Sand woke to the smell of poultices and paints.
He found himself lying face down on the medical bed, his head pillowed on a rolled-up bundle of cloth. Slowly, gingerly so as to avoid jolting his wounds, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and inspected himself.
Strips of greyish cloth had been wrapped around his back and chest, replacing his loincloth in its function as a bandage. A pair of dark trousers several sizes too large had been put on him while he slept. Reaching backwards, he touched the bandages on his back, wincing when the movement affected the wound, sending a dull twinge of pain shooting up from his back.
The bandage was still wet with whatever herbal poultice the medic had slathered on his back before wrapping him up. His fingertips came away dyed green from the juice seeping through the cloth. Bringing them up to his nose, he sniffed.
A mixture of wolfsbane to numb the pain and some antiseptic herb to prevent infections – he was unable to distinguish exactly what. Although he’d had much to do with herbs his previous life, they had mostly been of the magical kind. As a Dungeon chef, the ingredients he had needed – whether the blood or the herbs – all shared the same characteristics: they were dangerous to obtain.
His knowledge of mortal herbs was limited.
Even though he couldn’t identify the constituents of the poultice, he didn’t worry. He had been marked by Kreg as the Fool. Even if the medic had ten times the courage, he wouldn’t dare to blatantly fudge his treatment.
While the attention of the orc was the bane of his existence, if he leveraged it well, it could also be his strongest backing.
Sand turned his gaze to one side off the room where the blind medic was crouching beside a vat of lye, introducing some rags into it. He dangled his feet over the side of the bed, the tips of his toes just touching the ground, then got off. He swayed unsteadily on his feet as a spell of dizziness assaulted him from his loss of blood.
Supporting himself by a hand on the bed, he waited until the feeling passed. Tightening the drawstrings of his oversized trousers to prevent them from falling off and rolling up his pant legs to avoid them getting in the way, he made his way towards the old man.
When Sand was within five steps of the man, his head snapped around. He studied Sand with those sightless eyes of his before turning back to his work satisfied that he was no threat. Sand could empathize with that kind of reflex. When you were a slave, sometimes the only way to survive was to take the lives of your fellows. The most fearful thing wasn’t the orc slavers, their behaviour was predictable. No, the most fearful thing was a knife in the dark from someone you had put your trust in.
Several human heroes had died that way in Sand’s previous life. Sometimes, the thing hindering humanity’s progress was humanity itself.
“W-water.” Sand croaked out, his voice cracking due to his parched throat.
Without turning back to him, the medic nodded towards the desk he’d been working at when Sand had barged into the room. Walking around it, Sand found a wooden mug filled with water and a piece of hard bread placed on the wooden stool. Picking the two things up and seating himself, he dipped the hard bread in the water to moisten it, then slowly sucked out the liquid.
Water was precious in the desert. For a slave, it was a delicacy to be savoured.
It wouldn’t do for him to suddenly start acting like the orcs and straight up chug the water down, even spilling some in his haste. Over the hundred years of his freedom, he’d been able to let loose slightly. He’d been able to enjoy a meal without worrying about the next one. He’d been able to drink water without trying to savour each drop. But in his current situation, that kind of unrestrained behaviour would draw attention.
He’d made that mistake once – ending up whipped within an inch of his life and sold off to the mines. He wouldn’t make it again.
As he alternately dunked the bread in the water and chewed on it to soften the tooth-breaking lump of dough, he watched the medic at work. The man was taking up strips of cloth from the pile by his side and placing them into the vat of lye, hanging them over the edge so that the entire strip didn’t fall into the vat.
The solution had already turned a dirty grey from the accumulated grime from all the strips. Sand narrowed his eyes as he recognized the rag being dunked into the vat. It was his bloodied loincloth. He touched the greyish bandages wrapped around him. ‘So, they reuse the discarded cloth as bandages,’ he thought.
After putting the last rag into the vat to soak, the medic rose with a groan, placing a hand on the small of his back and bending backwards slightly to limber his creaking joints.
“Aah, youth,” he remarked as he drew up a stool and sat down across the desk from Sand. “Such serious wounds and you’re up and about within hours. Me? These frail old bones of mine grumble every time I need to squat to take a shit. I quite envy you.”
Putting the last of the bread in his mouth, chewing, swallowing and washing it down with the last of the water, Sand placed the mug down on the desk and said, “And I haven’t seen many folks get as old as you, old man.”
The medic grinned at that, revealing a gap-toothed smile. “Now, that they don’t. I guess I am lucky in my own way.”
“Oi, old man, how come you can see? Your eyes sure don’t seem to work.”
