Ethan sat resignedly in his cage. He had some serious thinking to do.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” he muttered to himself.
He was regretting his blunders in front of the Matriarch. It could have gone very differently if he’d acted less hastily or tried to subtly deceive her. Apparently, one of his mistakes was admitting that he didn’t know magic, and thus that he was of no use to her. Another was assuming that the automatic language translation in this world conveyed more than the literal meaning.
How would the system translate ‘car’? In his world, it was a flying vehicle capable of travelling at great speeds while transporting people and cargoes. But in this primitive world, it was, what, a wooden contraption pulled by beasts of burden? How would the system translate ‘gun’ or ‘engine’ or even ‘science’? He realised his mistake now. People lacked the ability to understand words from his world. It was probably for the best anyway.
While he’d offered them guns and cannons, he was not entirely sure what they would do with such knowledge, and, more importantly, what effect it would have on his position. Would they dispose of him once his knowledge was exhausted to prevent those secrets from spreading in the end?
He chastised himself for acting so rashly. In the future, he’d keep his origins and knowledge a closely guarded secret. Assuming he could find a way out of here, which did not seem very likely, because of his gravest mistake yet. That mistake was greeting the Matriarch in the way a member of the tribe greets a mere elder—that one was explained to him from the conversation of the guards as they made their rounds around the cages.
The proper way to greet the Matriarch was to kneel on one knee with your head bowed, a lesson he was now keenly aware of. He was nervous at the time, though, and had thought that he was being clever. He was trying to curry favour, but the attempt had backfired at him after all.
Oh well, there was nothing to do about it now. What was important was finding a way out of this situation, preferably peacefully.
He looked around again. He was currently sitting inside a cage next to the rock wall of this dormant volcano, and his cage was slightly raised off the ground, held aloft by rusted chains, secured to a rocky ledge far overhead.
He sighed and started fidgeting again. He’d been here for two days already and had had no interactions at all during this time, seldom the times when they gave him food. His fidgeting caused the cage to rattle slightly, bringing a shout from the guards huddled around a nearby fire, playing a game of stones. He sighed and stopped moving, and decided that if they were so engrossed in their game, they wouldn’t bother interrupting his only other activity like they always did in the past two days.
AI, load simulation, he commanded with a thought.
<Confirmed. Loading simulation environment. Initiating time compression protocol.>
While, externally, he sat very still with a glazed look in his eyes, internally, Ethan was standing in a lab—a state of the art, fully equipped virtual lab, performing a myriad of experiments, and simulating methods to return home.
Aylin Merza was seething.
After stripping her naked and burning her life’s work, the Krell shaman had brought her to a dormant volcano, where they kept her in a tent and interrogated her.
And they still fed her that vile pink water.
This wasn’t the reason she was angry, though. She’d accepted that her life was now forfeit. The reason was her clothes, or the lack thereof. She still only had the bearskin cloak on her body. They had not bothered giving her anything else, and all her protestations fell on deaf ears.
They kept rotating interrogators, and they all shared the same reaction to her requests and pleading in this regard, no matter what tone she’d used: no.
She knew that even though she was short in stature compared to the average woman of her race, she still towered over normal humans. This was probably why they wouldn’t bother procuring proper clothes to mollify her. It was too much work, and even if they’d let her use magic, which was very unlikely in her situation, she knew nothing of Hearth Magic and could not weave cloth out of thin air, or whatever material it is [Hearth Witches] used.
They wouldn’t devote resources to such trivial matters. She was a dead woman anyway, it was a matter of course. After they exhausted her information, she would be put down.
As she endured another round of interrogation, she only wished she could die with more dignity. A few days passed, and she would not yield. No interrogator could break her will.
At first, she tried misleading them with fake information. She wasn’t very loyal to The Empire at the moment—she was disgraced and cast out, after all—but she also, deep down, held a sliver of hope that she could escape her predicament and return someday.
Being branded a traitor was not something she was interested in. The Hands don’t play around.
Then came the torture, and her recent troubles were a thing of the past. She’d heard that the Krell were a very cruel people, that they were all unforgiving and brutal, and now she was experiencing it firsthand. She immediately told them everything: army movements, descriptions of important persons, secrets she was privy to, even her worst and most disgraceful acts: her experiments on her victims, her torching of Krell villages, her attempt at a divination against her superior’s orders, which brought her downfall... even her latest romance.
But still, they wanted more.
They kept using healing magic to restore her body to perfect shape, before completely dismantling it in a myriad of agonising ways, again and again, and again. A never-ending cycle of suffering that slowly ate at her sanity and mind.
She could only wish for death, quick, slow, dignified, or otherwise.
[Commander] Talius was riding his preferred Yulirri. To any other rider, the war mount was unruly, but it was the fastest and fiercest animal in the entire army, and it was his courageous personal steed. His unit was advancing toward the unpatrolled border with the mountains to the north.
