Crow's Tale( 3rd May update)

Tags
Action, Adventure, Dark Fantasy, Magic, Technology, Dimensional Travel, For the Empire!

Introduction
Hello, Ladies and Gents, my name is Teawalker, and I would like to present you "Crow's Tale". Probably like a lot of writers here, I was inspired by wuxiaworld to try my best at creating novels myself. And as every book requires a reader not to get dusty, every author need a good load of criticism to "sharpen his pen". So, I hope you will enjoy the read, and please leave any thoughts about my writing below.

Synopsis
Crow, finds himself being claimed as a war-criminal and is "exiled" from Earth. He is undergoing a process, called "Diving" to become summoned by an unknown magician from another world. This process holds many resemblances to the one described in old human books, where insane scholars would trade their soul to summon powerful demons with malign intent.
Akin to aforementioned demons, Crow's goal is to establish humanity's foothold in the world, he will get summoned to. And then, create a portal leading back to one of the Empire's numerous colonies, such that, humans will be able to conquer this new world, and exploit its riches. 
No one survives alone, though, and as he will travel the worlds, clinging to life when confronted by various dangers on his way, Crow will meet allot of people, some of them will become his loyal and trustworthy companions, while other will be waiting for an opportunity to backstab him.

In this grim world, where unknown dangers and ancient mysteries can lurk behind every corner, the focus is put more on surviving, prevailing, and doing everything in protagonists power, from white-knighting to brutal skulduggery, trying to plot a steady course on his sea of life.

Schedule
~ three thousand words parts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays

Comments

  • Part 1 - Devil's Bargain(1)

    Crow inhaled. He was standing in a large round hall. It resembled that one of opera. There was almost no furniture here, but all along the walls, doors were standing. They looked intimidating, sinister even. Their dark metal surfaces were covered with various runic inscriptions. Seldom they sparked with ominous lights.

    Hardly any people were here. Figures looking surreal in dim blue light given off by a massive chandelier. Crystals, each being the size of Crow’s fist, were replacing light bulbs on it.

    Chamber of Doors was the name of the location. The very heart of “VDD.”

    Crow was entranced by one of the doors. Light emitted by its inscriptions bewitched him. It was calling to him, whispering in his ears, voices sweet like honey. It took Crow a remarkable effort to break out of that trance.

    He shook his head and headed over to large marble counter.

    “Crow! My old friend!” Gilbert’s loud voice echoed, attracting everyone’s attention. Standing behind the counter, his figure was the tallest.

    “Nice seeing you Gilbert.” Crow nodded. “Never would’ve imagined you work here.”

    He lied. At the time, before Crow’s authority was denounced, he made background checks on everyone working in Void Diving Department. Gilbert was one of few people who, Crow was hoping, could assist in his dive.

    “Have you come here for sightseeing? If you wish, we can take a stroll into my office and have a little chat about our university years.”

    “It would be my pleasure, Gilbert.”

    Gilbert whispered something in the ear of his colleague, and casually waved Crow, to follow him.

    They went through several large corridors and stopped near one of the doors. The holographic display on that door was showing “Vice-Head of the Void Diving department, Gilbert Wace.”

    Vice-Head’s cabinet looked massive, with luxurious wooden furniture, prized works of art and bookshelves filled to the brim with books, scrolls and various figurines of creatures from lands far and beyond.

    While Crow’s face was not showing any signs of astonishment, deep inside, he felt disgusted. Gilbert belonged to nobility. With poor talent to magical arts, he still was accepted into Tokyo’s Royal Academy of Arcane Arts. Barely passing exams, he still landed in such a high position. Empire will undoubtedly fall in some few hundred years. People like Gilbert were first visible signs of its decay.

    Nonetheless, he comfortably landed on one of the chairs in front of Gilbert’s desk. It was littered with various magical crystals, and ancient scriptures, and other magical items. Amongst this mess, metal monitor panel could be seen, hidden in the desk. What could someone like Gilbert do with all this stuff? Waste of precious resources.

    Mandatory portrait of Royal Family was right behind Gilbert’s Chair. First Emperor was looking down on everyone in this room. One could almost feel the Emperors gaze on them, but it was not of the oppressive sort. It was appraising one, judging your potential. Empress, on the other hand, was staring in the direction far away. Her face was calm, but it felt like, she was preparing to face a gathering storm.

    Gilbert and Crow chatted for a bit, recollecting their university days, and how life treated them after the that. Crow was quite succinct, on the latter topic. Even if he really wanted to pour his heart out to Gilbert, he simply couldn’t. Most of his job was classified, with no right to speak about it. His adventures, on the other hand, he preferred to keep them private. Crow visited some ancient places of power, and would not discuss such matters with anyone, but most trusted friends.

    “And, well, here I am. Waiting for you to lead me to redemption” Crow half-smiled.

    Gilbert already inquired about why Crow was sent to VDD. War-criminal. He could bet it was an internal affair, Crow was climbing the ladder way to fast. In their youth, Gilbert avoided crossing Crow’s road. Crow was like a comet, his potential unrivaled, his talents unmatched. It was evident to vice-head that his acquaintance would become a high-flyer. What he could never guess, is that he would be the one to guide Crow to the spatial room. He grinned in his heart.

    “As I understand, you already had an introduction lecture, to diving.”

    “Yeah. That, and everything I could learn through other means. Which isn’t much.” Crow stared directly into Gilbert’s eyes.

    “Hmph. You see Crow, I would love to help you, but there isn’t much I can tell. For almost a century, that “VDD” is running, our research bureau made little progress in improving the dives themselves. It’s not to say we aren’t doing anything, but mostly it’s about observing and collecting data.”

    Gilbert took a sip of his tea, then continued.

    “We failed in everything we tried. Marking and communication spells, equipment preservation, group transportation, master-slave matrixes, you name it.” His face was gloomy.

    Crow’s lips twitched. “Is there really nothing, that can help me?”

    It was obvious that Gilbert felt reluctant.

    Crow didn’t bother to break the silence. He only coldly stared at Gilbert.

    Finally, before silence threatened to feel awkward, Gilbert gave up. “I hope you understand, that we never discussed this matter.”

    “I owe you one” Crow nodded. Gilbert believed in the “one hand washes the other” proverb. There was not much risk involved, either. Worst-case scenario, Crow just dies in another part of the universe. On the other hand, if Crow was to return one day, and without Gilbert’s help, Gilbert would make himself a frightening enemy.

    “Well…” Gilbert lowered his voice. “There are some rumors. What do you know about body imprinting?”

    “As much as everybody else. It’s only a theoretical possibility. Your knowledge contradicts mine?”

    “Not exactly. Experiments in this area are still fruitless. No wonder, considering that, experiments on intelligent beings are taboo. But there is a particular branch of this research that can be of use to you.”

    Vice-head inhaled.

    “This experimental branch, at first tried to imprint items to animals. I don’t know the details, but as I heard, it was quite gruesome. Although their experiments were not considered to bear favorable result, it still gave researchers some insight. And then, someone proposed to imprint familiars. Guess what? It was successful.”

    “What is the success rate?” Crow felt encouraged.

    “Each and every attempt, Crow. That is not to say, there are no difficulties in the process. You see, for some reason, familiars don’t accept every item you want to imprint on them. Every familiar has a unique list of item categories. Trying to forcefully imprint something else, will permanently banish familiars from master’s domain, and damage the domain itself.”

    “Then, what item categories there are?”

    “Just about anything that exists in this world. Wands, swords, chairs, plants, candles… shovels. However, mostly it’s useless to master.” Gilbert sighed. “The current understanding is that you don’t want to imprint items to carry your luggage. It’s quite a useless undertaking anyway. Unless you are going to dive, that is.”

    “Then, imbuement?” Crow guessed.

    “Correct. Familiars slowly devour imprinted items. Although they don’t become stronger, it is speculated that maybe such a method can be used to empower spellcasters natural gift to magic!” Gilbert’s face suddenly darkened. He got carried away and told too much.

    It was understandable that such data is classified. New ways to improve natural gift, are very sought after.

    “Don’t worry Gilbert, dead men don’t speak too much.” He smiled reassuringly.

    “Oh, but I sincerely hope, that you will join the ranks of those, whose names are written on the Wall of Valor.” Gilbert relaxed a bit. “I hope, this information will be helpful to you.”

    “Can’t make a wager on, but this is still better than not knowing anything.”

    After talking a bit more about the matter, Crow was escorted by one the guards to his “apartment.”

    ***

    Crow was sitting on a bed, in a small four by four. His prison cell included a small table, freezer, computer and a bathroom. A small catalog was laying beside him. “Void diving safety guide.” He bitterly smiled.

    Void diving holds an immeasurable risk. Once regarded as a pinnacle of exploration methods, it quickly became a “redemption” for those who failed to serve the Empire. It holds multiple death traps hidden within it.

    Crow could die in a thousand different ways, only within the first stage of diving, the summoningThen after the summoning stage, the destination world should have enough oxygen in the air, food to sustain his human physiology, and water to drink.

    He felt dispirited. If survival were guaranteed, during the first stages, Crow would be resourceful enough to succeed. But even thinking that his life was dependent on a coin-flip made him aghast.

    Nonetheless, he decided not to run away from the Empire. Chances of not encountering a magebane squad in his bedroom one day were too small. While describing success rate of a void-diving program with words like slim, were making it a huge compliment. Crow still counted his chances in diving as fifty-fifty. Forty-nine percent more, then if he tried to flee.

    He began chanting a short incantation in his mind, and black fog started to appear before him. Shapes of a bird slowly showed up in it. The fog was feeding this bird, becoming thinner and thinner. Then after a silent *flop* could be heard, the last remnants of the fog suddenly disappeared leaving a huge dark raven behind. It was almost twice the size of its brethren. Its eyes could gaze straight into one’s soul.

    *Caw*

    “Crow.” Bird lowered its head.

    “Bragi, you old fart! You owe me an explanation!” Crow yelled, yet he couldn’t hide his smile.

    “Who do you call an old fart?! You have a death wish, maggot?” Bragi chuckled. Then studied his surroundings. “Are we still on Earth?”

    “Yes. And it so happens I received unique information about your abilities. Care to elaborate why you never told me about familiar imprinting?”

    *Caw*

    “I never open my mouth, if not asked directly, and you know it.”

    “You could have made an exception, for such a situation.” Crow countered. “Then, you can consider this, as me asking.”

    Bragi was Crow’s familiar, ever since Crow first summoned him during his school-years. Bragi was different from other familiars. While most familiars derived their knowledge directly from their masters, Bragi possessed insight of his own. He never wished to explain this anomaly of his. Crow never pursued the matter. He was contempt with bits and pieces of information Bragi taught him once in a while.

    “Good. As I am aware, Gilbert told you enough of the basics. At least for the time being. I will shed some light on the imbuement process later. It isn’t something you are prepared to do, though, so don’t think this matter will rise again anytime soon.”

    *Caw*

    Bragi jumped his way to the computer table and was studying the shining handles on the desk.

    “While I have around five hundred categories of imbuement materials.” He continued. “There is only a small bunch of items, you can consider to be useful. They are swords, alembics, and scrolls.” Bragi let out almost human-like sight. “Boy, you were smart enough, to avoid such troubles. Now, because of your mistakes, your familiar has to become a bellboy.”

    “I understand, Bragi. The struggle for power has blinded me.”

    “Crow, you aren’t stupid. If this were the case, I would’ve never answered your call, all those years ago. But take this lesson to heart. A lot of talented people met their demise while trying to push their limits too far. Don’t be one of them.” Bragi was gazing at Crow with his right eye.

    “I’m not the one to make the same mistake twice. That’s if I will even have a chance to do so again.”

    “Don’t try to squeeze the pity out of me. If you die, you will be the one to blame.” Bragi was always sharp with his words. But he was right.

    With the help of his unique raven familiar, his innate gift to see magic, and an infuriating amount of sheer luck, Crow was climbing the ladder way to fast, walking over a lot of people, attracting a lot of attention, and making enemies in the process.

    Slowing down and keeping a low profile for some time would’ve eased the tensions. But promotion to the outer circle of Royal Family’s Personal Task Group was deemed far too valuable. Promotion to knighthood would’ve left his adversaries in the dust. But Crow was neither fast enough, nor slow enough. And for this, he had to pay dearly.

    After silently pondering for some time, Crow asked.

    “Before I get the scroll out of the vault, I am wondering, would you be kind enough to teach me alchemy?”

    “With that minuscule talent of yours, properly studying alchemy would take hundreds of years. Ask me again, when you reach your first millennia.”

    *Caw*

    “And don’t forget to say ‘Thank you, Bragi’ when you warp your ass out of someone’s stomach. The scroll is more valuable in given circumstances.”

    Indeed, this was the case. Crow’s talent to alchemy was non-existent. During his first attempt, he blew up half of the laboratory in his school and was relieved from alchemy lessons altogether. He never touched alchemical alembic afterward. But lacking so much in one area, he excelled in the other. His talent for inscriptions was unequaled.

    Swords were out of the question. He learned how to fence. Just enough to predict his enemies’ movements, and increase his chances of survival in close quarter combat. As a long-range specialist, he was more inclined towards bombarding his enemies from afar.

    Only scrolls were left, and Alzerai’s Scroll of Warping was just the item to hold in your sleeve. Shame he could use it only once.

    With this in mind, he called one of the guards, to escort him to the vault.

    While searching for the Scroll of Warping, Crow couldn’t feel more regretful. His vault cell was crammed with various items. They represented decades of amassing wealth. Fifteen foci specialized for numerous cases. Sources, scrolls, potions, crystals. He was very resourceful, and this trait saved his life countless times. He would never have left all of this behind, if not for void-diving restrictions.

    The process of summoning can’t transfer items, divers have on them or in their dimensional pocket. It even destroys any synthetic implants, they might have. Only the diver himself, and contents of his domain can survive translocation.

    Crow gave one final look to his vault cell, before exiting. He felt weak. Abandoning his stuff here, undoubtedly changed his perspective on his own power. 

  • Part 2 - Devil's Bargain(2)

    Crow was looking at his reflection in the mirror. He just showered and shaved. In the mirror before him, stood the darkly handsome young man. His father was Japanese, while his mother was European. This gave him exotic, yet very pleasant appearance. He had jet-black hair and slightly glowing violet eyes. Amongst humans, only the ones with an innate gift to see arcane energies had such eyes.

    Feeling energized after a good sleep, he grabbed canned coffee out of the fridge and spent some time browsing the web. Time was flowing by quickly, and the appointed hour was getting closer.

    Someone knocked on his door.

    It was three guards. The badge on their chests told Crow their names. One of them, Akari, had a very attractive appearance, but anxiousness was written all over her face. She had heard about last moment escape attempts. She was afraid if someone like Crow was to do it, her squad will be amongst the first casualties.

    Crow liked that. It felt empowering. Even when he lost control over his own fate, he still had the ability to exert control over the others’. He smirked, as he walked behind Akari. He could see her shivering, like a small leaf on the wind.

    Following a series of corridors, they reached the Chamber of Doors. Guards felt relieved.

    Gilbert was standing there waiting for him. They greeted each other and proceeded to the counter. In silence, Gilbert finished the paperwork. Crow signed.

    “Would you like to choose your door?” He was smiling kindly. To ease the mental tension on the divers, they were allowed to choose their own door. It gave them at least some form of control over their lives.

    “Yes. That one.” Crow pointed over to the door, that entranced him yesterday.

    “Hmm...” Gilbert glanced at his tablet. “It looks like this one is empty for quite some time. Alright, let’s move.”

    They slowly walked to the door.

    Each step felt to Crow, as he was descending underwater. Deeper and deeper. He was getting nauseous, grasping for air. His eyesight was getting blurrier, and only inscriptions on the door could be seen clear. Crow sensed how this signs stared at his soul, looking for something. They scanned Crow, bit by bit. Suddenly they sparkled, and his nauseousness disappeared like nothing ever happened.

    “Just what the hell was that?” Crow thought. “There is nothing even closely resembling scanning patterns in this door’s inscriptions.” As they finally reached the door, he could inspect it carefully.

    “High-officer Crow. It was an honor to know you. I wish you a safe journey. May you succeed in your mission, and return unharmed.” Gilbert saluted. “For the Empire!”

    “For the Empire!” Crow saluted in return.

    This was not the time for small talk. Crow was anxious to be done with the matter already. If his life was dependent on a coin-flip, then he only desired to flip it already.

    He pulled the door handle.

    In an instant, he appeared in the middle of nowhere. All-encompassing darkness surrounded him.

    As Crow tried to sit down, he understood, that there were no concepts of up or down. He was standing, but he could be laying at the same moment. Crow recollected everything that was written in the “Void Diving safety guide.” That small book was written with the blood of many unlucky divers. It cost to Empire many talented mages.

    His next step was just to submerge his consciousness into the deep meditation and wait.

    He tried to make himself as comfortable as possible, adjusting to the environment. Crow couldn’t help but wonder, how this place could contain oxygen and have sufficient temperature for him. Although Empire could create spatial rooms, there were more than enough puzzles, for researchers to contemplate about.

    While he was emptying his mind, falling deeper into his meditation, void around him began to change.

    Darkness was stepping back, allowing strange images to appear. Constellations started to lit up, one by one, on the horizon. Grotesque creatures of immeasurable sizes were devouring each other. The temperature began to fall drastically, leaving Crow no choice, but stop his meditation and focus on warming his body.

    There were no entries, about such behavior, in void diving safety guide, Crow was sure about that. He should’ve entered into meditation peacefully, and wait for a “call.” He carefully observed his environment, invoking various defense spells at the same time. Different pictures were shifting before his eyes, in what felt like, a never-ending kaleidoscope.

    One moment he was in front of a giant red star. A sphere-like object was floating nearby. A Strange creature was drawing the energy of the star into itself.

    In the blink of an eye, a landscape of destroyed mega-city appeared before him. Its new owners, bizarre monkey-like creatures were fighting each other. Amongst them, stood one of their kin. It was emanating terrifying pressure on its surrounding.

    Standing aboard of a derelict ship, he could feel he could feel various lifeforms established their own ecosystem aboard. Life support systems were still functioning, although, Crow was sure he and his ship were abandoned here a small eternity ago.

    Then he was standing in the endless abyss. He could see his reflection under his feet. Islands were floating above and below him. An odd boat was passing dangerously close to him. Humanoid entity, with tentacles growing out of its chin was holding a green oil lamp in its hand.

    Crow’s gaze focused on this lamp. He couldn’t help, but feel, as if this lamp was familiar to him. Yet, he never saw such object in his life.

    Crow visited thousands of such images. They exchanged faster and faster. His head felt as if it going to explode at any moment, from the information that was entering his brain. He also felt his power quickly diminishing.

    Suddenly, he was standing still inside of the real Void. The stars could be seen on the horizon. Cold has stepped away. His defensive spell array almost crumbled, from various “encounters” previously. Crow was sure about that. He was no longer in the spatial room. While he still felt some sort of connection to it, lingering in the back of his mind, he was well aware that he had fallen into the Void.

    He wasn’t sure why he got such an awkward excursion previously, but he was happy for being allowed to have some sort of a break. Tranquility enveloped Crow, and he accepted it gratefully.

    The unknown energy was nurturing his body. Mending his soul. Crow was deep in the Void, yet it felt like… home? He quickly began his meditation, giving this energy ability to flow freely through him. Slowly, bit by bit, he has been recreated anew.

    He couldn’t measure for how long he stayed here. It could be an eternity, or maybe only for few days. He didn’t care much about it, though. He was bathing in this majestic energy. Its very existence opposed all current theories about Arcana. Yet, he still was enveloped by it, nurtured gently. Crow was carelessly smiling.

    But as with all changes in this weird place, another one was upon him. Horizon lit up, becoming brighter and brighter. Crow tried to escape it, sought the way to suppress this new occurrence. He didn’t wish to leave this serene place. Not caring about his struggles, the light continued to grow brighter, burning out his senses. He fell unconscious.

    ***

    Crow was a mess. His head felt like it was going to shatter any moment. His naked body was trembling, and he was covered in sweat. Being afraid of opening his eyes, he inspected his surroundings with his hand. He was laying on a warm stone. Its surface was polished, but small grain still could be felt on it.

    With his eyes closed, he slowly sat. Being helpless in trying to resist his body’s sudden urge, and vomiting on the floor. This brought some sense of relief.

    Being finally able to open his eyes, he noticed that his body was covered in blood sweat, and skin was pale. His surroundings, on the other hand, were sterilely clean. He was sitting in the middle of round room, there were no windows nor furniture, only one exit. He seemed to be in a tower, as the flow of Arcana was much stronger than usual.

    Crow conjured a small cloud over his head, and it washed away all filth from his body. Then he discovered something unexpected. The problem lied within his domain. It was cracked. Nothing too terrible, at most he won’t be able to cast some of the more difficult spells for a few days. But this still bothered him.

    During his not too successful attempt in plundering one of the ancient tombs, Crow suffered grave injuries, but it was not enough to even scratch his domain. He carefully inspected himself for any other injuries, but he seemed healthy otherwise.

    The door opened with a creaking sound. A youthfully looking humanoid was standing there. Apart from his skin of dark blue color, his platinum hair, and having some sort of scarring over his face, he looked entirely human. Crow was sincerely surprised. Humanity was used to seeing humanoids in most of the worlds they visited, yet all of them were humanoid, and not so staggeringly human-like.

    This youth took few steps forward, and while removing a chair out of his dimensional pocket, he was already prepared to sit on it. His every movement was graceful. But Crow was not touched. What he was interested about, was the other party’s aura. While it was lingering on the borderline between newly advanced mage and that of an elementalist. Crow had never seen such a majestic aura in his life. It was as pure as if weaved out of Arcana itself.

    Youth threw a small black vial to Crow. On closer inspection, it seemed to be a “brain juice.” Information stored in a liquid form. After studying this vial for any kind of traps, Crow opened it and began evaporating and inhaling its contents. His aching head was not prepared to receive such a densely-packed information package, but Crow forced himself too.

    Burning sensation was piercing Crow’s nervous system, as, before unfamiliar language, started to deeply embed in his mind. Yet, on the outside, he didn’t allow a single muscle to twitch. After five minutes of such agony, Crow finally managed to comprehend vernacular of his summoner’s species. It was called Bisurii, the Sand Speech. Vial also contained basic information about this world, like the length of the year, the name of kingdoms, maps, etc.

    Noticing Crow’s relief, summoner spoke.

    “I greet you, Planes Walker. My name is Rah Phinoremen Quaraz. You can call me Rah.” He said.

    “I say hello summoner. Name Crow.” It will take the time to fully master a new language. Crow’s speech will be clunky meanwhile.

    Rah chuckled.

    “I hoped that you could make it. You were laying here, unconscious, for two days. I didn’t dare to medicate you myself, as you have different physiology from me or my kin.” His voice was apologetic.

    “I wondering what the cause for trouble for summoning?”

    “I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I can only tell you, that it felt like you were resisting the process.” Rah was eyeballing Crow with curiosity.

    “Very strange.” Crow muttered.

    “Are you prepared to discuss the contract, or you wish to rest more?”

    “Let us discuss.”

    “Good.” Rah face became even more dignified. “I have devised a challenging venture. And one that will require a decade to accomplish. For this goal, I will need a loyal companion. A friend even.” He made a short pause. “You have probably noticed that I am much weaker than you?”

    Crow was surprised. For summoner to acknowledge, that he is weaker than his summon, was basically asking for trouble. But before he could react, Rah continued.

    “I know what you are thinking about.” He stared directly into Crow’s eyes while reaching into his pocket and taking out a red gem. He pointed it at Crow. Nothing happened. “This gem is the reason, I can be so open with my words.”

    Crow had no idea what this stone was. He could see a mysterious aura around it, but otherwise, it looked like an ordinary, if a bit oversized, ruby.

    “What is?”

    “This is a Guard Stone. An ancient artifact, it has many functions, one of them is revealing possible threats. You aren’t one of them, so I kept you.”

    “Can it read Wheel of Fate?” Crow was skeptical, divination magic is extremely unpredictable, can contradict itself, and therefore is considered to be slightly more than quackery. Yet, the world is filled with arcane devices which can break the laws of the universe. Finding a divination object that can be reliable, is not something entirely out of the realm of possibility.

    Rah stood silent. Crow had more and more questions for his familiar. He wondered if Bragi will be willing to shed at least some light on them. After all, he reasoned, even if summoner has some tricks up in his sleeve, he is still far inferior to Crow regarding raw strength. If one day such need arises, Crow will find a way to dispatch from his master.

    “So, what about the contract?” He then inquired.

    “Yeah, contract. It will consist of two stages. First one, is you need to get me out of this jail.” Rah waved his hand, pointing at walls around him. “You see, although not a prisoner per se, I have a tense relationship with the rulers of Abukar Oasis, kingdom we are situated in currently. You will need to negotiate some terms with our northern neighbors, after which, they will be more than willing to get me out of this place.” He cunningly smiled. “Then you will decide if you want to help further down the road, or will take your reward and leave this world.”