“Brat! Hasn’t anyone taught you manners?”
“Man-ners? Yeah… Gura used to want us to look at the ground when we were speaking to him. You want me to do that too? Not happening, old man!” Sand replied with a frown.
“No, no… not that. Ok, just forget it. It’s not a secret. Might as well tell you. It’s a skill shard called Estimation. You know mages have skill shards, right?”
“Mage! You’re a mage!?” Sand’s eyes shone with undisguised desire and excitement as he leaned forward in his seat.
The medic chuckled wryly and shook his head. “Just a Red Mage, brat. Nothing too special.”
Sand shook his head vehemently, “Gura was a Red Mage and look at him lording it over us all. And Garo, the leader of our caravan, was just one step higher, a Yellow mage. Everyone looked at him with so much respect. A Red Mage is plenty strong.”
“I’m the shoddiest kind of Red Mage… I wouldn’t hold a candle to that orc master of yours. Let alone, my skill shard ain’t for combat.”
Sand shot him a disbelieving look but didn’t press further. Instead he asked, “What’s a skill shard? What does yours do?”
“Well, just being a Mage doesn’t get you magic. You need skill shards for that. The kind you have determines what you can do. Mine, lets me see things and compare them instantly. Like, you put two piles of sand in front of me and I can tell at a glance which one has more grains. Can’t tell the exact number, mind you, but I can tell which pile’s bigger. My old master, before he lost me in a gamble to Kreg, got me this shard to better mix my poultices with.”
“How does that let you see?” asked Sand doubtfully.
“It doesn’t. It just lets me compare stuff. I just got good enough at using it so I could make up for my lost sight with it. I compare which part of the room has more air than the others, gives me the shape of the solid stuff. I compare which part is brighter and it gives me the light and shadows. I compare which colour is higher or lower up the rainbow and it lets me see in colour. Took me a while to get used to it, but now, I can do it as natural as breathing.” He said smugly.
Sand didn’t have to fake his amazement this time. With his life experience, acting out the role of a child wasn’t that difficult. But the medic’s magical achievement was truly shocking.
There were innumerable skill shards in the world and they granted similarly varied skills. Some skills were common. Some uncommon. Some exceedingly rare. But a rarer skill wasn’t necessarily stronger or more practical. A common Strength shard was much more practical than an Illusory Butterfly shard even though the latter was considered one of the rarest skills in existence. But above and beyond that was how well the Mage could utilize their shard.
The slightly uncommon Estimate skill shard that was used by merchants and pharmacists to quickly compare quantities, in the medic’s hand, had turned into his second sight.
‘And it is only at Tier 1 right now. If he manages to promote it to Tier 2? Tier 3? Tier 5? To the level of a Dungeon?’ Sand could only imagine what the man could achieve. A thought floated up in his mind, ‘Can I use him?’ He immediately discarded the notion. The man was too old. Too far past his prime to achieve anything significant. His natural talent was bad otherwise he wouldn’t have remained as a Red Mage for all his life. And only this one skill wasn’t enough to determine his value. If he wasn’t equally talented in the other four of his major skills, he wouldn’t be able to merge them to create his Dungeon in the end.
Sand gave up on recruiting him but decided to maintain a good relationship with him in case he came in use later.
“But…” the medic seemed hesitant to say something before finally clenching his teeth and making a decision. “You… you want to be a mage, right?”
“Of course!” exclaimed Sand.
“Listen to this old man. Don’t.” Seeing Sand’s scowl, he hastily continued, “Wait! Don’t interrupt. Hear me out. Look, they’ll give you a shot at becoming a mage…”
“I said, don’t interrupt! Just listen to me! They’ll give you a shot at becoming a mage. It strengthens the endurance a lot. It’s so you can work for them more with less breaks. That’s fine. But if you show too much potential, your fate will be very pitiful. Much worse than staying here. So, whatever you do, if you follow their instructions and see yourself getting quick results. Hide it from them. Keep it secret. Slack off. Just don’t let them find out. Wherever they send you will be much worse than here.”
Sand stood up angrily, knocking his stool over. “You’re a mage!” he exclaimed loudly, “I don’t see you any worse off. You’re the oldest person I know. You have a comfortable place to stay and sleep. You get enough food and water. I think you’re just scared! You’re scared that I’ll be a better mage than you!”
Slamming the desk with his palm to emphasize his last word, Sand spun on his heel and strode towards the door.
“Wait!” the medic called out.
Pausing in his tracks, “What!?” demanded Sand irately without looking back.
