Overseer Claust gave each and every one of his workers a blistering glare as he passed them by, making sure that they all had a pick in hand and were thorough in their labour. Fear of the Overseer stopping to 'prompt' them made each worker desperate to look efficient whenever the grizzled, apish man approached. He was well known for dealing out dreadful and creative punishments.
The heavy, clacking sound of the Overseer's metal capped boots continued to thunder down the open mining tunnel as he pressed on. For one unfortunate soul, this was the harsh stomping of oncoming doom. To all the miners working in the Echospar Excavation, this was a noise common to their withered ears. A visit from Claust could only mean one thing — that someone had violated the Miner's Code.
The footsteps stopped abruptly as Claust came to a frail old man whose skin hung from his face like tattered rags. He was feebly raising his pick and then swinging down, allowing gravity to do most of the work for him. The well-worn mattock blade struck the wall with little force; no more than a trickle of stone tumbling down with each swing.
The Overseer stood behind the old man with his arms folded, his bushy eyebrows inclined heavily and his foot tapping upon the hard surface of the tunnel. He coughed loudly but the old man gave no response; half deaf he assumed. Claust's arm moved forward and gripped a boney shoulder, squeezing tightly and drawing his lips close to the man's ear.
"I have something of yours, old man," he hissed, expecting the man to drop his pick with fright. But, with startling calmness, thankful for an excuse to be at peace for a moment or two, the fragile miner put down his pick and turned to his Overseer.
"Y-yes sir?" The man said, having trouble to force the words from his mouth. He had the stutter common in places like these spellstone mines.
Claust roughly took the Man's hand and thrust a pale green shard the size of an apple into his palm. "This is yours, am I correct?" he continued, slightly phased by his inability to frighten the clueless fool, "It was you who extracted this specific stone and delivered it to us no less than an hour ago?"
The Old Man nodded and smiled a toothless grin. The miners had been trained to memorize the size and shape of each stone that they pulled from the tunnel walls.
"Well then," growled Claust, his anger slowly swelling, "would you be so bold as to tell me what this is?"
The old man extended a crooked index finger towards the stone in his hand, ready to indicate its properties. "Th-this sir, is an arcane crystal ... a s-spellstone that h-hasn't been identified yet. It's a weapon that the mancers use for the w-war."
Claust tried, and failed, to suppress his anger. "Stupid fool!" he cursed, red-faced and saliva spraying from his mouth. "If you had bothered to look very closely, as you should have, then you would have noticed that this is not a spellstone! It is nothing more than an iridescent amberstone! It's idiots like you who turn in these blasted ambers! And we're all damned lucky that I have thirty men on the upper level checking for faults on all the stones that you miserable lot haul in. If the Indigo or Azure mancers find out that we've supplied them with worthless rocks there'll be hell to pay! It's all of our heads on the chopping block, mine included!" Claust's hands curled into tight fists, and it seemed for a moment that he might hit the miner, but he relaxed as he came up with a more appropriate fate.
The Old Man tried to swallow the lump of fear that was blocking his throat. "I'm sorry, sir, it was a small m-mistake. It won't happen again."
"Oh, you bet it won't," growled Claust with a malicious gleam in his eye, "You're coming with me. Your assistance is required elsewhere."
Gasps from the eavesdropping miners echoed around the dimly lit tunnel. They knew what this meant. It was the one thing that kept them going in the confines of this terrible prison, even against all the pain and torment that they had to endure while they worked ceaselessly. Anything was better than being sent to the research quarter of the Azure Monastery where mancers would use them as test dummies for their latest magical ideas and spells. Some slaves were lucky enough to act as targets for a destruction spell: their end would be quick and painless. However, it was the long term affliction tests that could have one screaming for hours upon end. A victim's soon-to-be fate would be the luck of the draw, just like the Old Man's.
The Old man nodded dumbly. It was obvious that he didn't have a clue about his true destination. "Would I be going h-home by any chance?"
Claust grinned. "If you call your home hell, then yes."
He bound the man's hands behind his back with a length of rope and marched him away from the rest of the miners. There were two common ways out of the Echospar Mine, and they were either death from hard labor, or a short trip to the Azure Monastery of Intellect on the surface above. To the miners neither option was desirable. Their dreams lay on the scenic plateaus that unfurled on the northern side of the Echospar Ridge, all of them wishing someday to be looking down from above to see their graves resting there or beyond. To them, that plateau was freedom.
