“Is there no better way to do this?”
“Sorry, lass. But there’s no space otherwise,” Gennady said, shaking his head. “You just have to deal with it, unless you want to hire a carriage?”
“No,” I sighed. “That’d be expensive, and I don’t like spending money unnecessarily if there’s a cheaper alternative.”
The Dwarven man shrugged uncaringly. “Either way works fine for me. Just make sure you hold on tight onto that hat of yours. Don’t want it to fly off in the middle of the ride.”
I nodded curtly, and followed after Gennady as he got on his bike. It was a three wheeled bike, with two front wheels for steering and a single back wheel right underneath the engine; the seat was rather long and at an angle— it seemed to be designed to allow the driver to lean back slightly for comfort. There was also a small storage area at the back, above the engine, with straps to secure any baggage from falling off.
…and that’s where I’m sitting.
I could not sit with Gennady because of how the seat was made— inclined downwards from the back; if I tried sitting there, I would have been pushing down on the Dwarf, which would have impeded his ability to safely drive the vehicle. I did not want to die in a freak car accident that could have been easily avoided, so Gennady suggested that I sat on the place where he usually stored his mountain sized bag, and held onto it to keep myself from falling.
Luckily for myself and the bag, there was enough space and rope for the both of us to share. The only reason this worked was because of how large the bike was: with a length of over seven feet and three feet at its widest, I found myself tied around the waist and seated next to a big brown bag. At least I’ve got a seatbelt.
“Are you sure you’re fine with this?” Gennady asked one last time, as he turned to face me from where he was seated. “This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had a sidecar. Maybe we could make an improvised one before we leave. They don’t sell any here.”
“I’m fine,” I said after a moment of considering his offer. “It’ll just be a few days’ travel, right?”
“Less than a week for sure, unless we get caught up in something. And I doubt anything will happen,” he said reassuringly.
I simply stared back at the Dwarf.
Blinking, Gennady asked, “…what?”
“It’s nothing,” I said, shaking my head. If I don’t acknowledge my bad luck, it doesn’t exist… right? I tried very hard to will good luck into existence through thoughts alone, however something told me it did not work. “Let’s just go.”
“Aight. Hold on tight to your things— I’ll try to drive slower and speed up over time so you’ll get used to it.”
The bike’s engine revved as the Dwarf pressed his foot down on the pedal; white plumes began puffing out from the back, covering my face, and eliciting a few coughs from me.
“Oh, and don’t mind that. It won’t be an issue once we get going,” Gennady said, looking back at me one last time.
I waved one hand frantically in the air, trying to disperse the unending stream of steam. “Just”— I coughed— “go!”
He grunted in affirmation, and we were off. The mana powered bike drove away from Locke. The small city slowly disappeared in the distance, further obscured by the trail of white vapor we were leaving behind. This is probably bad for the environment.
As Gennady had said, we were traveling at a moderate pace: the wind was gently blowing against my clothes, my purple pointed hat fluttering on my head. I grasped onto it, slightly worried that it would be stolen by the breeze, although I highly doubted that would actually happen.
“So,” I called out to Gennady, much louder than I should have. “How does this thing work?”
“Sacred piss, lass!” The Dwarf brought a hand up to his ear. “I can hear you just fine, you don’t need to yell!”
“Oops, sorry.” I overestimated the force of the headwind; I had expected this to be like riding in a convertible with its top down, but this was no different than talking to someone while you were both riding a bicycle. I repeated myself. “Uh, how does the bike—”
“I heard you the first time,” he snorted.
“Oh, of course.”
Gennady sighed, quite audibly to my ears if I might add, which was a testament to how loud I must have been when I shouted at him. “It uses mana just like almost everything else in this world. However, unlike most guns which simply creates pure mana energy, it uses it to generate motion.”
I raised an eyebrow. “But this,”— I gestured at the white gas being emitted from the bike— “it’s steam, no?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Most mana tech don’t release steam, do they?” I asked, slightly confused.
“They don’t, although many of them still radiate excess energy— that’s why you see smoke coming out of the barrel of a gun after you fire it,” Gennady explained. “But in the case of this bike, it was an experiment. I realized it would be more economical to power something through raw, liquid mana. Taking in inspiration from the Gnomes, I created a pseudo steam engine— except instead of burning some fuel source, I simply have to convert the mana into the gas. It’s much more efficient this way.”
“Wait, why is that cheaper? I asked, frowning. “And why steam?”
“Don’t ya know anything about how much mana crystals cost, lass?”