    “And challenge is?”

    “You mean what difficulties you can encounter?” Rah was puzzled for a moment by the question.

    Crow nodded.

    “One of the Dead Kings, who rule over this kingdom, won’t be very happy with me leaving. He keeps an eye on me, all the time. He thinks of me, as one of his experiments, and will dispatch of me, once I bear fruit.” Rah wasn’t showing any fear. It was as if he is dealing with trifling matters, not something concerning his life and death. “You will have three years to reach the Northern Knot, negotiate with local rulers, and then save me.”

    Gaining some basic knowledge of this world from the brain juice, Crow knew, that Northern Knot is the capital city of Gragwig Kingdom. A small enclave within the Jerovian Empire, which actually rules over it. Only getting there will take him around a year by juuga, a native variation of a horse in this world.

    “Time constraining much.” He voiced his concern. “How to negotiate?”

    “It will be up to you, how to solve this matter.” Rah answered. “Fret not, though, as I have information, that will be very vital for Jerovians. Chances are high, they will want to learn more, and will risk it, to free me.”

    “He has three years, yet he is going to put his life in my hands? Something is amiss.” Crow thought. He, then, voiced this as a statement. “You told prior, you desire companion, yet you not speak whole things.”

    “You are not the only one on this mission. From more than twenty summonings performed in last few months, I hand-picked four Planes Walkers for this mission. As you can guess, you are the last one. Only the first one to succeed will receive their reward, all others will be banished, as the contract requires an achievable goal, to persist.”

    “You rich for someone’s experiment.” Crow couldn’t hide his astonishment. Summoning even one being from the void is a costly matter.

    “I have ways of dealing with problems.” Rah’s face twitched upon being called an “experiment.”

    “What’s the reward, then?” His grip over new language slowly tightened.

    “If you can accomplish the task, and will choose to leave, then I will bestow upon You ancient knowledge. Arcana refinement, master-slave matrix, spell restoration, and other topics. You will be able to choose two of them.” Rah’s eyes gleamed. “But if you will wish to become my companion, I will grant you a permanent residence in this world. What you will get after this, will depend only on you. It is safe to say, though, that you won’t regret it.”

    Topics Rah’s brought made Crow wonder. Such exquisite knowledge was very sought after on Earth. Even if he does not build Gates, to allow Empire to conquer this world, his contribution will likely allow him to redeem his “sins.”

    What was surprising, though, is that how Rah actually was such knowledgeable? Crow fell silent for some time. He had a lot to think about. This dive contained a lot of opportunities. He doesn’t even need to trick his summoner into giving him residence in the world, it was already a part of the contract.

    “I am ready to sign to sign a contract.” He finally spoke. It’s not that Crow was going to refuse. He was mainly thinking about his master’s identity. How can someone so weak be so resourceful?

    Rah looked focused for a moment, and then a contract appeared in Crow’s mind. He carefully studied it, but there was nothing suspicious, so he accepted the terms. A thin white line appeared between Crow and Rah. At first, it was glowing blindingly brightly, then gradually dimmed and disappeared. Crow could now step out of the circle.

    “I have arranged a bedroom for you, on the guests’ floor. You can take everything you wish for, in that room.” He turned around and exited the room. Crow followed.

  • Part 3 - Land of the Dead
    Crow was seemingly leisurely enjoying his dinner. It has been five days already, that he spent in Rah’s tower. Crow was not in a rush to get to Jerovian Empire. He spent time reading books, studying history and politics, scrolls, that his master was willing to give him, and the tower itself. He spoke to Rah on occasion, trying to get as much information out of him as possible and improve his linguistic skills.
    As far as Crow was concerned, all the time he spends here will cover for mistakes he ought to do, from ignorance. Knowledge and power were two pillars, every caster’s strength relied upon. From one they derived the other. With the latter, the gained the former. Such was the never-ending circle of casters life.
    Even now, while his master had time to talk with Crow during the dinner, Crow used it to the utmost. They were playing a simple game of question and answer. In the middle of the long table, a crystal ball was situated, right between them. It reflected the light of numerous candles in the dining hall.
    Crystal ball had the ability to detect if someone was lying around it. Of course, there were more than enough methods to cheat in its presence, but most of the time, those who participated in such games just ignored questions, they were not going to truthfully answer. Having the ball during such games was an old tradition.
    “… more than millennia had passed since Abukar Oasis has established Undying Decree.” It was Rah’s turn to answer the question. “Nowadays, no one is bothered by the corpses moving around. More so, as they mostly work in mines, or deep in the night, when they are cleaning the cities, moving the goods and other things. You generally won’t see much of them anyway. Lately even minstrels who praise our not-so-dead ancestors appeared. But nobles are allowed to cremate their ancestors, and if someone, for any reason, raises the noble’s corpse, it would be considered the greatest offense. Do you have anything like this?”
    “You can say so. We have a sort of gollemancy. Metal people who work not through the means of magic, but through technology. They are decently intelligent, and we can even make them smarter than you or me, for example, but this was prohibited long ago, due to various reasons.”
    “The technological wonders of your world, are magnificent.” Rah was genuinely astonished. “But how have you managed to advance so much?”
    “There are various reasons for that.” Crow baited. Humans, because of their history, had unprecedented levels of technology, compared to all of the races they’ve met. Rah and his kin were no exceptions. “It’s my turn to ask a question.”
    “Please do.” Rah responded, eagerly awaiting his own turn.
    “I’ve read, that Abukar Oasis once conquered every bit of land, you could get your hands on, before collapsing back to its original territory. From what I’ve gathered, Oasis collapsed because of an internal dispute. But you have millennia old Dead Kings ruling over you. Are, there really any conflicts, they would be unable to suppress? What actually happened?” Crow asked.
    “That is the mystery even to me.” Rah smiled. “There is a theory, that there were more Dead Kings before the collapse. Currently, the council consists of eight Dead Kings, but few sources, I managed to get my hands on, claim, that originally there were fifteen members. I am sure, though, that even if other seven members exist, they are not within Abukarian borders.”
    “So, something happened within the council itself.” Crow nodded. He could guess this much, but not a single book mentioned that ruling council was bigger at some point.
    “One thing is undeniable. Current Great Eight is still weakened, even few hundred years after the conflict. They received grievous wounds and still trying to recuperate. Kingdom-wide focus on alchemy and medicine after the incident only further confirms this theory. This, by the way, can also be used, as a way to lure Jerovians to my side.” Rah enjoyed their conversations. Crow was a methodical man, and, as Rah felt, he gathered a lot more information from their exchanges than was originally anticipated.
    “So, for what reasons your kin is so advanced in the field of technology?” He continued.
    “I won’t go into detail, as it will take very long to describe. Our home world was covered in some sort of encapsulating magic. Humanity was unable to use magic for hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this, we developed our society with other means. This included thousands of years researching the laws of the universe, not directly connected to Arcana.”
    “Your home looks like a place, I would love to visit one day.”
    “It would be my pleasure, to be your guide then.” Crow was honest. If it all it takes to return home safely, is to become a tour guide, he would gladly accept. “Can you explain me, what are the djinni?”
    “Mhm… Let’s trade this information.” Rah suggested. “The moment I summoned, and during few times I checked how are you faring, you were opening your eyes, and I couldn’t help but notice, your peculiar irises, which you’ve hidden with illusions afterward.”
    “Eyes, eh? This is considered a rare gift amongst my people. Those who have such eyes can see magical emanations. Basically, any kind of Arcana, that has been bent to magician’s will. So, things like hidden magical traps are not, well… hidden from me at all. I’m not sure if only humans can have such eyes, but I’ve never encountered other species gifted with them.”
    Rah nodded. Crow’s usefulness was steadily growing in his eyes. Rah even started to think, if it would be worth to keep Crow around if Crow fails the mission.
    “It’s my turn, then. You see, being a djinni is actually more troublesome than beneficial. At least for first six decades or so. Djinnis are very slow in developing their domain, but we do build it out of finest Arcana possible. We are also inherently very adept at spell weaving. Creating new spell constructs is a breeze. But after beforementioned six decades, the domain will develop well enough to achieve a… let’s call it a critical mass. After that, the development will continue at an alarming rate, but most importantly, depending on my innate aptitude, I will develop a gift.” Rah told him.
    “And after that, your master will get rid of you.” Crow nodded.
    “Yes, precisely. That’s why I went all out with my spendings on summoning ritual. I’m not only looking for someone to free me. I need a companion with whom I can forge my destiny under the stars.”
    “I am going to depart tomorrow morning, so we may continue our magnificent discussions someday.” He smiled. “Can I borrow a juuga out of your stables?”
    “This is a given. Distance from my tower, to the closest city, is big enough. I will be absent tomorrow and appoint a golem to guide you out of the tower. I would also like to give you a little recommendation. It would be fair, considering you are the last one, whom I summoned, so you have a bit of a handicap.” Rah looked apologetic.
    “I’m intrigued.”
    “You should consider making a small detour and visiting Crystal Planes. Name is romantic, but in actuality, it's just a bunch of glassified sand laying around.”
    “What for, then?” Crow questioned.
    “This place is an old battlefield on the northern side of Great Abakurian Desert. There are a lot of dangers and mutated beasts there, but I doubt anything will be able to harm you. The point is, you can tame a very unusual kind of juugas there. They are a lot faster than ordinary ones. They also feed directly on Arcana and don’t require regular food. This can save you some time.”
    “That is a valuable recommendation. I will keep that in mind.” Crow said.
    After a while, they bod they’re farewells, and Crow went to his room.
    ***
    Crow was standing outside of the stables. Before him stood a horse-sized creature. It resembled a mix between a horned lizard and Komodo dragon. This creature was called juuga. The saddle was placed between two horns on its back, with the forward horn being artificially flattened, as to not harm the rider.
    Crow carefully climbed on his beast. Contrary to his expectations, it was actually pretty comfortable, to sit on juuga. He dismissed clay golem that was guiding him around the tower and stared at the horizon.
    It will take Crow roughly twelve days to reach the city of Sarci. There he will be able to rest from the road, learn a little bit more about the world, and, hopefully, get useful magic items. The last point was crucial.
    While Rah was a generous man and gave months’ worth of food, water, Abukarian currency and the like. He barely shared any valuable magical equipment. Crow stashed one general purpose wand, few lowly scrolls, and potions into his dimensional pocket, and that was basically it. He guessed, that the most valuable stuff, Rah could share, was taken by first three summons.
    As he was riding towards Sarci, the temperature was steadily growing. Abukar continent was hot. Temperatures over thirty-five degrees were a common occurrence. For mages, though, it hardly mattered. Crow chanted an incantation in his mind, and a cold breeze slowly started to spin around him. A few moments later, his “weather bubble” was at comfortable twenty degrees.
    Hours passed, while his juuga was steadily jogging on red sand and stones. The scenery was beautiful at first but quickly became bland. Crow sighed when thought about, how long it will take him to get out of this arid climate zone.
    He focused on more important matters. Crack in his domain hadn’t healed. More so, it hasn’t moved even an inch towards closing. This was puzzling. Crow never heard about such cases. If one’s domain isn’t outright destroyed, it will heal at a steady pace, even if it was severely damaged. In his case, it should’ve taken two days at most.
    As soon, as night embraced the world, Crow set up a camp. Only now he could summon his familiar Bragi. He preferred not to summon his familiar in Rah tower, just in case.
    *Caw*
    Raven looked exhausted. And Crow momentarily tensed up.
    “Kid, I have five minutes. Make it quick.” Bragi’s mood was terrible.
    “Is it a crack in my domain?” Crow asked.
    “Yes. And it is troublesome, Crow.” Bragi sighed. “I am keeping an eye on it, so don’t bother calling for my help. Only summon me in the case of critical importance.”
    “Can you at least tell me what happened?”
    “I’m not sure. Just be prepared, that your spell weaving will start diminishing with time. You have a year at most before it will gradually worsen to that of elementalist rank.” No swearing, no bargaining. Bragi was serious.
    “You mean, to zero?” Crow’s voice trembled.
    “Yes, but I doubt your domain will collapse completely, so use your time wisely.”
    Crow was at a loss for words. Originally, he was going to interrogate Bragi for hours on end. But now? He barely could think of a few questions to ask.
    “After I’ll lose my ability to cast spells, will I be able to restore it with time?”
    Bragi sighed again.
    “I guess, I have to explain this.” *Caw* “I don’t know. Never seen anything, like this. Your domain currently contains two energies. One of them is Arcana, the other one is something new. New energy tears Arcana apart but doesn’t seem to grow itself. At least not yet. This new energy contains similarities to Arcana, and it seems, as it can be used to power spells, but unless its amount grows, I will have to search for the new owner.”
    “I’m fucked.” Crow yelled. “It’s not only spell weaving, Bragi. I am going to lose my domain and become one of the soulless. For the love of First Empress, tell me you have at least some good news.” His happiness for the fact, that he actually made it through first steps of the void diving, and was summoned into promising world momentarily disappeared.
    “I don’t have any kind of news now. Only theories. Most of them are promising, though. So don’t go drowning in the nearest puddle.”Bragi encouraged.
    “What can possibly be… Whatever. How much time you can keep me in my current condition?”
    “It seems to me, three months at most. After that, you can consider yourself a qualified mage for six months more. Then...”
    Crow inhaled. He tried to relax. He has almost a year to solve this situation, and it’s not like stressing too much over it will be helpful.
    “What about your position in my domain?” He asked.
    “Nothing much. I have ways to remain within your domain, so far as it exists. Even if your domain is drained out of Arcana thoroughly, as long as the other energy grows in its quantity, I can remain by your side.” Bragi tried his best to reassure Crow.
    “Okay. What you know about spells, that allow for life after death?” Crow fully regained his composure.
    “They are bad for your health.” Bragi chuckled. “Seriously. Those who can attempt to use such methods are usually very powerful beings. They should be nearing, or already broken into the archmage realm. But, their power will never rise after that. As for the methods themselves, there are far too many to describe them now.” Bragi paused then added. “Remember, I don’t have much time to answer your questions.”
    “What are djinni?”
    “Artificially created beings. Apart from what that kid told you when he will reach a certain threshold, his power will explode. Roughly in ten years, he can become an Arch Mage. But they have a weakness. If Rah tries anything funny, try to use draining spells on him. Djinns are very close to Arcana, and as such, their essence can be manipulated directly.”
    “Sounds cruel, and not very reliable. What about that Guard Stone of his?” Crow recalled the mundane looking stone.
    “It’s not a fraud. The stone is indeed connected to the Wheel of Fate. But that damned wheel is ever changing, and that stone can only show direct threats.” Bragi was getting agitated.
    Crow quickly inspected his domain. Crack indeed slightly increased in size.
    “Final one.” His gaze focused back on Bragi. “What the hell was happening in the Void?”
    “Ohh! Void! Why hadn’t I…” Bragi’s eyes glimmered. “About that void excursion… I don’t know either. But when you have free time on your hands, try remembering every image you saw then. This can be enlightening.”
    *Caw*
    “Accomplish this kid’s mission, and explore this world as much as possible. I feel that this world can be crucial for your development. Don’t let this matter with your domain take the best of you.” Bragi told him. “Until next time, Crow.”
    Bragi quickly transformed into a black mist and disappeared, leaving only scroll behind.
    Shivers crawled up Crow’s spine. But he quickly suppressed the growing anxiousness.
    “After all, I could have died right there in the spatial room.” Crow thought. “And I am given enough time, to make proper preparations. Now I need to use my time wisely.”
    He was sitting by the campfire, carefully considering his options. He can’t just resign from the contract, nor does he wish to.
    “I should stick with that djinn for the time being, but if I feel, that I became too weak to be a part of his plan, I will just travel the world, until the contract expires.”
    With this thought, he crawled inside his sleeping bag. Good sleep will not come today, and not tomorrow. 

  • Part 4 - Land of the Dead(2)

    A juuga rider in light robes was approaching city gates of Sarci. His skin was tan, his eyes wide and narrow, his hair black. This rider had slightly pointy ears, his chin massive and divided into three parts. Crow already changed his appearance to that of a native inhabitant of this world. Even though Rah originally was also berutian, his current body belonged to a djinni, and not his former brethren.

    Crow neared city gates, and one of the guards addressed him.

    “Answer me who you are, and why are you alone on the treacherous desert roads?” Guard’s voice was firm.

    “I am a servant from one of the nearby magic towers.” As Crow told him, he waved his hand, and an intricate fiery red symbol appeared out of thin air.

    Guard momentarily dropped to his knees.

    “I beg my Lord of forgiveness.” He wept. “You are always welcome in the city of Sarci. Guards, open the gates quickly!”

    Crow passed through the gates without dropping a single word more. His cold gaze sweeping over the soldiers. Guards at the gates were accustomed to high-ranked mages behaving themselves like that. But this gaze sent their very souls shivering.

    ***

    Crow was wolfing up his dinner. While casters life in the wilderness was extremely comfortable, compared to ordinary mortals, he still couldn’t wait to take a proper bath and sleep in a comfortable bed. Crow currently was inside one of the most luxurious taverns Sarci could offer. It wasn’t much in Crow’s view, but it was better than sleeping on the rocks and sand.

    On the way, here he mercilessly raced his juuga, taking only small rests, trying to hasten his way as much as possible. It allowed him to get to Sarci in less than ten days instead of originally planned twelve. But he couldn’t not feel guilt towards his beast of burden. He ordered for his mount to get the best treatment possible, and organized its stay in best stables.

    With his conscience, free of any guilt, he went to his room and washed. Laying inside a wooden tub, Crow was finally regaining his senses. He purposefully allowed his emotions to take better of him, while he was on the road to Sarci. One could see a few craters if he would take Crow’s road.

    Now, though, he vented enough to return back to his usual cold-blooded demeanor. Crow was never hot tempered. But the news Bragi told him, it was just unacceptable.

    Caster’s domain was their holy grail. They nurtured it, catered for it, slowly growing it enough to advance through rankings and get more power. Domain represented one’s development in the field of magic. Each gifted had a unique domain, its looks reflected caster’s aptitude towards certain schools of magic. And the bigger it was, the more powerful was the caster.

    But there was no place for emotions further down the road. Those who succumb to their feeling, are more often than not, walked over by those who don’t let said emotions to cloud their mind.

    Before going to sleep, Crow finally was calm enough to meditate again. He slowly sank into depths of his mind, as various scenes started appearing before him. At first, he tried to shook them away, but one of the images was too persistent and forced him to notice itself.

    It was the oil lamp he had seen in the void. It’s simple, yet elegant design was eye-catching. Crow slowly studied it. Nothing on this lamp was out of place. No inscriptions were seen, no pompous decorations on it. Its metal parts were made out of black alloy. There was also no candle inside, only a green ball of light.

    Crow focused his sight on this ball of light, unable to look away. Eyeing this green glow brought a warm feeling to him. Unnoticeably, he slowly faded away into the world of dreams.

    When Crow woke up, he felt as being born anew. It was his first good rest after leaving Rah’s Tower. Crow slowly stood up from his bed and went with the usual morning routine. Not an hour had passed, since he woke up, and he already was walking towards the Sarci’s bazaar.

    Crow doubted that there will be any kind of magical shop there. Arcane items in worlds such as Alra generally were restricted from commoners and circulated in great guilds only.

    His aim was simple street vendors. Not once during his “peace-keeping” missions to recently colonized worlds, he had found magical artifacts in the hands of ordinary people. Masterwork artifacts rarely emitted strong magical emanations for everyone to see. Thus, they sometimes went under the nose of even skilled magicians unnoticed. Crow, on the other hand, could see Arcana that enveloped all things, and such items stuck out for him.

    As he neared the market, unmistakable odor stood in the air. Fresh and rotten fishes, vegetables and all sorts of other food and beverages. The stench of various oils, general berutians commotion, and similar sources, under the scorching sun, were almost unbearable. Crow had to diminish the radius of his temperature controlling spells to a minimum, not to attract any unwanted attention.

    He slowly made his ways through the crowded streets, carefully inspecting his surroundings.

    “Hey, Mister! Want to buy fresh vegetables?” One kid was trying to lure him and other visitors to his family’s stall.

    “Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Just this morning’s catch! Dotted seralo, nine-legged crawler, sea-juuga!” Another kid was standing in front of the small kiosk.

    As he continued his path towards the “general goods” section, Crow felt a little dispirited. If not for his miserable talents in alchemy, this bazaar could be a gold mine of ingredients. He could even make ink for later use in inscriptions. Once he broke out of food section of the market, both the stench and amount of people decreased drastically.

    As Crow carefully examined the booths here, his attention was captured by crazy looking old geezer. This guy could barely distinguish his left from right, yet he stood here, trying to sell various scraps to public. Goes without saying, that the said public tried to avoid him at all costs. Especially counting that most of the goods that laid on the carpet before him was various trash like rodents’ tails and a bottle of…nails?

    Crow still took his time to carefully examine old lunatic’s belongings. Two items were standing out. One was a tall metallic cylinder, and the other looked like a ceramic ashtray of sorts. Both items had a visible Arcana emanations flowing around them. Crow neared the crazed man’s shop, seemingly unnoticing surrounding people’s frowning.

    “Good morning!” He greeted the vendor. “You have quite peculiar items for selling.”

    “Oi, a customer. May you be blessed by all desert suns young man. Have your eyes cached something, you would like to buy?” The old man smiled wryly.

    “Indeed. What can you tell me about that thing?” Crow pointed his finger to the silvery-white cylinder that caught his attention.

    “This one?” The old man handed the cylinder to Crow. “Can’t say for sure, but this item does seem special.” He giggled. “I have found it in the basement of my home, don’t know what possible uses it may have, but I’m sure for someone like you, it will be of great service!”

    On closer inspection, this cylinder seemed to be made, out of aluminum alloy. Crow frowned slightly. While he couldn’t tell at a glance, what this artifact was made for, Crow was sure it was a valuable piece of magical equipment.

    “How much do you want for this item?”

    “Oh! Not much. Fifty ronpie would suffice!” The old man spoke.

    This price was definitely exaggerated. In this world, one could buy a house for this kind of money.

    “Old man, you are trying to rob me here? This item isn’t worth the money you ask for!” Technically Crow wasn’t lying. Judging by this item’s aura, its price was not something you could buy with coins.

    “Then, for what price do you suggest I sell it?” Crow could swear, that wideness of this lunatic’s smile was defying biological norms of his race.

    “Let’s settle this item’s worth for two ronpie.” He proposed.

    “Oi, oi, oi, it is you who is robbing me under the daylight.” The old man yelled, attracting everyone’s attention. “Twenty and not a ronpie less!”

    “Five ronpie and one other item I desire.” He cared little about the common money. But spending a fortune for a piece of trash could attract unwanted attention.

    “Tsk. This may be good. Choose another item.”

    “I want this thing.” Crow pointed towards an ashtray.

    “Hmm. This young man has an eye for good things.” Old man stroked his beard. “I say, you can have these two items for ten ronpie and one condition.”

    “And what is that?” Crow frowned.

    “Long ago, on one of the scorchingly hot days, a handsome young man approached me. He gave me that ashtray and asked to send anyone who buys it towards him. Of course, he was quite generous, for me to remember his offer.” Old man giggled. “If you promise me to visit a certain place at a certain time, I will allow these two items to go for such a low price.”

    Crow pondered for a moment. Lunatic’s offer could spell both opportunity and trouble. It was evident to Crow that this “handsome young man” was looking for talented individuals, who could see through illusions and secrets. But what for? Crow wasn’t really afraid of someone trying to overpower him. With his current power, only the Great Eight could be of threat to him. But jumping head on, into someone’s trap wouldn’t be too smart either.

    “I will meet your benefactor. Here’s the ten ronpie you asked for.” He threw two silver coins to the beggar. Crow decided that in his current circumstances every opportunity he encounters should be exploited to the fullest.

    Old man gratefully accepted the coins and told Crow the meeting place. As soon as Crow departed, he hastily gathered all his belongings and left. But Crow was already far enough not to notice old man’s strange attitude.

    As he was walking between various stalls, he found few more magical items of little power. While they were of little use as of now, this could change later. What he really cared for, was the cylinder. This item had potential to be useful to him even now.

    After his shopping spree had finished, he took a stroll around the town. Crow knew that around Sarci were three magical towers including Rah’s one. He also knew, that to the south of his current position one of three official mage guilds was stationed. He was sure that they had at least some presence in this town.

    Crow didn’t harbor any bad intentions towards this mage guild. But knowing where his possible opponents held their strength could be valuable in the long run.

    After taking some time to explore Sarci, Crow found three places with strong magical aura. He was sure that one of them belonged to the official guild, but just to whom belonged other two locations, remained a mystery. His first guess was that they also belonged to the mage guild, but they didn’t possess the same hidden markings, as the guild had. Was it some sort of secret society?

    Crow had met few casters along the way. From elementalists towards the accomplished mages. He judged, most of them belonged to the nearby guild, but there were few, whom Crow couldn’t assign their loyalties.

