“There is only one path to power – Eat and grow strong!”
– Khara, Rakshasa General
Humans are creatures of perception. Sometimes all it takes to inspire them is watching someone they thought of as inferior to them struggle and overcome a hurdle they themselves failed at leaping. They think, ‘If he can do it, I can too.’ Even when that isn’t necessarily true. But throughout the ages, it is these very humans who have created miracles. Based upon their tenacious faith, false has been turned into true.
Sand watched helplessly as the other slaves bustled about doing his work for him. When he had decided to use the hard labour to break through into the initial stage of magic, he hadn’t planned for his actions to affect the other slaves so profoundly. He hadn’t planned to affect them at all. After all, in his tentative plans, the mine was only a short pit-stop in his journey to reclaim the power he had lost to the river of time.
But he had underestimated the influence watching a ten-year-old child silently, stubbornly complete his tasks despite his wounds and their taunts would have on the slaves. A man could survive on only food and water but to live, he needed hope. And as a slave, hope was in very short supply. Sand had given it to them. They couldn’t help but be affected.
After he had deposited the last basket of rocks in the cart, successfully breaking through into the echelons of a Red Mage in the process, the slaves had forced him to rest and tend to his wounds while they deposited whatever ore they mined into the cart on their own.
Sand sighed inwardly. ‘All I wanted was to seize the opportunity to stock up on some red mana. How am I supposed to do that if they do all my work for me?’
Sitting on a rock in one corner of the cavern, Sand had taken his shirt off and unwrapped his bandages, placing them in a neat pile by the side. He didn’t want them sticking to his reopened wounds as the blood clotted after all.
Shaking his head in resignation, he turned his attention back to inspecting the condition of his body after his breakthrough.
‘The amount of mana is a bit low. To be expected. I couldn’t close all my pores in this inexperienced body… I’ll have to work on it.’
The method of mana generation was quite simple. Every creature in the world followed the law of tenths. Whatever the creature ate, only about a tenth could be utilized by its body while the rest would be lost to the world as heat. Mages went against this natural law by preserving this energy, which would have otherwise been lost to the world, within their body.
To do so, one had to perform strenuous exercise to generate heat and lock it within their body by shutting all of their pores. Once the heat went beyond a certain level, it would coalesce into another form of energy known as mana. Depending on the density of the mana, it would have different colours leading to the differentiation of a mage’s stages.
The first stage of mana was red. Hence, mages at this realm were called Red Mages.
‘The efficiency of conversion is around nine-tenths. A bit lower than I remember. I guess my talent isn’t fully mature yet.’
The magical talent of a mage was measured by inspecting what fraction of the heat energy locked within their body they could transform into mana. Anyone with an efficiency of ninety percent or higher was considered to have top grade natural talent and expected to reach the level of a Violet Mage somewhere down the line. An efficiency of eighty percent or above was considered a highly talented individual with the prospect of reaching the level of a Blue Mage if they were diligent in their efforts.
A medium level of talent implied that the mage could convert over seventy percent of the heat to mana, demonstrating the potential to reach the level of a Green Mage. A low-level talent could hope to reach the level of a yellow mage in his or her lifetime but further progress was unlikely. They had around sixty percent conversion efficiency. Finally, anyone with above fifty percent efficiency was classified as barely talented and a Red Mage was their hard limit.
Anyone with less than fifty percent efficiency wouldn’t even be able to condense mana in the first place. Their path to magic severed even before they could begin walking down it.
Of course, there were skill shards that could improve the magical talent of a person but without exception, they were consumption class skills. This meant that once they were used, they would integrate with the physique of the owner and improve it, thereby getting consumed in the process. Such skill shards were extremely rare and precious and almost never appeared on the market. After all, who wouldn’t mind a bit more natural talent and magical potential?
As for Sand, in his heyday he’d had an efficiency of over ninety-five percent. There was a reason he had been able to rise to the level of a Dungeon Mage despite the oppression of the orcs.
‘But my mana is getting consumed to heal my wound. This way, I won’t be able to increase my mana until I convalesce fully. Actually, this is good. I was worrying how I would hide my natural talent but if I use this wound well, I can give off the impression that I have a medium level talent. Even that will cause a commotion but there’s nothing I can do about that.’
Having mana in one’s body provided a mage with all kinds of benefits. Enhanced endurance and accelerated healing were the two most prominent effects. As long as a mage had mana, he or she would not tire. At least not bodily. Mental fatigue was still possible therefore mana didn’t eschew the need for sleep. And as long as a mage had mana, any injuries they had would heal much faster.
Both these abilities consumed mana and were automatic in nature, meaning that a mage couldn’t just ‘turn them off’ as required. Therefore, mages took great care of their bodies, avoiding overworking themselves or any form of injury like the plague.