Mana crystals were expensive. They were made from raw mana such as mana stones or liquid mana. It was like the difference between iron and iron ore. Except, you did not have to melt it down. You simply had to refine a mana stone into a mana crystal.
On the other hand, liquid mana would then have to be converted to a mana stone before it could even be made into a mana crystal; with such a tedious and expensive process to create mana crystals from liquid mana, it only made liquid mana that much cheaper.
It was also an issue of simple supply and demand: there was an abundant supply of liquid mana— just as much as mana stones— but much less a demand for it. So…
“So of course liquid mana would be cheaper!” Gennady finished my thought for me. His loud voice startled a family walking down the road ahead of us, and he waved unapologetically at them.
“Why steam then? Why can’t you make something more… less gassy?”
“I told you, I was experimenting. I would love to actually invent something that makes liquid mana useful— maybe some kind of machine that just converts the mana straight into mechanical energy. No engine or anything attached to do the job for it.”
“I see,” I said, nodding at the family as we passed them. “Well, as long as it doesn’t produce all this steam with a boiler or something, I’ll be fine with it.”
“What’s wrong with it?” the Dwarf asked. “Hate the smell?”
“Mhm, something like that,” I mumbled a reply. “Let’s just say I find it very… polluting.”
I opted not to say anything else on the subject; pollution was bad and all, but it was not much of a problem in this world with how everything ran on mana power. If liquid mana was being turned to steam, it probably wasn’t an issue. And how the depletion of raw mana sources affected the world at large was not something I was an expert on.
Plus, I was a magic user. It would have been hypocritical of me to criticize mana waste, when I literally destroyed the mana in the air with every spell I cast. Allegedly.
I was not sure if I fully believed what the Church said about Hell. My mom seemed to believe that the mana used in spellcasting would return slowly over time. And yet, why was Hell the barren, desolate landscape that it was supposed to be?
It was not something I knew the answer to; in the meantime, however, I pulled a grimoire out of my bag and began studying.
Gennady glanced back at me for a quick moment. “Uh, are you sure you should be doing that?”
“Don’t worry,” I said, pointing at the leather bound book. “It’s got a fake cover so no one would know what’s actually in it unless they actually look inside of it.”
“Inside of it? What do you— oh, right. Spells.” The Dwarf shook his head. “I meant you shouldn’t be reading. You’ll get motion sickness if you do.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, waving a hand dismissively. “I used to read on the back of horses or on carts, and I never had a problem.”
That was a lie. What I really meant was I used to browse through social media while on the passenger seat of cars and busses. But, there could not have been too much difference, right?
Oh my God, I should not have done that.
“Told you, lass,” Gennady snorted, as I leaned over to puke once more.
“Ugh,” I groaned, straightening. “I know, I know. Don’t rub it in my face.”
“I won’t. I don’t want to get anywhere near your face right now.” The Dwarf grimaced. “That’s disgusting, wipe your damned mouth!”
“Wait.” I put a hand out. “Not yet. I feel… another… bleghhh.”
It took me another five minutes before I could get back on the bike; we were off again quickly enough, but the nausea persisted even after I threw up the contents of my meal.
“Why did you even insist on reading that for,” the Dwarf asked, eyes facing forward. “That’s the Essence of the Elements, right? It’s got more theory and history than actual practical spells, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, still curled up in a ball next to the backpack that was as big as me. “I don’t really care about learning new spells. At least, not from any of the books I have. I’ve already read up on all the important spells of note. And I can cast most of them— some I have not tested until recently. I’m actually reading it for the theoretical ideas presented in the book.”
“Why’s that? Most of the theories postulated in these old books have already been debunked. If they have been proven to work, it’s probably still somewhat inaccurate, and there’s a much better grimoire or tome out there for you to read.”
“I know.” I sighed— not because of the question, but because I felt a headache coming over me. “I just don’t have access to those. This is all I have, and if there’s some magical theory in here that actually works, I’m sure I can figure out how to do it. I’m sort of… talented when it comes to spellcasting.”
Gennady laughed. “Hah, I would believe most people when they say that. But you? That’s an understatement, lassie. You know—”
“Wait!” I cut him off frantically.
We slowed to a stop. I hopped out of the bike, running to a patch of grass on the side of the road. I hurled once more.
“I think we should take a break for today,” Gennady commented, scratching his beard. “There’s a town just ahead. We could probably find an inn for you to rest in.”
I raised a weak thumb. “T-thanks.”
