A blast of chill, rainy air entered the shop as the door opened, yet nobody seemed to notice. The loiterers stood around aimlessly, occasionally chatting to those next to them. The “mages” stood still in front of the herbalist, staring into space, occasionally mixing a new formula seemingly out of thin air and launching it at someone else (without the latter’s consent), then went back to their staring. And those who were there to purchase goods did so with utmost expedience, running inside at full tilt, roughly barking their orders at the jaded shopkeep while thrusting notes at her, and running off as soon as they had their goods in hand.

The visitor to the shop now was such a customer, although he moved with a slow, shambling gait rather than the full-on sprint usually associated with customers of the archmage.  His clothing was wet and filthy, his longish black hair unkempt, and his facial hair had the grizzled look of a man who had no reason to consider his appearance to be of any import whatsoever.  His eyes registered nothing as he stumbled past the pack of mages inside, brushing up roughly against their fine robes, drawing more than a few scowls as he unsteadily made his way to the merchant, who regarded him with a distant familiarity.

“Four stone red five stone white two stone blue twelve pecks hawthorn flower twenty drams quicksilver…” The fact that the merchant had apparently begun preparing his bundle before he even reached her did not deter the man from rambling off a long list of herbs and focusing candles and other components.  The list came out in an evenly paced monotone, as if he had been practicing the speech day in and day out for most of his life, and he finished it even as he took the huge parcel from the archmage’s hands and gave her several large-denomination bank notes in payment.

As he started to shuffle for the door, one of the mages suddenly sprang from his meditative half-sleep and gestured in the air, shouting words of power.  A huge ball of ice and sleet shot across the shop, hitting the dirty man directly in the back, shattering into a million tiny fragments which vaporized nigh-instantaneously; the man was unharmed.  “Yes!  Sixth circle WAR!”  exclaimed the mage.

The dirty man stopped, flecks of snow falling about his shoulders, at the young man’s last word.  He began mumbling to himself… “Liquid… moves… liquid…”  After a moment, he resumed his journey to the exit, walking into the rain.

“Too bad you can’t burn his clothes with a flame bolt.  Would do all of us a favor,” chortled another young man in the shop, holding his nose in an exaggerated fashion.  This drew a few laughs from those customers who were even cognizant of events in the shop outside their own private schemes, but the archmage followed the dirty man’s exit sullenly with her gaze.

Is this what becomes of magery, she wondered to herself. And what of the rest of us?


 

Sashi wandered through the rainy swamps outside of Sawato proper with a nagging memory in mind.  Was it a song… no, a poem, from long ago.  His first lessons in the School of the Arm, in the past so distant they might as well have been in another lifetime.  His sensei, the old man in the blue cloak… what was his name?… teaching him the basics of magic through verse, memorized by rote, pondered for hours.  There was always a sense of something deeper, something more logical, behind the prose and the words of power and the odd combinations of ingredients used to create effects.  Mysteries within mysteries.  He sat down under a drooping tree, leaves heavy with the rainfall, as he tried to recall some of the lines…

Liquid moves the air for the prentice of the arm
From the wand to the enemy, two words his alarm

Colcothar slows the vapor, draws it tight to rigid ice
Turpeth burns air then enemy, thus igniting twice
Cobalt turns air to ozone as it sends trapped lightning near
Realgar draws impurities into a tightly pointed spear
Brimstone suffuses air and sends molten steel aground
Vitriol throws air forward with a shock of roaring sound

Verdegris is a filter, the atom-chain to find
The mind creates a vision to which the eye remains blind

The old man’s verse was not metered very well (he had once explained that it was a bad translation), it did not roll off the tongue like the work of a real poet, which made it all the more intriguing to Sashi.  Why these lines?  So much emphasis given to the air and changing it, yet for all of his investigation Sashi could not conclude that the air was mutable at all.  It simply was.  It might be mixed with ash to create smoke, but the air itself remained just as it was after the smoke had been blown away or settled as soot.  Yet the old man insisted that it was true.

Was it not more logical to assume that magic summoned the element requested from the ether?  This seemed somewhat unreasonable as well; one would have to presume that there were great seas of acid, giant glaciers of ice, standing by to give of themselves whenever called upon to do so by any impudent warmage with the correct components at hand and a sufficient store of “mana.”  Did the inflammables, acid, or steel then return to whence they came, waiting for future demands upon them?  Seemed equally unlikely.