With a deep sigh, the old man shuffled over to a cupboard and brought out a neatly folded tunic. “Just take this with you.” he said as he walked over to Sand and handed it to him.
“Hmph.” Snatching the clothes out of his hand, Sand stormed out of the clinic with a snort, slamming the door behind him.
Once in the corridor, when he was sure no one was watching, his face became an emotionless mask, his eyes two portals into the abyss. He glanced down at the tunic in his hand and ran his fingers over the rough but well-worn cloth. He had been quite surprised at the medic’s warning.
By leaking such an important piece of information, the old man was putting himself in substantial danger. His concern was sincere, not a façade.
It wasn’t that Sand was being over-suspicious. For the medic to live that long, become a mage and even get a shard, he must have been the Favour of his previous master. Who knew how many times he’d suppressed his fellow slaves with schemes and tricks – how much benefit he’d brought to the orcs by infringing on the benefits of the humans – to finally crawl up to his current position.
Trusting him outright would have been foolish to say the least. But now, it was different. He was the current Fool. Helping him was taboo. Leaking important information, to him, was nearly suicidal. Why did the man do it? The pangs of his musty conscience? Sand didn’t know. He didn’t care.
But since he had tried to help him, Sand wouldn’t implicate the man. That was why he had pretended to part on bad terms with him for the benefit of any watchers.
As for where the slaves who displayed excellent magical talent went? Of course Sand knew about it. It had become his goal the moment he had realized his situation. As a future Dungeon Mage, his magical talent was obviously extraordinary. There was no doubt he’d be selected.
His next step towards freedom: becoming a Gladiator in the Arena of Sin.
There were no thin orcs.
Not surprising, considering that their entire race was an amalgam of human and swine. A young race at less than three millenniums old, they originated from the Chimaera Project: vampire High Lord Enzeal’s attempt at creating a new race by merging existing species.
Composed of the skill shards: Variation, Evolution and Mutation among others, the interior of Lord Enzeal’s Dungeon provided the perfect environment for the study of the origin of species. Rumour has it that in his reckless enthusiasm, the High Lord ended up creating a monster too powerful for him to control, perishing together with it, shattering the Dungeon in the process.
The orcs, along with the nagas were the only two viable races that survived the collapse of the Chimaera Dungeon. Their high sex drive and corresponding fertility was the reason for their subsequent rapid expansion.
Ashamed of the death of one of their High Lords at the hands of his own experiment, the vampires sealed all knowledge of the Chimaera Project, forcing the orcs and the nagas as far away from their metropolises as they could.
Driven into the Tyhr Desert, the orcs were forced to survive on the harsh sands, while the fate of the nagas was left to the whimsies of the Thousand Seas.
Sand stood at the very end of the line of slaves, with several paces separating him from the next person, watching the orc slaver pacing from one end of the line to the other. Idly, he contrasted him with his previous master.
Unlike Gura, whose tunic often found it difficult to constrain his jiggling stomach and breasts that would put most women to shame, Kreg’s shirt revealed barely any wobble as he strode from one end of the line to the other. His sleeves, that were rolled back to reveal his thick forearms, bulged over the corded muscles of his upper arms.
‘A Strength shard; most likely at Tier 2,’ judged Sand with an experienced eye. ‘To support the energy demand of that, he needs to be a Yellow Mage at the very least. Green Mage is unlikely. If he was so strong, he wouldn’t be assigned such a dead-end job. So, Yellow it is.’
Some skill shards had very distinctive effects on their owners, making it easy to pick them out by mere visual examination. Of course, a broad knowledge base and experienced eye was required for such analysis, and even then, the information obtained was very fragmentary. For example, Sand had no idea what Kreg’s second skill shard could be, or whether he even had one.
All sorts of strange and unusual skills abounded and without completely figuring out every detail about the orc, Sand was unwilling to commit to any plan of action. For even the best laid of schemes could be derailed by the appearance of the wrong skill.
As Kreg passed by each of the slaves, they would subconsciously try to stand straighter even if there wasn’t a single curve in their spine. Not standing straight enough, fidgeting and even blinking while the orc was passing by could be grounds for a whipping. Back when they were still part of the slave caravan, this sort of hazing was a part of the takeover ritual. The batches of slaves would often be shuffled internally to break up any possible relationships and right afterwards, the orc in charge of the newly formed batch would pace in front of them in a re-enactment of some primitive dominance ritual. The slaves would be conditioned to stand straight, motionless and unblinking as a sign of submission. It was supposed to make takeover much simpler for their subsequent owners.
Sand observed it all detachedly, finding it ironic that the humans standing the straightest had the least iron in their spines.