‘Really, this body needs a lot of work.’
One more benefit that came with mana – well, not exactly a benefit but a feature – was the ability to sense one’s own mana.
Now, this was a lot more useful than it sounded at first. Mana permeated every corner of a mage’s body. Sensing mana meant that that the mage had a panoramic awareness of his entire body. That allowed him to stay in the best possible shape and diagnose his own illnesses with extreme accuracy.
Sand couldn’t help but frown as he found exactly how damaged his young body really was. The wounds on his back were merely the tip of the iceberg. The ten years of malnutrition and misery heaped on him since his birth had taken its toll on him, leaving deeply rooted imperfections that couldn’t be resolved without some sort of healing skill or magical potion.
But soon, his eyebrows stretched as he relaxed. It was a problem he had dealt with in his previous life. There was no reason he wouldn’t be able to resolve it in this life as well. Especially with all the advantages he had.
Snapping out of his contemplations, he cast a glance at the slaves who were struggling to complete their quota. His mask of apathy cracked slightly as he watched their struggles. These men weren’t important in the grand scheme of things. He’d never heard of a freedom fighter remotely related to anyone from the silver mines on the outskirts of Gehenna. Helping these men wouldn’t advance his cause. In fact, if his performance was too striking, it might arouse the vigilance of Kreg. The best course of action would be to just ignore them.
‘But I am the reason they are running behind schedule. If they didn’t stand around idle, gawking at me lugging some rocks about, this wouldn’t have happened. Anyway, if they overshoot the requirements, Kreg will allow us some meat. This body needs whatever extra nutrition it can get.’
Having justified his actions to himself, Sand wrapped the bandages around his wounds. The wisp of mana he’d managed to generate had already clotted the blood, getting consumed in the process. Donning his shirt, he stood up and went over to Crooked.
“Hey,” he said, “Don’t you think the work is going slowly?”
Turning around from his excavation of the ores, the sturdy man spoke in a surprised tone, “You can walk? How? It’s only been what – an hour.”
Sand waved his concerns away. “I’m fine. I’ve always recovered fast. Now, don’t you think that the work is going quite slowly?”
Despite looking at him with suspicion, Crooked shrugged and answered, “Nothing I can do about it. That orc’s target was impossible to reach anyway. The miser wasn’t going to give us any meat.”
“Well, I might have an idea as to how to reach that target,” said Sand. “And it’ll take less effort than now.”
“Really?” asked Crooked, licking his lips in anticipation.
The team had been mining the ores individually, picking a spot and taking their pickaxes to the rock. But that way was quite inefficient. The veins of silver were distributed throughout the rocks unequally. A lot of the slaves were wasting their efforts by digging away at regions of quite low concentration. In the absence of unity, a hierarchy based on strength had formed were the strongest slaves worked where the mineral was richest. After all, their rations would be distributed on the basis of their individual contribution.
Crooked had even been thinking of collecting some commission from them for reporting their contributions to Kreg accurately. But after Sand’s performance, he’d given up that idea.
Now, under Sand’s guidance, the team only mined the most mineral rich areas of the cavern and rotated the workers, allowing them to be well rested when their turn came again. That way, they managed to speed up the production process several fold. Therefore, when the middle-aged man who’d shown them the ropes finally came by to inspect their progress and dismiss them for the day, he was shocked to see the cart overflowing with ore.
“Well, that’s quite the day’s work,” he commented before leading them to the front of Kreg.
The orc narrowed his beady eyes as he studied them before his eyes fell on Sand. Striding up to him, he grabbed his wrist in a crushing grip. Immediately, Sand felt a foreign mana invade him, and prod around his body for a while before retreating.
Letting go with a jerk that nearly dislocated Sand’s arm, Kreg addressed the slaves with a chuckle, “Looks like that Gura trained ye pretty well. Tell the cook that I said that ye did some good work today.”
He walked away, leaving a few words behind: “The lad decides who gets what. The runt can have the leftovers.”
That night, in the mine’s mess, Sand observed the rest of the slaves being moved to tears at their first proper meal in ages. Looking down at his own bowl, his gaze grew profound. Gruel that threatened to brim over, several scraps of meat of indeterminate origin, some greens; his bowl had the largest amount of food, more than even Crooked’s – a result of contributions from all the slaves.
As he raised the bowl to his mouth and took the first sip, he came to a decision. ‘If I get the chance, I’ll come back and see them freed.’
“Money, money, money… all I talk about is money? Of course I talk about it! Not only do I talk about it, I think about it, dream about it… It has become my entire life! And why shouldn’t it?