Sashi’s repeated inquiries into the nature of magic, its fundamental mechanics, were typically met with quizzical and often depressing responses from his sensei.  “Ah my boy, our work is but a poor reflection of true masters, which we shall sadly never be, and pray that you never meet one…”  Eventually Sashi stopped asking how moving the air could relate to war magic, or what the nature of mana was, or similar questions.  It was obvious that he was half-expected to seek the answers through personal experience and experimentation, and half-expected to fail no matter what.

Sashi drew a white bundle from his pack and laid it at the base of the tree.  The tanned and treated hide of the rare hoary mattekar, in addition to offering superlative protection when enchanted, made a wonderful pillow, despite the fact that this robe had remained unwashed and unoiled for a long time now, various burns and scars gone untreated.  It had been some time now since Sashi had taken any steps to maintain his personal appearance, or maintain his gear, or in fact care one bit about what others might think when they saw the unkempt, filthy mage on those rare occasions when he was forced to enter one of those poor hamlets the locals boastfully labeled “towns.”  He had long since lost his taste for his fellow… citizens?… prisoners?… in Dereth, and scrupulously avoided chance encounters with them, spending much of his time in the wilds.  If only he had sufficient skill as an herbalist to procure his own components, he might gladly become a hermit.

Resting his tangled hair on the bunched-up robe, Sashi thought of his life and what had become of it.  Ignoring the croaking of the frogs and the biting of the swamp insects as they drew close to the scent of filth that clung to him, his thoughts wandered, as they always did when he was not actively at war…

Guards charging.  Cast, and the air is tainted with the odd smell of noxious, inflammable gases as they surround the tuskers.  Flame engulfs the first before he closes.  Turn, attack.  Steal the life of the third one, your injuries become his.  Drink deeply of the Virindi’s power from two rooms away to sustain your attacks on his minions.  Kill, kill, the floor is thick with the smoldering, stinking corpses of barely sentient brutes.  Your enchantments are fading.  Recall!  Begin the cycle of empowerment, become for a short time an unstoppable murderer yet again…

Another “death.”  The swirling tunnel that fills your perception, the familiar glittering blue of the lifestone, weakened, poorer but not defeated.  Find your own body, staring up at you through eyes which used to be yours.  Watch it moulder into the ground in seconds.  The body is not you.  Take the essence you lost from others you send into the swirling darkness.  Death is nothing.  Killing is everything…

“Why research?”  Young upstart magi with barely the discipline of a child, the manners of your own drunken brother as he carouses through town on money you made robbing the dead.  The deepest mysteries of magic you gleaned after months of study, theirs in seconds.  Ritual without meaning as they casually buffet the world with power they have not earned.  Anger.  Doubt.  Have you earned yours?  Your life’s work made meaningless in an instant.  The mages spread death to beings they do not know through forces they do not comprehend.  Death is the end-all of magery…

There are no children.  There are no elderly.  People appear as they are kidnapped from their homes, as you were from… You cannot remember.  Sometimes they escape.  Sometimes they barter their souls with the unwary.  None die.  Death was something at once more horrible, yet more meaningful.  When has a man’s work been completed?  How much killing is enough…

I want to go home…


The air hummed as Researcher 425 went about its duties, gently floating down a passage deep underground in a delicately balanced mesh of polarized gravity in the place without doors.  Its form sheathed within layers of blue containment fabric, its “face” was a hard mask, an armored matrix of sensors allowing it to better deal with the crude environment it and its kind had been forced into so long ago.  If Researcher 425 felt any resentment against its abductor, its “face” would never betray it.  No matter.  Its kind knew.

On its way, it passed large rooms where others were tending to the regeneration of the dead slaves.  The construction of a body was not too difficult… chaining proteins thus, running energy through the nervous system, etc.  The tricky part was making them relearn what they had lost during quantum-level reconstruction.  It seemed to work better for humans; their fierce notions of individuality and arrogant self-importance held the pattern better.  Some even underwent the process voluntarily, as a quick (though traumatic) means of transport.  The tuskers and other servants of Researcher 425’s people were too hive-minded, easy to control, and with little sense of personal worth at all.  Some had suggested that captured humans might make more worthwhile slaves, assuming their egos could be subverted just enough to make them manageable, but leaving enough so that re-animation was less troublesome.  The suggestion had not gone over well; too many old hurts, too much animosity towards the upstarts, even if they had been trapped in the same way that the Virindi had.