    When he was tired from strolling around the town, he headed towards slum area of Sarci. To properly research his new toys, he would need a competent laboratory. As such he decided to pay the visit to one of the mage buildings that did not belong to the mage guild.

    This place was hidden with impressive disguise spells. Standing at the entrance of hideout, Crow steeled his resolve and knocked on the door.

    Not long after, a young berutian woman opened.

    “What do you want?” She looked calm, but cautiousness was apparent in her eyes.

    “I think it’s in your best interests to discuss such matters inside.” Crow waved his hand, and a small orb of light appeared before him, almost instantly collapsing.

    Berutian woman hesitatingly allowed Crow inside.

    Walking through a corridor, Crow reached a big hall. It seemed to be a guest room. Crow comfortably sat on one of the chairs and waited for the girl to take her place in front of him. As she was walking towards her seat, a group of mages appeared seemingly out of thin air, and accommodate themselves nearby.

    “Speak.” Having companions by her side, she felt much more comfortable.

    “My name is Crow, and I am a free magician, traveling the lands. I desire no masters to be over me, and I guess we share this point of view.” Crow stressed the later part. “I came here with a small business proposal.”

    “My name is Asi, my companions are Nasor, Wanti, and Ronai.” She pointed to respective members. “What kind of business you wish to conduct?”

    “I require a laboratory to investigate some items, and wish to trade knowledge for your resources.”

    Asi fell silent for a moment. Crow knew that she was communicating telepathically with her colleagues, over Crow’s trustworthiness. He was well aware, of what they were thinking.

    In Asi’s eyes, he is either lying and is a representative of an official guild who managed to find their hideout probably wishing to have some side business, in which case killing him would be a suicide. Or he was indeed a roaming mage who could see through their disguise.

    “We have a laboratory. And we do have few items to trade. But tell us, Crow, what kind of information you are willing to trade for such services?” She broke the silence.

    “For starters, you probably are interested in just how I managed to find you.” Crow cunningly smiled. “This one I will tell you for free to show my good intentions. As for other topics, I will offer a fair trade to restock my scrolls, potions and other equipment.”

    “This seems reasonable.”

    Crow pointed his finger towards the roof, and a small bluish line of energy appeared.

    “You are slightly leaking to the outside world. I would recommend channeling this line towards the earth through a copper disperser. This way energy will disperse underground in a vast area, much less noticeably. I can also recommend to move your hideout to the port and just channel the energy into the ocean, this way, natural radiation will cover you more efficiently.”

    “Energy leakage?” Asi sighed and looked at Ronai. He shivered.

    “We are greatly thankful to you, my Lord.” Asi’s demeanor momentarily changed towards Crow. Noticing a small leakage like this, was outstanding feet within the magician's ranks. It meant that Crow was not someone to offend lightly. “If you need any of our services, just ask.”

    “Thank you, Asi. Let’s discuss business then?”

    ***

    After few hours, Crow was a proud owner of almost half of the inventory of Eyeless Society’s Sarci branch, a group which was represented by Asi. He also knew a lot more about underground movement in Abukar Oasis.

    Eyeless Society was established almost fifty years ago when the Great Eight started pressing roaming mages into joining official guilds. Most mages joined the guilds, significantly bolstering the power of Abukar Oasis, others fled to outside kingdoms. Yet, some left, reluctant to both, accede to the officials or leave their homeland.

    “There were a lot of chaos at the time. Besides Eyeless Society, there were six other groups. Three of them were annihilated by officials, and two others split between us, and Sand Dragons.” Asi’s voice was slightly trembling. “After the initial slaughterhouse, the damned eight returned to minding their own business, and things gradually calmed down.”

    “Why they didn’t continue destroying the resistance?”

    “Money, as usually.” This was Nasor. His voice was cold and hoarse. “They can milk more out of us if we are alive. We are cornered, and rarely dare to do something noticeable. On the other hand, we are forced to scavenge for supplies and sell them twice as cheap, on the black market… basically to officials.” He sighed.

    “But we still fight! Always searching for ways to undermine the damned eight, and we won’t give up!” This was Ronai. He was young and brave young man. Crow guessed, that he only recently become a mage, and was yet to sharpen or lose his teeth.

    Ronai’s companions looked at him. Hesitation was in their eyes. Resistance long since lost its appeal to them, becoming barely something more than a lifestyle they adapted to. Despite that, they still had a glimmer of hope.

    “What can you tell me of nearby mage towers?” Crow decided to change the topic. Asking anything more about society wouldn’t do him any good, and atmosphere was becoming melancholic.

    “Ah. There are two towers nearby. Strictly to the north of Sarci, roughly two days of travel, there is one which belongs to Maris. Unless my Lord trespasses her territory, I doubt she will bring you any trouble. To the southwest stands Grey Wall. This is a tower-castle belonging to Kasiri family. They are loyalists and the keepers of the dead of Sarci and Korici.” When Asi told that, society’s members’ faces twitched with disgust. “South Gate Guild is to the south.”

    “How big is the detection spells radius?”

    “About fifty kilometers. If my Lord is going towards Korici, I would recommend going with the crowd, though oasis. Mepathi’s tower is guarding it, but it’s a public zone, so I doubt my Lord will face any problems.”

    “Are there any others?”

    “No, my Lord, Sarci is a small town, used mainly as an entrepot between Korici’s mines and Ab’Qir. Not many magicians are interested in living here.”

    “So, they don’t know, or are not willing to talk about Rah? Interesting.” Crow thought. “Many thanks to the Eyeless Society. I hope you don’t mind if I get into your laboratory.”

    “The pleasure is ours, my Lord. With the spells you shared with us, it will be much easier to hide our meeting places from officials. We are deeply grateful for your generosity.” Asi and her companions bowed their heads slightly.

    This indeed was the case. Crow bestowed some spells that would help Eyeless Society not to perish before his return. He had no idea, how he is going to free Rah from his imprisonment, and having friends in the Eyeless Society could be valuable in the future.

    “I will escort my Lord to the laboratory.” Nasor stood up and invited Crow to follow him.

  • edited April 2017
    Part 5 - Land of the Dead(2.5)
    Today's part is smallish. Decided not to make it bigger, than it is already, and just make another normal-sized update tomorrow. So, I guess, It's a bonus chapter.

    He was standing before a huge glass box. A small mirror before him was displaying the contents of said box. There was a pedestal with a black cylinder laying on top of it. The cylinder that he bought earlier from a crazy old geezer. Crow manipulated two crude metal arms, from outside of the box, carefully studying his purchase.

    Crow spent almost two hours beforehand, improving the laboratory and adding much-needed features. Mirror’s ability to magnify images, the fluidity of arms movement were only a small part of the list.

    “Now the fun part begins” He murmured. “What is this thing is even used for?”

    Crow scanned the surface of the cylinder and noticed a tiny gap encircling it along its height. Crow channeled some energy into it, but the gap hadn’t moved even a centimeter. After that, he tried inscribing various rune words onto the cylinder, but the gap easily resisted all his methods. He tried different ways to crack it open for hours on end.

    When Crow was almost ready to give up, he heard a voice coming from his domain.

    “Just take it into your hands and let me do the rest.” It was Bragi.

    “Bragi, aren’t you supposed to be busy helping me with my wounds?” Albeit trying to sound intimidating, Crow actually was glad to hear his familiar.

    “Shut up, kid. You managed to find quite a treasure there. Now be grateful, that I noticed your pitiful attempts to crack it open.”

    Crow opened the box, and cylinder floated to him. The moment it touched Crow’s hand, it immediately let out magical waves and opened. Inside of it was a small golden shard. It vibrated, letting out the almost unnoticeable droning sound. Crow began breathing heavily. The quality of the item, the abundant energy it contained was mesmerizing.

    “What is this?” Crow asked.

    “This is a key. Channel some energy in it. Maybe the door it opens is in this world.”

    Crow made few attempts, but the response signal never returned.

    “Tough luck, but keep it anyway. I doubt that the door requiring such a key was opened.”

    “Do you know exactly where it leads?”

    But only response Crow got was silence.

    “As usual.” He thought.

    Nonetheless, he returned the key back into its case and stored it in the dimensional pocket. He recovered the ashtray instead and continued his experiments.

    “Eh… Tracking spells?” Crow sighed. “Not bad, but not enough, to catch me.”

    Ashtray gave up without resistance. It actually was a source, an item which could increase the ability of a caster to channel surrounding Arcana. And it was of one of the highest quality’s Crow had seen in his life. To think that, somebody actually used it, as an ashtray, was mindboggling.

    Crow thoroughly cleaned it up and placed it onto his hand. “Ashtray” instantly melted down and covered his left hand like a glove, when he established a link with it. Around the glove, a crimson halo could be seen.

    While the key could hold a great potential to it, the source actually became his most prized possession. When Crow tried to channel Arcana using it, he was quickly overwhelmed with the amount of energy it sucked out from the surrounding.

    “This short stroll in the marketplace was easily the best one I ever had. I guess that old lunatic is probably not so mad after all.” He smiled. “Thinking about it, it’s probably time to meet with this mysterious young man, lunatic was mumbling about.”

    Feeling slightly relieved and somewhat exhausted he slowly packed up, and went out of the laboratory.

    ***

    Crow instructed Asi, about the improved laboratory, and departed from Eyeless Society’s hideout.

    Outside, night already overtook the day. Two moons were shining brightly, one being green, and other bluish in color. Crow looked at the imagery, remembering Earths sky, slight hint of nostalgia appearing in his eyes.

    Crow was born on Earth, spent all his childhood there, and even during his service, he always found time to return to his home world, even if for just a few days. Crow understood that as of now it will take him no less than ten years to return back. The longest journey he ever had.

    “The sweeter it will be, after years of longing, to return back.” With that thought, he dispersed all emotions that were creeping up on him. Grieving over current circumstances won’t do any good.

    “By the looks of it, I’m already late to the appointment, but I promised old man to be there. Got to move swiftly I guess.” An almost unnoticeable yellow glow surrounded him briefly, as he disappeared over one of the nearby rooftops.

    Abucarian architecture had flat roofs. When the heat was becoming unbearable, Abukarians who lived by the ocean would climb to their roofs, in hopes to catch a bit of ocean breeze. A black shadow was moving swiftly and silently over the city landscape, trying not to disturb anyone’s sleep. In under few minutes, it crossed Sarci and was standing on one of the port cranes.

    Reanimated dead restlessly cleaned every bit of dirt they could find, racing against their decomposing bodies. Other lifeless were carrying cargo, onto and from the trade ships that were standing at the docks. Their stench mixed with the smell of salt water and rotten fish created an offensive odor.

    There were few abukarians with traces of magical talent, who mostly acted as guards in the port.

    These overseers barely interacted with the dead, seldom patching up their limbs until they decayed beyond repair. Such was the nightlife in Abukar Oasis, where corpses hiding from the scorching sun were slaving restlessly for the living.

    Although Crow had read a lot about it in the books, during his stay at Rah’s tower, he never actually seen such a bizarre view. This was truly the Land of the Dead.

  • Part 6 - Deep Below(1)
    Hope you guys like the story so far.
    Crow sneaked his way through the docks, towards a lighthouse. The large imposing building, its light room was the highest point of Sarci.
    He avoided port supervisors on his way, not desiring to cause a commotion. Slowly creeping his way through the docks, Crow noticed odd ship at the dockyard. It was nothing extraordinary regarding its looks, but magical flares visible only to Crow ravaged on the surface of the ship. The sheer amount of energy made him feel awed. Keeping this sight at the back of his mind, he continued forward.
    After getting to the lighthouse, Crow went around it. One part of its wall was definitely an illusion.
    “Are you looking for proof, that I can somehow detect magic?”
    With this in mind, he circled around lighthouse a few times, trying his best to look focused and using various detecting spells. All of this was, of course, only for show. Finally returning to the actual illusion, he pointed his finger towards it, and it shattered.
    Crow looked around cautiously and proceeded into the opening. It was dark and damp inside. He summoned a small globe of brilliant white light, that circled around him, then assumed its position over his head. Crow inspected his surroundings. To his surprise, there was a set of stairs, that actually lead downwards.
    Time went by, as Crow descended deeper and deeper. While descending spiral staircase, he noticed various protective inscriptions carved on the walls to both sides, but all of them were disabled. Finally, after quarter an hour had passed, a door appeared at the end of the staircase. Standing before the door, he frowned. Crow was sure that it would be very time consuming to pry it open.
    “Should I knock?” He extended his hand, to bang on the door, but it opened just before his fist could touch it.
    Brightly lit oval room greeted him. Many smaller chambers were attached to it. Handsome berutian was standing inside wearing yellow robes. By the looks of it, this man belonged to the South Gate Guild.
    “I was beginning to think, that you will not come.” His face was expressionless, his lips barely moving.
    “Beg your pardon. I’m new to this city, and was somewhat lost.”
    “Seeing through your disguise, you are not actually berutian. Who summoned you?” Although not moving even an inch, the yellow-robed man suddenly looked incredibly intimidating. Crow felt as if this berutian is disgusted to talk with a planeswalker.
    “He wishes to keep this in secret.” He sighed inwardly. Maybe coming here was not the brightest idea after all. They were standing there, their gazes locked. Both ready unleash the full fury of their spells at any moment.
    “At least tell me your allegiances.” Berutian gave up, after a while.
    “They are only to myself.” Crow smiled. “I’m not representing any factions in your world.”
    “That’s good. That ashtray you bought today, is something that belonged to me. I got it from a very special place, long time ago. For almost fifty years it was used as an ashtray before I noticed that it contained traces of magic.”
    “The place where it was found, contains many such items, but they are hidden behind traps and illusions. Last time I went there, I almost lost my life.”
    “I get where this is going.” Inwardly, Crow was shocked for having such a good luck this day. If he managed to keep his domain intact during the dive, he would be grinning happily by this moment. “You need someone to help you detecting various traps. I am certainly qualified to do such a job.”
    Men suddenly snorted.
    “First, you will need to tell me, for how long are you going to stay on Alra.”
    “Not less than two years, supposedly more than ten.”
    “Then you may consider that ashtray as my gift to you, showing my good intentions.” Crow’s brow twitched at hearing this words, but he said nothing. “We are leaving towards that place in six years. You can meet me by my lighthouse when time comes. Don’t be late.”
    With these words, the yellow-robed man handed a small green gem to Crow.
    “When last bit of the green fades, you will have three months to get here. Now excuse me…” At the same moment, the door closed.
    Crow was astonished. What a nerve! Gifting an ashtray, Crow already bought? Not introducing himself properly? Ending the conversation in such a rude manner? He even tried to track Crow’s whereabouts twice in a single day, Crow thought, looking at the gem.
    He turned to leave, but not before sprinkling the door with black dust from his dimensional pocket. Afterward, he channeled energy into the dust arranging it into runic symbols.
    “Have fun getting rid of my tracking.” He wiped green gem from other party’s spell and left.
    Everything that happened gave Crow certain clues. That mage, most probably, was a chief port supervisor, or even Sarci’s protector. Hence, he is not afraid, if Crow leaks information about his hideout. It also seemed plausible, that the place, from where that mage got the “ashtray” from, is one of the Alra’s subdimensions. It should open once in a cycle. As for how long this cycle is, Crow had no idea.
    What was evident, though, is that place should be incredibly bountiful. So much, in fact, that yellow-robed man could throw something astonishing like Crow’s new source, as bait. Although, if the man knew, how extraordinary that “ashtray” was, he would probably just attack Crow on site.
    “This world… I must find a way, to cure my domain, and finish my business with Rah.” Crow’s eyes glittered. “I must stay on Alra for as long as possible.”
    While on his way out of the port, Crow glanced at the peculiar ship. The first time he thought, that it belongs to someone who watches over the docks, but now he wasn’t that sure anymore.
    Crow returned to the inn and decided to eat in the dining room. As he ate his dinner, he heard an interesting conversation from one of the tables. Behind it, sat two wealthy looking individuals. One of them was unbelievably fat.
    “…caravan will arrive in five days.” Whispered one of them.
    Crow accidentally heard the word caravan, and his eyes momentarily glittered. With a wave of his hand, an invisible sign flew out from him and landed between the two men. Now he could hear them as clearly as if was standing right behind their backs.
    “Yeah, I know, Rasi. I wonder, though, why they arrive so early this season? Last was here only two months ago.” It was the fat one.
    “Rumors are that yearly inspection will happen earlier. But they are wrong.” He grinned. “My brother from the mage guild arrived a few days ago and told me, he is preparing to receive some important cargo from that caravan.”
    “Eh, this is great news for us then! If there is going to be a magician’s ship, then probably a lot of traders will also arrive.”
    “I would recommend you to prepare well for it.” Rasi heartily laughed. “The ships are coming all the way from the allied kingdoms, and merchant guild decided to change the dates of the seasonal caravan, and merge two fleets together.”
    “I wonder if they will bring any silk with them, last time I made a fortune from selling…” At this moment, Crow dispersed “arcane ear.” He had heard enough.
    This was great news. A caravan that is going to arrive with some important magical cargo, meaning that there will, most certainly be magicians guarding. In any other circumstances, Crow would forgo the idea of thievery. But stars had aligned at just the right angle.
    His dimensional pocket was empty, by his standards. He also happened to know about particular underground movement, that he could use during the raid. But most importantly, during his service in Empire, he was sent to an aquatic world for two years, and learned the hard way, how to counteract guerilla warfare in that place. Slowly a general outline of a plan emerged in his mind. He finished his dinner and went back to his room.
    ***
    Crow was sitting in the Eyeless Society’s conference room. Besides him, only Asi was present. She had a complicated look on her face.
    “My Lord, I have no right to do this. If the Great Eight discovers, that our society had something to do with this, they will rock the land beneath our feet, until they kill the very last of us.”
    “You don’t have to worry about that. I can handle augury spells and will clean up our traces. Think about it. Your society is weak, you are always scavenging for resources. This raid will go a long way, in helping your guild to grow.” Crow needed Eyeless to join him for his plan. For everything to go smoothly, a particular ritual was required. And Eyeless society had just enough people for it.
    “This is true. But that man, Rasi… there is only one mage in Sarci’s guild, who has merchant brother, with this name. Asiri. He is one of the council members in that guild!”
    “Then this makes it even better! Look, for what reason, someone as important, as council members, would lift their ass and leave the guild to meet a caravan? There is either something precious on the ships or someone equally important to be met in person by Asiri. It’s not only your chance to strike it rich. Maybe you can even hurt the South Gate guild itself in this way.”
    “Even if they won’t find our traces, the investigation will be held anyway. Underground guilds will be the first to fall under suspicion. Even with no evidence, they will still repress us.” Asi was stubborn. Crow actually admired her unwillingness to jump the gun and would make the same decision, if he were to be in her place.
    “Look at the benefits, Asi. First, I will teach your guild members some advanced spells, that will allow you to feel like the fish, in the water. Next, there is a ritual, that with enough manpower, is able to crush coastal cities like Sarci in no time. Almost every town in Abukar Oasis is coastal. And even if I fail and die, you will still be able to retreat safely.”
    “But…”
    Crow interrupted Asi.
    “You tell me that you have no right to do such a thing. Isn’t the very purpose of your movement to crush the Abukar Oasis? Do you have the right to miss out such an opportunity?” His face was solemn. At this moment, Crow looked like the leader of the revolution, the man who will crush Great Eight’s tyranny one day.
    He, of course, was not intending to do something like this. If anything, Crow was the devil, who will bring Empire’s iron fist to Alra, one day. Replacing one tyranny with another.
    “I’m not going to promise my Lord anything, but tell me what is your plan?” Asi sighed. She gave up. From the day she joined Eyeless Society all those years ago, this was the most daring venture. This was also the kind of undertaking, she hoped her life would be filled with.
    “We will ambush the ships en route. I already began preparing the means to interfere with augury and communication spells. I also need to paint some inscriptions at the site.” Crow gazed into Asi’s eyes. “And then we will strike. You will perform the ritual that will stir up the oceans, and sink the ships. At this moment, I will be handling any resistance, from the caravan guards. That’s pretty much it.”
    Asi gasped.
    “Are you sure, that you alone will be able to handle the casters on board?” Her eyes were filled with disbelief.
    “Yes. Unless any archmage happens to be on board, they stand no chances.” He grinned. Yet, in his eyes, Asi could see a cold glow.
    “And afterward? What if one of the Dead Kings will begin turning Sarci upside down?” Asi still wasn’t entirely convinced.
    “Look, I shared my plan with you. I also traded some knowledge, that no one on your continent possesses. Even upgraded your lab.” He sighed. “If I tell you, I can cover the traces, and hide you, you can only believe me.”
    Asi fell silent for a long while. Crow definitely was someone extraordinary in her view. He hadn’t done anything astonishing, but every his movement and action told her, that he is far superior to ordinary casters from her world. Finally, when she spoke, her eyes glowed with determination.
    “We will join you, on four conditions. First one, - you have to improve our hideout’s concealment.”
    “This is part of the plan already.” He smiled.
    “You also need to grant us the know-how, so we can reproduce it in other branches of our society.”
    “It is also manageable, but I doubt you have inscribers skillful enough to do so.”
    “That is going to be our problem. Third one, we want seventy percent of the spoils.”
    “No. Forty percent is the best you will get.” Crow smiled inwardly. He was the one to stay at the sea level. Of course, he will take everything he wishes for, and Asi understands this. But demanding seventy percent, was just outrageous.
    “Seventy. Even if it’s your plan from the ground up, you still won’t be able to realize it without us.” She gave Crow a stern look.
    “You seem to be rash with your reasoning. I’m landing your guild a helping hand here. I can manage without your help. It’s just going to be too inconvenient, hunting down all the stragglers, who will try to escape. Fifty, and not a sliver more.” He then turned to the door, as if preparing to depart.
    Crow was bluffing. Ritual of the Roaring Seas was the cornerstone of his plan. But in Asi’s eyes, he was second only to Dead Kings.
    “Alright, then fifty it is. You drive a hard bargain.” Asi looked defeated, but deep within she was triumphant. She managed to haggle even grounds out of someone so powerful in her eyes.
    “Alright, the last point. You will stay with us for two weeks, as a guarantee…”
    “Forget it.” Crow immediately interrupted. “Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve actually even preferred to stay here in your laboratory, after the raid. But I have important matters to attend to, and I am already past all the deadlines.”
    Asi understood that Crow was determined to leave, no matter what.
    “Very well then. I will discuss this affair with my companions, they will be ready in a few hours. Anything else?”
    “Yes. I need all of the ink in your storage.” Crow smiled.
  • Part 7 - Deep Below(2)
    Hey guys, because of the site maintenance couldn't post this part on Friday, and then. Welp, I got redirected towards the maintenance page, hadn't noticed it and was refreshing it for a few days. Part 8 will be posted in 10-12 hours or so, everything by the schedule.
    Also, here's a link to my Inkspired page, in a case of something like this happens again. I hope this doesn't go against Wuxiaworlds rules. https://getinkspired.com/en/story/1468/crows-tale/?ref=dashstoryprofile

    Crow was sitting crosslegged a top of the water, gently floating on the waves. He and his companions traveled far enough that coastal line could not be seen even with eagle’s eyes.

    This time of year, in Alra, Ansakraci Ocean was at its calmest state. That was slightly inconvenient for Crow’s plans, but not enough to cause troubles.

    “You’ve got better in recent days. Just about sufficient to attempt our little ritual.” He smiled, looking at Society’s members.

    For the last few days, he was constantly laying inscription patterns both on the ocean’s floor and on its surface. Even at this moment, thin silver snakes were flowing out from his pan and merging with water. Eyeless Society’s members were genuinely awed by such display of rune carving skills. Laying inscriptions on hard surfaces was nothing to brag about. But engraving even the simplest runes on the surface of the water, it showed, just how masterly Crow was in the art of inscribing.

    “We still have a full day to practice, so I think we should do just that.” Nasor and his companions were dreaded by the upcoming enterprise. The only thing that kept their minds calm was that they wouldn’t participate directly in the combat.

    Crow, on the other hand, was even calmer than usual. Everyone in the military, undergone mental training. Even cadets in the Imperial Army could act emotionless in most situations.

    Constant drills, virtual world simulations, medical drugs, and psychotherapy were all part of a full three years, Crow spent in the military camp. Such methods were undoubtedly inhumane, but there was no forced conscription in the state. The mortality rate in the army, on the other hand, was lowest between Earth’s governments, so no one dared to protest against such training in the open. At least, in the Empire.

    “It’s not required, to strain yourself to such a degree. Enough is enough. Besides, it is not, as if I’m going to let you rest, while I’m working my ass off. I need you to hunt at least twenty sand turtles for me.”

    After hearing this, everyone around Crow had a shocked look on their faces. He hastily added before they could talk.

    “I’m not going to use their blood as ink. I’m looking for their poison glands. Now go.”

    Asi let out a sigh of relief. She gathered with her companions, and they submerged into the waters.

