Ethan’s enhanced eyes took no time to recover from the change in light levels as they stepped into the cave. Torches intermittently lined the rocky walls of long passageways leading them deep into the bowels of the mountain. Elder Ro walked at a brisk pace that Ethan found surprising, considering her apparent age. He glanced at his HUD interface; the three-dimensional map was being updated in real-time as they navigated the winding passages. It was somewhat reassuring, knowing that he’d never get lost in this massive natural maze.
He noted many strange life forms, too. There were ant-like creatures that scurried about, with glowing bulbous abdomens that changed hues when they came into contact with each other. He assumed it was some method of communication. A large rodent squeaked and bolted into a hole. It was so fast he barely noticed how its body was completely covered in scales. They turned a corner and saw a herd of horse-like beings the size of a man’s palm. The horse-things were grazing peacefully on the glowing moss.
His companions seemed completely unperturbed by the presence of such wonders, while he kept grinning like a fool.
He tried to stop and inspect the little horses, but Kothar simply prodded him along. Evolution must have taken very different paths in this world, he thought, as he looked back at the horses and moved along. He resolved to come back and study the creatures at a later date. He imagined tiny warriors riding tiny horses and going to battle against tiny armies and smiled, it was an amusing thought. Maybe it really did happen in this world, who knew? Right?
When he tried to ask about the creatures he was shushed back into silence. This silent treatment thing was really grating on his nerves.
Shortly thereafter, they took a final turn and stepped into a huge, open space. Looking up, he could see a cloudy sky. Snow was slowly falling, only to quickly melt on the warm bowl-shaped floor of this place.
We’re standing inside a dormant volcano! Ethan realised with a shock.
The light from the sky shone down to reveal row after row of hiding tents with people scurrying about as far as the eye could see. There were children playing and singing and chasing each other in groups, while some of the adults tried to control the chaos, some with benevolent smiles. Apart from the children, everyone wore solemn expressions. Some of the women were even weeping openly, while others tried to console them with whispered words.
A massive central bonfire was burning in the middle of the bowl-shaped space. This was the only area free of traffic for some reason, and incidentally, Ethan realised where elder Ro was taking them.
Before the huge bonfire stood the biggest tent he’d ever seen, with two tribesmen standing guard outside of it. Elder Ro told Ethan’s group to wait, then disappeared inside.
“Don’t speak unless spoken to, and no matter what you do, don’t try to offend her, lest your life is forfeit! With our defeat at the hands of The Empire, she will not be kind and forgiving,” Kothar whispered to Ethan.
Ethan swallowed and started sweating profusely, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. He had no idea what to expect, but with Kothar’s subtle warning, he was suddenly much less enthusiastic at the chance to meet this Matriarch of the Krell tribes.
About ten minutes later, and after much fidgeting on Ethan’s part, elder Ro exited the tent. She held the tent flap open and beckoned them inside. “Ethan West and Kothar The Brave, you may come forth. The Matriarch will see you now.”
Shrill grinding sounds could be heard throughout the camp as acolytes practised their magic. Today’s training session was in the school of [Geomancy]. Although acolyte Jarret Lytell was trying to specialise in [Hydromancy]—the magical art of manipulating liquids—he thought that earth magic would have its uses as well. After all, it did complement water magic nicely.
This was why he was currently practising with the rest of the acolytes. An official [Geomancer] was in the process of instructing them on how to best summon and manipulate rocky surfaces to do various tasks. There were many ways of casting spells, and while the Empire predominantly used Mind Runes, they looked down on other methods of spell casting.
For instance, the shamans of the Krell tribes used vocal incantations, while [Warlocks] used symbolism and hieroglyphs and offerings to summon creatures from other planes, and [Witches] performed occult rituals with strange ingredients to do… whatever it was [Witches] did.
What all methods of casting magic shared was one predominant trait, and that was intent.
Even a child could learn how to cast magic if they learnt how to focus, direct, and control their intent, but more importantly, how to channel and infuse their intent with mana. Everything else was pure preference and conjecture.
In ancient times, people would pray to the gods. When their wishes came true, they called them miracles. What really happened back then, according to the knowledge of today, was that they wanted something so badly that they unconsciously focused their intent and channelled their mana through it, thus casting their own spells. That was the school of thought that Jarret subscribed to, at least.
“Jarret, you’re doing it again!” the instructor seethed.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Jarret said hastily.
“I swear to the gods… if I catch you daydreaming once more…” The instructor let the threat hang in the air.
“No. No! It won’t happen!” Jarret swallowed and hurriedly assured the instructor.
“I bet he wet his robes!” someone whispered from behind him, and he heard the chuckles of the other acolytes. His face reddened even more, but luckily, he was saved from further humiliation by the arrival of a [Guard].
“Acolyte Jarret, you’re to follow me,” the [Guard] said after talking to the instructor.
Jarret heaved a sigh of relief, and after a nod from the instructor, followed the [Guard] out of the training area.
“Is something the matter?” he asked the [Guard].
“The [Commander] wants to see you.”
Jarret followed along, and they arrived at their destination not too long after.
“Jarret, come on in,” Talius said after lifting his eyes from the big map in the centre of the tent.
