as clouds gathered overhead. Bolts of thunder broke through the thick black clouds and hit the dragon, and howling gusts and gales blew in every direction, wounding it as it was cut by blades of air, and in the process, almost ripping everything to shreds.
While Jarret’s mastery over the element of air was limited to the level of Initiate, his ability to channel mana was not. What he did was essentially a very bad thing, a practice all mentors sternly warned their students against: he channelled a massive amount of mana into a very simple spell. This meant that the small rain cloud the spell was meant to summon had turned into a massive storm system that was out of his control.
Just as the icy shield broke, the wounded dragon was forced to land and cling to the rocky plateau. It struggled for purchase using its massive claws and roared in frustration. It tried to breathe fire at them, but the winds sent the jets of flame in random directions.
Now they were in a stalemate, and neither side could make a move.
A gigantic ball of colourful lights appeared out of nowhere, sped past them, and enshrouded the dragon in a very bright golden light. The dragon struggled for a moment as if resisting a physical force then stilled and its wounds visibly healed. When the light completely dissipated, the massive black dragon had completely disappeared. In its place now stood a winged human woman in strange black garb. She straightened up from her crouching position with grace, appearing completely unaffected by the chaotic winds. She had a dark beauty with an otherworldly quality to it. Talius couldn’t put his finger on it, but it felt like his entire life was a prelude to this moment.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Talius shouted over the winds.
She smiled a sinister smile and greeted him, her melodious voice easily carrying over the howling of the wind.
“Welcome to my home, [Commander]. I have been waiting for you.”
Aylin Merza was sneaking around to evade her pursuers. The Krell had apparently noticed her escape and sent out search parties. She could hear their distant calls as they signalled each other while searching the passages of this massive cave system. Too bad they had no idea she was headed in the opposite direction.
She snickered to herself as she snuck closer to the sound of the dragon’s roars. She was currently walking in pure darkness. It presented little challenge for her since she had cast the spell [Night Vision] on herself. Her magical power was quickly recovering to full strength, and she estimated it would only be six hours before she could cast all her spells with no impediment once more.
Too bad she didn’t have a sample of that vile potion the Krell kept feeding her to suppress her magic. It would have made for great research material that might have led to some discovery into the nature of magic itself. Her knowledge of the presence of such a concoction in the hands of the Krell was great intelligence of its own though. The Empire would pay generously for such information. Too bad she was still an outcast. Maybe she could sell some secrets to an information broker at the city-state of Grania to the north, once she made her way out of the mountains for good. As a free port, all races were welcomed there—even runaway Polarii [Mages].
That’s what she’d heard, at least. She hoped it was true, then started daydreaming about her plans, and what she’d do once she got there. Her plan was simple: amass treasure, purchase land in an isolated location, build a tower with a private lab, make discoveries, and rebuild her research.
She was going to be the greatest [Mage] in history, Magisterium be damned. Her deeds and discoveries would go down in history and be lauded by generations to come. A sudden silence snapped her out of her daydream. She was following another passage when the roars suddenly stopped. She sped along her path, finally coming to a huge, cavernous chamber with magical light crystals casting soft illumination that almost hurt her eyes.
She dispelled her night vision and looked around. Her eyes gleamed as she eyed the contents of the cave: treasure! Piles upon piles of treasure!
She couldn’t control herself and let out an excited squeal, doing a little jig in her excitement. Then she sobered up and cleared her throat. This wasn’t what the greatest [Mage] in history would do in this situation, she chastised herself. It was time to plunder a dragon’s den.
She picked a small magical pendant that glowed with a green light to inspect it, and the lighting suddenly changed to an ominous red. A groan sounded from behind her, and she turned around to find herself face to face with a great Warhammer in the hands of a reanimated suit of plate-mail.