One of the old man's neighboring miners put down his pick as he watched the two men walk slowly away. Talloran stared passively at the old man's hobbling walk, also giving equal attention to the furious Claust who was struggling to get him to keep up. For once he couldn't decide who to pity, as Claust was a man that spent unknown hours each day stampeding about the stuffy catacombs, filtering out all the slaves that were hindering his operation. The old man tripped on uneven terrain and fell to his knees, his rickety bones groaning in protest. But Claust was right on it, cursing and grabbing the man by his collar, jerking him to his feet. Every miner they passed knew that the Old Man was destined for trouble.
Dark and curious thoughts swirled about Talloran's head, most of them circulating around the Old Man's fate. He understood that his own fate was intertwined with the bucket of stones he had recently extracted from the rocky wall. He knew it would be wise to just take one last look at his collection before he turned them in to earn his daily ration.
He plunged his hand deep into the metal bucket and collected a vast array of different colored crystals. Picking through them, the first he extracted was a blood red color, and a small tell-tale spiritual glow could be seen swirling inside it like a tiny spiral galaxy. From what he could recall, this was a firestone used for the destruction mancers that specialized in the arcane elements of pyromancy, people that had the ability to manipulate fire to however they saw fit. The next stone he withdrew was a deep purple; a common single-use conjuration crystal that would terminate after use. But the third he observed was pale yellow and showed no magical properties. Obviously an amberstone! Talloran gave a sigh of relief and tossed it aside into another empty bucket, thankful that he hadn't turned the dud stone in. The thought of Claust coming back to torment him for such a small mistake was enough to chill his spine. He didn't want to follow the all too common path of the old man that had just left minutes ago. He had survived long enough in the mines without any problems and, with his reputation of turning in at least a dozen stones every day, he knew that his freedom would be granted to him soon.
The thought of freedom made Talloran pause for a moment, for normally he never found the time to think about such a thing of wonder. Mine this or mine that, haul that cart, set up this rigging, polish these stones, and most memorably, dispose of that miner's corpse, were all he could remember the Overseers screaming out from the last few days. He was a well built man, solid muscle earned from years of labor, tall, broad shouldered, and a sturdy frame. In his current state he had the potential to look handsome, though a nutritional deficiency and a dirty working place was keeping him in a haggard condition. Like all the slave miners, he was covered head to toe in dust, and his short brown hair was caked with dried sweat.
He gazed down the tunnel at the miners that were safely keeping to themselves, their minds eaten away by the darkness that loomed around them. Talloran could tell that he was different to them. He could see that the others had sadly come to accept that they belonged in the mine, that their only reason to live was to ensure that the spellstones they harvested were delivered to Azure mancers so they could continue an everlasting war on the surface against a delusional race of combat mancers called the Cerulean kindred. But Talloran felt that he was destined for so much more. There was a life outside this mine that he deserved, and if he wanted it badly enough, he could get it.
Owning a farm and cultivating crops on an outer-regional estate was something that he had dreamed of and knew was possible, but also finding a woman to fulfill his life was something that seemed too far out of reach. Due to the harsh conditions of the excavation, slave women were never brought to the mine, and as a result, Talloran had not had the luxury of feminine company for as long as he could remember. To compensate for this, he often imagined seeing women walking around the mine, gliding like friendly ghosts to those who were lonely, brightening their day. On the days that were excessively dull, he would find himself standing in the tunnel, happily flirting away with one of these beautiful imaginary girls, only to have the pleasant dream shattered when she took the form of Claust or another overseer patrolling down the tunnel to check on him.
The overseers existed solely to drive away whatever hope the slave miners had and turn them into mindless zombies. And so far, they had succeeded with most of them. Talloran, however, wasn't going to succumb to that cruelty. Somehow he was going to find what he was looking for. All he had to do was stay strong and hold out just a bit longer. But for his unfortunate old neighbor, this was no longer an option.
Talloran turned away, gathered up his pick and bucket of collected spellstones and trod down the tunnel in search of a new place to work. One thing he had come to find after working for so long underground, was that a change of location was quite comforting. Most miners saw a new workplace as just another wall of rock, but to Talloran, the different contours and lines he saw in the stone often formed fragments of his past — most notably the palm trees from the tropical islands from where he was raised — that kept him wondering, thinking, and well away from the edge of insanity that had claimed most of the miners that had come before him.