There were only two slaves that didn’t need to worry about this ritual. The Favour, who was standing apart from the rest of the group facing them from behind the pacing orc, because he had been exempted from it. And the Fool, because no matter how well he performed, it wouldn’t change the result of him getting picked if none of the other slaves slipped up.
As he had been unconscious the other day, Sand didn’t know who it was that got picked as the Favour. Now that he saw him, he couldn’t help but commend Kreg on his choice. It was the sturdy slave who had been ordered to carry him by Gura. It appeared that even pigs could be poetic.
Finally satisfied by the performance of the slaves, Kreg walked up to Sand, towering over his diminutive form with his two-and-a-half metre tall frame. The flickering flames of the sconces cast the orc’s shadow over him, yet Sand kept his eyes on the ground.
A large hand gripped his hair and jerked his head back, forcing him to look up into the eyes of the orc. “Did that ol’ medic wrap ye up right?” asked Kreg, in mock concern.
“Yes, Master Kreg.” replied Sand, concealing his desire to slit the orc’s throat behind a scared expression.
“Tsk..” Kreg clicked his tongue, obviously regretful that he hadn’t been able to trip Sand up on how he was to be addressed. “Smart kids ain’t any fun,” he pouted, causing his grotesque face to distort further. His eyes flashed with a cruel light, “But since yer so smart, I’ll do ye a big favour.”
Dragging Sand to the front of the line of slaves, Kreg barked out, “Listen up ye worthless maggots! I feed ye. I clothe ye. I give ye a place ta sleep. Without me, ye’d be dying on the sands. Freezin’ at night, burnin’ in the day. Ye’d think that ye sorry lot’d be a bit grateful, eh?”
Looking down at Sand, he spoke in a stage-whisper, “Yer grateful, right?” then he forced him to nod with the grip on his hair.
“See that! Even a kid knows to be grateful. And ye? None of ye even said a thank you. Hurt me poor little heart.” Turning to his side, he slapped the back of the Favour with his free hand, making him stagger and cough from the force of the blow. “Only this lad ‘ere had the sense ta thank me. So ‘e gets ta be in charge.” Pointing to a pile of pickaxes, he said, “Take those and get ta the end of the tunnels. There’s some ol’ hands waiting ta show ye the ropes. Hand over whatever ye get by the end of the day ta the lad, he’ll tell me how each of ye did and I’ll decide who gets the whip and who gets the meat.”
“As for ye,” Kreg sneered down at Sand, “I wouldn’t want ye ta hurt yer back again, now would I? So, ye get to carry whatever they mine to the cart. Aren’t ye grateful now?”
Carrying the baskets laden with ore to the cart was the most strenuous part of the job and Sand had to do it in the place of all the other slaves.
“Thank you, Master Kreg,” he replied, maintaining the nervous façade.
Kreg seemed to lose interest at his servile attitude and with a contemptuous snort, he released his grip on Sand’s hair with a push, sending him sprawling on the ground. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode away.
After he was gone, the slaves went into a tizzy of discussion as Sand picked himself up and tamped down his hair. The orc had nearly pulled his hair out by the roots. Maybe he was jealous of his lush crop of hair when all he had was three limp strands.
It didn’t take long for the slaves to get their pickaxes and make their way down the tunnel with the Favour taking the lead with Sand following behind them. At the end of the passage stood a broad-shouldered, middle-aged man leaning against the wall with a pickaxe resting on the ground beside him.
Noticing their approach, the man shouldered the implement and stepped forward to greet them. “Follow me.” he ordered in a gravelly voice, leading them down a couple of corridors to a region where the mine tunnel widened out into a cavern. Several large baskets along with a wooden cart presented themselves to their view.
“This here’s your spot.” Walking up to one of the walls, he pointed out a mineral vein that glinted under the flickering torchlight. “Find these veins in the rock then dig them out, like so –” he said as he unshouldered his pickaxe and in one practised movement, swung it down, embedding the piton deep into the rock. Then with a twist of the handle, he dug out a large chunk of the glinting, mineral-veined rock.
“Got it?” he asked. Noticing the unsure looks on their faces, he shook his head. “Alright, just try it out. I’ll help you get the hang of it.” As the rest of the slaves moved into position, the Favour walked up to the man and whispered something into his ear. Seeing that the man looked at him, Sand could approximately guess the contents.
Sure enough, on the grounds of his recent injury, he was forced to sit out while the man helped adjust the stance of the others.
If he’d been a common slave, this method was sufficient to ruin his future. Without the knowledge of how to correctly mine ore, his output would be much lower than the others, resulting in repeated penalties. But now, his memories of the future insured him against such mishaps.