    Time passed slowly, as Crow continued to churn out one “snake” after another into the ocean.

    “I wonder, what kind of an event happened in this world, that blood magic is general knowledge.” He contemplated. “It’s not like in the other worlds, where you could sense a slight hint of corruption in the air.”

    The practice of blood magic is universally forbidden, not because it incentivizes mages to kill in hundreds for their rituals. There would always be power hungry maniacs to even breed intelligent lifeforms for use in their spellcraft. Being the most powerful school of magic, blood magic had one major flaw, however. It corrupted.

    It corrupted not only the bloodcaster himself, slowly making him insane and shattering his domain to make the magician its slave. It went farther. Each time, one casts a spell using blood as the source, he taints the world around him. With enough taint accumulated in one place, it erupts contaminating cells of living beings, changing their structure, making them bloodthirsty killing machines, with innate ability to cast blood spells. Which in return lead to even more contamination.

    In this way, blood magic resembles a virus, more than anything. Whole worlds could fall in a matter of few month, if “zero patient” was left unchecked. Earthern Governments responded to discovered contaminated worlds is just to nuke them into oblivion, shattering the planets themselves. Goes without saying, that blood magic was outlawed within human colonies, with a death penalty as a sentence.

    Crow furrowed his brows. Thinking about blood magic reminded him of his current problem. He wasn’t stupid enough to succumb to corruption. Losing his free will was not part of his plan. But if something like blood magic existed, meant there ought to be other sources of power. That implied, the thing that currently tries to shatter his domain, like Bragi said, could prove to be one of such sources in the future.

    “Just that it isn’t enough. There is a possibility for rune language disparity. Even if it grows my domain to thrice the size, I would still be powerless without my spells.” He sighed. “No sense thinking about it, I guess. It doesn’t grow in power, I barely can detect its presence within my domain.”

    After few more hours had passed, Crow was finally done with laying his monstrous inscription.

    “If these poor fish people knew, just how much I improved their inscription, they would’ve chewed their elbows off. He-he.” He was very content with his work.

    After examining his work for a little bit more, he hadn’t found any flaws in the patterns.

    Crow sent a sliver of his will towards the inscription, and immediately felt the response from the ocean.

    “Such magnificent feeling.” He heartily laughed. “Can’t help but love this void dive. I owe a bottle of good whiskey to Gilbert, for allowing me to use that door.”

    Pleased with himself, he put his hands on his neck. Muscles began twitching frantically, opening up crevices in his throat. The process of growing gills was immeasurably painful, when Crow tried it at the first time, all those years ago, if not for the painkillers, he would’ve lost conscious. Yet, it was not even close, to the torture, that was growing a merman’s tail, for example.

    Transmogrifications school was a gruesome art. Small body customizations like gills were only a tip of the iceberg. As soon as gills formed, Crow immediately dived into the ocean. When the pain in his body slightly calmed, he also grew membranes between his fingers.

    Crow hadn’t taught Eyeless’s members such a method. It would require more time and a prepared mind for such changes. Instead, he showed them how to increase the weight of their bodies, as not to float on the surface of the water, and how to store oxygen inside of their dimensional pockets. This was common knowledge back on Earth. Kids learned this method of traversing bodies of water in schools.

    He encased himself in a thin sheet of ice and anchored his position slightly below the water line. With all preparations in place he could finally get some rest and meditate. Laying inscriptions was a tedious task, especially if one to do it for two days straight.

    ***

    A dark figure was standing on the board of an odd boat. Tentacles were protruding from its chin and slithered on its chest. In one of its hands, this figure was holding an ominous oil lamp, shining with a green light. In the other, it was armed with a small dagger.

    Both the lamp and the dagger weren’t displaying any particularly outstanding features regarding their looks, but Crow could feel how space distorted around them.

    He was standing just in front of the boat, and could clearly see every minor detail. Insides of the wooden boat were littered with hundreds of small bottles. Each contained will-o’-the-wisp of a different color. The sight was truly magical, to see.

    The figure that was previously was looking off into the distance, turned its head towards Crow. Its giant black eyes studied him with curiosity.

    “Nha wa or dai ri aktur an.”

    Crow couldn’t understand a single word, that was uttered by the owner of the boat. But at the instant he ended, he could feel a rippling effect within his domain. Center of the ripples was nothing other, then deep violet fire, burning against its light purple counterpart.

    “Nha wog?” Figure looked surprised.

    Crow tried to respond to this figure, but his lips weren’t moving. A chill went down his spine, when he understood, can’t utter a single word. His trembling arms neared his head ever so slowly. When he finally touched his face, deep horror subdued him. His head lacked any facial features. Mouth, nose, eyes and brows, everything disappeared. Crow was paralyzed be fear.

    Figure began to laugh hysterically.

    “Nha za wa agur dowa’an. Afanur Baza’ak depa to.”

    Suddenly its facial features became solemn.

    *Caw*

    Without summons, Crow’s familiar Bragi materialized into existence. Only that it was the size of a dragon. Aura of shadows enveloped him. Even trying to assess how powerful this form of Bragi is, was impossible for Crow. Not even archmages could resist something so powerful.

    “Shi azo ma wan eftoru.” Bragi yelled. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere gusts of black wind appeared, mercilessly lashing out at the boat and the figure. At the same time, a tiny spark of light entered Crow’s forehead. The world around Crow dimmed for a moment, before returning to its usual state.

    “Fuck. Crow, come back to your senses.”

    Crow unhesitatingly slapped himself in the face with full force. Numbing sensation came out from his cheek. He understood that facial features returned back to normal. But he was still far from being able to act.

    “Tell me how I can help you?”

    Bragi was releasing waves after waves of magical energy. Black winds madly ravaged at the boat. Dark entities weaved out of the shadows circulated around it. Some of them looked like crippled humanoids, other were beasts, either bisected in halves or having unusual number of limbs or heads. Yet, the boat just stood there, not hindered in the slightest.

    “Try not to die.”

    Boatman, slowly lifted the hand holding the weapon in reverse grip. With his hand before his chest, he ruthlessly stabbed to his right.

    Just what Crow saw now, was defying all laws of the universe. In the place, where blade landed, the space cracked. As boatman was slowly pulling the dagger closer to himself, its edge was tearing the reality apart.

    “Nwa asot Dakura Rei. Dakura Rei!” His tentacles lashed wildly around him.

    From the tear in the fabric of reality, darkish gray goo began flowing out. As it did, it continued to chew on the reality, distorting and destroying it. As the hole expanded, surroundings began to change. Crow felt as if the laws of the universe were changing. Gravity, sounds and other senses in his body all were thrown into dismay.

    Colors danced wildly, what was red a moment ago, became green, then dimmed out of existence, only to return as a color that simply was impossible to describe. Not a single thing sounded as it should. Flaps of Bragi’s wings made a sound of chalk on the blackboard, the whistling of the wind became a buzz from the fly. Space itself distorted, Crow was originally standing behind Bragi’s back, now he was just in front of the boatman.

    “Bragi the fuck is going on?” Crow was feeling nauseous. The flow of time was disrupted. His left hand was aging just before his eyes.

    The natural order of things is all but collapsed at this moment. Everything was sent reeling.

    “Ehekia. Ansok so aktur an.”

    Will-o’-the-wisps where bashing wildly in their bottles. They tried their best to escape. Dagger and oil lamp vibrated, letting out constant droning sounds. Boatman waved them wildly with his hands.

    “Kisoth aho za um won duwai!”

    Crack in the reality became large enough to fit a giant in it. Crow gazed in that hole, only to see eyes staring at him in return. Giant body mass of distorted flash, with hands, heads, hooves, wings and what not could be seen inside. It was covered with some gooey substance. In places where this Thing had eyes, they bled with rivers of black blood.

    Some chunks of flesh that created Thing’s body rotted away, while others regenerated haphazardly, creating more disgusting body parts seemingly sewn together at random. Sometimes distorted figures could be seen moving on the surface of this thing, phasing in and out of existence.

    The size of that thing was incomprehensible, only thing Crow knew for sure was, he could see only a tiny part of it.

    Ancientness. What Crow saw before his eyes, was a remnant from times immemorial. So far down the road, it could never be considered existing in the first place. This Thing existed long before, humans, or Arcana, or the time itself.

    Dark whispers were entering Crow’s ears. Voices sounded as man and woman, as child and old. “Join us.” They told him. “Accept our flash.” They promised him power and immortality. They pledged to make him a god. To tear him apart. To destroy everything, he loved. To feel suffering and pleasure at the same time.

    Blood streamed down from Crow’s eyes. Like a puppet on invisible strings, first, his left leg took a step towards the rip in reality. Then his right leg. One after another, they slowly paraded towards his demise. No sounds existed anymore for him.

    Crow’s mind was reeling, in the face of such madness, of such terrifying power, of this unholy presence, he could do nothing to resist. His mind was spinning, everything he had known and loved, everything he hated and despised, all the living beings in the world, what weight could they hold before something, that even time had no rule over.

    His right hand extended towards the goo that was covering the cracks in reality. At this moment, it was if the consciousness of the universe had finally noticed his struggles, he regained some control over his body. Invisible strings were no longer able to pull him even an inch closer. But trying to move back was still out of the question. Sensing, as its prey was almost at its doorstep, gray goo started protracting towards him.

    Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours. Goo was getting closer and closer to him, while Crow was desperately trying to find his way out of this situation. Then came a flash of insight. He understood what he needs to do.

    He gathered all of the strength that was left for his final struggle. Clearly feeling, that small dark violet flame in his domain that was unresponsive previously, gave him enough energy to make his push.

    Crow used the momentum from puppet strings attached to him, he went along with a flow, and suddenly rushed forward. Changing his trajectory just enough to avoid the goo spikes that tried to cling to him, and forcing his forehead on the dagger of the boatman.

    Silence fell on the place. Rips in the veil of reality disappeared as if they never existed. Both Crow and Bragi disappeared. The only one left was the boatman and his boat.

    “Nha wog azu aktar. Nha wog!” He was wildly stomping with his legs.

  • Part 8 - Deep Below(3)

    Deep in the night, the ocean was at its calmest state. Its black waters were reflecting trails of two moons hanging up in the vast starry sky. A figure emerged, from the waters, letting out a shrill cry.

    Searing pain. That was the first and only thing, Crow could feel, upon waking up. Torturous splitting headache. Thin ice sheet enveloping his body immediately shattered to pieces. Tormented and confused by his surroundings, he tried to scream, only to let seawater into his mouth.

    Although being not very pleasant, swallowing a mouthful helped Crow to somewhat regain his senses. Thankfully, he hadn’t fall slumbering to deep. Propelling himself upwards by creating an air pocket around him, Crow immediately, dove out of the ocean.

    Desiring nothing more, then to stand on firm ground, he froze a part of the water’s surface, to create a small glacier. Only after climbing on it, Crow felt somewhat relieved. Prior to this moment, He was acting only based on his instincts and years of regular drills in the military. Only now, he was finally able to recollect past events.

    “Ugh..”

    Panting heavily, Crow gathered all medical items he had stored in his dimensional pocket by now. Then he began chugging them one after another. First one was thick black liquid with morbid smell. The closest thing he had to painkillers. Next, he drank magical detox potion, to clean himself of possible magical impurities, he could have got from previous events. Then clarity and regeneration potion, and finished it all by swallowing Black Snail shell powder.

    The last one had an effect somewhat akin to Earth’s probiotic pills. While potions were rarely harmful to humans, that was only unless one doesn’t mindlessly chug four different kinds in a row. Especially those, which were made by some backwater alchemist.

    Slowly inhaling and exhaling, Crow cleared his mind and proceeded to meditate for almost an hour. Only after all these actions, the pain in his head had finally died down.

    Crow opened his eyes and looked around. Judging by the positions of the moons, it was still almost three hours until sunrise and double the time before the planned ambush.

    “There is enough time to withdraw if I have to.” Crow thought, trying to summon his companion at the same time.

    Bragi appeared out of the black smoke, before him. But his appearance wasn’t that of a stately Raven Crow knew before. His always polished beak seemed bleak, his breath was ragged, and some feathers were clearly amiss.

    “Crow.”

    pant…pant…

    “Can you at least now, tell me everything that happened?” Crow wasn’t doing to give Bragi any discounts for his current condition. If anything, it was only Bragi’s fault for not revealing mysteries besides the oil lamp, and more importantly, the Boatsman, beforehand.

    “I guess, it is only right to do so. But first, give me a regeneration potion.”

    After watching as his familiar tries to somewhat clumsily put his beak into the potion bottle, Crow warmed up a bit and poured the violet substance into the wide glass.

    “Ah, that’s definitely better.” Bragi looked somewhat refreshed. “Okay, so where do I start?”

    “That monstrosity, perhaps?”

    “That.” Bragi looked somewhat reluctant to talk, but under Crow’s fierce gaze, he gave up.

    “There is a myth, about the origin of all creation. It dates back to time, so long ago, you probably wouldn’t understand even if I tell you.”

    “Bragi, cut the crap, just spit out everything you know.”

     “Honestly, I can’t, Crow. Not about that time. If I were to tell you, even the knowledge could bring upon such calamity, that the thing you encountered, will pale in comparison.”

    “There exists something, even more mortifying?” Crow could hardly believe in the existence of anything more terrifying.

    “Yes. Look, humanity’s history as you know it, barely can be called as a tip of the iceberg. Even talking about humanity’s Legacy is too dangerous. It’s not only you, your beloved Empire, all Earthern governments…” Bragi let out a long sigh. “All of the years, when I was reluctant to share some of my knowledge with you, it is all because of this. Don’t ask me any more, about it.”

    “I’ve never seen Bragi so humble and honest.” Crow thought.  “If the history I know is only a tip of the iceberg, just what kind of enmity we have created, that even vaguely talking about makes the air around colder.”

    “Alright, you’ve convinced, but tell me everything you actually can.”

    “So, one of the myths about creation goes like this.” Bragi began his tale.

    Long before the creation of the universe, there was only Chaos. Out of this Chaos, a legion of entities was born, to later become known as Primordials. Primordials were embodiments of Chaos’s will.

    Eons passed as they lurked aimlessly within the void. As time passed, they slowly began developing the mind and will of their own. This was the beginning of the Order. As they were developing their mental capabilities, one of the Primordials, be it on purpose or out of sheer chance, devoured one of its kind, allowing it to develop unparalleled power and mind. This, in turn, decided the fate for all of the Primordials. They began to hunt and devour each other, no one wishing to become the meal of the others.

    As this endless feast continued, one of the Primordials was clearly much more successful than others. Later it began to be known as God of Creation.

    “It is, at this point, generally agreed upon mythos, splits into different theories. Some say that our universe is the body of the God of Creation. Others say that our universe was created out of his will. Yet another theory, is that everything that exists is only his dream.”

    “Anyhow, as you can guess it, he didn’t devour every single other Primordial.” Bragi continued. “Those that were left are quite numerous in fact. Like parasites, they hide within our universe, biding their time, looking for opportunities to grow.”

    “Were there any confrontations with Primordials before?”

    “Quite a lot. At least twenty such beings tried to cause a ruckus and were slain. And this is only to my knowledge. More so, three of them were killed single-handedly by one man.”

    “Is it even possible?” Crow gasped. To him, the existence that he confronted earlier, felt like a mountain to an ant.

    “Why not? As pupils outgrow their masters, and kids outshine their parents, it is only logical for species who inhabit this universe to surpass the Creator God, given enough time.”

    “Well, slaying it, is out of the question anyway. At least for next few thousand years. Please tell me, it’s not going to hunt me down. Is it?” That was the most concerning question to Crow.

    “Hard to say, but I think it will.”

    “For the love of the First Empress, what for? Am I not, but just a small fry, in its eyes?”

    “Again, Crow, it’s hard to say. If a Primordial laid its eyes on you, then this is not without reason. Maybe you have something, that it found beneficial to its growth, or it deemed you worthy enough of being its agent. The reason, you managed to escape its grasp, even if it was through suicide, is proof enough, that you have that special something.”

    “Well, am I not a special little snowflake then.” Crow seriously doubted that he was someone to catch the attention of existence such as Primordial. “I doubt it is my eyes, that caught its attention, right?”

    “Heh, your eyes can barely pass even for a lowly gift. All humans… Never mind.” Bragi got carried away.

    “All humans, what?”  Crow thought. “Maybe everyone had this gift, at some point in time?”

    “So, am I done for, or?”

    “No, you are not, and that’s the tricky part. You need to make a choice.”

    “I’m listening.”

    “I can cover your existence, going so far, as to shroud your connection to the Wheel of Fate. Don’t ask how or why just accept it. If you live long enough, there will come a day, you will have to sever this connection by your own hand.”

    Crow was flabbergasted. Isn’t doing something like that was opposing the natural laws of the universe. But carefully considering it, if someone was able to slay Primordial’s then, he probably could do as much. Wheel of Fates guides you on a predetermined path. Even if one’s destiny is ever changing, because of the influence of others who cut their connection to the Wheel of Fate, your life is still is within Wheels grasp.

    “Only by severing my fate, can I truly become free in choosing my own direction.” He finished his train of thought aloud.

    “Yes, precisely. If you ever make it to that point, you will make this familiar of yours, very proud, about his decision to answer your call. But this is very far ahead. Now, you are but a grasshopper, who realized there is a world beyond tall grass.”

    In a sudden flash of insight, Crow asked Bragi a question.

    “Have you severed your connection?” It was only in this way, he guessed, his life was such unordinary up to this point, compared to his friends and colleagues back on Earth. He was always the lucky one, to find ancient tombs, or encounter unexpected treasures in places, where hundred could have searched before him.

    Bragi only slightly nodded.

    “Let’s return back on track. If I am going to hide, I am not going to be able to assist you with your domain’s problem.”

    “Between the hammer and anvil, eh.” Crow frowned.

    “Before you decide, I want to emphasize a particular point. There is no guarantee, that what have happened to you few hours prior, is going to repeat.”

    “Do you honestly believe it yourself? If it happens again, I doubt, I will be able to escape. There is no choice, in my opinion, Bragi. I am basically picking the lesser of two evils.” This was indeed the case. If Crow was caught even one more time during his sleep, odds are, he is going to die this time for sure. Even if the chance, the hunt will continue, was one in a million, he knew he couldn’t risk it like that.

     “It would be better if you explain how they traced and intercepted me in my sleep? And what actually happened when I…died?”

    “First, you haven’t died. You are still here, walking and talking, all limbs attached. Powerful magician’s mind can wonder the worlds while his body is asleep. Such is the case even for weak mages, but they seldom remember and especially understand their experiences. While the consciousness in this state is basically immortal, there are ways to influence the body through it.” Bragi thoroughly enjoyed such a rare chance to pour Crow in information. Above all things, Bragi loved to lecture others, and it always pained him, when precious opportunities, constantly slipped by.

    “Then, why my head hurt, like it was going to explode?” And required so much effort to heal, Crow thought.

    “Because there are ways to influence the body through your consciousness,” Bragi repeated himself. “That tentacled rubberhead, who serves the Primordial, is rather well equipped. The dagger can split reality apart and open the gate to the Void. This alone is enough to influence your soul, even in the state of lucid dream.”

    “What about the lamp, then? Why it seems so familiar to me?”

    “Never had I heard of such an artifact before. But, it looked like this lamp is attached to you. Even during the incident, you couldn’t notice it, but the lamp was actively resisting that rubberhead. It even caused the dagger to protest. Otherwise, it wouldn’t allow you to die. Both of these artifacts have consciousness, you see. I wonder, how they ended up in the boatman’s hands.”

    “I understand.” Crow nodded. “How long will you be able to cover my tracks, then?”

    “Indefinitely long, unless you are going to the Void.”

    “Wow, I thought it would be very hard to do so.”

    “Brat, it’s not that easy. But still, it is much more manageable, then suppressing that black hole in your domain. Also, I will be able to help you in outside world, in times of need, as of now.” Bragi’s chest slightly inflated, after hearing Crow’s praise.

    “Now that will come in handy. When will you be able to release murder of crows?” Bragi’s swarm of birds was Crow’s favorite ability.

    Birds, Bragi could summon, were Crow’s eyes and ears in the world. Hundreds and thousands of avians continuously mapped the surroundings, spied on enemies, and allowed to stay in touch with friends.

    “In few days or so. I still need to recuperate a bit. Also, don’t count on me releasing my true form. You are still too weak to support my true self.”

    *Caw*

    “Yeah, I noticed. How long will it take, for my domain to deplete without your help?”

    “I will support it, for the upcoming ambush, but afterward, you can expect it to drain in few months. Which reminds me.” Bragi looked at Crow last time, before bidding his farewell and vanished into the cloud of black smoke.

    “Which reminds me.” Crow repeated.

  • edited April 2017
    Part 9 - Flooding the Fortress(1)

    Crow was toying around with his spells, mentally preparing for an upcoming mission. Not long after the sunrise, Eyeless members began popping out of the ocean one by one. They gasped in amazement, after seeing as in the display of raw power, Crow was surrounded by a maelstrom of magical energies. Waves of Arcana rushed from all directions, towards it, painting everything in the nearest vicinity, in a multitude of colors.

    “If I still had doubts about the success of our mission, they would’ve dissipated by now.” Asi and Nasor had a telepathic conversation at a safe distance.

    “This makes it only more worrisome, Asi. If he decides to turn around, at the end of the day, we will hardly stand a chance against him.” Nasor frowned.

    “I doubt it. If anything, from what I can see, he really invited us only as a gesture of good will. Do you really think he can’t handle a trade caravan alone?”

    “Maybe he can, it’s hard to say. But even if everything goes smoothly, he will still need lackeys to gather loot from the ships as fast as possible. It’s not like, no one will notice a delay in trade fleet’s schedule.”

    Nasor was floating on the waves, caused by Crow’s actions, as he continued speaking.

    “Counting the four of us, he will have just enough time to scavenge the shipwrecks for equipment and disappear. If he were to do it alone, he would gather only a few of the more valuable pieces.”

    “How is the background check going?” Asi had made a request to Eyeless Society main branch, soon after the first meeting with Crow.

    “Nothing. And that’s what concerns me the most. Squid and his brother searched high and low about Crow, but they couldn’t find a single clue. It is almost like he appeared out of thin air near Sarci. If we think about it, that actually seems quite plausible. Do you remember what he traded for, during his first visit?”

    “Some supplies to restock his… Oh. Do you think he is someone’s summon?”

    Nasor nodded in response.

    “I went even farther. If we count out the Dead Kings, there are only three Towers in nearest vicinity, which are capable of conducting the ritual. None of their owners had shown any interest in the field of summoning.”

    “Apart from the South Gate Guild, there are no one nearby, who could have done that. Do you think, there is a someone within their ranks, who wants to get his hands on the caravan’s goods?” Nasor’s line of reasoning immediately tensed up Asi. Before this conversation, she never suspected Crow to be a planeswalker, but looking at it from such angle made a lot of sense. “Maybe it’s someone from the other guilds?”

    “Maybe, but I doubt it. Even if it is like that, whoever was the contractor, doesn’t matter to us. If my suspicions are correct, he is going to use us. Maybe even on favorable conditions, only to cover his own tracks. It’s seventy percent chance that we are fucked.” Nasor concluded.

    “But why would he share all those amazing concealment spells with us, in the first place, then?” Asi still felt somewhat reluctant to think Crow was only using them, for his own purposes.

    “Because he knows all the flaws of such spells? It’s not like they are perfect, as he clearly told us himself. It’s just some spells, no one on Alra is familiar with. So, no one really knows how to counter such magic properly.”

    “Do you think it’s too late to withdraw?”

    “Yes. The stakes are too high. If we try to flee, we will only allow for him to get the contents of our pockets. And if he has any ulterior motive, he will leave our corpses here, to send the Great Eight chasing after our society. And that’s in case, he isn’t planning on doing so, already.”

    “It’s not as we can dream of backstabbing him. And it still doesn’t sit right with me, what if he never intended to do so in the first place?”

    “Our life’s goal is to survive and preserve for the day when we can overthrow a tyrant. If one talented mage dies on our hands, what does it matter?” Nasor shot a glance towards Crow. “I have an idea…”

    But before he could continue speaking, a maelstrom of magical energies suddenly exploded in a dazzling spray of colors. At the former center of it, silently stood a lonely figure. It was covered with a prismatic cloak, emitting a radiant light.

    “Did he just…” Nasor gasped in astonishment.

    Enshrouded by Cloak of Distortion, which colors slowly faded away in the background, Crow looked truly awe inspiring. He used surges of arcane energies, to create incredibly powerful protection spell, that allowed him to phase out of existence, for a split second, when the harmful spell was about to collide with his body.

    Critically appraising himself, Crow felt satisfied. His familiar seemed to go overboard with his sentiments. He not only suppressed the disturbance in Crow’s domain, but also diverted a part of his own power, towards it. Albeit temporarily, this pushed Crow’s power to a new height, allowing him to take a small step into archmages realm.