After a minute, the tunnel widened like a funnel until it spanned into a cavern with a small crack in the roof that let in a thin trickle of light. Talloran looked up. He was closer to the surface than he had expected. He found himself engrossed by the stream of light and continued to walk blindly, nearly stumbling into the ravine that suddenly appeared next to the path like a deep broad gash caused by a rusted blade.
"Watch your step!" warned a friendly voice that caught Talloran right before his foot went off the edge and into the pit of darkness.
A circle of light gleaming from a burning wall torch illuminated an aging slave whose arms and hands shook every time he lifted his pick. Talloran smiled at the familiar face and merely waved his hand as a token of gratitude. Because he had never managed to discover this slave's name, he had simply come to remember him as 'Jitters' because of his shaky nature. But that was something he thought would be best to keep to himself.
"Back again?" Jitters said as Talloran set his equipment up nearby and immediately got to work. "It feels like only yesterday that you were here. But then again, time does not exist down here in these mines. Our bodies are the only part of us that age."
Talloran swung hard with his pick and closed his eyes as rock chips sprayed into his face. "My neighbour was taken by Claust," he said stiffly. "I don't think we'll be seeing him again. In fact, I don't think anyone will be seeing him again."
Jitters raised an eyebrow. "You're worried that the mancers up in the monastery above may do horrible things to him? His fate doesn't concern you."
"That's not what I'm talking about," Talloran said and turned to look Jitters in the eye. "I'm afraid that I could be next."
Jitters chuckled and shook his head side to side. "Listen, friend, I've told you this before and I'll tell you again. You need to understand that the Azure Mancers aren't bad people. Yes, the very idea of slavery is horrific, and yes we should banish to hell every single man and woman that enforces it, but the Azure Mancers only use such methods because they have no other option."
"No other option?" Talloran said. "I'm amused at how you have such a soft spot for our captors."
Jitters ignored him. "The Azures don't have enough time and men to do the things that we do, and what we do is vital for their survival in this time of war. The Azures buy us from slavers, get their moneys worth, and then reward us with freedom if we do a good job. It's better than any other slavery system I've heard of. You should consider yourself lucky. The Ceruleans would not come close to offering us the luxury of slavery if they managed to capture us."
Talloran gripped his pick tightly and struck harder at the wall. "Maybe that's what it is," He said, swinging two more times and watching the rock tumble past his feet. "Maybe it's all been luck. Perhaps I've just been lucky in choosing the right place to mine all this time. What happens when my luck suddenly runs out and start struggling to turn in just one stone a day?"
Jitters put down his pick and showed Talloran his shaking hands. "If anyone is going to be next, friend, it will be me. Just look at the state I'm in! I can barely hold my pick without dropping it on my own foot! You need to stay focused and stay positive. You have siblings out there praying for your return. There's a future for you. As for me ... well, I've got nothing."
Talloran saw pain in Jitters's eyes and couldn't help feeling it within himself as well. Pushing aside the grim emotion that was not his to wear, he stopped his labor to catch his breath and wiped his sweaty brow with his arm. Sometimes anger helped him work, fueling him with hidden strength needed to break tough rock. But it was misery that he had to avoid at all costs, for it withered away the muscle and mind. Misery was contagious, and he could now see that Jitters was teeming with it.
Talloran went silent. Crowning his head with his arms, he leaned forward against the wall, feeling two beads of sweat slide down his forehead and drip from the tip of his nose. If an overseer caught him like this, he knew he'd be under the whip in a flash. But someone like Claust was easy to hear on approach, especially in his metal-capped boots.
Talloran breathed deep and subdued his heart, holding his breath while he listened to the way it hammered in chest — fast at first, and then slowing like a trotting horse easing into a walk. He felt the air swirling around in the cavern, bumping against his face like a gentle breeze, and in the background he could hear the occasional impact of pick against rock and the snap of a whip. It had been a long time since he had ever been so much at peace.
But at the exact moment he had achieved a state of mental calm, he suddenly felt an unexpected rush of energy move through the cavern wall and into his arms like a bolt of lightning, catching him completely off guard and overloading his senses. He recoiled sharply, taking a step back away from the wall and vigorously shaking his hands which were tingling all over. Within moments the surreal sensation was over.
Talloran shook his head, struggling to comprehend what had just happened. It had been an experience like no other.
"Did you just feel that?" He said to Jitters in both fear and wonder.
"Feel what?" Jitters looked as though he had just been snapped out of a daydream.
"That ... pulse."
Jitters lowered his pick and stared at him. "Pulse? You mean ... like a tremor?"