He might have never held a pickaxe in his previous life but his combat experience meant that he knew just where to strike and how hard, to eke out the maximum effect.
The man left after about an hour of instruction, leaving them to their devices.
“How long are you gonna keep slacking off?” asked the Favour, swaggering up to Sand. He was named Crooked after his nose, which hadn’t set right after one of the orcs had punched him in the face.
Ignoring him, Sand silently walked up to one of the baskets that had been filled and bent down to lift it up, wincing as scabs on his back split at the exertion, causing blood to soak into his bandages. ‘Since, I’m already exerting myself, I might as well start training my magic,’ thought Sand as he staggered towards the cart, strenuously carrying the heavy basket full of ore.
Unnoticed by everyone present, every single pore on Sand’s body shut tight, isolating the inside and the outside. The heat produced by his straining body began to accumulate, making each of his breaths scalding hot.
The temperature of his body rose drastically, making his line of sight fuzzy as he was hit by a bout of dizziness. Yet his expression remained the same. No clenching of jaws, no bulging veins, no rapid breathing… just a mechanical uniformity in his strides, an unchanging countenance and steady breaths as he put each step before the other towards the cart, dumped the contents of the basket into it, returned to the miners, exchanged a full basket for the empty one, then walked back towards the cart. Again, and again and again… and again.
It wasn’t the time for desperation. It wasn’t the time to go all-out. It was just the beginning of his journey. The first step of many.
It was the time for a firm heart, a still mind and perseverance.
The slaves had been deriving sadistic pleasure from watching him struggle. Some had even used this feeling as a motivation to work faster. The more ore they mined, the more baskets Sand would have to carry. That was the kind of thought driving them to work. And in fact, that was the purpose of the Fool’s existence.
They even taunted him when he came to pick up their basket.
Slowly but surely, they grew silent as they watched this child, aged no more than ten, work tirelessly without complaint. Shame welled up in their hearts and they turned away from that emaciated form, unable to keep watching any longer.
Yet their ears couldn’t help but pick up the sound of his steady footsteps no matter how loudly and vigorously they used their pickaxes. Each step seemed to tread upon their heart, guiding its rhythm.
The sound of metal against stone slowly faded away. What replaced it was the sound of a child’s footsteps, each step deliberate, measured… as if it wasn’t a basket of rocks he carried in his arms but the future of an entire race.
Caught up in that mood, the slaves watched silently as one basket after another was emptied into the cart. A voice ascended in their hearts cheering the little figure on. They had an inexplicable feeling that they would gain something if the boy succeeded.
The final basket.
Sand’s steps seemed heavier, more ponderous, yet just as steady as before. ‘Do it.’ ‘Just a few more steps.’ ‘Don’t stop now.’ ‘Come on.’ The slaves silently encouraged him in their hearts.
Just a few steps from the cart, Sand stepped on a loose rock and stumbled, the basket spilling out of his hands and scattering the ores everywhere.
The hearts of the slaves dropped into the pits of their stomach. A desolate feeling welled up in their minds. Some even turned their back and sobbed silently. Would it always be this way? Was there no hope?
Smiling sadly, they turned back to their tasks, the dark thoughts already creeping back. ‘Damn that Fool, making me waste so much time.’ ‘It’s all his fault.’ ‘What if they don’t give me my ration because I didn’t deliver enough ore?’ ‘Damn!’ ‘Bastard!’ ‘Idiot!’ ‘Fool.’
Face twisted with anger, just as a slave was going to swing his pickaxe –
They all turned around at once. While they were busy cursing him, Sand had struggled to his feet. His expression was still that calm. His gaze was still that steady, as if staring at some goal deep into the future.
In his hand was a stone – one of the pieces of ore that had rolled away.
Meticulously, he placed the stone back into that basket.
It was like he wasn’t handling a stone, but a human life. One after the other, until they had all been gathered back into the basket, he worked without cease, heedless of the blood that now flowed freely from his reopened wounds, soaking through the bandages and through his shirt. When the blood touched his heated skin, it evaporated, wreathing him in a light bloody mist.
Bending down, he picked the basket up yet again. Then he began to walk the final three steps.
The moment he dumped the contents of the basket amidst the cheers of the slaves, an airwave proliferated from him, blowing away the bloody mist.
He had broken through.
Yet, there was no change in the expression on his face.
Success, failure, it mattered not.
For his goal was still far away.
I couldn’t help it, my inspiration for this was overflowing. I couldn’t write anything else.[4803 words] OMG dat word count = 4 STC chapters.