After the divination, they’d discovered that the Krell had transported Aylin Merza to a northern-westerly part of the mountains, and from there they’d flown her deeper to the north. While the trail had stopped there, from what the [Seer] who’d performed the divination could tell, she was intermittently experiencing great agony. It most likely meant she was being tortured for information.
Their current foray into the mountains had two main objectives: the first was to scout the enemy numbers and determine the location of the enemy gathering, and the second was to capture Aylin Merza or silence her at any cost.
As a unit commander’s aide, she was privy to many secrets that could not be allowed to fall into the enemy’s hands. Although, personally, the [Commander] felt that this part of the mission was a lost cause. The girl had probably broken and spilt all her secrets long ago.
As for how she had managed to escape the camp in the first place, it was recently discovered that she was in possession of forbidden soul crystals, which meant she was a practitioner of soul magic. This had allowed her to turn incorporeal and phase through objects with little effort.
Soul magic was officially forbidden by The Empire for multiple reasons, chief amongst them was not the suffering of immortal souls; but the ability to phase through doors and steal valuable things, like an infamous incident with the Imperial Treasury, 57 years ago. She’d obviously used her soul crystals for something less nefarious, but that only meant that she’d forfeit her rights to a trial. If captured, she would go straight to the confines of a jail, for many years to come, and now that foolish girl had bitten off much, much more than she could chew.
In addition to being labelled a criminal for her actions thus far, she was in enemy hands, and if she broke under torture and divulged any information she’d officially be labelled a traitor and executed by The Hands.
The [Commander] sighed as he rode along.
“Something on your mind, sir?”
Riding alongside him was Jarret Lytell, [Hydromancer] and second heir to the Lytell family fortune. He was the one asking that question. He was also a failure at riding a Yulirri. They’d had to find a draught horse, the kind used by farmers to pull carts and wagons, to use as a mount capable of withstanding his considerable weight.
The Yulirri was a fast and agile animal, but it was not known as a beast of burden. All Imperial cavalry used Yulirri to strike in fast and decisive engagements. In addition to being fast and agile, they could handle any terrain, and could even climb mountains.
This was why Jarret’s horse presented a challenge for the unit, aside from the snickers and whispered mockery from the soldiers, which Talius quickly nipped in the bud.
Jarret was still very useful, though. His [Hydromancy] was worth hundreds of soldiers in a straight-up engagement. A single [Mage] could put a stop to an army, with adequate support.
Talius looked from side to side, surveying the situation. “I am just wondering why we haven’t encountered any resistance so far,” he finally responded. They were currently following a predetermined path through the mountains, with two separate scouting teams ranging ahead and reporting back every half hour.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” Jarret asked.
“Yes, although the scouts still report nothing.” Talius stroked his chin.
“Could their [Shamans] be spying on us, somehow?” he turned to ask Jarret.
Jarret was about to respond when an arrow flew and embedded itself in the draught horse he was riding. The horse collapsed, along with its rider.
“Enemy ambush! Brace yourselves!” bellowed Talius as he brandished his greatsword.
Ethan woke groggily from his simulated lab environment, interrupted by a shrill shriek.
“You… it’s you!” bellowed the injured, half-naked horned woman being dragged by four tribesmen into a nearby cage.
“Me?” he asked in confusion.
The woman was now shrieking and struggling with her captors as they put her in her cage. She was clawing at their faces and trying to reach him, but they kept her away. She finally stopped her struggling when one of the towering cell guards came over and kneed her kidney. Her mouth kept moving, like a fish out of water, but no sound came out. They finally locked her up and left.
“It’s you,” she whispered as if talking to herself.
“Do I even know you?” he finally sobered and asked her.
She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Hours passed, and Ethan got bored waiting for her to wake up. He finally gave up and went back into his simulated lab, immediately resuming his experiment.
Today he was discovering the properties of the new subatomic particles his AI had detected upon entering this world.
He’d discovered two, so far, but hadn’t completely figured out their natures yet. The first seemed to react to spell casting, and the second seemed to power it somehow.
He was sure there were more particles to be discovered, but he had no idea how to detect them short of emitting them himself. He could only extrapolate from the records of his short time in this world. He hadn’t exactly seen a lot of the phenomenon of spell casting, but during the battle, someone had been shooting fireballs at him, and although he was focused on his own survival at the time, his AI recorded everything.
He decided to name the subatomic particle that reacted to spell casting Conduit, and the one that powered the spells Mana, because hey, why not. Conduit was everywhere. The whole world was saturated with the stuff; it was in the air, the water, the earth, living beings, everything. Although, when he projected the concentration data on a heat map on his HUD, some places were more saturated than others.
As for Mana, in the recordings, once it appeared, it quickly reacted with Conduit, activating it then dissipating quickly. He assumed the [Mages] were generating it somehow. If only he knew how to do magic, he could certainly escape from here! Or, maybe he’d bargain with the Matriarch again.
Wait a minute… hell no, that was his stupid part talking again. He’d get the hell out of here first thing, and never look back.
Another shriek startled him yet again. He saved his work and exited the simulation.
“You!” The Polarii woman was foaming at the mouth.