It took twelve full minutes for Researcher 425 to reach the conference room, where Overseer 9 was waiting for its report.  This delay was nearly intolerable to Virindi, who were far more accustomed to faster means of transporting their essences, almost as intolerable as the use of the crude voders built into their masks for communicating through this place’s annoyingly thick atmosphere.  It was thus with a sense of annoyance that Researcher 425 made its report:

*Subject class Human sub Sho sub Male designation 7274468 is of sufficient conductive skill and malleability for purposes outlined in the project notes.*

With an upwardly modulated chord and a click of finality, Overseer 9 accepted the report, and Researcher 425 made its way back down the passage to its normal station.  Overseer 9 watched the departure through his sensors and wondered if he might be in that position had he not clung more stubbornly to his consciousness during the first few seconds when the Virindi had found themselves sucked into this place, this world with its thick, soupy, polluted nitrogen atmosphere, compressed in the bottom of Dereth’s gravity well.  Billions of virindi had been trapped thus; most died quickly, unable to cope.  Some held on long enough to be cocooned in containment materials.  A few managed to hold on to their minds.  A handful, like Overseer 9, were able to study their situation in the midst of widespread panic and save those of their brethren they could: the strong, the sentient, the unfortunates who had been reduced to catatonic drones through their ordeal.  It was hoped that if they could find a way to get back to their home, they might find a way to more fully restore these individuals.

Getting home turned out to be more complicated than they thought.

Overseer 9 sent a brief transmission over command frequencies, and shortly thereafter a number of servants entered.  These were some of the ones who had been reduced to slightly better than automatons, but they were able to deal with the sensor masks and other tools.  They were able to re-learn from others the techniques of manipulating quanta and forces to their advantage.  And they could take orders.

*Attune the projecting crystal as per these specifications.  Route appropriate power.*

As the servants began to work on the bluish crystal in the next room, Overseer 9 wondered if this had even a minute chance of working for them.  Whatever the answer, it would probably be years before the effects were known.


In his dreams, Sashi walked through a city of bright metals and quartz in his filthy robe, as skeletally-armored figures rode past him on horseback and degenerate, angular beings ran up the sides of mountains at high speed.  Nobody noticed him, but he sensed that if he reached out to them, they would, and that would be somehow wrong.  Do not make yourself vulnerable!  Find a way out…

It was thus with some dismay that Sashi found himself approached by a Virindi, crossing a roadway on which huge metal humanoids traveled on wheeled feet.  It was too late to avert his gaze; the Virindi was staring at him through its cold, expressionless mask, obviously focused on Sashi to the exclusion of all else.  There was naught to do but wait for its approach; an escape attempt might draw the attention of the others who walked past.

Overseer 9 floated calmly up to Sashi and stopped several feet from him.  *Are you ready to learn?* he said through his voder.

Sashi had never spoken with a Virindi before, and could not possibly comprehend their alien language, yet the current situation did not seem strange to him.  If anything, it seemed perfectly natural, as he tried to form coherent sentences, achieving no more success that he did in the waking world.  “Liquid moves the air.”

*I am relieved to see that you retain your understanding of this.  I can give you a window into that which you seek to understand, if you will accompany me.*

Sashi was unsure now as to the nature of the being before him.  It was a Virindi, but was it also his old sensei?  Was this a trick?  “Asheron defends my kind.  The arm reveals the lie.”  Thinking briefly about the phials of brimstone in his possession, he launched an acid stream at the figure before him.

Overseer 9 watched as Sashi’s crude gesturing and intonation took place, and a bit of sulfur from his pack merged with the water vapor in the air of his dreamworld.  Excess hydrogen escaped from the reaction, providing thrust for the huge gout of sulfuric acid that sped his way and dissipated harmlessly as it touched his dream-form.

It seemed to satisfy Sashi.  “The prentice follows the master.”

*Then touch my robe and observe.*


They walked through a dream-construction of Dereth, observing anything and anything.  All times were available here; Sashi was disoriented at first by the conflicting views of events in Dereth in the distant past, and a simultaneous perspective of events as they happened in the present.  Overseer 9 helped him to filter his visions to the point where the massive input no longer threatened to drive the mage even further towards insanity.