    “How many years will pass, before I can return to this state?” Dark thought that he is going to lose almost everything he has right now, in just thirty days, lingered at the back of his mind.

    Then he turned his attention towards Asi and Nasor.

    “I see you are high spirits today.” He smiled, as he turned his head towards them. “Have you found, what I asked you about?”

    “Yes, my Lord. We gathered slightly over thirty glands yesterday.” Asi replied to him, pulling out the materials out of her pocket. “But while we were hunting, I couldn’t help but think why would you need something like this.”

    “I’m going to keep it a secret. More importantly, it’s almost time for you to descend. As soon as I give you the order, begin the second part of the ritual.”

    “Yes, my Lord.” With these words, all four of the Society’s members dived into the ocean.

    ***

    Large trade caravan was making its way across the water surface. The sight was truly marvelous to behold. Thirty-five trade ships roughly the size of carrack were surrounded by twenty smaller vessels, their escort. But amongst all those ships, one stood out, like a towering giant. Enormous in size, it had no sails to move it forward.

    For ordinary pirates, sighting a ship like this, meant that they had to abandon any plans they harbored, and flee as quickly as possible. Marvel of this era of magical engineering, almost one hundred meters long “Floating Fortress” was the best ship in Allied Kingdoms’ fleet. Countless resources were poured into it, and a frightening fifteen years to build.

    As of this moment, on Alra, such a ship guaranteed a total domination over the water. Even against the likes of Abukar Oasis, or Jerovian Empire. Floating Fortress could accommodate roughly six hundred people. Its magical cannons could spit acid and fire, its carcass created from the best enchanted wood, that could withstand a barrage of powerful spells even from the archmage.

    Crow in his ignorance, knew nothing about the Floating Fortress, nor how important it was for its creators. The only thing he could see, was giant piñata filled with precious resources for him to gather.

    Last two hours he spent vaporizing the water, to create black clouds that blotted the sky. Ocean was restless, with waves of up to three meters in height. Strong winds were blowing towards the coast.

    Although it was relatively rare, small storms sometimes raged in the Ansakraci ocean during the spring. As such, no one aboard the caravan vessels really gave it a second thought. Ships were slowly sailing through the storm. With the help of Floating Fortress, they didn’t have anything to fear, as flagman vessel suppressed the waves in its nearest vicinity.

    But seemingly without reason, wave height began increasing, and in just but a few moments, their average height neared astonishing eight meters. It was only now, when mages aboard Floating Fortress ran out on the ship’s deck, and began chanting their spells to subdue the raging ocean and try to find the culprit who created this artificial storm.

    Crow grinned, as he was swimming underwater. It was almost time to make his appearance. He fused his will, with inscriptions on the ocean’s surface.

    ***

    (Author’s note: Wednesday’s episode is smaller than usual, but from personal preference, I just can’t allow cliff hangers amidst the first important action sequence. Friday’s update will have you covered, though.) 

  • Part 10 - Flooding the Fortress(2)

    Thick white fog appeared on the water surface, covering the vision of sailors, who tried their best in navigating through the storm. It was dense enough that one could barely see farther, than their own nose. But the worst of it was only to come.

    Amongst the raging storm and sweeping wind, at first, nobody noticed the difference in constant yelling of sailors and traders alike. But as white gas was spreading and came into contact with more ships, only the cries of pain could be heard. Coughing and sneezing, crewmembers were blinded, as their eyes were burned by the gasses. Some began vomiting on the spot, others jumped from the deck, into the waves, to lessen the pain.

    As all fifty-five vessels were devoured by white gasses, limiting their field of vision and suppressing the crew, ships began steering of their course. “Carracks” were ramming into each other, and into the waves. Smaller ships were long since gone beneath the waves, that were several times higher than them.

    Only the Floating Fortress remained unscratched. But even having spells, that protected them both from the white gas, and giant waves, they couldn’t do much, in assisting the rest of the caravan. When they tried conjuring the gusts of air, to disperse the white clouds, it only gave way for more fog to emanate from the water surface.

    “Young Prince is incoming from the port side!” Yelled one of the sailors.

    Immediately, a barrage of spells came crushing down onto the Young Prince, one of the trade ships. Mages aboard Flying Fortress couldn’t hesitate to destroy the trade ship. While the flagman was well guarded against magic, possible stress caused by another vessel smashing into them, wasn’t something, they could afford in the given circumstances.

    Caravan ships desperately fought for survival, but as time went on, more and more of them sunk into the ocean. Cries of pain grew dimmer as there wasn’t enough man to be heard underneath the violent storm.

    “The time has finally come.” Crow rushed out from the ocean depths, leaping high into the air.

    Cold Snap.

    At the moment he surfaced, ocean in a range of couple square miles instantly froze. Amidst the water, a frozen valley appeared. White fog quickly dissipated unveiling a truly spectacular sight. Waves became dunes, and humidity in the air froze, turning into snowflakes. Carcasses of half-sunken ships and frozen corpses could be seen, littering the landscape.

    Amidst this small island, stood the Floating Fortress. Covered in snow, and having the part of it, that was below the waterline, submerged in the ice, it looked like a giant wooden keep, last remnant of civilization amidst the desolation of the ice valley.

    Crow was standing on one of the “dunes,” directly in front of Flying Fortress. Even he couldn’t imagine, to what extent his abilities would increase after Bragi shared some of his power with Crow.

    ***

    On the first day, when Crow was inscribing the sea, he was mixing quicklime into his ink. In this way, he could release immense quantities of quicklime dust into the air, and poison his enemies.

    Gathering and processing ingredients to create quicklime, wasn’t hard, for him. But it still would take time, to gather in required quantities. This is where Society’s member came in handy. Crow explained to them how to create the product and asked them to collect as much of it, as possible.

    On the second day, he was laying inscription that could instantly freeze the surface of the ocean, creating a giant glacier. It would allow him to properly battle his enemies, and cut their ways of retreat. Most importantly, though, it should give him enough insurance in case of Eyeless Society’s betrayal. Even if they withdrew from the ritual, after this point, it would not hinder his plans.

    While he knew, that the power of battle inscriptions was proportional to the strength of the caster who used them, never he expected that circumstances would allow him to wield such astonishing might. Before him, he could see a pinnacle worth of almost sixty years of a constant power struggle. This feeling was intoxicating.

    One man standing on the ice-cold pick against seven on the deck of a leviathan amongst Alra’s ships.

    Seven mages were already gathered into the battle formation. One wielding luxurious golden colored robes spoke to him.

    “Who dares to provoke the ambassador of Allied Kingdoms?” His tone was threatening. “Do you understand, who you are messing with, maggot?”

    Crow disregarded the insults. He understood that mage’s bravado was only a way to try and stall for time. If anything, his enemies could be only pitied. He noticed a fellow sorcerer amidst their ranks and smiled.

    His left glove began pulsating with menacing red light, as he chanted one of his spells.

    Vladimir’s Pipe.

    Spell, where humanity’s knowledge of physical laws allowed them to push magic to new limits.

    A gust of scorching hot wind and currents of electricity formed three yards long barrel. With a quick gesture, Crow loaded the barrel with inscribed shrapnel from his dimensional pocket, and it flew towards the mages, obliterating the shield enchantment of the ship.

    Seven against one. Even if one were overpowering existence compared to the seven, it still wouldn’t be an easy battle. Having a sorcerer meant, that they won’t be casting any ritual magic against Crow. But the enemy still posed a threat to him.

    The seven did not falter when Floating Fortresses mighty shield collapsed in one blow. They immediately began forming magic of their own. Seven flashes of light flew towards Crow. Acid arrows, icicles, and a slew of other spells closed in on him.

    Crow pointed his index finger in the air before him. Scarlet light pulsated around him, as his source gathered more and more power to fuel his spells. A piece of translucent bluish slime appeared before him.

    Spell Bog.

    As hostile spells contacted with slime, they slowed to crawl but didn’t lose in power. Crow, counterattacked with another spell. Dazzling yellow sparks scattered in all directions as golden mirror formed before him. Satisfied with his spell, Crow rolled down from the ice dune and dashed madly towards the ship.

    Magicians aboard the ship gasped from seeing how their opponent cast three unknown spells in succession.

    “He is running towards us. Fog!” Yelled the golden robed man.

    They frantically waved their arms in the air. Blue fog formed at their feet, running down from the deck, and onto the desolate ice land.

    “It’s time!” Crow thought. He abruptly ended his dash and summoned gusts of wind to disperse the fog.

    At the same moment, Spell Bog broke down, allowing magic it was holding, to fly towards their original mark. But it played its role well. All seven spells that were flying at a different pace were currently aligned in one position. This allowed them to reach the golden mirror at the exact same moment.

    Mirror dimmed down, and became black, as seven spells touched its surface. Then it exploded again with the dazzling light, redirecting the spells which entered it and send them flying towards their creators.

    Reversal Mirror.

    This was one of the spell constructs in Crow’s arsenal, that was not created on Earth. Instead, Crow managed to find it in the library of a rebelling guild, in one of the colonies. It was his precious treasure ever since, allowing him to catch unsuspecting enemies off guard.

    Not only the seven spells flew towards their original creators. They were also empowered by the mirror. Four of the mages stopped conjuring the blue fog and diverted their attention towards intercepting their own spells. Other three couldn’t withstand Crow’s Dispersal Winds and lost control over the blue fog.

    This had bit the seven mages in the butt. No longer in control over the powerful spell, they needed to disperse what was left of it, themselves, before it corroded the Flying Fortress.

    Seeing the opportunity, that appeared before him, Crow lobbed a fireball towards the deck and quickly closed the distance between him and the ship. As he neared Flying Fortress, he heard eight loud bangs coming from the ship.

    “I hope one of the bastards died.” He was dashing over the vertical carcass of the ship as if it was a running track.

    In the duel between long-range specialist of the same level, wins the one, who is better at close quarters combat. Crow was much more certain in his ability to overpower his enemies up close, rather than from his original position. Close quarters punished those with slow reaction, as it didn’t allow to prepare for incoming spells.

    Before he reached the deck, Crow stopped dead in his tracks, as he released a single Mirror Image to make its appearance first. He had sent three more images to appear from different places and continued on his original route.

    Half of the clones were instantly destroyed as they popped their heads on the deck. Two others managed to make their way on board simultaneously with Crow.

    Mages were standing in a circle formation, their eyes wide with fear. One of their companions was struck by his own spell. He was laying on the floor, crying in agony, as a pool of organic matter was slowly dripping down from the deck, of slightly heeled flagman.

    Having three copies of their nemesis standing before them, they created an ice wall. Crow frowned, before instinctively rolling out from his current position. Remaining two clones did exactly the same, as they were currently mimicking all his movements.

    Ice wall exploded with icicles towards original Crow’s position. While rolling, Crow slapped the deck with his palm, and a trail of black fire immediately surged towards the wall. As two forces collided, ice wall was quickly melted down.

    Crow exerted his will and extinguished the fires, moving the remaining energies from the dying flames towards the water from the remnants of the ice wall. The wave produced from said water rushed towards the mages. It was a feint attack, and thankfully it worked.

    Not knowing, what to expect from their opponent, mages immediately reacted and put all their focus on evaporating the water. This netted Crow a small timeframe to create a decent attack spell. He extended his hands, with his palms facing upwards, and two pillars of arcane energy. He then, slapped his hands together, creating a resonating sound wave.

    Yukihira’s Clap.

    The cacophony of sounds struck the mages, revealing the four ones with weak magical shields and confusing them. Other two were seemingly unaffected, still a moment later all of them coughed up blood, from suffered minor internal injuries.

    While his subordinates had a hard time regrouping, a golden-robed man already launched his own spell towards Crow. But he was quickly disappointed when his scorching ball of flames collided with one of the mirror images.

    Crow grinned and released his next spell.

    Slowly exhaust you opponents, searching for their weak spots. When the opportunity arrives, only then you should use your devastating spells.

    Crow whipped the air with his hand, in a diagonal line, and a white ray of light shot forward to the weaker mages.

    Astral Whip.

    He then created a green sphere around him, just in time to resist another barrage of spells from the enemy.

    Lesser Shroud.

    Shield almost collapsed from the impact, barely withstanding the explosion. On the other side, though, three of the confused magicians weren’t so lucky. One of them was decapitated, the other got cut into two pieces, and the last one remained without his legs.

    Astral Whip was immensely powerful, yet very simple spell. It was not hard to evade, but if your opponent failed to guard against it, they would suffer dearly for it.

    Crow was panting heavily. Meeting spells head on, when you are alone, is never a good idea, but he didn’t have much choice in that matter.

    Seeing how his opponent quickly dispatched of four of his companions, the golden-robbed commander understood that he had no hopes of winning.  He pulled a crimson shard out of his dimensional pocket and threw it down.

    “Fuck!” Crow thought as red shard shattered into thousand pieces. As if everything went into slow motion, Crow could see a red sphere expanding at an alarming rate. He had a rough idea what this spell did.

    Creating a small explosion in front of his body, Crow propelled himself from the ship, suffering minor injuries in the process. At the same time, he activated the Cloak of Distortion and set it into dispersed mode.

    As red sphere was expanding, it devoured any organic being it enveloped, sucking life-force out of them. It wasn’t sparing anyone, including the mage who released the spell. When in caught up to Crow, he was immediately submerged in sparks of electricity, as two spells were battling each other. When Cloak of Distortion almost collapsed, Crow finally crossed an invisible threshold that marked the life sucking spell’s area of effect.

    Crow fell down onto the ice, and a wave of pain spread through his body. His shoulder bone was dislocated. Cursed through his teeth, he used one of transmogrification’s numerous painful methods to heal the wound. Not having time to even catch a breath, he dashed back towards the ship chugging down regeneration potion on the move.

    Magical battles were just like that. Quick, decisive and ruthless. They barely allowed enough time, to drink a potion or use the item in the process. Crow was somewhat lucky, during the encounter. Having seven mages who barely knew how to fight, compared to him, and unable to cast powerful ritual magic, he won the battle before it began. Yet, a single mistake would’ve cost him his life, even against inferior mages.

    Crow expected for caravan supervisors to have powerful items, but not something wich could diminish the defensive properties of his cloak spell. Moreover, this item could be used against the Dead Kings, as it attacked the life force directly. But was it really a safeguard against them? Or were they hoping to assassinate them? Or was it all just a coincidence?

    Crow felt a slight pain, thinking about how he wasn’t fast enough to neutralize the golden-robed magician before he used the crimson shard.

    He climbed back aboard the ship and looked around. As expected, not even a sign of life could be seen. All the sailors aboard Floating Fortress who were alive before the battle broke out were most certainly dead.

    Crow walked towards the golden-robed mage’s mummified corpse and chanted a small sequence of spells in his mind. A square dimensional window appeared above the magician, allowing to access the contents of his pocket. Crow opened his own dimension in front of it and transferred all the items to himself. He went around and repeated this process with every corpse.

    He didn’t have time to go through the pillaged items and sort them out, but the sheer volume of things in his pocket brought a smile to his face.

    “Good thing, I was not the one to kill the sailors on board of this ship, or I could’ve earned myself a Blood Name on Alra after this raid.” He thought. “That would be problematic.”

    He descended into the cargo hold, when he notices, that Eyeless Society ceased to maintain the ritual.

    “Scum. They actually did it without my signal. Should I dispose of them for treason?”

    He used his supernatural sight, to quickly find any tracks of magical equipment. Soon enough, he found the cabinets of seven magicians and vacuumed everything that could be even slightly useful to him. Books, scrolls, potions, reagents. He left nothing behind.

    When he was about to move out, from the Flying Fortress, he noticed a slight trace of magic, leading towards one of the doors. He carefully studied the door. It had a lot of different runes carved into it. By this moment, Asi with her companions finally made it onboard of the ship.

    Crow glanced at them and noticed how deeply terrified they were. Backstab? They barely had the guts to approach him.

    “I won’t ask you, why you have left your post, without my permission.” He turned towards Nasor. “Also, you should know better, then plot betrayal using telepathy near maelstroms. Don’t you know of even such basic things?”

    Of course, they couldn’t know. Such display of magical skills was only possible for highest ranked magicians and archmages. They simply were not widespread enough on Alra, for this to be general knowledge.

    Nasor’s expression betrayed him. But before he could try to plead for atonement Crow continued.

    “I originally intended to use this raid, both to gather resources for myself and to strengthen your guild. You see, I have some business with your overlords, and I hoped we would help each other out when the right time came. But now, you lost all credibility.” He frowned. “I’m not going to punish you, but neither will I give you your share of loot.”

    He then turned back to the door. “You can snatch everything you like from the other ships. Probably there are some pieces of magical equipment or reagents. Now begone from my sight!”

    Asi and her companions trembled. They felt a mixture of emotions. Fear, awe, regret, resentment. But they dared not to voice any complaints. They weren’t strong enough to compete with him.

    Crow noticed, how they gave him a deep bow, before departing. He smiled with the corner of his mouth.

    The door had an extraordinary number of carved runes and patterns. It would take at least two hours to pry it open. As Crow was contemplating about brute-forcing his way into the room, he quickly checked his pocket for anything resembling a key. To his surprise, he actually found seven such items.

    Crow studied seven small pyramids that could fit into their respective sockets in the door. This could also be a trap. He thought about, from whom he heard about the raiding opportunity and the council members that was sent to meet the caravan.

    Crow levitated seven keys in the air and placed them into their sockets simultaneously. The door made a multitude of mechanical sounds, before opening. Lying inside the room, was a gray sarcophagus, without any distinctive features.

    “I have a bad feeling about this.” Crow spoke aloud.

  • edited April 2017
    Part 11 - The Heart of the Desert(1)

    Crow carefully approached the sarcophagus. He wasn’t afraid that someone’s corpse would leap out from the sarcophagus. He was sure, that whoever laid inside was dead. A crimson shard that detonated earlier guaranteed that much.

    Sarcophagus itself was a cause for his vigilance. He saw it before. Back in Rah’s tower, in one of the books, he studied, there was a painting of this coffin. Dead Kings resting place. One of the eight, or, if Rah’s theory was correct, sixteen artifacts, that were used to transcend mortality, and avoid death.

    Finding one of the coffins, was a plain bad luck for Crow. It meant that not only South Gate Guild was keeping an eye on the Caravans. His possible enemies quickly extended to Allied Kingdoms and possibly someone else.

    “But how? How on earth, did Allied Kingdoms found it? Shouldn't it be in Abukar?” He reasoned. “Moreover, the caravan had to sail all the way around Abukar continent, to get to Sarci. Why not receive it earlier?” Numerous ideas were appearing inside his head, but he could only dismiss them. There was just not enough information, to properly access the situation.

    He put his hand on the gray marble. It was incredibly smooth to the touch. Then he pushed against the cover, with both hands.

    Grunt.

    At first, it didn’t budge even a little. Crow even began doubting if this was actually possible with his strength. But on the second try, it gave up almost immediately, sliding without any resistance whatsoever. Crow who wasn’t expecting it, lost his balance and fell into the coffin. One of his hands smashed into the mummified head, shattering it in the process. Crow immediately jumped out, cursing and gasping simultaneously.

    After wiping his hand with clothes, from his pocket, he turned his attention to the coffin. Before him, he could see countless pieces of priceless jewelry, magical crystals, gold, and silver. They were covering a mummified corpse, without a head.

    His face became grim. Crow glanced outside of the room, half-expecting that someone was already waiting for him, but no one was.

    Originally, he intended to only peak inside of the sarcophagus, and see, if it was possible to crack open its inner defenses. He inspected himself and the troublesome box, but not even a trace of such magic existed.

     “I don’t buy it. My luck before this was within reason. Even the lucky streak on the market. But this. It is fool’s gold.” He frowned. “Still, I need to make a decision. Should I take it, or should I leave it alone?”

    He never intended to smash the face of one of the possible Dead Kings. But now, that the damage was done, he couldn’t just walk away and pretend that he never have managed to open it in the first place. Taking everything away, undoubtedly, will put a hefty bounty on his head. He will be chased till the end of the world, by someone, who organized the caravan. 

    If he leaves everything alone, it still will be the same. The only difference will be the reason to kill him. In the second case, it will be only to dispatch from the witness, and possibly for defiling remains of such an important figure. It will also mean, that he was scared to claim the spoils.

    “Whatever. Might as well take everything with me. I would’ve done the same thing anyway in the first place.” Crow thought. It was just that destroying a millennia old, all powerful mummy’s head just didn’t sit right with him. “It was an accident, sorry for bothering your remains.” He bowed before the corpse, somewhat awkwardly. 

    Afterward, he quickly sucked everything into his pocket, except for the corpse, and hastily left the Floating Fortress. Originally, he planned to create some false clues, that would lead the investigation of his and Eyeless Society’s tracks. Now though, he felt only the urgency to depart.

    ***

    Crow never returned back to Sarci. He prepared himself a juuga near the coast, beforehand, that not even Society members knew about. Crow traveled for six days towards the center of Abukar continent, avoiding any small towns or villages before he finally entered the desert. Luckily for him, there were no patrols or travelers along his way.

    He was reluctant to travel deeper into the enemy territory, but there was nothing he could do about it.

    Directly to the north of Abukar continent Widelands were located. His goal, Northern Knot, laid there. But traveling from Sarci to Widelands, wasn’t a simple task. While theoretically, it was entirely possible to circumnavigate the Abukar continent, on practice, only death awaited sailors foolish enough, to dare and attempt such a thing.

    To the north-eastern part of Abukar, the forbidden zone was located. Sea of Torture. Crow thought that the name was quite poetic, but for once, he agreed with it. Monsters with sirene-like abilities lived on the cliffs in that place. Strong hypnotic and illusion magical rituals wasn’t something people of Alra were prepared to deal with. Even humans usually tried to avoid messing with sirene nests whenever possible.

    Crow inhaled hot desert air. On his way through the desert he encountered only snakes and scorpions.   Sun was currently in the zenith, and temperature only continued to climb higher. He diverted more power towards his weather bubble and ordered his juuga to move deeper into Great Abukarian Desert. Traversing the endless sea of sands was incredibly boring, but for once, he actually enjoyed the quietness of his surroundings. He knew well that it was only a “calm before the storm.”

    At dawn of the ninth day, he finally took a break. With the help of magic, he dug deep into the sand, merging it into the sandstone along the way, to support the small cave he created. He hid himself and his ride in the cave. It would be a long time before he sees sunlight again.

    The first thing he did in the cave, was creating two cisterns. One was for bathing, while the other was for his juuga to drink from. After feeling them both with water from his pocket, Crow undressed and got into the first cistern.

    *Caw*

    Bragi emerged from the black fog. “How are you feeling, Crow?” He asked.

    “Tired and worried. Never would’ve imagined, that digging out a small cave like this, would be difficult for me, again.” Crow complained. “I feel like, I’ve fallen down somewhere towards the middle of the magician rank, yet, the second energy hasn’t developed even a bit. Why is it so?”

    “Now that, I didn’t have to focus all my attention on suppressing the decay of your domain, I had some time to study the energy properly in the last couple of days.” Bragi jumped around the cave eyeing the inscriptions Crow laid down, to hide his presence. “Good job on those. You are getting better and better at it.”

    “Let’s not digress, Bragi.” Crow frowned slightly. His mastery over inscriptions was by far his strongest side in the arts of crafting. Not a lot of people could rival him.

    “Yeah, yeah. Look, kid, this second energy, as you probably guessed yourself already, is the Void. To my shame, I am not very well versed in the difference between it and Arcana. But still, I managed to notice a couple of things.”

    He landed on the head of the sleeping juuga.

    “The most important part now is its growth in your domain.  And this is the bad news. To nurture it properly, at least at the first stages, you need to expose yourself to the Void, just like during your dive.”

    Crow gasped. “Like this is going to happen in the foreseeable future.”

    “Right. But there is another way. The Void inside your domain actually grows by devouring Arcana. It just does it very slowly.  If you find the good source of Arcana, like a magician’s tower core, it can be used to develop.”

    “Devours Arcana?” Crow stared at Bragi dumbfoundedly.

    “Well, it doesn’t ‘devour’ it.” Bragi shook his head. “More like dismantle to base components, and use them. You see, arcane and void energies have some similarities. And they both can draw power from one another to a certain extent. In global scope, they constantly push at each other, devouring and growing, but ultimately achieving a perfect balance.”

    Bragi shifted his gaze towards Crow and continued. “Somewhat similar to old Confucianism’s philosophy of Yin and Yang, they actually are complementary forces of the universe.”

    “But if this is true, why one is destroying the other in my body. More so, it’s like a finger against the mountain, the amount of Void inside my domain can’t even be compared to sixty years of building up arcane energy.”

    “This is because, of your inner workings.”

    *Caw*

    “I’m sorry, what?”

    “Your natural predisposition is not towards Arcana, but towards the Void. Let me ask you this. Haven’t you felt better in a recent month? I mean, not from the point of power, but generally. Have you at least once had one of your headaches that come seemingly out of nowhere?”

    Crow tried to remember if something like this happened, but there were no such cases.