“I’m a mage and magic is just a gilded grave. The grave of Wealth.”
– Shylock; Executive Head, National Guild of Mercantor
When every step you take has to be calculated for profit and loss, you naturally become extremely prudent. Magic is but a game of strategy. One with as many approaches as there are mages. Some freeze up when it is time to take action, indecisiveness binding them in shackles stronger than steel. Some are overly reckless, trading momentary magnificence for years of grief. Others hoard their wealth, finding the very idea of using it abhorrent. Yet others perform those calculations with every effort, alas, reaching all the wrong conclusions. These people – without exception – don’t live very long.
Dawn dyed the sands of the Tyhr the colour of the rising sun, the scarlet rays illuminating the figure of a boy running laps around the housing complex where the ore slaves lived. As he ran, his shadow ran along with him, stretched long and thin by the slanting sunbeams. Each of his steps was the same as the last, lending a cast of perpetuity to his motion. He didn’t pant, he didn’t sweat, the only sign of his exertion was the ruddy flush that was visible even on his sun and wind burnt skin. The boy was Sand.
Following their first day at work, the slaves from Garo’s caravan had been distributed among the various veteran groups and put to work. And they had been given an introduction to Magic. The temporary atmosphere of harmony that had come about on the first day had been shredded like the flimsiest of parchments under the enticement of a path to power. Magic meant status and for those at the bottommost rung of the social hierarchy, nothing was more important.
Sand gradually slowed from a run into a walk and then came to a standstill in the shadow of the short and squat wooden buildings that served as their dorms in the short periods of time the slaves were allowed to rest. He exhaled slow and long, the scalding hot breath fogging up in the chill of the desert dawn. Inspecting the state of his body, he couldn’t help but frown slightly. His wound was mostly healed and with the meagre wisps of mana he had generated with this run, it would finally be enough for him to climb out of the red and finally start building his reserves.
‘It took too long. Barely a week left…’
When Kreg had announced that they had a chance at becoming mages, he had also set a date for an inspection a month later. The slaves with the most talent would – in his words – be destined for greater things in life. Including, but not limited to the halidom of mages: a skill shard. Understandably, that had sent the slaves into a tizzy of activity. It had become every man for himself and every other slave was a competitor. Hostility was the only emotion that defined their relationship these days.
Sand sneered inwardly, even with the memories of his future, he had been caught off guard by the sinister tactics of the slavers. He had been too gullible. ‘Too naïve.’ All it had taken was sharing a meal for him to mellow out towards them.
But he couldn’t be blamed, after all, most of his interactions with humans in his last life had been with former slaves who had scratched and clawed their way out of their cages. The cream of the crop. It had skewed his perception. The way the slaves fawned over and flattered Kreg while scratching and biting at each other at the mere promise of an advantage sickened him. He turned his dark eyes towards the dorms. ‘I wonder how they’ll feel when they realize what exactly that skill shard is.’
It was a very sound tactic. Separate the slaves and then promise them an overwhelming advantage, setting them at each other’s throats. Even after it was all over, after the truly talented had been sifted out, the ones left in the mines would be in a state of utter disunity. The grudges accrued over this period of infighting wouldn’t allow them to unite in revolt against their masters. And it had worked like a charm.
As Sand stepped into the communal sleeping quarters, a hayloft with a few worn blankets spread out serving as their beds, he was greeted by the stench of unwashed bodies and fart. Ignoring the noxious odours by habit, he walked over to his own ‘bed’ to retrieve his shirt which he had left behind for his morning run. When his hand came into contact with it, his eyebrows twisted into a lump as he found it soaked through, and going by the dark patch on his blanket, it was too. He didn’t need to investigate further to realize that someone had relieved himself on it.
“It’s time for food, squirt. Or, maybe you don’t need it? You seem to have too much energy, running like mad in the mornings.” Crooked’s mocking voice came from behind him, revealing the identity of that someone.
Sand’s expression grew icy, “I’ll be there,” he replied unemotionally.
“Hmph!” the sturdy slave turned around and stomped away with a derisive snort.
Crooked’s intentions were sinister. A wet blanket in the frigid desert night would mean a cold at the very least, if not a fever. Both causes for a missed day of work. A missed day of progress.
Tossing the shirt onto his blanket, Sand simply left them there. He still had his bandages wrapping around his torso, they would have to do. He could understand why the slaves were so hostile to him. He had demonstrated extreme tenacity and determination, and while those were desirable traits in an ally, in a competitor, they were most unwelcome.
Progressing through the ranks of magic was like climbing up an oiled pole. For every few feet up, you would slide a foot down. The only way mana could be supplemented was through strenuous exercise and to fuel that, large amounts of nutritious food was required, otherwise, instead of generating mana, the body would only consume it. And all this laboriously generated mana would exhaust itself to heal a minor scrape if one was a bit overzealous in their efforts.
