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A note from SmokeyBear

Thanks to everyone who voted or commented on the poll. We're finally back in business!

EDIT: I deleted the last couple of paragraphs from chapter 26. The pirates never showed up but everything else is the same. I'll have to remove the bits where Patrick explained his plan too. I only included those because I expected the pirates to take him in another direction entirely. It doesn't make sense to tell and then show a couple of chapters later.

One night, while Duncan and I were mapping the stars from the aft deck, I decided I couldn’t put off an important conversation any longer.

“Captain,” I began, “I’d like to speak with you about our contract.”

Duncan lowered his sextant and gave me his full attention.

“Are you ready to extend your stay on my lovely vessel?”

“Not exactly,” I hedged. Duncan put the sextant back to his eye as he turned his back on me.

“Then we have nothing to discuss.”

“You’re really going to want to hear me out.” I assured him “It could be very lucrative.”

I had his full attention now.

“I’ll cut to the chase. I have something I need to do, and I need your help to do it.”

“I’m listening” Duncan replied guardedly.

“I want you to release me from my contract and transport me to the next island as a slave.”

The silence hanging between us was only broken by the creaking of the sea cow as she continued pushing north.

“That doesn’t sound all that lucrative Pat. Get to the point or get back to work.”

I hurried to explain how Duncan would benefit from my deal.

“You might have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of my shore-leave exploring. Well, in this mining town we’re heading towards, I’ve managed to find a group that are willing to sell uncut gems under the table. If you agree to help me out, I can make an introduction.”

Duncan looked out over the sea, scratching at his stubbly chin while he considered my offer.

“No. It’s too risky. I’d rather make moderate-income reliably than risk the Empire’s wrath.”

“Okay, you’d rather play it safe. I can respect that. How about taking the gems that I have on hand as a one-off payment.”

“That depends on what you have. I won’t go breaking your contract for some dross.”

It seemed like things were heading in the right direction so I pulled out a few gems for Duncan’s inspection. The next thing I knew, my face was pressed against the splintering deck and my left arm was twisted behind my back.

“Bloody thief. I’ll teach you to steal from your betters!” Duncan roared as he pulled the gems from my hand before I could think to put them back in my inventory.

“What are you doing?” I whined as he ratcheted my arm higher pressing my face harder against the deck.

“Teaching a dog not to bite the hand that feeds him!”

The struggling and shouting didn’t take long to wake the rest of the crew. Harry’s big noggin popped up from the hatch leading belowdecks.

“Everything alright Cap’n?”

“Nothing to worry about. Just another temp thinking to fill his pockets at the end of a contract.”

I was about to protest when Duncan yanked on my arm painfully. He bent down to whisper in my ear.

“This is what you wanted, now don’t blow it.’

“Harry, be a good man and fetch a set of manacles. We can sell this thief to the empire.”

The giant of a man sighed and shook his head as he disappeared into the hold. It wasn’t long before he was clucking disappointedly while chaining me to the mainmast. It wasn’t going the way I envisioned it but it seemed like the negotiation was a partial success. I even received a prompt explaining that my contract with Duncan was now void. I just had to hope the merchant would keep to his word.

I had to endure several days chained out in the elements. I took a chance that first night to ensure that one of my skeleton keys would work on my new bonds. It was less of a relief than I expected when the iron bands opened with a soft click. Each day felt longer than the last and sapped a little more of my strength. None of the crew I had shared months with even batted an eye at the turn of events. The only response was mild disappointment. At least I didn’t have to try and explain myself. Duncan’s “no talking to the merchandise” rule was still in effect. It wasn’t hard to play the surly prisoner by the time we made landfall.

Unease tied my stomach in knots as an Imperial inspector came aboard and searched the ship for contraband. I had practiced what to say dozens of times but the mage never even looked in my direction. It felt safer beneath his notice but I wasn’t prepared for the embarrassment of getting stripped naked in public. Duncan took my sailor’s garb and provided me with dirty rags. I guess slaves don’t have much in the way of property rights. It was a good thing I thought to hide my enchanted jewelry.