Overseer 9 directed his vision to a time when the land was populated by the Empyreans.  A tall, lanky figure in ornate robes was conducting spell research in a stone temple, surrounded by flasks of liquids easily identifiable as components.  Chanting poetry of a dead language, he gestured in a familiar fashion, and a thin line of force materialized, slicing through the air, neatly cleaving a tethered steer in twain.  As the Auroch’s sides fell separately to the floor in an expanding pool of blood, the man turned, unconcerned, to a large tome in which he scribbled notes.  Sashi could have sworn that the effect was of a whirling blade, yet he could not see any evidence of the oversized shouken that was the typical manifestation of the spell.

“The mind creates a vision to which the eye remains blind,” he muttered.

*You are seeing the effects of Asheron’s early researches through my perceptions.  A monomolecular chain is beyond the concepts of your kind at this point.  The blade is a comforting simile.*

“The practice is a shade of the true art.  The prentices are couched by comforting illusion.”

*Affirmative.*

“The audience sees behind the curtain.  The play has lost its delight,” mumbled Sashi.

*Our research has shown that you are one of few who are still interested in the fundamental concepts of our science.  Chained as you and your brothers are by the need for root materials and ritual, you will of course not be able to attain the ideal in proficiency.  However, your suspicions can be confirmed… your props are just that, props.  The ancient peoples of this land and your generation of beings are using trickery to make and unmake the building blocks of the universe, chaining atoms together and forcing reactions without comprehension of what you are doing.  The term “magic” hobbles your ability to make sense of your practices, and what my people do through understanding.*

“A gift is given but not understood.  Reasons give way to suspicions.”

Overseer 9 was silent for the briefest of moments before answering.  *The irresponsible Asheron, amidst his other momumental mistakes rising from his bungling experiments, has seen fit to leave you in your position with little education as to your origins, and little history.  You have some knowledge of your homeland, its legends, its heroes, the four stones, yet it is abstract knowledge at best.  You may be able to recite stories about Emperor Kou, yet you cannot recall the name of your closest childhood playmate.  Jojii’s teachings may figure prominently in your hastily-constructed moral code, but you are unable to see your mother’s eyes from your cradle years.  Your history has been taken from you, replaced by an abstract and flimsy hint of power and greatness that may be possible here, but it is meaningless.  Your very lives are essentially meaningless.*

“The road has no end.  The slaughter is infinite.”

*You have killed many, it is true, and have been “killed” a fair bit yourself, but the idea of death is meaningless here.  It was our doing that made it thus.*

Sashi stared blankly at Overseer 9.

*Look here.*  Overseer 9 directed Sashi’s attention to a hollow place deep beneath the surface, where several virindi hovered around a pile of bluish crystals.  They were wrapped in formless blue cloth, and instead of the mask that Overseer 9 wore, they were equipped with bulky constructs of crystal and metal which fitted over their centers.  Lights flashed on and off in rapid succession from these harnesses.  *We had not yet learned the utility of sound, and were using a primitive heliograph code that was more familiar to us.  Yet we recognized the dilemma that Asheron had placed us… all of us… in, and were already seeking a way to preserve the survivors until they might be able to assist each other.*

One of the virindi gestured, and a rabbit hopped obediently out of a nearby cage in which several were kept, approaching one of the stones.  The rabbit gazed at it and, much to Sashi’s bewilderment, seemed to attune itself to it much in the way that humans attuned to lifestones.  The virindi who called it out gestured again, and atmospheric particles began to churn violently, eventually igniting in a bolt of flame that shot forward, incinerating the animal.

It was at this moment that Overseer 9 enhanced Sashi’s perceptions even further, and as the latter stared, the proto-lifestone instantaneously began to change the structure, the state, the spin of countless particles nearby, chaining atom to atom, molecule to molecule, until a perfectly constructed duplicate rabbit stood there.  At the same time, a small point of luminescence rose from the charred corpse of the rabbit and seemed to hesitate as it sought escape, confused by the presence of a body identical to the one it had just vacated.  It sped into the new form, and in that moment the rabbit was alive again.

Sashi noted the rabbit’s dull eyes and listless manner.  “The blood pumps strongly.  The eye sees nothing.”

*We had noticed the same problem with our own servants when we engineered them.  Our later… experiments… with humans showed more promise.  We devised an attuning crystal that could map and regenerate a viable human form, neural pathways and electroencephalogram more or less intact, in time for the fleeing consciousness to instantaneously inhabit on the cell death of the old body.  The energy loss from shock is minimal, and the process is fast enough to save most of the surrounding matter, depending on the complexity of the individual to be reconstructed.*

“Death is nothing.”  Sashi’s tone was somewhat less that congratulatory.