Simple exercise was way too inefficient. Supplementing one’s energy through food was the legitimate way. And food was rationed based on contribution. Work hard, eat more, generate more mana, work harder – it all spiralled into a cycle that could be considered positive or vicious depending on one’s perspective. Clever rationing by the orcs ensured that the humans saw progress, while at the same time, were kept hungry for more.
‘Seven more days…’
Shovelling down his meal, Sand walked over to the clay pit and slathered his body with a layer of the sticky mud then waited for it to dry, blocking all his pores. The only reason he could close his pores was the experience he had carried over from his previous life. The slaves had no such advantage. Therefore, they had to resort to the layer of clay to make up for their deficiency. To fit in, he had to use it too.
And clay in the desert was expensive. If not for Gehenna’s proximity to the tributary of the river Jhelum that cut through the edge of the desert, the cost would have been too prohibitive for the orcs to bother with investing the resources on human slaves. As it stood, the income barely justified the expenditure. So, if one couldn’t emerge from the slaves and get selected during the inspection, their path to magic would forever be cut off and they would be doomed to languish in the mines as mortals.
‘Well, it’s not that the mages will have a better fate. It’s a better looking cage, but still a cage in the end. A much sturdier one.’
After the clay dried, he made his way to his workstation and invested himself in the work. It was monotonous, mind-numbing labour. Sifting through the piles of rock dug up by the miners to separate out the ores, filling baskets with them and finally, lugging the heavy baskets, dumping their contents into the cart. The only solace was the steady stream of red mana filling his body. Now that his wound was healed, he could finally accumulate mana.
At the end of the day, he dragged his aching body to the clay pit where he cracked up the layer of dry clay and dusted it off his body before going to the mess to receive his second meal of the day. The orcs didn’t allow the waste of even a bit of soil.
The advantage Sand had over the other slaves was his high natural talent and ability to seal his pores even without the clay, allowing him to gain mana from his morning jaunts. If the others tried that, they would find it unfeasible.
The next few days passed by in a blur of gluttony and labour until the sun rose over the horizon, bringing with it the promise of a brighter future. Usually, only one in ten people had magical talent and out of that the majority fell firmly in the category of ‘barely talented’ therefore, it was no surprise when out of the eight slaves sold to Kreg by Gura, only two demonstrated magical talent. In fact, it was a great ratio and Kreg couldn’t keep a grin off his ugly face.
Over the years, there had been many a batch that hadn’t produced even a single mage, rendering all his investments moot. But this year, it seemed that Lady Luck had taken a shine to him and blessed him with not one but two valuable commodities.
An enslaved mage was obviously much more valuable than a mortal, enough to justify the training costs several times over. Unlike Garo, as the supervisor of the silver mine, he had a lot more spare cash from his embezzlement and could afford one or two years of failed harvest if it meant an ultimate profit in the end. The fact that all the slaves he bought were healthy young males made his success rates higher as well. There seemed to be a vague correlation between magical talent and physical or mental aptitude. For all races, children that had higher strength inborn or were unusually intelligent seemed to make for the best mages.
The six other slaves had tried their utmost to condense their mana but had to give up in the face of destiny in the end. They left the chamber under Kreg’s orders, shooting backward glances of hatred and envy at Crooked and Sand, leaving the two newly awakened mages alone with Kreg.
“Well, well, well… who’d ‘ave thought it’d be ye two in the end?” he said, looking down his snout at the two of them. “Then again I guess it makes senses for it ta be ye two. The strong one and the stubborn one, ain’t it?”
Sand remained silent as Crooked heaped flattery on the orc. Curiously, Kreg tilted his head as he sized up the small form of the boy. It had only been a month, but with proper food and a lot of exercise, his body had improved drastically and now, rather than his ribs jutting out of his skin, there was a visible layer of developing muscle. He had even become a mage, overcoming the hurdle of his wound in the process. ‘This one’s more talented than ‘e lets on,’ thought Kreg. ‘All the better for me though. I can sell ‘im for more. But before that…’
“I promised ye a shard if any of ye made it. But ye should know by now that there’s nothing in this world such as a free lunch. If ye want it, ye earn it. Take the day off, stuff yer face as much as ye want. And tomorrow ye’re comin’ to the city with me. Whether ye get that shard or not, depends entirely on ye.”
Enjoy! It has a slow start so it will take some time for the main heroine to be introduced but I think that when she comes, it will be worth it.
And what kind of skill do you think Sand will get? And more importantly, what kind of skill do you want to see? Let me know in the comments.