    From his childhood, he was always tormented by splitting headaches. They were not constant. Sometimes it took days for them to reoccur. Sometimes a week. But never he had a month of a break from his curse. He visited doctors, mundane and magically versed alike, but everyone told him, that he was completely healthy. Some even went so far, and said, that he had psychological migraines.

    His headaches were also one of the reasons, he joined the military. That way he got access to strong painkillers, and ability to roam the worlds, always on the lookout for good healers or panacea from ancient times.

    Needless to say, that he never managed to find anything, to solve his problem.

    “Okay, if it is true, then how comes, that I managed to use Arcana?”

    *Caw*

    “Ugh. Look, birds with broken wings still can walk on land. It’s not a very accurate metaphor, as both Arcana and Void can be considered flying, but you get the idea. The Void isn’t a natural occurrence in any of the worlds you were present on. Thus you never encountered it before the dive, and always relied on its counterpart.”

    “Makes sense.” Crow nodded. “What about the rune language, then? Is there a difference between arcane and void spell constructs?”

    “It will be better to say, that there are some similarities. Count me out when the time comes to study the alphabet, by the way. I’m not going to switch camps like you.”

    “Will you be able to stay my familiar, if I won’t have even a bit of Arcana in my body, then?”

    “Summoning familiars is not a rune-based magic, Crow. We are bound by contracts and fate. Luckily, you have a number one, best familiar in the world, who is capable of taking care of himself, without your help. You just need enough power to be able to sustain my existence.”

    “You are special in every way, dear Bragi.” Crow grinned.

    “Oh yes, I am!” Good thing, Bragi never understood sarcasm in the first place.

    Crow submerged into the cistern before his breath almost ran out.

    Gasp.

    “I will be left without any power to fuel my spells in a short while.” That was a statement, Crow knew well, what awaited him in the future. “Arcane inscriptions won’t work either?”

     “No.”

    “I’m fucked ain’t I.”

    “Right.”

    “Yeah, thanks.” Crow fell silent for a long time, contemplating his next move. Thankfully, Bragi was tactful enough, not to break the silence. He only jumped around the cave, seemingly searching for something shiny.

    “Okay. I have few ideas. Probably something that never happened in this world, or in any explored ones till this moment, for that matter.”

    “Oh. What’s on your mind?”

    “Crafting. I will need your help though. As much of it, as possible.”

    “Well, if it won’t break our established rules too much, I guess, that you can count on me.”

    “Thank you, Bragi. In the recent days, you helped me so much, I don’t even know, how to thank you.” This somewhat warmed up Bragi’s heart, he wanted even to say something nice to Crow in return, but before he could do that…

    “I will also require from you, to sustain the laid out inscription for a few weeks.”

    *CAW* Crow managed to swing Bragi’s mood entirely into opposite direction.

  • Part 12 - The Heart of the Desert(2)

    Ambra was sitting in one of the South Gate Guild’s many rooms. Across the table, one of the councils of the guild was frowning.

    “So, you have no idea, whatsoever, why one of the sacred relics of our nation was aboard Floating Fortress?”

    Two days ago, she arrived at the place of a massacre, that happened, near Sarci. The sight was truly breathtaking. A giant mass of ice was floating on the ocean, with countless ships buried within it.

    Ambra judged she came not more than few hours after the battle has ended but tracking the group behind the caravan raid deemed impossible. They managed to erase all signs of their magic out of existence. More shocking though, was finding ancient sarcophagi aboard the trade vessels, one of those, which her masters used in time immemorial to become immortal.

    This lead to many questions. Not only Ambra needed to investigate who was behind the caravan ambush. Learning why and from where sarcophagi appeared became her first priority.

    “No! As usual, we were expecting a cargo of crafting materials, metals and other ingredients.”

    “And you never had any personal dealings with Allied Kingdoms, before?” Ambra’s tone was sending shivers down Asiri’s spine. Her monstrous physique only added to her intimidating presence. She was well built and tall, almost a hundred inches in height.

    “No, never.” Ambra could hear a slight trembling in his voice.

    “Lying is a crime Asiri. You should understand well, what will happen to you if I find out you are deceiving me.”

    She took a moment to light her pipe and exhaled the green smoke into the air. Then she added in a much lighter tone.

    “Look. If you had some minor business with Green Tower, on the side, it would be understandable. With so much power and authority on your hands, it wouldn’t be unreasonable. You are an ambitious man, after all, Asiri. You would’ve never become a council member if this wasn’t the case.” Ambra puffed a little more. “You know, I can let a minor detail like that, to slip by. Understand me?”

    Asiri slightly nodded.

    “Good. But what will happen, if you lie to me? I will find out about it, I always do. Think of the consequences. Noble status, your family privileges, poverty, your concubines, everything you worked your ass for, will be gone. No one likes liars, Asiri. And traitors end up on the pike. You don’t want your head to appear on a pike.”

    For a short while, only sounds of Ambra’s puffing could be heard. Asiri was sitting on the needles, sweat was rolling down from his forehead in rivers.

    “I-I… I had a small deal once, with a man from the previous caravan. But it was only once, I never repe…”

    “What kind of deal it was, Asiri?”

    “Jewel of Daba and…” He breathed in. “Information.”

    “Wow.” Ambra was speechless for a moment. “Are you sure, that between two brothers, it’s not you, who should be the trader, eh? You managed to lay your hands on such priceless jewel. Now tell me, what kind of information you sold to him?”

    “Well. It was six years ago. I was contacted by Rasi, who said that he met a foreigner, who knew that we are brothers. And he requested a meeting, saying it would be worthwhile for me to come. He told Rasi, that he wanted to trade some information, and gifted us with a yellow atarytite as a ‘token of his good intentions’”.

    “Who was that man?”

    “I don’t know, honestly. He told me that he represents one of the great circles in Allied Kingdoms. I never asked further. It was enough to understand that he has money and a background and.. I…” Asiri’s head fell onto his palms. “I sold him precise location of Leoro’s resting place.”

    Ambra’s face, instantly twisted.

    “Leaking that kind of information, were you out of your mind? What else you have told him?”

    “Nothing! And if Jerovians didn’t know already of its location, I would’ve never told him about it, I swear!”

    “Jerovians know?” Ambra couldn’t believe her ears. “How do you know?”

    “From that man. He told me that he learned from Jerovians general information about it. That it situated somewhere in Noqir mountain chain near the Howling Pass. He said to me that it will only take time for him to figure out the precise place, where it is located, without my help.”

    This was big news. Ambra hadn’t gained any insight on the group who assaulted the caravan, neither from where the sarcophagus came. But it seemed like she encountered a thread leading to something big.

    “Guards, take him to his cell. I will decide later, what to do with him.” She looked at Asiri with a cunning smile. “I’m not done with you, yet, councilor.”

    Ambra stormed out of the room. She needed to present a report to the Dead Kings.

    ***

    “Lower the frequency of inner casing’s rotation, that should do the trick.” Crow ordered to a small golem, he made previously.

    He increased the size of his cave in recent weeks. Divided its interior into five rooms, one which he used as an experimentation area right now.

    “How much of those things you intend to create, kid? It’s not like you have an army to equip.” Bragi chuckled.

    “These rods will all be a part of a single weapon, in the final design. I do not intend to carry twenty guns with me, you know. Only this and a sidearm.” Crow was currently grinning with all thirty-two.

    Although his current weapon design still had flaws, the finished product would allow him to stand on even ground with low ranked mages. Adding all the tinkers he prepared, his knowledge of inscriptions huge battle experience, and he could rival even middle ranked one, in the case of a successful ambush, at least.

    “Now, if we can find a vault filled to the brim with magical crystals.”

    “Don’t run ahead of yourself. You still need to solve a lot of problems. What are you going to do with overheating and toxic vapors from the crystals?”

    “Second problem is easy to solve. Toxic sludge will be drained into vials, with the added benefit, of collecting it for later use. I will order the golem to make a batch of them. As for overheating, we don’t have resources at hand. The weapon is already usable though, Bragi, that’s what matters the most.”

    Crow spent almost two weeks creating his first prototype of magical arms. After almost a month and a half of his life on Alra, he already lost last traces of Arcana circulating in his domain. Amount of Void, on the other hand, barely allowed him to classify as the bottom of the magician food chain – shaman.

    But despite this, he managed to find a way, to wield enough power to protect himself. His spoils from the caravan raid included an incredibly hefty amount of crafting materials, and while at first, he felt frustrated, Crow quickly came up with the idea of creating himself magical munition.

    He wasn’t creating anything entirely new. He read a lot of articles on the matter. But he was the first one to rely solely on such methods.

    Arcane weaponry, conceptually was incredibly appealing. It could allow anyone, even those without a gift to manipulate Arcana, to wield terrifying powers. But it had a crucial flaw. Unlike magicians, who are basically living generators of such energy, able to draw it from their surroundings without almost any constraints, Arcane weaponry required ammo to be useful.

    Equipping even a small squad with such equipment would cost millions upon millions of nu-yen. It could be described as shooting money. But to Crow, it was his precious life straw. He looted enough magical crystals, to get him started. Getting more, will be only a matter of time, and careful management of currently held ones.

    “Rotate the first rod to the second position, the second rod to the third position and the third one to the fourth position.”

    His golem obediently completed all instructions given to him. He rotated three hexagonal prisms, to respective sides, and in this way, parts of rune patterns on them combined into a complete inscription.

    “Connect the starter and pull the trigger.” Crow ordered.

    Inscription lit up with azure color, drawing the power out of the magical crystal connected to the rods. Immediately three small black orbs materialized and rushed out towards the sandstone dummy, shattering it into pieces.

    Crow slowly clapped, as if he was at the presentation.

    *Caw*

    “Not bad. You made it work.” Bragi praised Crow’s work.

    “Thanks. Now I must polish the inner and outer barrel workings, attach a sludge collector, make some minor overall improvements, combine everything into a casing, and add a scope. Still a few days’ worth of work, to complete it.” Crow summed up. “Consume the crystal and turn off the screening.”

    “Crow, what do you plan to do with Rah’s task? So much time had passed, and you still basically within fifteen days of travel from his tower.”

    “If I get banished from Alra, because of unfulfilled contract, that would be a waste, of course. But I’m not in a rush to endanger my life.” He was carefully inspecting core of his future weapon. “What your birds tell you these days?”

    “Everything is quite, in our area. Last patrol was sighted almost two days ago. Also, my flock encountered some kind of gathering, near the mountain chain. It appears two groups are searching for something.”

    “Hm, can it be Eyeless Society’s main hideout?”

    “Unlikely. Mountain peaks there became one of the nesting grounds for my children. They haven't encountered any movement previously.”

    “I wonder, what is happening in the outside world. How much Abukar hounds managed to dig out?” Crow gathered everything in the experimental room and went towards his bedroom, Bragi on his shoulder.

    He noticed agitated juuga. “My mount is restless again. It seems I need to take him for a walk.” He thought.

    “Alright, Bragi, let’s go for a little walk.”

    *Caw*

    “Eh, I’ll skip the promenade today. I will begin packing up our stuff, we’re moving out soon.”

    “Sounds good. See you later then.”

    Crow led his ride out of the cave. Chilly night sky greeted them, with myriads of stars shining brightly. He gently stroked his mounts head.

    “It seems like we are together for quite a while already. I guess it’s time to go the crystal plains and find that replacement for you. Or parting with you will become too heart-breaking.” He smiled.

    Juuga rubbed his head against Crow’s hand. “Hey, don’t make it any harder for me, then it already is. I haven’t even named you, you know. And you will return to your original master anyway.”

    He climbed onto his mount and rode towards the north.

  • Part 13 - The Heart of the Desert(3)

    Crow was staring dumbfoundedly at a small stick moving in the distance far away from him. Bragi told him that there should be no one in the vicinity of their cave, but here it was. Crow took out a crudely made telescope from one of his numerous spatial bags.

    No longer he had an ability to use his dimensional pocket. During his stay in the cave, he spent a large part of his time, creating these small bags. While the process of making them, was quite easy, magicians seldom bothered with such storage systems.

    Not only there was no need for them when it was always possible to store any junk in the dimensional pocket. More importantly, magicians could access the contents of their pocket with a mere thought. Bags, on the other hand, one had to stick his hand into it, to get anything out. On Alra, such items were mostly gifted to nobles or sold to extremely wealthy merchants.

    Looking through his telescope Crow could clearly see a skinny old man traversing the desert without a mount. Crow moved forward to intercept the man. It was a good opportunity for him, to learn a bit more of what happens in the Abukar oasis, without sticking his neck out in the cities. He slapped his juuga and moved forward.

    “What the?” He was confused when after almost five full minutes of riding on a mount, he hadn’t moved even an inch closer to the old man. “This can’t be right, I haven’t noticed any kind of arcane energies around him. Can this be a mirage?”

    Crow stopped his mount, deciding that it is better to give up chasing after the man. He turned around and headed towards his hideout, only to notice a change in the scenery. Dunes that he saw previously were nonexistent, while, new ones appeared in other places.

    “This can’t be real, can it?” He observed his surroundings carefully. “Although I don’t have my weather control spells anymore, it still way too early to receive a heatstroke.” He thought, turning around to take a look at the old man again. “Gone.”

    There was no old man to chase after again. Crow’s mind surged with different theories. Desert spirits, ancient forgotten ruins under the sands, illusion magic, of various sorts. But he quickly disregarded all of them. There were to things left after he lost Arcana in his domain. His familiar, and his supernatural eyesight. Yet, he hadn’t noticed even a spark of magic, around him. At least, the kind he could see.

    ***

    Time was moving forwards, slowly, as if it was stuck in the bog. It was obvious, that Crow got teleported, and was currently way off from his original location. He was sitting on top of one of the countless dunes, covering himself, and his mount’s head under a small enchanted blanket, that could barely wrap over a full-grown man. While the blanket did some job at resisting the scorching heat of the desert, it could only do so much.

    Sun was making it’s away on the horizon, and only recently left its zenith. Crow estimated that he spent six hours after he got teleported. Tortured by the heat, he could only hope, that his familiar will find him, with the help of his spies, and leads him back to his hideout.

    At first, before he understood, what actually happened, he tried heading into the direction of where he came from, but soon he abandoned this idea.

    His juuga was in a terrible state. Its kind never lived in the desert. Crow patted its head, cursing under his breath. “Motherfucking raven. If you don’t find me in next five minutes, I will rip your wings out!” He said that five times already, but Bragi still hadn’t appeared.

    Crow took a sip of disgustingly warm water when his jaw almost dropped off from the sight of a small party making its way on the sands. It was both good and bad news for him. He was sure that this was one of the patrols sent into the desert in hopes to find suspects of the caravan robbery. And they were bound to have at least one magician.

    Crow quickly hid away all his spatial bags, except one with the provision, and put on a disguise amulet. A piece of equipment he found in the pocket of one of the mages from Allied Kingdoms.

    He went into the direction of the patrol.

    “Help” Crow yelled. “Help!”

    The other party noticed him and immediately headed towards him. When they got closer, Crow saw some kind of yellow tattoos covering the bodies of their juugas. He quickly memorized the patterns, with the hope of recreating them later.

    The party consisted of six people, wearing tan colored robes. Four of the man wielded swords, while other two looked unarmed. Crow cautiously inspected these two men from the corner of his eye. Undoubtedly, they were the most dangerous of the bunch. He could clearly understand now, how important catching him was, for Abukar authorities. Whole two mages were sent with one patrol party.

    “In that corpse’s coffin, was nothing of importance. So much trouble because of that shit.” He sighed inwardly. “I wonder, how are the Eyeless guys are doing. It would be troublesome if they got caught, while I’m still in Abukar Oasis.”

    “Halt!” Yelled one of the tan-robbed figures. “What are you doing here?”

    “I’m terribly sorry, my Lord. I’m just a servant, running an errand for my master. I had to traverse the desert, but I got lost, and… I’m so lucky that I managed to find you. Great Eight had heard me pleading for help!” Crow kowtowed before the group.

    “Stand up. Who is your master? What errand?” Man’s voice slightly softened.

    “I, I.. my master is the honorable Lord Viscici from house Anba. He sent me towards the prosperous city of Sarci so that I could deliver certain... item” Hesitation was written all over Crow’s face. “I beg your pardon, my Lord, but my master wished to keep it a secret.” He slightly straightened his spine, exposing an emblem of house Anba, on his chest, he put on prior.

    This was Crow’s bounty from staying a whole week in his summoner’s library. He memorized noble houses and all prominent figures in Abukar among other things.

    “So, how long have you been traveling in the desert?” Another man asked. It was one of the magicians.

    “I saw the sun rising high into the sky seven times already, my Lord.”

    “Eh, then how come you survived for so long?”

    Again, Crow put his acting skills to work, to the best of his abilities. He wasn’t very talented in this department, but almost forty years traveling various worlds, seeing how people react to one thing or another, gave him plenty of experience to cover his lack of talent in the field.

    He reached out towards his pouch, with trembling hand, and showed to the patrol. “My Lord gave me this precious treasure, to help me traversing the desert.”

    One of the mages, climbed down from his juuga and approached Crow. He took the bag and inspected it.

    “Oh! Of such an excellent quality, even! You told you are one of the servants, of esteemed Lord Viscici. What’s your status?”

    “I’m the son of my Lord’s seneschal,” Crow answered.

    “Hmm. Alright then.” One who was inspecting his bag told him, taking out a map out of thin air.

    Upon seeing this, Crow immediately fell down kowtowing. “I beg my Lord’s pardon. I was too disrespectful, and plead for mercy.”

    “Stand up. No need for honorifics in the middle of nowhere. I see, you still have enough resources to make it out yourself. Look at the map. We are here.” He pointed towards a spot on the piece of paper. “To get out of the desert, you should move upwards, towards the mountain chain. It is half days worth of travel. When you get past King’s Konuto’s tower, you will get towards one of established trade routes. You will figure it out, afterward.”

    “Many thanks, my Lord. May the Great Kings always favor all of you! I was indeed lucky, to encounter you here. I owe you my life. If you ever get to visit great city Ab Nosar, my father will do his best, to make your stay pleasant.” Crow lowered his head.

    After finishing with honorifics, and getting his bag back, he quickly mounted his juuga and prepared to leave the desert as fast as possible. If he only knew previously, how close he was to the border of it.

    But before he could depart, one of the mages suddenly called him.

    “Wait.” He ordered. “We are currently looking for a particular man. I honestly doubt, it’s you, but I still need to check.”

    Crow obediently returned back to the ground and walked towards the mage.

    “No way, you are going to mess up everything for me, right now.” He thought, preparing to use his precious recourses to fight if needed.

    Mage took out a gray stone, from his pocket and pressed it against Crow’s forehead. Nothing happened. Crow almost let out a sigh of relief, but then the stone pressed to his head began trembling violently and cracked.

    “Shit!” Tan-robbed mage cried, preparing to cast his spells, but Crow already rolled out from his current position, leaving a bottle of violet liquid behind.

    If you can’t win a fight, you should run. If you can’t run, then you should negotiate. If you can’t negotiate, then do your best, at fighting. He was prepared to go all out, the moment he saw the patrol, but hoped till the end, that he could avoid unnecessary violence.

    When bottle he left behind exploded, he was already three meters away, but the aftershock still hit him in the back. Crow flew three meters forward and planted his face in the sand. He quickly recovered, jumping up, and springing into motion again.

    Instead of escaping farther away from the patrol, he closed his distance with them. This way he bound the hands of enemy’s second mage, not allowing him to cast powerful spells with a large area of effect, and, also moved closer to his danger zone. Killing to birds with one stone.

    The one who tested him with the stone was already dead. Crow could guarantee this much. The potent alchemical potion was one of his spoils from the previous encounter, and he didn’t hesitate for a moment, to use it.

    It seems, as if luck was on his side, because the one testing him, was much more powerful, then the mage who was currently sitting on his juuga.

    “Second circle from the bottom. Compared to the middle ranked one, I killed just now, this one barely can cast spells at all.” Crow was analyzing the battlefield.

    Two of the warriors, who seemed to look more experienced were already guarding the magician, while other two tried to flank him from the sides. Their spellcaster was already prepared to unleash his spell.

    They would undoubtedly trample him, in the fair fight. But Crow wasn’t stupid to believe in things, such as a fair fight. He was taught to fight efficiently. To fight in such a way, that losses from his side, be it his brothers in arms, or his limbs would be minimal while breaking all hells loose on the enemy side.

    Crow threw a small bomb towards his foes, narrowly dodging their magicians flame arrow. He felt, his neck was burned viciously, but there was no time to tend his wound. The bomb exploded with blinding light.

    Magician and his two guardians were somewhat prepared for such an outcome, but the flankers were completely blinded. Crow immediately stabbed one of them in the neck, with a dagger he took out from on of his pouches. He then threw this dagger into another one’s forehead, but it closely missed, grazing his temple in the process.

    “Shit.” Crow inwardly cursed. He barely remembered last time, when he needed to throw daggers in his life. “I need to kill the magician.” He thought.

    Once again, he took out a small flask from his pocket, but this time he threw it under his legs.

    A thick cloud of smoke appeared, covering Crow, and his enemies alike.

  • Part 14 - The Heart of the Desert(4)

    When Crow’s adversaries noticed the bottle, warriors immediately scattered into different directions, while the magician was casting spells frantically to absorb the explosion.

    When it reached the ground, the bottle didn’t explode, however, but instead let out a swiftly expanding cloud of incredibly thick fog. It immediately covered the area.

    Smoke bomb. One of the most basic yet potent things in the right circumstances. The contents of the vial were of the same color as the previous one’s, but only Crow could tell the difference.

    Using the cover, he threw three more daggers, in the place where magician should have been and rushed out of the cloud. Almost immediately a scream could be heard, and Crow smiled with satisfaction. Even if this attack did not kill the young magician, it at least bought Crow enough time, to kill a few more of his guardians.

    He reappeared from inside of the cloud, slightly to the side, from where one of the warriors ran too. With no backup, he posed little threat to Crow. Another bottle appeared in his hands. This one had crystal clear liquid floating within it. Instead of throwing it at his enemy, though, Crow opened the bottle and focused his powers.

    Those gifted in magic that were below the magician’s rank could not cast spells. What they could do, though, was to manipulate the structure of the four elements. Water, fire, earth and air. Considering the current power Crow could wield, this process would be extremely taxing and required refined materials to work with. The air was impossible as extracting its pure form was unrealistic in the heat of the battle. Earth needed particular gems, and they were hard to acquire in sufficient quantity. Fire and water, on the other hand, were extremely useful, and easy to come by.

    Whipping the hand with the bottle forward, Crow focused the power of the Void on its contents. Shards of ice flew out from it, like pellets from the shotgun. They buried deep within warrior’s flesh, ending his life in a matter of seconds.

    This trick could be considered useless in the presence of a magician, or against armored targets. But those who traversed the desert preferred not to get cooked alive in the saucepan, that was a set of metal armor. Crow heard a slight noise from the fog.

    At this moment, one of the veteran guards jumped onto him from the cloud. Crow tried to dodge the unexpected attack, but the tip of the blade sliced his right hand, leaving a deep cut in it. Blade was covered with sand turtle’s pain inducing toxin, and the wound immediately began burning with agonizing pain. It was almost unbearable.

    Ignoring the pain to the best of his abilities, Crow retreated backward. His opponent, on the other hand, wasn’t just going to let him recover. Seeing the opportunity created by the surprise attack, warrior immediately launched himself forward, against Crow. He had a wide smile on his face. Defeating a caster, albeit a weird one, who managed to kill official magician or maybe even two, was a rare occasion for those without a gift. This held true in countless worlds, not only on Alra.

    Pressed hard by the flurry of attacks, Crow’s situation was dire. He evaded one attack after another, slight cuts appeared on his robes, but the blade never reached his body. If Crow got wounded even few more times, he would’ve dropped to the ground immediately, overwhelmed by the toxin.

    As the third warrior emerged on this side of the fog, opening, Crow was desperately hoping for, finally appeared in his current opponent’s wild swings. Crow immediately dove under the sword and closed the distance. Using his left hand to block the sword-wielding arm he grabbed the face with the injured one.

    Extreme pain devoured Crow. He felt as if thousand upon thousand of needles were hammered into his wound. But he held his hand tightly. His endless will to live, and a surge of adrenaline combined together, allowed him to last enough time for his magic to do the work. Crow used exactly the same trick as before. But now he vaporized the water in his foe’s body, instead of freezing it in a bottle.

    Warrior’s strikes with his free hand became weaker and weaker, as skin and flesh on his face were boiled. Crow pressed his index finger against the eye, crushing and evaporating it, driving the warrior crazy from pain. He struggled for but a moment more, before his arms finally collapsed onto the ground.

    Not having even a moment of respite, Crow immediately turned against the approaching warrior. This was the last one. He had a mark on his face left by Crow’s dagger previously. But before Crow could reach into one of his bags, to take his combat potions, charging warrior dropped dead to the ground.