The cold northern air slipped through the many rips in the tunic I now wore. At least when the other slaves were crowded around the mast we could share body heat. The smell was pretty rough but after a couple of days It faded into the background. I thought about starting up a conversation with my fellows, laying the groundwork for my plan and gathering a few allies. I decided against it. The more people I brought on board, the higher the chance that my plan would get exposed before I could put it into action. Special Ops had to maintain operational security right?

One positive, maybe the only positive was that I now had plenty of time to practice with mana manipulation. I didn’t risk anything flashy but I practiced with the Sage's Cloak. I didn’t have as much mana to work with considering that I had to hide my rings but that was fine. Whenever I exhausted my mana pool, I settled into a meditation technique described in my book “The Third Eye Opens”.

My first attempt at cultivating an affinity was lackluster. I couldn’t concentrate very long on the pitching ship. Luckily the cramped quarters meant that I wasn’t moving quite as much but it still took me a whole day of trying before I felt anything. I was inhaling, just like I had a thousand times before. This time though, it wasn’t just air that I took in. A stabbing cold nestled into my lungs and I gasped in sudden pain. The meditation was instantly broken but it took long minutes for the pain to subside. It was like a mega case of ice-cream throat.

After the pain subsided I realized that the mistake was actually progress. I must have internalized some mana with a water attribute. Each type of mana had it’s own unpleasant side effects until your own body adapts to that particular attribute.

By the time we made it to our destination, Sage’s Cloak had progressed to the point where I could keep 1 MP in reserve without much effort. If I focused I could get that up to 5 without significant loss of MP. It wasn’t a ton, it wasn’t even substantial, but I was getting better all the time. There was no telling how good I would be when I eventually put my lapis circlet of flowing thought back on. The continuous practice under adverse conditions boosted my Mana Manipulation skill faster than ever before. I covered the deficit for purchasing the Expulsion ability and even brought the skill up another couple of levels. None of this training prepared me for what came next.

With my already overloaded inventory, I was one of the slowest when it came to unloading the masonry. That meant I got special treatment from the guards. My back spasmed and arched involuntarily as another guard “motivated” me to move faster. I finally understood why the slaves all wore such tattered rags. By the time the Sea Cow was unloaded, I had come to fully regret my rash decision. My knees were bruised and my palms were skinned from losing my balance on the unbroken, rocky terrain of my new prison. What was I? Some kind of masochist? Every big idea I had just dropped me deeper into the shit. There was no turning back now. I was committed. I’d either get off of this island, or I’d die here.

Even though I arrived well after noon, my first day as a slave dragged on forever. I still kept up a low-level sage’s cloak, only losing control when getting whipped or stumbling. The lashes stung like lemon juice on road-rash but they didn’t inflict much damage so it was rare for a minute to pass without the sharp crack of a bull-whip rending the air. I found myself flinching involuntarily at the sound before long.

The entire day was spent carrying stones to the uppermost floor of the tower one by one. The strength and endurance related feats I earned in the process were no consolation for the rough treatment. As the sun touched the horizon work was called to a halt. We were all gathered together in front of the longhouse and made to sit. I spent a moment looking for Bodrin but stopped when my curiosity drew a guard’s attention. The man I identified as a captain stepped out of the barracks before the sun had set. He looked over the slaves with a bored expression, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword. The shining bronze breastplate and red-plumed helm made him the most imposing figure in the crowd by a wide margin.

“How many did we lose today?”

“Only two sir!” came the crisp reply of a guard. I didn’t like the upbeat tone or the discipline. Neither boded well for my mission.

“And the cause?”

“One refused to work, the other broke an ankle.”

The Captain nodded.

“Are the bodies taken care of? I won’t have disease slowing us down.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Very well.”

The captain shifted gears, addressing the huddled slaves.

“I understand that we have some new arrivals today. There are two things you need to know. First, this construction project is vitally important for the Empire’s development. As the nearby mining town has grown and attracted trade, it has also attracted piracy. This tower will provide an essential early warning system and help coordinate our fleet movements. Most of you are barbarians, some of you are criminals. Know that the work you do here will be taken into account during your final judgment. Work hard enough and you might just be reincarnated as a full citizen.“

The Captain beamed like the benevolent savior he thought he was. His captive audience remained as silent as the grave.