*Yes, and on behalf of my people I apologize for that.  Unfortunately, Asheron has left us all stranded in a somewhat hostile environment, where death would have claimed all who entered far too quickly to learn enough about the situation they were in.  It is to our mutual benefit that the lifestones function.*

“The master has a purpose.”

*Affirmative.  We wish to go home.*


Overseer 9 and Sashi drifted slowly through the dreamstuff where they wandered, bits and pieces of Dereth’s history passing before their eyes.  Sometimes they watched Sashi on a crazed killing spree, laying waste to herds of tuskers and ancient Empyrean golems with impunity, occasionally dueling a small group of virindi (all looking very much like Overseer 9) to their deaths.  Sometimes they watched others, locked in combat in deep labyrinths with drudges and their larger kindred.  Sometimes they watched those who had accepted the mysterious Bael’Zharon’s offer to remove Asheron’s “intent field”, as Overseer 9 put it, slaughtering each other time and time again.  Always there were humans, and always death came from them as naturally as breath.

*Our people discovered something after the implementation of the human lifestones,*  said Overseer 9 as the two watched the Shadows rise from beneath Dereth’s crust, the temperature above becoming more tolerable to them as the seasons cycled.  *The self-determinism exhibited by your people is strong, possibly stronger than that of mine, allowing you to maintain your memories and knowledge even through the trauma of death and reconstruction.  Your kind are immature, but you learn quickly.  More quickly than we.  Our consciousness spans much further than yours, and for far longer.*

“The student becomes the master.”

*That is what we are hoping, at least some of us.  This is why we have been cultivating you, making you stronger through battle without the crippling consequences of true death, hoping some of you might come to understand.  It is hoped that humans may be able to send us all back whence we came.  After all, it was a human, or something reasonably close to one, which brought us here.*

Sashi stared straight ahead for a while, apparently not seeing the scenes of slaughter in front of him.  “The host rejects his guests.”

*It is exceedingly unlikely that Asheron could return us to our places of origin, even if he had the inclination to do so.  His selfish experimentation brought us here to rid the land of the Olthoi invasion, which was incidentally also his doing.  He would be just as likely to exterminate the humans once they had achieved his goal for him so that he might attempt a rebirth of the Empyrean culture.  Follow.*

They drifted through the mists of dream and came upon a calm scene, nearly motionless in comparison with the eternal battles witnessed before.  Inside a small spherical chamber of pure white crystal, suspended before them, was an aged man, vaguely identifiable as the sorcerer Asheron, but far older.  His once-splendid robes were threadbare and dirty.  His wizened form bore the wrinkles of centuries.  His breathing was slow and even, and it seemed he had been sleeping for a very, very long time.

*Asheron had a surprising ability to channel forces and manipulate matter for such a creature.  Still, his last attempt to undo his mistake with the Olthoi cost him everything he had.  He would have been better off leaving all of us where we were and collapsing his doomed planet into a sphere of compressed neutrons, or a pure gravity point-source, taking his enemies with him.  As it is, however, we are here, and he can do nothing.*

Sashi walked around the form of the shriveled Empyrean.  An odd mixture of feelings were swirling beneath his carefully controlled exterior… pity, hatred, hopelessness, rage.  The audacity!  Every human, and from what the virindi-sensei was saying, most other sentients in Dereth, had been seduced or kidnapped here on some flimsy pretense to clean up after the wizard’s mistakes, mistakes that had cost his entire people their lives.  It had cost Sashi his life, too, in a way.  Robbed of his history, robbed of his freedom, robbed of any purpose to his existence beyond the continuous murder that was the life’s work of most of the people he knew.  Sashi was beyond even the mumbled prose he had been capable of previously.  Gazing at the virindi, his eyes asked for a way out, even death.

*Self-destruction serves nobody.  You may, however, choose to assist us in our project.*

“Knowledge is never free.”

*You might say that.  The glimpse into the nature of our sciences was considered necessary to your development, and our goals.*

“Resting the ship’s fate on a single sailor’s eyes.  Disaster looms in the shoals.”

*You are not the first, and will probably not be the last, to be… introduced in this manner.  Not all have accepted our offer.*

Sashi gazed levelly at Overseer 9 until he spoke again.  *They have been our guests, and the subjects of studies which, we hope, may allow us to hybridize our intellect and perspective with your race’s adaptability.  Resting our project upon one method would be as foolhardy as resting our hopes on one person.*

Overseer 9 gestured, and they were alone in the dark, away from Asheron, away from Dereth.  *I am afraid that I must have your decision now.  You may consider your options if you wish; the flow of time has less meaning in dreams than in the conscious world for your kind.*

“The dragon or the lady,” said Sashi.