    His back had a giant charred hole in it, with acid eating away into his innards. Crow glanced at the almost dissipated fog, to notice a trembling figure of a mage. He was bleeding from wounds on his body. One on the right shoulder, and the other on the stomach. Mage collapsed from the wounds, a little later. His grand finale was buried with grief and remorse, as he breathed out last bits of his life.

    Crow fell to the knees, breathing heavily he cried out from pain and tension that accumulated over the course of battle. Six corpses were scattered in the nearest vicinity. The last one was an incredible streak of luck, on his part.

    Almost fainting from exhaustion, he chugged four potions, in a row.

    “I must get the fuck out of here.”

    He crawled his way towards his juuga, that was restlessly dancing in one place. Other juugas, who were closer to the battle, and got covered in the fog, already ran away into the desert. Climbing on the back of his mount, he couldn’t help but feel dispirited. If the one to approach him with the stone, was not the master, but his apprentice, the battle would have ended up in a dramatically different way.

    ***

    Crow was relieved when he finally got out of the desert. Just like he was told, it took slightly more than seven hours, before scenery started to change. Although it wasn’t that big of a deal, seeing how seas of sands were replaced with the endless rocky terrain, it still had a positive effect on his mental condition.

    During the night, he set up his camp in the field. His resources were somewhat scarce, as he never expected to venture out from his hideout for so long. He spent few hours, properly tending his wounds, replacing the bandages, and disinfecting the wound. But before he went to rest, though, he recalled, that the only reason that he was able to sleep soundly during last month was because of his familiar's help.

    “Would be nice to smoke a cigarette right now.” He sighed. His exhausted body required to rest and recuperate, but he found himself being afraid of closing his eyes. There was no guarantee that the nightmare won't return.

    “Is this my karmic punishment for everything I did in my life? Shouldn’t it be on the heads of my superiors, as it was on their orders.” Crow asked himself. But he knew the truth. After having his worth proved in the military, more often than not, he was given goals and not comprehensive orders. While Crow was never excessively ruthless, some of his choices were morally dubious.

    He scratched his bandage. “Well, my eyes are going to close sooner or later anyway.”

    Instead of worrying about the possibility of meeting his tentacled acquaintance, he decided to spend his time worrying about something else. Thinking if he got far enough, from the battle, and if the death of the patrol was already discovered or not, was also a pressing issue. He shut his eyes slightly, and almost instantly fell asleep.

    ***

    Lamp. He could see it clearly, in all its simplicity. Yet, with simplicity came unparalleled beauty. If there was something close to ideal in this universe, it was probably this lamp. Crow looked around, his trance-like state was slowly washing away, as he understood, what was happening. Thankfully, there was neither the boatman nor his boat present.

    Complete darkness was laying in every direction. Crow glanced at the lamp.

    Not hoping to hear an answer, but more from the desire to break the silence he spoke aloud.

    “Why is this happening? Why I am here?”

    No one answered. He approached the lamp, extending his arm to touch it but stopped few inches away. What if this was a trap laid down by the boatman? Crow shook his head. The mere presence of this artifact clouded his mind. He wished only to make it his prized possession.

    Probably, if it were him before the dive, he would’ve done that. Not because he was too careless, but from being intoxicated with power, and never encountering entities such as the cursed boatman. Crow stepped away from the lamp.

    “If I am truly fated to wield such an artifact in my life, then another opportunity will arrive in due time. I’m sorry, but I’m too weak right now. Not worthy of the honor.” He murmured under his breath. Leaving the lamp here pained him, but there was no guarantee, that it was possible to take out anything from his “dream” in the first place.

    As he was walking backward, everything was consumed by darkness.

    ***

    Upon waking up, Crow felt an annoying feeling. As if something was itching inside his forehead. He took out a mirror, to inspect himself, but everything seemed fine. He hurriedly gathered his belongings, while his juuga was eating, and departed. Staying in one place for too long was asking for trouble.

    His travels took him farther up to the north. Mountains that could be only guessed in the morning were almost within his reach towards the evening. He didn’t rest for the night, though. Feeding his juuga with priceless elixirs, he continued to move forward. By the middle of the night, he began ascending the mountain. Wishing to get discovered by his familiar’s spies, who had nests in this mountain chain, his best bet was to climb to the highest possible spot.

    When sun showed itself on the horizon, he was already halfway to the top. He had to dismount a few times and lead his juuga with reins, but the climb wasn’t excessively difficult.

    When he finally decided to take a break, it was late in the morning, and his ride was barely able to move further.

    “I’m sorry, friend. You’ve got one hell of an abusive owner. Have a good rest.”

    Crow threw out few vials down from the mountain creating green colored spots. This was certain to attract anyone’s attention, but he hadn’t much choice. Judging by the pointers, given by one of the patrolling magicians, he was a good distance away from the hideout. It will take at least one full day for Bragi to arrive here, and this is not adding the time Crow needs to spend just waiting to get noticed.

    “What kind of blind spies is he growing up here.” He furrowed his brows. Meeting Bragi as soon as possible was crucial. Reconnaissance and sleep guard provided by his familiar were amongst many things, Crow required, to improve his chances of survival. “I hope he grabs our belongings with him. Detouring back to the hideout is out of the question.”

    Original plans to visit the heart of the desert seemed as distant as Alra’s two moons, by now. Crow wished to leave Abukar as soon as possible.

    Not long afterward, a flock of birds flew into the area. Almost instantly they surrounded Crow, making disgusting squeaking and screeching sounds.

    *Sreech*

    “What kind of breed is that? Couldn’t you find anything less annoying?” He threw his question into the flock.

    “Hell kid! Is that your gratitude? Where are your manners?” Bragi’s voice was transmitted through one of the birds. "What's with your hand?"

    “I'll explain later. Where are you right now?” Crow could only tiredly ask.

    “You lucky, to have me as your familiar. Give me twenty minutes, I’m on my way”.

    *Sreech*

    “I am lucky.” He smiled, before adding “And please tell these things to shut up. Or I’m having a bird meat, for my dinner today.”

  • edited April 2017
    Part 15 - The Tower(1)

    “…getting to the mountain.” Crow was retelling the events of the last few days. “I have this feeling, Bragi, that we should get out of Abukar as soon as humanly possible. I overstood my welcome here.”

    “What about the corpses? Have you cleaned them up?” Bragi asked.

    “Cleaned them? I couldn’t even pry their pockets open. And even if I did, there are still divination spells. The only thing that saves me is that my current power is so low, it’s virtually impossible to track me.”

    Bragi nodded.

    After discovering his master’s disappearance, Bragi searched the surroundings of their hideout. Seeing how traces of Crow’s existence have disappeared into thin air, he figured out, that his master got teleported.

    Bragi couldn’t tell, how far Crow got teleported, though. Thus, he decided, to wait for him at the mountain chain. It was his network’s breeding grounds and almost the center of Abukar continent. If Crow was still on the same continent, he would surely head toward there.

    Bragi finally finished inspecting Crow. “You’ve got cursed.”

    “How unexpected. It is because I smashed that mummy’s head?”

    “Probably. And you would be dead already, if not for the lucky coincidence of having your domain change the flags previously.” He flew towards his favorite place recently, juuga’s head. “Your curse is extremely potent one. It drains Arcana out of its host, and uses the gathered energy to randomly teleport him.”

    “Sounds dangerous.”

    “It is. But the curse’s purpose is not to take you on a peaceful excursion. It is powerful enough to suck even archmages dry after few times. I wonder if that mummy actually knew the real purpose of the spell. For you though, there is nothing to fear. Well, apart from randomly teleporting into one of the Dead Kings towers, that is.”

    “Well, I still got warped. Where had it gathered energy from? Surroundings? Isn’t it too complicated for a curse?”

    “Complicated? That’s one of the weakest curses in existence!” Bragi chucked. “Grow up faster kid. There is still so much to this world. I estimate that sightseeing tour schedule will be around every month or so. But if something or someone was to artificially feed the curse, it could be more often.”

    “Sounds ominous and promising at the same time.” Crow was quick to gather hidden intent behind his familiar’s words. “Can you force me to teleport?”

    “Sure. Think of that, as your hidden trump card. Although it will put you in danger sooner or later.”

    “It did so once, already. Should save my life next few times.” Crow tried to remain optimistic. “Also, I need to focus on creating my weapons. Where are my belongings?”

    “I left them on the other mountain. I will guide you there after you rest.”

    Crow yawned. “Okay.” He could finally sleep, without fear of encountering any danger.

    ***

    “Shit!” Crow got a minor burn, from the arcane cannon. “I need to solve the overheating problem, or it’s going to be just an expensive piece of garbage.”

    He frowned. He knew about six different ways how to solve the issue, but the materials required were simply unavailable on Alra. It would take an industrial revolution or two, to get the proper parts. Spending a thousand years here, just was not in his plans.

    “I guess, I just have no other choice. But it will become very cumbersome.” He debated inwardly.

    By creating an intricate system of inscribed pipes and preferably few fans here and there, which he can later store in a casing and wear in the form of a backpack, Crow could create an improvised water cooler. The drawbacks were bad, though. Not only such a backpack would be cumbersome to wear, but it will also increase the expenditure of mana crystals almost twice if he was to unleash the full potential of his cannon.

    It wasn’t unmanageable, per se, but it constrained the use of his most powerful piece of equipment even further.

    “The only other option I have is to channel Void from my domain into the cooling system’s carvings, but I don’t know to compose the runes properly. Hell, I don’t know even a single rune word itself.” He contemplated. “And I can’t spend the time to learn it properly either. Without the Alphabet, it could take years, if not decades. But where could I get it?”

    Crow had no idea. It was possible that such an Alphabet doesn’t even exist in the first place. He was currently growing a power inside him, that humanity never even heard of. It was more than possible that entities versed in the knowledge of Void existed, but there was no guarantee, they shared their knowledge. And even if they did, just where could he find them?

    “No, I’m not thinking about it from the right perspective. I don’t need to look for something that is not within my reach. Instead, I need some kind of a converter, that will reshape Void into Arcana, and will allow me to use inscriptions properly again.”

    He was walking back and forth while bashing against the problem.

    “Void converted Arcana inside my domain. Then the reverse process should also be possible. Also, the conversion rate without the help of external tools was one to around a thousand. It means that I could reach a number around one-to-five conversion rate, or close to it. But just how can I do that?”

    Crow desperately required a good laboratory and a lot of time.

    “All right. I guess I’ll have to do with the resources I currently possess. Cannon is usable to some extent, right now. Sidearm, on the other hand, is perfectly fine, and it alone should allow me to rival the lowest circle or two. If I manage to finish Rah’s task, then I will go into seclusion for a few years, and focus on my problems, but not earlier than that.”

    He put his sidearm into a holster and hid the cannon into the bag. While this weaponry couldn’t come even close to rivaling his old self, but finally having at least some form of self-defense pleased him immensely. Especially after the clash in the desert.

    “Bragi.” He called his familiar. “It’s time for us to leave. We’re heading towards Ab Rici.”

    ***

    After packing up his belongings, Crow had to make a small detour back towards the desert. Traversing directly through the mountain chain would be too troublesome, so he had to travel through the Howling Pass. This was a risky venture, as on his way, he would have to get dangerously close to two of the Dead Kings Towers, but he had no choice. To the east of Noqir mountain chain, on a river Neborso the capital of Abukar Oasis was situated. To the west, on the other hand, was Sarci and South Gate Guild.

    With the help of his companion, Crow could easily avoid patrols, whose numbers skyrocketed after the recent incident. He dodged and weaved like a madman, around them, sometimes laying low at one place for hours, while Bragi took care of deception spells. At other times he rushed his juuga, at top speed, to squeeze his way between two crossing patrols.

    “Bragi, that’s a bit too much, to hunt just for me. If anything, they should think that I’m already miles away from the desert. What they are actually looking for?” He was confused by the activity of Abukar magicians.

    “I have no idea myself. Maybe it is somewhat related to the activity in the mountains, I told you about a few days ago.”

    “Well, even if it is, I hope they will finish with their business soon. With current development, I doubt we can get into the pass.”

    “We definitely should lay low, for the time being. My birds tell me that there is secluded ravine towards there.” He pointed in the direction of the mountain chain with his wing. “If they continue with patrols, or searches, or whatever they are doing, for more than two days, I think we would need to leave juuga, and cross the Noqir chain by foot.”

    “We’d better not to. Losing mobility in given circumstances will undoubtedly affect us further down the road. Also, who will buy us a new mount? They are looking for me in every city, have you forgotten?”

    “And you prefer to sit here, waiting to get discovered? Arguing now won’t lead us anywhere, let’s decide after few days.”

    After getting to the ravine, Crow immediately went meditating, leaving Bragi in charge of their defenses. After Void had overtaken his domain, Crow tried to meditate whenever possible. It was the same for him as before, the only difference being that he needed one-hundred times more exercises, to get back to his previous prime state. He had no other choice, but to allow his new power source, to slowly convert Arcana. Progressing any faster deemed impossible at this moment.

    He spent many hours recently, pondering over the conversion process, but not having access to proper equipment, to conduct the experiments on the matter, he could only blindly theorize.

    “I’ve got bad news, Crow!” Bragi suddenly cried out. “Group of twenty some mages are on their way directly towards us.”

    “Are you sure about that?” Crow felt alarmed.

    “Yes, I made my birds double check. They are indeed coming after you.”

    “Not good. How they managed to find me? My imprint after the battle in the desert should be minimal.” He asked Bragi while saddling his ride.

    “Either you left more traces, then you think, or I screwed up when I was packing our stuff.” Bragi’s tone contained a hint of apology. Crow figured that his familiar made a mistake.

    “Bragi, what exactly did you left behind?”

    “Probably forgot to destroy one of the golems.” He answered with a guilty look.

    “At least nothing of importance. Still, that gives them enough objects to track me down. Where should we head to?”

    “Mountains are out of the question, We need to win me some time so that I can obfuscate your tracks. Let’s head back to the desert.”

    “Shit.” Crow cursed under his breath. He was stuck at the same place for almost a month now. Now that his enemies knew his precise location, laying low was out of the question. “That corpse fucked me up hard. Why on earth it was on that ship?”

    Crow rushed his juuga, boiling with hatred towards the remnants of the dead king aboard Floating Fortress. If not for that sarcophagus, he would never have had such problems in the first place. Robbed caravan couldn’t even compare to the importance of the sacred relic in Dead Kings’ eyes.

    After all this time, he finally began to regret his decision to become a buccaneer for one day.

    “They will be able to catch up to us in no time. We can’t just bury our hands in the sand, and hope for the best.”

    “I have an idea. We can rush to the Crystal Planes. The level of emissions there is high enough, that I can’t even control my spies properly. There is probably an Arcana depleted zone there.”

    “Even if it’s true, and they won’t chase after us into the plains, it’s still basically cornering ourselves. Not counting the mutated wildlife that runs loose in that place.”

    “That’s why I said, I have an idea. Even three, depending on the situation. Just trust me.”

    “If they catch me, I will return from the grave to haunt you.” Crow said with a solemn expression on his face.

    Bragi only laughed in return. “Have I ever let you down before?”

  • Thanks for the chapter!
  • edited April 2017
    Thanks! It's very pleasant to read a comment like that to your novel, after spending so much time, on Wuxiaworld. I hope you enjoy the story so far.
  • Part 16 - The Tower(2)

    One small dot could be seen from the bird’s eye view, traversing the desert at breakneck speed. Behind twenty-two, others were chasing it, formed into a triangle formation.

    “For the love of First Empress.” Crow cried out desperately. The group on his tail was breathing down his neck for roughly ten minutes already.

    A loud bang occurred nearby. Sand flew out in all direction, covering Crow and his mount. It was already a thirteen explosion in a short period of time. If not for Bragi creating mirages that, up till this moment, were the primary targets of incoming magic missiles, Crow would’ve already be done for.

    “Crow, two hours!” Bragi shouted out. Crow immediately altered his course, running into the pointed direction for a short while, before returning back on track.

    Bragi was creating another set of mirror images. At times, Crow continued to run straight ahead, but mostly he had to change his position to trick the chasing party.

    Opponents were not taking them lightly. Spells they utilized were akin to artillery fire, and even a slight mistake on Bragi’s part would lead his master to a certain demise. Both Bragi and Crow were cursing under their breath, desperately waving on the sands, avoiding the constant onslaught of magic.

    “I have finished with preparations.” Crow told his companion after dropping a bottle into the sand before him.

    Expenditure of resources this time was enormous, and it pained Crow’s heart immensely. Seventeen bottles he dropped just now, were his most valuable possession amongst the combat potions. What’s worse, he was certain, that his precious elixirs would at best give him enough time to take a breather.

    “Why on earth, am I so bad with alchemy.” He thought regretfully. Master in the ways of Alchemy, could be a force to be reckoned with, even without a trace of a gift. Without any resources, it would’ve taken no more than a month for Crow, to become filthy rich, if he was proficient in the art.

    Another explosion occurred, this time way too close for his liking. Blastwave could be felt, as strong gusts of wind almost sent his juuga rolling on the sand.

    “They began targeting between mirages, at high dispersion rates. We won’t hold on for much longer against this wear and tear strategy.”

    “How the fuck do they manage to sustain this barrage? I swear, they have the best master-slave matrix formations, amongst countless worlds I’ve been in.” Crow complained. “Twenty seconds, Bragi. Go all out.”

    “This is so troublesome!” Bragi muttered. Rush of arcane energy could be felt, as countless images of Crow appeared, surrounding them from every direction.

    Although the power of Bragi’s illusion spells was immense, even if he was as masterful in the way of battle-magic, he still wouldn’t be able to put a dent in the formation of chasing party.

    Tow polarities of magician’s gift existed. Like oil and water, a magician from one pole couldn’t mix really well with the representative of the other. The reason being that sorcerer polarity, one both Crow and Bragi belonged to, was categorized as wild magic.

    From ten casts of the same spell by a sorcerer, not even two of them would be the same. It didn’t go so far as to make one acid arrow exquisite in its characteristics, for example, while the other one subpar in all aspects. But the difference was still noticeable.

    This was both a drawback and a blessing for sorcerers, for that it allowed them to channel magical energy with incredible ease. On the other hand, though, their magic, being chaotic at its core, disallowed them to participate in ritual spells, even with others from their polarity.

    Because of this, even if unimaginably powerful sorcerer were to fight against a well-trained stack of even mediocre representatives of another polarity, he would be guaranteed to lose.

    Forced to be lone wolves all their lives, many of the sorcerers preferred to spend their lives conducting research, supervising the harvest or in other peaceful ways.

    The second polarity had many names, be it scholar, sage or simply magician polarity. While casting magic for them, was a more difficult task, their strength laid in numbers. The fact that, sorcerers were scarce in quantity, with one being born for every one thousand or so scholars made the latter, de facto rulers of the Arcane world. To top it off, there were two types of a special formation magic, called master-slave matrix and nexus chain respectively.

    When three or more scholars of the same caliber entered into a nexus chain, each one of them could enjoy all the benefits of a sorcerer polarity, without its drawbacks. Each additional member only pushed the limit further.

    Master over the army of slaves, on the other hand, with sufficient amount of followers could turn heaven and hell upside down with a mere thought. When humanity discovered this formation for the first time, it was immediately claimed as “nuclear weapons of the new age.”

    With all of this in mind, not Bragi nor Crow at his prime, even combining forces together, they would be unable to even scratch the party that was chasing after them. Their only choice was conducting guerrilla warfare, using misdirection, and outmaneuvering their adversaries.

    “Detonate!” Crow yelled from the top of his lungs when another explosion occurred nearby.

    Bragi waved his wings and time seemingly froze at that instant. Storm of arcane energies caused by the detonation of almost seventeen elixirs ripped the land behind them into pieces. Electricity was arcing upon the glacial vapors. Poisonous clouds were set ablaze, once contacted with waves of raging fire. One huge magical reaction after another was ravaging natural flow of Arcana in the area. Massive blast wave hit Crow again, this time in the back. It set him, his juuga and Bragi flying forward.

    Crow felt appreciation to the fact that everything was happening in the desert, the moment he face-planted into the ground. If not for the sand softening the landing, his neck would undoubtedly snap.

    Crow jumped up on his legs, grabbing his raven by one of the legs, getting him out from the sand, and rushed towards the juuga.

    “Let me go you little shit! Impudence! I’m fine on my own.” Bragi cursed.

    Quickly assessing the damage to his mount, Crow felt a surge of happiness. If something were to happen with his juuga, Crow’s position would’ve become miserable. Taking a glance, at what was going on behind, he felt terrified and awed at the same time.

    The landscape was devastated. At places, the sand was burning and melting into the glass. At other parts, it was covered by a thick sheet of ice. Pulses of arcane energy were wildly soaring through the place, as arcs of violet lighting. Rifts could be seen open, flooding the area with boundless arcane energy that continued to fuel the ongoing madness.

    “Shit, they might actually die, from that.” In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t imagine that his flasks were capable of doing something so terrifying. “Bragi, just what exactly you did?”

    “A bit of this, a bit of that. Don’t let it get in your head, kid. They are still alive, I can tell you this much. It looks flashy, but the effect is not that astonishing. It can’t rip through their barrier. Let’s move, I’ve bought us some time.”

    Time was all that mattered at the moment. Crow saddled up and ran for his life.

    ***

    A few hours later, Crow felt desperate again. Bragi reported that one of his spies sighted their tail twenty minutes away from them. Their numbers still the same.

    “Those shitheads aren’t going to let the matter drop, aren’t they?”

    “Well, it’s your fault for disturbing the bee hive with a stick and not with a stone. You know, you could have just left Oasis, without robbing a huge caravan that arrives once in every five years.”

    “If not them, I would have to rob someone else. Attacking my enemy was still better than wreaking havoc in the random petty kingdom.” Crow parried. “I regret nothing because there was not too much of a choice, in the first place.”

    “True. But it will be worth it, only if we can make it out alive from Abukar. Crystal Plains are not too far ahead, though.”

    A few moments later, Crow gasped in astonishment.

    “The hell? Bragi what’s there?” Crow pointed slightly towards the east.

    “Eh, should a magician tower. How do you know?”

    “I can clearly see a pillar of energy soaring into the sky. Tower’s core is falling apart.”

    “Oh. It’s a great opportunity for us, then. We can use the failing core to force your curse into teleporting you far away.”

    “Isn’t it a bit too dangerous? We don’t know how much it destabilized. If it’s on the verge of collapsing, we will be dead, before we can even understand it.”

    “If you can see the pillar, it means the release of energy only recently begun. We’re good to go. In fact, the tower can even be repaired to some extent, at this stage.” Bragi’s tone slightly worsened. “It arises another problem though, all of the guarding sigils should be still functioning. But I say, we should try it anyway.”

    “Well, this idea sounds better than riding into ancient battlefield, that left a lingering scar on the surface of Alra.” Crow altered his course. With the ability to see magic, bypassing the security of the tower wouldn’t be too much of a hassle. “Still, how come, such a powerful core, is falling apart? Whose tower is this?”

    “Probably one of the deceased Dead Kings. I bet the live ones couldn’t plunder it, so they just decided to wait, before it deactivates. We may very well, struck it rich this time.”

    “Hope so.” Crow caressed one of his bags. The resources were dwindling way faster than he initially calculated.

    “Opportunity arises from the ashes of tragedy. It’s too good to be true, but it’s worth to take a risk.” He reasoned.

    ***

    Magicians tower was standing before him. It was made from huge blocks of black marble and inscribed with sickly green runes. Adorned with bones of animals and humans alike, it radiated a pressuring, dominating, atmosphere.

    “Almost like from the anti-magician propaganda slides, from hundreds of years ago.” Crow chuckled. “Who lived here previously? A child devourer?”

    When his feet touched the ground again, he had no more than three minutes, to penetrate the defenses of the tower.

    “Who are you to criticize this magician’s tastes? You don’t even have a tower of your own.”

    “Bragi, are your feelings hurt? Perhaps you like how it looks, too?”

    “Don’t get on my nerves kid. It really is disgusting. But don’t approach a creation of an archmage lightly. Especially one, who managed to perform a mummification ritual.” Bragi parried.

    Crow inspected the tower. Incantations covering its surface were indeed a masterpiece. He felt a sting of regret, for making fun of someone who was almost equal to him, in terms of mastery over rune carving.

    “We don’t have enough time for probing, we have to do it the hard way. Hide into my domain.” Crow ordered to Bragi.

    Most magicians preferred to leave a backdoor in the defenses. There were various reasons for it, but mostly it was harder to keep the core key of his own tower, then one might imagine.

    This tower, was not the case, however. At least there was no easy way to enter, that Crow noticed. He sighed gazing at the view, only he could see. Arcane energies were vibrating everywhere, before him. Each one of them was a deadly trap. Some were constantly moving about, while others contracted and expanded at unpredictable amplitudes.

    “I have three minutes to get into the inner defense perimeter, or I’m toast.”

    While he was gathering all the necessary equipment from his numerous bags, a thought crossed his mind.