We arrived at the town a few hours before evening. It was early, but I spent far too long reading while on the road thinking that I could deal with it, until I couldn’t anymore. For the sake of saving money, Gennady and I shared the same room, even though he insisted he should get his own. However, he ended up giving in to my request that we share a room.
The reason I gave which convinced him was simple: he was my escort and if something happened to me while I was asleep, he would not be able to protect me. Sure, I did not have any assassins going after me (at least, I think) but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Now the real reason I had for pushing for this sleeping arrangement was slightly different; I might have ostensibly trusted Gennady with my life, however I still had my apprehensions about him. We only met this week, and I was not sure if he was somehow tricking me. He might have been a Dark Crusader or a member of the Church for all I knew— if he tried to sneak out at night, I would at least be there to catch him if we were in the same room.
We slept on separate beds, of course.
The next morning, Gennady brought me for a quick look around the town market since he wanted to buy some things.
“Superior mana crystals?” I asked, cocking my head.
“Yes,” he said, walking just ahead of me. “I took a quick look through Locke, but I already knew they didn’t have any. They probably don’t have any here either, since they’re rare and expensive. Luke is a port city, and the Capital of Laxis, so they probably sell them there. However I just want to make sure— see if there’s possibly any here, and if it’s being sold at a good price.”
“Are they that rare?” I mused, remembering the Inquisitors decorated in what were clearly Superior mana crystals. “How much would one cost?”
“It depends on the size, lass. And it’s rare. It’s the second most mana dense form a mana crystal can take. If you want to buy a Superior mana crystal this size”— the Dwarf spread open his fingers, as if he were holding a large pebble— “it would cost you up to 500 gold coins.”
I tripped at his words. “500 gold coins?!” I sputtered. “That’s more money than I have seen in my entire life!” That was more than what the slavers thought I would sell for in the Free Lands!
…I’m not sure how to feel about that.
“Don’t need to repeat me,” he said, grinning. “Yes, it would probably cost 500 gold. You’re dealing with a military grade mana crystal. And one that big? You could power a dozen Iron Golems for the rest of your life with just that.” Gennady pointed at me for emphasis, adding, “And you’re a child!”
I grabbed the Dwarf’s finger before he could snatch it back, and used it to help pull me up from the ground. “That’s… certainly impressive,” I remarked stupidly.
“It’s certainly worth the cost.” Gennady nodded his head. “However, most Superior mana crystals don’t get that big. Most would require you to pick it up with your fingers, and not your hands. Of course, even a dozen of those is beyond my budget. I can probably get four— maybe five— Superior mana crystals with what you’ve paid me.”
We finally arrived at a shop selling some mana crystals. Gennady began looking through the wares as I shook my head, looking at the prices of some of the mana crystals. None of them were as exorbitant in cost as what he told me— probably because these were Inferior or Lesser mana crystals— but some of them, mostly the big ones, sold for over 10 gold coins. Regardless, I still found myself putting a hand over my coin pouch at seeing these prices.
“How can normal people afford these?” I asked, aghast.
The Dwarf paused as he was inspecting a larger Lesser mana crystal. He slowly set it down as he snorted. “They don’t. Normal people don’t need mana crystals like these. These are made specifically for weapons and the like. A regular Inferior mana crystal— like the ones people use for everyday items like a lighter or a lamp— would probably cost a silver at most. Of course, there’s a difference between getting a pure, clean mana crystal that has not yet been tinkered, and buying a mana tool for your own use. Most Tinkerers would sell their tools for double of what they paid to make them.” He turned to the merchant managing the store. “Hey, got any Superiors?”
The elderly man shook his head apologetically, and Gennady sighed.
I was still trying to protect my coin pouch from suddenly depleting just from the price tags alone, when an idea struck me. I tugged at Gennady before he could leave, speaking quickly, “Could you buy me one of these Lesser ones?”
“Why?” he asked, raising a brow. “I’ve got a few on hand, so if you want, I can just give it to you.”
“No, I mean I’ll pay for it,” I said, clarifying my statement. “I just want you to pick one out for me.”
“Pick one out for you?” Gennady frowned, stroking his beard. “Lassie, these ain’t jewels for ya to wear.”
“I know,” I said, suppressing a groan. “I want you to pick out the best mana crystal to tinker with for a beginner.”
“You…” I watched as the gears slowly turned in the Dwarf’s head. “You want me to teach you how to create mana tools?!”
“Yes. And as for the reasons why, we can discuss it at a more private place.” I shot a glance to the side, at the merchant who was busy helping another customer. “Just choose one for now, and we’ll talk later.”