“The second thing you need to know is rather simple. If you do not wish to contribute to the stability of the region and the glory of the Empire, I have no use for you and will treat you accordingly.”

His gaze turned icy and his thumb caressed the pommel of his sword lovingly. He had the look of a man just waiting for an excuse. Whether he would use that excuse to cement the power-dynamic or to get his rocks off remained to be seen. None of my fellows seemed interested in sticking their necks out.

I was already feeling much better about the prospect of killing these pompous imperials. It wasn’t a relief exactly. More like an ember in my gut, smoldering weakly but ready to be fanned at the right moment. It gave me an odd sort of strength. These were the bad-guys I’ve been searching for. I could put them down and feel good about it. For the moment, I would watch and listen. I would learn where their weakness lie and the moment their guard is lowered… Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face because the Captain addressed me.

“You there. Why do you look so dissatisfied? I have given you a chance for redemption. You even get the chance to participate in the great work. Explain yourself.” I was tempted to snap back, asking why he wasn’t participating in the so-called “great work”. Half an inch of his sword had slid from its sheath while he spoke however and I tried a different tactic.

“I would never be dissatisfied with the chance to contribute to the might and glory of the empire. For the first time, my worthless life will have meaning! Long live the Emperor!”

The sword was slammed home as the Captain nodded, pleased with my response.

“You may pass your judgment yet. The rest of you would do well to follow this one’s example.”

With that he turned on his heels, crimson cape flaring out behind him. A moment later he was gone and we were herded into a hollow between a few boulders, each the size of a small cottage. The ground was strewn with straw and a patched tarp stretched over two-thirds of the space but there were no other concessions made to comfort. It technically counted as shelter I guess. On one hand, it was more sheltered from the elements than being chained to a mast. On the other hand, the rocky ground promised uneasy sleep. A pair of guards stood watch over the single entrance. I noticed with dismay that one of them had a hand-bell attached to his belt.

They didn’t do much to regulate the prisoners other than to keep them in the hole. I immediately noticed a rudimentary hierarchy. One clique of thuggish looking brutes hoarded most of the straw for themselves and kept to the most sheltered corner while the rest piled in together trying to find spots where the sharp cold rocks wouldn’t keep them awake. There was a little jostling as people settled in and the new arrivals who were slow to act were left with the least comfortable spots. I thought I had grown used to the stink of unwashed humanity but the ammonia reek of urine was overpowering in the confined space.

I pretended to examine the ground for a place to sleep while I scanned faces. They were uniformly bushy and grimy so I risked a whisper.

“Bodrin. Bodrin are you here?”

“Shaddap” Complained one of the slaves. I moved on and tried again. After my third attempt, one of the guards butted in.

“Quiet!”

I complied and went back to searching silently. Eye for detail was practically useless. Everyone was uniformly covered in grime and glowed like small suns under the effect of the ability. I counted seventy-three slaves among the group before an arm caught my elbow and pulled me down.

“How do you know that name?”

Bodrin was hissing into my ear, wafting putrid breath along with the words. Relief washed through me. I was growing more and more worried that I was too late.

“It’s me,” I said with a wink, “I told you I’d help you out. Sorry it took me so long to prepare.”

His eyes searched my face until recognition dawned on him.

“Patrick? You stupid sonovva bitch. What are you doing here?”

“Just doing the Robin Hood thing.” I explained, keeping my intentions coded from the slaves all around us.

“What can you tell me about this place?” I asked “Is there anyone you trust? Is there anywhere...”

Bodrin cut me off by clamping an unwashed hand over my mouth.

“Not here.” He hissed. “You never should have come.”

“Quiet!” The guard warned again, knocking an iron-shod cudgel on the rocks to emphasize his point. I opened my mouth to resume whispering but Bodrin silenced me with a glare.

“Sleep now, you’ll need the rest.” Bodrin scooted over revealing a patch of dirt. I settled onto it gratefully, my back to Bodrin. I wondered what I had gotten myself into until exhaustion claimed me.



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SmokeyBear

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