"No. More like a..." Talloran trailed off, unable to think of the words to describe it. "Look," he said. "Are you positive that you didn't feel anything? I sure as hell did."
Jitters looked up at the cavern roof. "If you think we've got tremors then we should move in case this area caves in on us."
"No, it definitely wasn't a tremor." Talloran said, beginning to feel a little restless. "I know what they're like. It must have been something else." He touched the wall with calloused hands in the hope that he would experience the strange sensation again. But nothing came. "Maybe there's a mancer below performing an elemental ability."
A grim expression passed across Jitters's face. "I'd watch your mouth if I were you," He said. "First off, the caverns below us are unexplored, so there couldn't possibly be anyone down there. Secondly, only trained mancers can sense elemental power. You're just imagining it."
"I'm just imagining it? Call me crazy, but I never knew ones imagination could feel so real!"
"Talloran, whatever you felt was all in your head. I may be aging, but I certainly haven't gone numb. I didn't feel a thing."
Talloran sighed. Jitters wasn't helping at all. "So I'm just supposed to pretend that nothing happened?"
"Yes," Jitters said with a simple nod. "Take a deep breath. Remember where you are, who you are, and what you just told me. You've been telling me for days now that you're the sanest of us all, and personally, I'd like to see you keep it that way."
Talloran knew better than to ignore Jitters. A lot of wise words often came from the aging slave, and he knew that he'd do well to listen to them. It's all in your head. he told himself. It's all in your head.
"You need some time alone to think," Jitters said as he slung his pick over his shoulder. "I'll give you some space to breathe. The rock here is dry anyway."
With a deep sigh, he trod wearily down the tunnel, his hands shaking, leaving Talloran in the darkness.
Somehow, they both knew that they would never see each other again.
Master Conjurer Kaligmar didn't bother to look up from his scroll of parchment as the wide and polished doors of his sanctum opened up on the other side of his chamber. "Very well then," he muttered to himself, "don't bother to knock."
Two apprentice mancers, most commonly known as 'consars', entered the circular chamber with the Old Man from the mines gliding between them. The two consars each held in their hands a small crystal that was glowing bright with an orange intensity, and when the light from the stones faded, the old man dropped to his feet, worn sandals making contact with the smooth marble tiles beneath him. One consar ushered the Old Man forward and he came before Kaligmar's desk, seeming quite perplexed about his presence in the room.
"Ah, good, very good," said Kaligmar quietly as he dipped his quill into an inkwell and proceeded to attach a few more words to his scroll. "Am I to assume that this is another slave for the researchers?" His eyes scanned his notes for a second before swinging up to the consar on his left.
"Yes sir," the Consar said, "One of the arch-consars informed us that several Masters were running low on test subjects, and that you were down to your last one." He placed the slave's documents on the desk and Kaligmar reached for them slowly.
"Yes, yes, of course. Our previous had seemed to have..." Kaligmar grimaced as he read through the papers, " ... spontaneously combusted under strange circumstances. It was most unsettling. However, I do need to mark down this man's presence here in my journal. Could you please tell me his slave number? These documents seem to be lacking such information."
The Consar stepped forward and took the Old Man by the wrist and pulled up the sleeve. All slaves at the Echospar Excavation had been branded with a mark on the skin of their forearm to identify them as a slave. The Consar paused and hesitated when he searched the old man's arm, finding no form of identification whatsoever. Either this man wasn't a slave or someone had found a way of removing the hideous scar from his body — a somewhat improbably option.
Kaligmar looked up and sighed, "Come on then, we don't have all day. What is it?"
The Consar's had no idea of how to handle such an uncommon situation and his voice trembled as he spoke. "Sir, this man has no mark."
Kaligamar dropped his quill in surprise, slashing it across the rough parchment in front of him. His gaze moved swiftly to the old man now grinning before him.
"I beg your pardon?" The frown on Kaligmar's face had almost doubled the number of wrinkles he was already wearing. "Check the other arm," he then suggested, "perhaps the branders mixed it up."
The second consar grabbed the slaves arm and ripped his sleeve. The soft fabric tore apart in one smooth motion, uncovering a blue tattoo of a diamond shaped eye with a teardrop shaped pupil. The Master Conjurer expelled a heavy gasp as he saw the illicit mark upon the old man's flesh.
"What is this?!" he roared in anger, "The mark of Bashalaran?"
The Old Man grinned slyly in response.
"Kill this imposter at once!"