*The answer to your question is this.  If you refuse the offer, you will be our guest in the place without doors.  You will be studied, particularly the electrochemical processes of your brain.  After a time, you may be returned to Dereth to continue as you have before, perhaps not.*

Sashi pondered this silently for a while.  Then he made his decision.

And then he woke.


It was sometime around midnight when the still-wet Sashi re-entered Sawato’s apothecary again, but the shopkeep did not recognize him at first.  Cleaned of filth, beard trimmed, he wore a suit of bluish-green armor from head to toe, glistening in the ambient light of the oil lamps.  It was breathtaking in its shine, and on closer inspection it was made of a crystalline substance that refracted, bent, and returned light in a soft prismatic glow, rather than the crude reflections of polished metals.  It was quite impressive, judging from the expressions on the faces of the shopkeeper and her one customer, the very mage who had commented on Sashi’s uncleanliness earlier.

“Whoa, awesome armor…” gasped the mage, who apparently did not recognize Sashi from earlier that day.

“The eyes are blinded by the image of greatness.”

“Yeah, looks great,” replied the mage, misunderstanding.  “Where is it from, is it good?  Is it heavy?”

Mu spoke without inflection.  “All is lightness next to the burden of knowledge.  Protection from death that is not death.  The place without doors is where answers lie.”

“Place without doors?”  The mage made a futile show of scratching his head, an ineffective gesture for one wearing a heaume.  He produced a small guidebook from his robe and leafed through it.  “Don’t see it here.  Is it new?”

“The oldest place is fresh to the new guest,” Sashi replied.  The other mage muttered something rude, but could not take his eyes from Sashi’s crystalline armor.  Finally, he screwed up his courage and whispered to Sashi.

“Do you think you could… show me where?”

Mu nodded and walked outside into the rain, now slowed to a drizzle.  The mage hurried after him, and watched Sashi summon a swirling portal.  He wondered about dangers that might await him on the other side, but Sashi went first, and seemed fairly confident of himself without precautionary magics.  He stepped in.


Although he could no longer perceive quanta and forces as he could with the aid of Overseer 9, Sashi was dimly aware of his own body and possessions being reduced to their components, supplying energy for the reconstruction of his body at his destination, a body to which his consciousness was flying. So this too is a small death, he thought.

The other mage had no such thoughts as he waited in the timeless void during portal travel, anxious to get to his destination, thinking of the beautiful armor he would soon possess.  As far as he knew, no one else had seen or heard of this armor before now.  He would be the first… besides Sashi, who had a reputation for reclusiveness and a distaste for trading that bordered on the insulting.  The mage had no such qualms though, and was already thinking of accumulating multiple sets of armor, for sale to the highest bidder.  He would soon be fighting off bidders by the dozens.

He was still lost in his revelry as reality began to swirl before him, and he found himself in the midst of a score of virindi.

“What… we’re in trouble!  Shurov…”  His attempt to recall was interrupted by a sensation of dizziness and vertigo as every virindi in the room simultaneously drained him of magical energy, leaving him unable to cast, unable to escape.  A huge hand closed on his forearm, and he watched, horrified, as the tusker guard’s other hand neatly ripped the wand from his desperate grip.

*He may have other foci.  Control him.*  Overseer 9’s orders were unquestionable to the slave race, and the guard who held the terrified human took firmer hold of his forearm and squeezed.  The wet cracking sounds of his ulna and radius bones breaking inside his flesh were sharply heard over his anguished screaming as he thrashed like a caught fish in the tusker’s grip.  His left arm flailed uselessly at his captor, a gesture which resulted in that arm being grabbed as well, and similarly crushed.  The mage collapsed in the grip of the monster, weeping uncontrollably, sobbing more fervently as his knees were pushed backwards slowly, one after the other, until they too snapped audibly, sickeningly, over his cries.

“Help me!  HELP!”  he cried out, turning his head around the room, only able to guess as to Sashi’s location, unable to see him through a haze of tears and pain.  He limply tried to move, collapsing with a cry with every bit of intolerable pressure he placed on his destroyed limbs.  His breathing was ragged and loud; he was wracked with agony with every scraping motion of his raggedly broken bones as the muscles around them spasmed in shock.