    "Why I feel like I am becoming less of a mage and more of a thief recently?" He shook his head and threw a silver rope forward.

  • Part 17 - The Tower(3)

    Warning in advance, that there will be no Friday part. As I am going to go over all of the already released parts, and fix the mistakes both in writing style and in grammar. There's probably more than I'd like to acknowledge even for myself, and this needs fixing. And, well, I decided that the weekend from Thursday to Monday should be invested into fixing mistakes, and improving foundations, rather than rushing ahead. I would like to thank everyone, who was following the story so far and didn't give up reading when 'Floating Fortresses' suddenly turned into 'Flying' ones in the middle of the same part and stuff like that. My 'exhaustion' fueled writing at some of the days was.. well I hope that it was not that bad.
    Cheers.
    Also, if you have any critique to the story so far or quality of my writing please feel free to point my nose to them at any moment. But doing it before Friday will incredibly helpful, because of the aforementioned reasons.


    Crow took a deep breath in. His tail was swiftly closing in on him. In front of him, however, a multitude of traps was lying, obstructing his way towards the tower. Looking like various geometrical figures, these inscription patterns shimmered with all possible colors. He would require exerting full control over his body and reflexes to make it through.
    Crow memory suddenly pulled out a piece, buried deep within. Back in his academy years, his friend showed him a vintage film, back from the previous era. There was a woman, who dodged laser beams in a narrow white corridor. Such abilities, back at the time, were considered supernatural among humans. By the end of the first millennia of Revelation Era, though, this was nothing out of the ordinary.
    Almost thousands of years of constant exposure to magic and scientific researches in the field of genetic engineering, significantly bolstered average human’s physique. One of the most noticeable differences being the average lifespan of a person. It was pretty common even for ungifted ones to have a life expectancy way over two hundred years.
    Concerning those with a gift, even now, no one dared to predict. First Emperor and Empress were rumored to be alive even now, almost nine hundred years after they resigned from the throne, and let their children take over. And they were the amongst the first, who signified the beginning of new era.
    As a man in service, and a trained farscape scout, Crow was subjected to even more of such genetic alterations. His reaction time and reflexes could be considered inhuman, even within his generation.
    One step, two steps three steps… He calculated the path in his mind, taking note of the terrain, the timing between the ‘traveling sentries’ and taking into considerations possible dead ends, Crow was drawing a mind map of his route.
    Some traps were in the inactive state at the moment, and would only uncover when an enemy was about to appear near them. It was impossible for Crow, to notice their slight magical emanation now, as they were hidden behind the operating traps and the collapsing core, which constantly showered the surroundings with huge waves of energy.
    “Now!” His body rushed forward, his movements swift and precise.
    “Four steps, pause, dodge roll few meters to the right. Wait a few moments, then rush forward four meters, jump over the stasis field trap. Continue running in the same direction for ten more meters…” Thoughts were racing through his mind, as he covered the dangerous terrain.
    To avoid the storm, he must become one with the water. Having studied the pattern of movements, Crow could almost feel the sliver of will behind the creation of this defense system. Looking at him from the side, one could think, that Crow was dancing on his way back home.
    Suddenly, a hidden trap appeared right in front of him. He froze in the air, his upper body leaning forward at an unnatural angle. Using his legs as a lever, he made himself fall backward, evading another one of the circulating traps.
    He, then, began closely following it for almost ten full seconds. Being struck between two such spinning disks of flames, Crow was waiting for an opening that would set him on another route leading towards the center of the defense formation. Undoubtedly, if he took a step into one of the disks, only his charred remains would be left behind.
    Once such an opening appeared, he immediately slipped his way into it.
    “Run three meters forward, dodge the flame sentry to the left, recover and wait for a second. Repeat the same pattern twice, faster and faster.” Making it halfway through the distance, it became both easier and harder from him to follow the right track. While the speed of the moving traps increased, so did his comprehension of the layout.
    A loud bang entered his ears. Thankfully it was way off from his current position. Squad that was chasing him all this time finally got into the combat range. But all the chaos that was happening because of the core’s decay made targeting spells almost impossible. Spells trembled like the leaves in the air, almost breaking apart from the pressure caused by the magical reaction at the heart of the tower.
    But it was too early for Crow to relax, yet. Although hitting him accurately was out of the question, when rain falls down, it doesn’t leave even a patch of grass unwatered. Magicians, who were giving chase, were quick to grasp the situation. Three of them ran off into the distance, possibly to use communication spells, and send reports about the current circumstances. The rest of them broke up their matrix-slave formation and began bombarding Crow with hundreds of weaker spells.
    “Shit, they are good. I hoped, there would be more time before they came up with this plan.” Crow frowned. Still, his attention was entirely focused on the task at hand. To him, the clusters of spells falling on his head, in all their inaccuracy, was but another part of the equation he was solving at the moment.
    He slid under the trap, that was triggered, by one of the approaching flaming arrows. This one actually helped him quite a bit, turning one of the dead ends into a, twenty meters long, safe zone for him.
    Getting ever closer to the tower, only around a fifth of the way was left to traverse when a series of incidents struck him. When he was just about to jump over another stasis trap, an icicle landed in front of him, triggering the stasis effect. He was lucky enough, to avoid being captured by it, but this caught him completely off beat.
    Flame sentry that was approaching from the left side was about to corner him, into the trap with an unknown effect to his right. Having his escape routes cut off, Crow had no time left for a maneuver. Choosing the lesser of two evils, he took his sidearm into the right hand, rotating the barrel to a high-dispersal mode, and in an amazing feat of acrobatics, he jumped over the flame sentry.
    An icy mist created from his weapon somewhat resisted the flames from the defense mechanism. But the fire was just too intensive, to be subdued by such a weak cloud. It struck him midair, burning his robe, and charring his skin. Crow let out a shriek of pain, upon landing, quickly chugging a regeneration potion, from his dwindling supplies.
    Even severe burns, when treated with the help of regeneration potions, could be considered as only a mild injury. But they were one of the most annoying ones. They tended to itch so hard, that it actually could drive you insane. His body shivering, from all the recovery process, Crow continued to tumble around in one place, while he recalculated a possible route in his head.
    He was half-expecting that magicians who gathered at the entrance to the death maze would use his setback, to lock their spells onto his position. But contrary to his expectations, not a single spell was fired at him. Crow was dumbfounded, by this, but he had no time to think about it at the moment. The answer, however, did not let him waiting for too long, as a thundering voice could be heard from the crowd.
    “Planeswalker, if you manage to find a safe spot, before entering the tower, we wish to negotiate something with you.” The voice was solemn, but it hadn’t contained even an indication of being intimidating.
    Crow, who was too concerned with dodging the traps could not reply at the moment. But such unexpected turn of events, made him ponder over the matter. He understood what the sudden change of hearts of his opponents meant.
    Good hunting dogs bark at the prey, only when ordered. And orders undoubtedly came directly from one of the Dead Kings. Overlords of Abukar Oasis have surely noticed an individual, who could safely navigate the death maze even they deemed too bothersome to deal with. Crow guessed that they were considering hiring him for themselves.
    And this picked his interest. It was possible for Great Eight to nullify his contract with Rah. Moreover, they could even grant him a permanent residence on Alra, which was the first step to establishing humanity’s foothold in this world.
    But Crow felt reluctant dishonoring the contract with Rah. Not only because Crow felt somewhat dedicated to fulfilling his part of the contract. He was loyal only to the Empire, and betraying random magician to pursue his goal wasn’t entirely out of the question.
    Still, Crow’s success in fulfilling the contract would skyrocket Rah’s opinion of him. And now, that Crow was but a worm in the world of powerful magicians, having someone strong indebted to him, would be more helpful in the long run.
    On the other hand, describing his standing with the Dead Kings with words like ‘hostile’ could be considered as a wishful thinking. It remained to be seen if they actually knew of his involvement in the caravan robbery, but he at least could be accused of killing two mages in the desert. They will be quick to gather the facts and trace his way back to Rah if he contacts them directly.
    “This, and it just doesn’t sit right with me.” He muttered under his breath, finally reaching the walls of the tower.
    While he couldn’t be described as the most honorable of beings, for his enemies. Not thinking twice before going as far as ‘befriending’ them, only to backstab them in the end. But for those who relied on him, even if they weren’t tied too closely in the first place, Crow would never commit such a heinous act.
    “To whom can I send my servant too, to negotiate over the matter?” He cried out from the top of his lungs. This phrase alone should suffice to buy him some time. Maybe enough to get out of the Abukar Oasis.
    “Any of the great towers in Abukar.” Magician responded.
    “I will send my request shortly then. And as a gesture of my good will, I have a recommendation. Leave the vicinity of this tower in the next eight hours or so. The core is failing.” They would have gathered as much in few hours, but telling them now, could win some trust for him. Not willing to wait any longer, Crow approached the tower’s door and began inspecting the locking mechanisms on it.
    He frowned, slightly. It will take more time than he hoped, to crack it open.
    ***
    Interior of the tower was luxurious, to say the least. In contrast with its grim exterior, there were no hints of skulls or bloody imprints inside. Interior was adorned with exquisite materials. Floor made from white marble with veins of gold inside it. Expensive silk curtains hanging on the walls. Beautiful paintings on the walls.
    Crow had seen works of professional designers and architects in his life, in homes belonging to both nobility and directors of corporations alike. Still, he couldn’t help but feel slightly astonished. Although interior felt incredibly wealthy, it never crossed the line of being distasteful. Its previous owner actually had quite an eye for design.
    “A place suiting for a dark overlord.” Bragi pointed to Crow his judgemental mistake.
    “Oh, shut up." Crow was still irritated by the constant itching of his body. "Who knew, this guy would try employing such a cheap tricks to disguise the appearance of the tower. Did he actually went through the trouble of maintaining a shady character all his life?” He wondered. “And not, that it helped him in the long run, anyway.”
    “That is true also. Anyway, back to business, what is the color of the beacon?”
    “Just before I entered into the tower, it became pure white. As I understand, it should start dissipating right about now?”
    “Yes. But we should have more than enough time, to take everything we fancy worthwhile. Let’s take a little excursion, shall we?” Bragi flew onto Crow’s shoulder.
    *Caw*
    “By the way, you really think about betraying Rah?” He asked with somewhat worried tone.
    “So, you were listening.” Crow’s face became solemn, as he once again began his search for hidden traps. “No, I just tried to stall for time.”
    “Good. I would be against it.” Bragi nodded. “This tower, I wonder where are all the servants. There’s not even a speck of dust in here.”
    “Well, conservation might be one of the explanations.”
    “No, trying to conserve such a large amount of space would have left detectable traces. I’m afraid they are aware of intruders, and workers hid, waiting for the guardians to resolve the problem.”
    “Then maybe the decay of the Core?”
    “Also not an option. It will power all the devices attached to it, until its last breath, so to speak.”
    Crow frowned slightly. Fighting with golems, or skeletons, wouldn’t be troublesome for someone strong enough to penetrate the outer defenses of the tower. That’s why magicians rarely bothered with guardians, relying mostly on traps. But this was an archmage’s tower. Who knew, what kind of monstrosity he could have bound to the place, in order to protect his belongings.
    “Well, whatever the reason, it’s not like we can turn back, and walk…” Crow stopped dead in his tracks. “Is that a pressure plate?” He was looking at almost unnoticeably raised part of the rug, he was about to step onto.
    “Oh. This one went out of his way, and actually installed mechanical traps.” Bragi praised the former owner of the place.
    “Tsk. Smart fucker.” This was a game changer to Crow. Relying on his sight, he could easily navigate his way around the tower, avoiding magical traps easily. The same had not held truth for mechanical ones, however. “Bragi, how good are you at terrain reading spells?”
    “What am I, a spell book?” He responded with an irritated look. “No, the ones I have, are not precise enough for searching pressure plates and the like.”
    “Well, it’s better, than nothing. Please, use it.”
    *Caw*
    Bragi looked dissatisfied but still made the appropriate preparations.
    “Crow, you know, that you rely too much on me? When you were a pup before, I never went out of my way in helping you to this extent.”
    “And I never knew the full extent of your abilities, Bragi.” Crow parried. “I don’t know even now. For example, what was that humongous form, you appeared in, in the Void? Can you do it right now? And what kind of spells were you using? I have never seen constructs even remotely resembling that shadow spectacle.”
    “I hope, you are not expecting for me to answer your questions?” Bragi’s eyes gleamed.
    “I never did.”
    Crow continued to navigate through the tower. He already opened the locks, on the door leading to the central staircase. The first floor was nothing more than the hall, to meet the guests. Crow doubted, though, that previous owner of the place received any guests whatsoever, judging by the façade.
    Any respectable magician had a lot of different facilities in his home. First and foremost, was the tower’s energy source, its core. It usually was placed somewhere in the middle of the tower, as not to make it too vulnerable to penetration both from the top or from the bottom. It was also the main reason for Crow’s visit in the first place.
    Then, depending on the magician, the tower could hold just about anything. Research facilities, botanical gardens, experimental rooms, golem workshops, inscribing rooms, enchanting rooms, alchemy labs, crystallarium and the like. But there were always two things in common. A library and a treasury. Crow wished to lay his hands on both.
    He ascended to the second floor, and spent some time lockpicking the door, only to discover it was used as a kitchen and a dining room.
    “Waste of space.” He grumbled and moved forward.
    The third floor was used as a bedroom and a bath. Crow spent some time, rummaging through the lockers and chests, discovering plenty of enchanted clothes. He stored them away in his bags, with hopes of selling or salvaging them later. He also found a comfortable pair of black pants and a shirt. But then, his gaze fell onto a thick black overcoat.
    It was truly a masterpiece both in the department of enchanted apparel and in its looks. It had silver buttons with emblems depicting a dragon. From top to bottom, each button represented a different stage in dragon’s lifecycle, from hatching from the egg to sitting on, what Crow guessed, was a huge mountain of treasures. Although there was not much space on the buttons, the workmanship was very clear and detailed.
    Overcoat itself was sturdy enough, to take a hit from an armor-penetrating bullet, or withstand a piercing strike from the enchanted sword. It also could protect its wearer from extreme weather conditions and, to Crow’s delight, could disguise its wearer appearance and even create mirror images, albeit clunky ones. Crow had never seen such an exquisite piece of clothing in his life. His heart was shaken by the sudden fortune.
    He immediately changed his burned rags into a new set of clothes. “Wow, it is also incredibly comfortable to wear.” Awed by his newly found treasure, he could see how this overcoat alone was enough to make his trouble navigating the traps worthwhile, even if only for the purpose of looting the tower.
    “Yeah, it really is nice.” Bragi complemented. It was rare for this old raven, to actually acknowledge the quality of any equipment below artifact grade.
    With burning eyes and full of hopes, Crow continued ascending the tower.

  • Part 18 - The Tower(4)

    Another one written late in the night. But after the chapters rework, I will finally return back on schedule, writing most of the weekly parts, during the weekends. The size of the chapters will eventually increase back to that of roughly 3k words per part.  So, see you next Monday. Thank you for reading. :3

     P.S. If there are any remarks about the story so far if you feel something is amiss or wasn't described well enough, or whatever you wish to tell me about the previous chapters, please do. It will be very helpful, to see such comments, before the editing.

    Upon ascending the last flight on the staircase, Crow was greeted by a metal grate. Central staircase abruptly ended, creating a buffer zone, of sorts. It was the last floor, before the core chamber. Looking through the metal cage, he could see a round room, devoid of all furniture. Both floor and walls were made of a low-key gray stone. At the far end of the room, another set of stairs could be seen, leading further upwards.

    "We made it this far." Crow smiled, satisfied with his progress. So far there were no life-threatening situations, and he was currently wearing a set of finest enchanted clothes. "Next floor should be the tower's heart, then another buffer zone, and finally the treasury, library and whatever else our benefactor were busy in his life, with."

    "Don't go overboard dividing the spoils, before you actually have them." Bragi reminded. "I have a strange feeling at the back of my head."

    "I'm not letting my guard down, Bragi. By the way, have you also noticed a strange odor in this room?" A slight, almost unnoticeable scent could be sensed in this room. It was reminiscent of citrus and metal.

    If Crow were still on the dining floor, he wouldn't bat an eye about this, but in this sterile gray room, this odor was sticking out like an eyesore. It made him feel strangely discomfortable.

    "Yes, and it makes me feel uneasy. It is almost if I encountered it before, but can't remember where exactly."

    Crow approached the door and began messing with the lock. It was on entirely another level, even compared to the lock of the main entrance into the tower, but nothing unmanageable. When he was about half-way done with it, a voice entered his ears.

    "Oh, so I finally have some visitor. Two visitors!"

    Crow felt a chill creeping over him. The voice sounded like it was created by metal gears grinding away at each other. He turned to its source, but before him, only a small crystal orb was laying about.

    "Possessor!" Bragi screamed in surprise.

    "Oh my, I have two visitors. And you are so knowledgeable, so knowledgeable!"

    "Crow," Bragi talked in the Japanese language. "Don't let this little shit fool you. His real body is probably hidden, either near the core or in the treasury. Slaying him in a possessed form is impossible for us at the moment. We should go with the flow, try not to provoke him."

    "Impudence! You are very rude. There are three of us in the room, please refrain from talking in your own language! Not in your tongue!"

    "Please forgive us, for our impoliteness.” Bragi immediately tried his best in appeasing the crystal ball. “It’s just, I’ve read so much about the possessors, that I couldn't contain my joy upon seeing one with my own eyes! I only wished to notify my companion about what incredible being we have encountered."

    While understanding the gravity of the whole situation, Crow could barely restrain a smile from appearing on his face. His familiar that never bothered with excessive honorifics suddenly exploded with them, when speaking with a small crystal sphere.

    "Indeed, this is the case. I am incredible. You are actually very polite.” The ball seemed pleased with raven’s ass licking. “As an excuse, for framing you with impoliteness, I will postpone your execution for trespassing my territory. Especially that it has been so long, I've met another intelligent being. Tell me, visitors, where have you come from? Where are you from?"

    Bragi and Crow looked at each other. Bragi already took the initiative to lead the negotiation with the possessor, and Crow was all up for it. It wasn’t the first time, for them to meet bizarre creatures. Bragi usually did the talking. His familiar’s encyclopedic knowledge of such entities sometimes led to unexpected results.

    While they were communicating with eye signs, the crystal sphere suddenly rolled up all the way to the cage. Crow was about to backpedal instinctively, but Bragi squeezed his shoulder with sharp talons. If not for the overcoat, this would‘ve undoubtedly left a wound.

    “We are two researchers from the place known as Patakat-Chou. We were conducting an experiment with dimensional gates, and because of a small mistake, we got thrown into this world.” Bragi let out a sigh. “Now we are searching for a way to return back home.”

    Oh, I see. And I guess, you decided to barge into this tower because you hoped to find a spatial room here?” 

    Only now, Crow noticed that the possessed crystal ball was exactly just that. It had no mouth to speak with. But he never heard of spell constructs that allowed one to generate sounds from thin air. This Void dive ended up being a huge eye opener. Mysteries were rolling from the corner one by one, yet he couldn’t even hope to find the right answers. At least for the time being.

    “Exactly.” Bragi nodded.

    “Well, bad news for you. Dreadful news.” It rolled even closer to the grate. “Although I can somewhat empathize with the story you told me, you should know well, that barging onto someone’s property is a crime. An atrocious crime!” Crystal ball preached. “This, and I don’t buy a single word of your lies! This mute boy, your ‘companion,' reeks of the Void and Primordials! Primordials and Void!“

    Crow felt an incredibly dangerous situation was about to unfold.

    “I will dismember your limbs, chop off your head and rip your bones out of your flesh, to use them as servants, to carry me around! You will carry me, until your bones turn to dust!”

    Energies began to fly about wildly, both from Bragi and the ball. The density of suddenly released powers was so high that Crow could feel as if boiling oil was poured over his body. Before the situation escalated, even more, he decided it was time to join the conversation.

    “Your master is dead,” He spoke nonchalantly. “In fact, both he and seven of his companions are all dead. I even smashed one of their corpses head, in an accident.”

    Crystal ball fell silent. It had no facial expression to judge what it was thinking about, but Crow decided to press the matter, nonetheless.

    “Your contract should have expired more than a hundred years ago. Still, you sit in this tower, even when it’s core is about to explode. Why haven’t you left?”

    Hostility slowly dissipated in the air. Possessor began making sounds for a few times but ultimately hadn’t uttered a word. Silence lasted for a while. Crow and Bragi were somewhat afraid to speak, not wishing to provoke the guardian again. Crystal ball, on the other hand, seemed to have a lot on his mind, to ponder about.

    “What are you looking for exactly, in this tower? Are you searching for something in it?”

    “We haven’t lied to you about this. We were hoping to use the core, to flee from Abukar.” Crow answered. Cards were on the table. There were no reasons, to hide anything.

    “And, why do you wish to flee? Why are you escaping?” Possessor asked. His quirk of always ending the sentence two times was annoying, but Crow wasn’t going to make a remark about it.

    “We’ve had some run-ins with the Dead Kings. Well, not them directly. But some commotion was created, and we need to run away as far away, as possible. There are twenty-two magicians, waiting for me, outside of the tower. If we can’t use the core, we are pretty much doomed.” Telling about his enmity with the Abukar’s overlords was risky. Crow couldn’t guess, how the ball will react to his words.

    Adding two and two together, and deducting, that the master of this tower fell, during a conflict with other Dead Kings, was a simple matter. But one can never judge correctly the reaction of a possibly insane guardian who was left to his own devices for gods know how long. Not having anyone to socialize with, not many creatures could actually bear such a burden.

    “I can’t imagine how someone so weak managed to provoke the council of eight archmages?”

    “Well, this is quite a long story are you sure you wish to hear it out?” Seeing as how Crystal ball slightly rolled forward, before assuming it’s original position, Crow decided it was a sign of approval. “Well, I underwent a certain process, back in my homeworld. I entered a spatial chamber…” He told his story, trying to avoid mentioning things, like his real goal on Alra, or that he originally planned to take everything he could, from this tower, that wasn’t nailed to the ground.

    Possessor left out a sound, resembling that one of a long sigh. “How exactly are you planning to use the core? From the looks of it, neither you nor your companion, are able to produce long range teleportation magic, even with the help of such a powerful power source. A source of energy which is indeed very strong.”

    “With the help of the curse.” Bragi decided it was his turn to answer. “Kid got cursed by some variation of a teleportitis. But because the curse itself is targeting the Arcana in the domain, he can actually use it to his own advantage, instead of dying from over exhaustion.”

    “Mhm?” Possessor was undoubtedly intrigued. “You’re luck could be described only as extraordinary. Very extraordinary!” He rolled in circles around the metal cage, making Crow and Bragi feel uncomfortable. “Tell me, bird, has your connection to Wheel of Fate been severed? Have you managed to severe it?”

    “Yes.”

    “If this is the case, then no wonder. Everything is really clear now, indeed.” He stopped his obnoxious rolling. A slight clinging sound could be heard, and the door opened, allowing Crow and Bragi to continue onward. “If I notice you are trying to do something funny, I’ll  rip your guts out. Follow me to the core, and do what you require. Do what needs to be done.”

    Crow somewhat hesitatingly followed. It seemed as if his plans to visit the tower’s library and treasury were turned to dust. Still, not having to risk his life fighting against the guardian, was a great turn of events. Especially considering, that the said guardian is actually going to let them use the tower’s core, their original goal.

    “Hurry up, I don’t have much time to bother with you. I will still need to make the repairs after your departure. When you finally depart.” He led them towards the next staircase.

    Crow was intrigued, how this round ball was going to traverse such a steep terrain, as stairs, considering his appearance. Somewhat to his disappointment, though, Possessor just simply floated into the air, ignoring any difficulties. Crow’s displeasure with the simplicity of the balls solution ended abruptly when they finally ascended to the heart of the tower.

    A giant stone sphere was floating in the air, letting out a dim blue light. Its surface was carved in intricate patterns. Like always, Crow memorized them to the best of his abilities. Although he never intended to create a tower of his own, there was just no worthless knowledge in the world, when magic was considered. Who knows, when he might encounter another core in the future, or even create one himself.

    “Take you time, but don’t overstay your welcome. You are really not welcome.” Crystal ball remarked. “Also, if you ever return, to settle your grudge with the Dead Kings, be sure to visit me. Then, you are going to be welcome here. Very welcome.”

    “Will do.” Crow nodded. If the day, for him to fight against the Great Eight actually comes one day, a guardian who knows some of their secrets, might become incredibly useful. Even a slightly crazy one.

    He approached the floating sphere, and let Bragi do all the needed preparations. Crow’s link to Arcana was long since severed. He couldn’t manipulate it, even if his life were to depend on it. As his body was enveloped in the cloak of blue mist, the scenery began to slowly fade away. When he finally could see again, he noticed that he was sitting atop of the mountain.

    “Shit.” He cursed. “For the love of First Empress, Bragi, please tell me, this is not the same mountain chain.”

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