"Death to the Cerulean scum!" Hissed one of the two Consars as they leapt back from the Old Man and brought forth their spellstones to strike him down.
With an audible snap, the ropes that had once bound the old man's wrists tore apart. Standing before the three mancers was a dark young man clothed in violet robes which hung in tatters around his feet. His hair which used to be short and grey was now black and spilled neatly over both his shoulders. In his hands he clasped two round stones, both shining brilliantly and sending streaks of blue light around the room. Both his fists flew backwards causing glowing blue tendrils to explode from his knuckles and snare the two consars that were standing either side of him. With a sharp spin, he hurled the two flailing men at Kaligmar's desk, forcing the old conjurer to drop from his stool to avoid the incoming barrage of the unfortunate men colliding with the rosewood desk.
The tendrils snaked forward once more, this time wrapping themselves around the desk that Kaligmar was cowering behind. The mancer raised his arms effortlessly and moved them sideways, sending the desk directly into the wall where it shattered into a dozen pieces. He advanced towards the huddled man who was crouching with both arms clasped around his head, appearing to be expecting the worst.
"Your time is up, fool!" the mancer rasped. He flung his hands out at Kaligmar, exposing his glowing spellstones to the rocking figure that lay sprawled on the floor.
Kaligmar chuckled loudly and looked up, "You have no idea of what you're up against."
The Cerulean Mancer cocked an eyebrow at Kaligmar. "You need not tell me!" he sneered, "I'm up against a pathetic conjurer, a user of a line of feeble spell casting that lies at the bottom of the hierarchy chain of magic. You are no match for the methods of Alteration!"
Kaligmar smiled. The mancer's blustering proclamation had bought him enough time to fully collect and ready himself. "Oh is that so? Let me give you a small demonstration."
A purple spellstone suddenly appeared in his hand and he threw it at the ground before the Cerulean. The dark man's hands went to shield his face as the stone erupted, sending black clouds of void dust billowing into the air. Where the stone had once rested stood a startlingly ferocious beast - a fully fledged demon to be precise, modeled on the one he could see in his wonderful imagination.
"W-what is this d-devilry!?" stuttered the Cerulean as he took a step back from the towering beast that loomed so inhumanly before him.
"Conjuration," stated Kaligmar simply with a satisfied grin. "This being one of my ... lesser abilities shall we say?" He wasn't the master conjurer for the monastery for nothing. The mancer's eyes narrowed into thin slits. "Destroy him."
The Mancer's scream turned into a bloody gurgle as the demon-creature took a hefty swing at the man and tore out his throat. With a wave of his hand, Kaligmar destroyed the beast just as quickly as it had been created. All that remained was a small pyramid of void dust before the mangled carcass of the interloper.
The door of Kaligmar's study shifted open and a curious Arch-Consar leaned in to observe the cause of the commotion. He spotted the bodies of the Cerulean and the two consars and raised a hand to cover his mouth.
Kaligmar nodded at the man's reaction. "Yes. It seems that we have a slight problem. Raise the alarm."
Nodding obediently, the Arch-Consar disappeared back into the monastery and Kaligmar moved to the door and gently pushed it shut. Turning around, his weary eyes scanned his chamber.
The two consars that had escorted the old man lay in a tangled heap and he checked them for vital signs. They had been thrown with such force that both their necks had been broken. Few men ever lived to tell tales of how they survived a Cerulean encounter, and this was no exception.
Kaligmar moved over to the broken desk and the paperwork which had been scattered messily across the marble floor. A trail of black liquid had sprayed out from several spilt inkwells, staining several parchments and ruining days of work. This was not how he had imagined the start of the day.
Bending down to salvage what papers were still of use to him, he suddenly felt a strange tingling sensation race up his legs making his hairs stand on end. It felt like a short pulse of elemental power had burst up through the floor, and he quickly went still, closing his eyes and trying to lock on to the immediate source of power with his mind but it was already gone.
About one hundred spans below lay the tunnels of the Echospar Excavation: the catacomb of ancient caverns hollowed out by running water over thousands of years, sealed off from the surface and accessible only by an underground entrance located on lowest subterranean level of the Azure Monastery. If he had actually felt that strange sensation and wasn't imagining it, then it had most likely come from that mine.
Moving back to the doorway, he looked through and observed the consars passing innocently by outside. Nobody seemed to be showing any sign of having experienced anything out of the ordinary. Maybe he had imagined it.
"Mysteries," He muttered under his breath. "Oh how they plague me."