Sashi’s voice was as cool and unmodulated as it had been in the shop.  “Diseased flesh is cut away for study.  The future of all is paid for by the few,” he said.

“You bastard, you did this to me…” The mage was in hysterics now, and he could feel the rush of blood through the broken vessels in his arms and legs, swelling them painfully.  “BASTARD!  I’ll kill you!  I’ll kill you!” he wept.

*Position him.  Remove his tools.*  Massive, furred arms lifted him from the floor, causing him to cry out uncontrollably.  He continued sobbing and threatening as the guard carried him across the room, placing him gently (as is possible for a tusker) in a sitting position against a crystalline growth like a chair back.  He had exhausted himself, and was now reduced to pained moaning as one of the virindi cut away the fabric of his robe with a scythe-like blade, impossibly fine, removing with it all the mage carried.  A second virindi secured him to the chair back with heavy leather straps, immobilizing him.  A third lifted the heavy golden heaume from his head, which was then also secured in place with straps.  The once powerful mage sat naked and trussed on a floor of cold stone, his body held motionless against the crystal “chair” as his limbs began to turn purplish, slowly blackening with pooling blood.

“Kill me…” he whispered.

Overseer 9 answered in stilting human speech, rendered alien through a voder designed for a different language.  *You wish for your form and consciousness to return to the last lifestone-matrix you attuned yourself to.  We regret that this is not in our best interests, nor yours, although you may have doubts about that at present.  It is necessary that we study the workings of your kind, in order to benefit both of our races.  You will be kept alive, and in your present location, for the time being.*  The virindi paused, his sensors attempting to read his captive’s expression.  *There will be pain.  We regret that this, too, is necessary.*

Overseer 9 turned from his sobbing prisoner to Sashi.  *You have our gratitude for your service in this matter.  As a reward, we shall continue to teach you our way, as we have taught you and your people from long ago.  Hopefully you will be able to learn enough to facilitate our mutual goals.*  Overseer 9 turned to the other virindi in the room and sent coded instructions, and they began to work as Sashi watched.

A virindi servant hovered behind the chair back, and drew out two small sickle blades as the imprisoned mage’s eyes darted wildly about, his teeth clenched in a mask of pain and fear.  He felt only a slight, tracing pressure as the points of the tools met in the center of his forehead, then traced around the sides of his skull in perfectly even, straight lines, and met at the rear.  Then the pain in his ruined limbs flared up, and he moaned in agony, barely even noticing the odd lightness as the servant neatly lifted the top of his skull off, followed by the pinkish-white meninges, severed with the bone by the virindi’s precise incisions, until only the greyish-brown cerebrum was visible, glistening with fluids that now offered scant protection to the brain it coated.

Sashi watched, emotionless, as two other virindi retrieved a series of long, thin crystal needles from a box at the far end of the room.  Overseer 9 turned to him.  *It is time for you to go about your work.  Continue as you have been, learn, fight, grow.  Keep in mind the knowledge we have given you.  We shall speak to you soon, and frequently.  Please leave the armor with us; it would not do for you to be seen too frequently in such a thing.*

Sashi removed the armor, placing it neatly in a pile on the floor in front of the agonized mage, who was occasionally healed by a virindi that was carefully monitoring his condition.  As he stood, Sashi briefly met the stare of the man, who had gone past the point of vengeful threats and was desperately pleading with his betrayer.  “Please oh gods help me get out I won’t tell anyone just let me get out of here you can have anything you want I have lots of rare items and artifacts you can have them all all my money too please just don’t leave me…”

Sashi met his gaze coolly.  “One drop of blood nourishes the body.  A lost shoe is abandoned by an escaping prisoner.”

“I want to go home…” the mage whispered, and fell to quiet sobbing.

“I want to go home,” echoed Sashi, and he suspected that Overseer 9 concurred.

Sashi donned his filthy robe, drew forth his wand, and concentrated.  “Yarrow kills the old husk.  Malachite grows one anew.”  He slowly dissolved, one more small, temporary death, as his mind flew back to the lifestone he was attuned to.  The swirling purple glow that marked his recall lit the dim chamber briefly, and for a moment the trapped man, immobilized by fear as much as the straps that bound him, caught his own reflection in the beautiful crystal armor that lay before him.  He saw what the virindi had done with the needles, now pulsing as they extracted data from where they were embedded.

And he screamed.

 

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