“You wanted to see me?” Jarret bowed respectfully.
“Yes, yes. Apologies for interrupting your training session,” Talius said absentmindedly.
“It was of no import. How can I be of help?” Jarret asked, curious.
“Our scouts have brought reports. Aylin Merza has been captured by the Krell.”
Jarret held his breath. What a terrible fate!
“Did they torture her before death?” he asked with trepidation, almost afraid of knowing the answer.
“Oh, no. No. She is still very much alive. They are currently transporting her deeper into the mountains.” Said the [Commander].
“Should we save her?” Jarret asked.
“She’s a deserter. She deserves her fate.” The [Commander] was firm.
“However, they don’t know about her predicament. To them, she’s still a valuable noble hostage and a practitioner of the arts. Where do you think they’ll be bringing her for interrogation?” he asked.
Jarret’s eyes widened.
Talius held up something shiny. It was a piece of jewellery that jingled in his hand.
“It’s about time we made our move,” he said with a mischievous smile.
So there will be a divination, after all, thought Jarret in contemplation.
Ethan was apprehensive as he followed elder Ro into the tent. It was very warm inside, and hot air wafted out as they went in. It was also darker, but as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light—it didn’t take very long—he saw a group of old women deep in conversation.
Between them, sitting on a pillow, was a young woman of about twenty years of age. She was very beautiful, but her beauty was marred by a deep frown as she ignored the ongoing debate.
He looked around, trying to spot the Matriarch, but they all looked the same to him; then a realisation hit him. He immediately turned to face the young woman and half bowed in the same way he had observed people greeting elder Ro on their way here.
The debate immediately halted in its tracks, and all eyes fell on Ethan. Elder Ro looked at Ethan and lifted an eyebrow, then looked deep in thought. The Matriarch didn’t look surprised at all. Her eyes shone with intellect, and an unspoken challenge. She completely ignored him and turned to Kothar. She looked pissed.
“Kothar, explain yourself!” she commanded in a haughty tone.
He went forward and kneeled before her. “Great Matriarch! This man… he can use ancient spatial magic!” Kothar said quickly. “He comes from another world!”
There was a collective gasp from the elders in the tent. Ethan was about to protest but was immediately silenced by a smack from elder Ro, followed by a sharp poke to the side. The Matriarch looked quite contemplative.
“What do you know of teleportation gates?” she abruptly asked Ethan.
Ethan was very hesitant to broach the topic of magic.
“I… uh. I know the scientific part, not the magical part. And to be frank, it was mostly theoretical where I come from,” he said very carefully.
“So you do know of it! Can you restore an ancient teleportation gate?” she asked with great anticipation.
“I don’t know any magic, sorry,” said Ethan regretfully.
“So you’re useless to me!” She stroked her chin and called for her guards. “Take him to the cells!” Kothar looked disappointed.
“What? Wait! I do have great knowledge you could use!” Ethan shouted frantically.
“Like what?” she asked impatiently.
“Like cars… and guns… yeah, guns! Machine guns and sniper rifles and dynamite and land mines!”
They all looked at him like he was a mad man.
“We don’t want your thingamajigs! Take him away!”
Ethan found himself being dragged away as he raved about the industrial revolution he could bring about to anyone within earshot.
Aylin Merza was currently flying. After the old shaman had treated her wounds, they’d taken her off the sledge, which had reached its limits after climbing the slippery slopes of the mountains anyway. They were currently surrounded by a bubble of compressed air that the shaman had summoned. It was travelling upwards at a frightening speed, further into the mountains. They didn’t untie her bindings, though, which was a shame because she dearly wished to escape.
And they kept force-feeding her that vile potion that made her spells fizzle out.
Every time they fed her that potion, she’d curse up a storm, but they only laughed at her predicament. The Krell held no grudges, though. To them, the men she torched in their encounter were honourably slain in combat with a worthy foe. They couldn’t wish for a better death.
Crazy savages! She swore she’d torture all their souls for eternity, someday. She just needed her chance. Especially that old geezer shaman. He was the most annoying of them all, and she would make sure he suffered the most. Just the thought of what she’d do to him filled her with glee.
After they flew for an indeterminate amount of time, they finally came to a stop and landed in a seemingly random area. The old shaman turned to look at the place and looked satisfied.
“This will do nicely.” He commented.
He directed his gaze toward his men and gave a single order. “Strip her.”
She whimpered as they took hold of her, and was both terrified and humiliated as they stripped her clothes and ornaments with brisk efficiency. Surprisingly, there were no lecherous looks or extra petting involved. They were very professional about the whole ordeal.
The shaman took her belongings and piled them all together. He took out a sharp dagger and pricked her thumb, dripping her blood over the pile, then he sprinkled some strange powder over it and muttered an incantation. Everything she owned went up in a puff of red flame.
She wailed and struggled with the men holding her by the arms. She finally gave up and looked on with tearful eyes. Her pouches had some important items! The soul crystals she’d painstakingly gathered throughout the years, her magical scrolls, and her life’s work: her journal. There were decades of meticulous research and some important discoveries in there!
The shaman offered her a bearskin cloak, which she quickly donned with a look of contempt. Although it was very warm, it didn’t stop her from shivering at all.