“Well, if you say so.” Gennady picked out a handful of large Inferior mana crystals; altogether, it cost me a gold coin and a half. These were mana crystals specifically cut to make weapons and the like— for Hunters or Mercenaries trying to upgrade their equipment— so it was expensive even for a low grade mana crystal.
We went back to the inn, and in the privacy of our own room, I explained to Gennady, “I want to create my own weapons. Non-magical ones which I can rely on as a Hunter. If you can teach me how to do that— maybe I won’t have to resort to magic so often.”
The Dwarf frowned, and I could see his forehead crinkle as he considered this. “I could certainly teach you the basics of Tinkering. Although I’d think you’d do much better as an Artificer, since you can actually cast magic, and do it well. But since you’re saying you want to avoid using magic, I guess that’s out of the question.”
“An Arti— what?” I asked, blinking. “An artist?”
“An Artificer,” Gennady corrected me. “They are spellcasters who mixed both magic and tools to create their machines. Although they are rare since most spellcasters tend to not be fans of mana tools, believing it to just be a sham mimicry of magic.”
“I’m not opposed to learning that as well,” I said. “I do want to lessen my reliance on magic, but I’ve also hit a plateau. I’ve learned basically every important spell there is to learn in the books I have with me. There are a bunch of useless ones I’m pretty sure I can cast without even trying— other than that, I mostly just want to find more ways to defend myself.” The Dwarf looked at me quizzically, so I quickly added, “In case anything happens.”
“You know, lass, you’re pretty paranoid for someone so young.” Gennady paused as a thought crossed his mind. “But considering your situation, I guess it makes sense.”
I raised my shoulders in a shrug. “So can you teach me?”
“Sure,” he said, pulling out a chair. He sat on it the wrong way as he grabbed some tools out of his pocket. He spread them out onto the table, placing one of the larger mana crystals next to them. “Come here, I’ll teach you how to alter a mana crystal so it does what you want it to do.”
I glanced over the array of tools the Dwarf had set down; there were calipers, tweezers, iron files, carving needles, and other such items typically needed for lapidary alongside a ruler, protractor, and a compass. I raised an eyebrow. “This is how you tinker?”
“This is one way to do it. Us Dwarves prefer to do it this way. I know the main method the schools over in the Holy Xan Empire teaches on how to tinker differs significantly. However the fundamentals are the same.” Gennady reached over to the pen and paper that was on the inn’s desk, and began to draw some symbols on it.
He was not writing down something I could read— they were symbols, almost reminiscent to the style of the Venerable Language which did not use letters like the Ordinary Language did— but they clearly had no meaning to it. Or at least, they were just shapes with no words associated with them.
“These,” he said, setting down the pen as he finished, “are the four basic symbols that are fundamental to form the runes for any mana tool to function. Do you recognize them?”
I narrowed my eyes. They certainly looked familiar— more than just looking like the characters for the Venerable Language. Then it clicked. “These are the symbols on magic circles. The shapes that form whenever anyone casts a spell!”
Gennady smiled, but shook his head. “Not exactly, but you are correct. From what I’ve observed, there are slight differences in the way the symbols in a spell circle take shape. Furthermore, the complexity of the patterns formed by casting a simple Light spell would make any Tinkerer give up on even creating a basic light crystal.”
I stared at the four symbols. My mind was racing. Mana tools. They worked just like magic, I always knew that. Everyone knew that magic also used mana in some way or another. But this? This felt like I had finally formed a proper connection between the two; as though both were one in the same, just executed through different means. “I… what does this mean?”
“Hmph, I’ve theorized on that quite a bit. I don’t think it means casting a spell is inherently superior to using a mana tool that achieves the same result. I speculate that it’s because of the very workings of magic that gives it its extra layer of intricacy—”
“No,” I cut him off. I turned to Gennady, staring into his eyes. “Do people know about this? That the Great Hero Xander based his ‘gifts from the Goddess’ off of magic?” I spoke quickly, like a kid who just learned about Santa Claus, and was asking their parents all about the mysterious red man who gave out presents to everyone in one night.
The Dwarf’s answer, however, made me lose that excitement. “I, uh, yes?” he said, scratching the side of his head. “At least, everyone educated about the history of mana tools would know. The average layperson would probably find this pretty shocking, but it would not change anyone’s perspective on magic.”
“Oh,” I said, voice sucked dry of emotion.
Gennady saw this, and he hesitated. “Do you, uh, still want to…?”
“Yes,” I sighed. “Please continue your lesson.”
“Right.” Gennady righted himself, and pointed to the symbols on the piece of paper. “These symbols represent the four basic elements: fire, water, earth, air.”
His finger passed through each one slowly: the shape for fire took the form of an inverted ‘y’, skewered in half by what appeared to be a small cross with a tail coming out of it; water roughly looked like a man missing his arms and legs lying on his side, with lighting bolts lying parallel above and below him; earth was a square with curved lines inside of it like pillars holding up a structure, with two small dots in the opposite diagonals; and lastly, air was the simplest of all the designs, taking the shape of a ‘Z’ with its bottom half cutting back up through the top.
“And each of these symbols lets you create their elements when you etch it onto a mana crystal?” I asked, leaning in to get a closer look.
“Not exactly,” the Dwarf said, and quickly explained. “That’s just how we categorize them. Putting any single one of these four symbols onto a mana crystal will not let you do anything with it. But if you want to, say, create a small spark with a mana crystal, you can arrange four of the symbols for fire in a diamond shaped rune, and only then it would work.”
“That…doesn’t sound too difficult,” I commented, to which the Dwarf laughed.
“Trust me, lass, it’s not that simple. Not only do each of these symbols have to be equidistant from each other, you’ll have to restart if you get one of the symbols slightly wrong.”
Ok, maybe that’s a little bit difficult—
“Plus,” Gennady added, raising a finger as he did, “the same rule does not apply for the other symbols. If you want to create a drop of water, you can’t just make a diamond with the symbols for water. In fact, it doesn’t create water, but forces precipitation onto a single point. Same thing with air— the simplest design simply blows air. And earth doesn’t manipulate the ground like Geomancy would, instead, it affects the properties of whatever solid it is in contact with.”
…that’s very difficult.
“It’s pretty complicated,” Gennady said, as if he read my thoughts. “Once you mix in different symbols together into a rune, you start getting different results. For example, the pattern for a light crystal mostly uses both fire and earth symbols, with a select few water symbols. But don’t worry, there are various books on the subject that outline the various combinations of symbols to give you a basic understanding of how it all works. Right now, you probably just want to practice etching each symbol onto a mana crystal to get used to it, then you can try and create your first mana tool some time in the future.”
“I…” I trailed off, realizing how difficult actually learning a proper skill was without any cheatlike powers to help me. The Dwarf noticed my apprehension, and lightly slapped me across the back.
“What’s wrong, lassie? Already giving up, eh?” he chuckled. “I know it’s much, but once you get the basics of tinkering down, you can probably focus on being an Artificer. You’re good with magic, so that’s probably a better route for you to go down rather than wasting time learning all the in depth details of being a Tinkerer.”
I stared down at the four symbols drawn on the piece of paper, then at the set of tools sitting next to the unaltered mana crystal; I felt my hands balling up into a fist, as I stood there conflicted. Before I finally decided.
“No,” I said. “I’m not giving up. And I’m not just going to take the easy way out by becoming an Artificer. Sure, that’d be a good skill to have, but so is learning how to tinker. I’ll do it.” I reached for the mana crystal and one of the carving needles. I firmly gripped the large crystal in my right hand, and saw my reflection on it.
This was something I had to do. There was almost no reason for me to pick up this skill. Why would there be? As Gennady said, I was good at magic; the best in the world, as evinced by the ease at which I learn new spells. And yet, that was not something born from me. It was something that jerk god gave me when he tricked me into coming into this world after murdering me.
I was a practical girl: I would use whatever tools I had available as a means to survive. And yet, my time as a slave made me realize that I hated having no control over my own life. The feeling of uselessness— as though I had no say in how things went— was overwhelming. I did not want my only achievement in this world to be something I was given at birth, especially considering that it was not even chance, luck, or fate that determined this. It was by the hands of that false god who seemed hellbent on making my life miserable.
Of course, I would still use magic. But I was going to learn this as well— as a backup if magic ever failed me.
“I’ll do it,” I repeated myself. I turned to Gennady, meeting his gaze. He nodded slowly in response.
“Very well then,” the Dwarf said. “But first,” he coughed politely into his hand, “you might want to put down the carving needle. That’s not needed until later.”
“Oh,” I said, blinking.
“You can’t just etch the symbols onto any mana crystals surface. It has to be smoothed out first, lest it ruins the runes you want to create.”
“Right, of course.”
Duh. Don’t get ahead of yourself, idiot!
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