Mahedium stared at the liquid solution in front of him. It had been hard to find sulfur pure enough but it looked to be working now. The contents of the glass beaker were a nice rose color and bubbling satisfactorily. The hot coals beneath the beaker were keeping the temperature just right.
Yes, he had a good feeling about this batch. With some luck, a new type of crystal would soon start to form within the solution. With even more luck, it would be useful and easily reproducible! If the gods were truly looking down on him then it would be something even the guilds hadn’t gotten their hands on yet.
Wouldn’t that be a grand twist of fate! For all their money, connections, and corrupt hoarding of knowledge he could still get the better of them! It would just take hard work and a lot of luck.
Mahedium turned away from his work and headed over to his desk. He was in his personal lab within Herad’s camp. It was an adequate facility and he had filled it with all the tools he needed to do his research. Shelves lined the room. They were full of books, glass containers, and strange metal devices.
The room was dark and only lit by several small lamps. A multitude of shadows lay thick upon every surface, but there was enough light to see by.
The mage passed by a small wooden cage as he walked, and there was a shuffling sound from within. Mahedium instinctively looked towards the noise. The small goblin captive inside the cage was staring out at him. Its gaze was calm and steady without a hint of fear.
“I know what you want,” Mahedium said as he reached into a pocket and took out a bit of sausage.
The mage reached down, opened the cage, and then tossed the morsel inside. The meat had been part of his lunch but he hadn’t been hungry enough to finish it off. Sometimes he forgot to eat at all when he was working on a promising experiment. There was always so much to do.
He didn’t bother to close the cage door again. His goblin helper, and that was how he had come to think of the creature, was always very well behaved after it had been fed. Why wouldn’t it be? It had shelter and food here.
“Yes, goblins are very simple creatures after all,” the mage mused to himself as he continued on over to his destination.
When he got to his desk, the mage reached over to grab a lamp stand. With practiced ease, he pulled the transparent crystal out from the top. As he was working, he heard the soft pitter-patter of footsteps behind him.
Mahedium ignored the sound and took a second to examine the crystal, both with his eyes and with his mage sense. Since he was holding it against his bare flesh he could feel the power within the small mana stone.
Its power tickled and warmed his skin. Mana stones had always felt almost alive to Mahedium, like they wanted to be used. It wasn’t a very scientific belief but it was one he had never been able to get completely out of his mind.
“But then how much do we really know about such things?” he mused to himself.
Mentally, he reached toward the transparent crystal in his hand and ignited it. It flared to life and white light washed out across the room. The mage almost seemed to be holding congealed light aloof. It wasn’t even warm.
After a second, Mahedium grunted contentedly and then placed the stone back within the lamp. He had flared the stone just enough to light his desk. He could have burned it brighter but then it would have lost power quicker and have to be replaced sooner. There was no known way to recharge a mana stone.
He hadn’t needed to actually take the stone out of its casing to light it, but he had felt like reveling in simple success for a second. He had felt so few of those moments recently. He was still alive and pursuing his research though, so he couldn’t complain.
Normally, to ignite a mana stone you needed physical contact. Mages had long ago developed ways around this, though. Activating magic by touch wasn’t usually very practical.
Certain metals conducted mana. If a conductive path was created between a mage and a stone then it could be ignited without direct contact, and from a safe distance.
“You could have done that, although not with my finesse and control,” Mahedium said as he turned to look at the goblin behind him.
As usual, the little creature was placidly standing behind the mage and watching what he did intently. He was probably attracted to the bright colors, unique aromas, and other distracting by-products of magical research. It was rather amusing how easily true intelligence could be imitated.
“Magic runs in your blood, just as it does mine. We are not similar in any other regard but in that we are brothers. Have we been chosen or is it just luck? Where does our gift come from?” the mage asked himself contemplatively.
A few seconds later, Mahedium sighed and turned back towards his desk. He didn’t have time to think about such things, no matter how interesting.
His work desk was covered in paper. Most of it was letters from various correspondents. Several of the messages were even in code. It wouldn’t do for their secrets to be exposed.
He had made quite a few useful contacts during his visit to Daggerpoint. The renegade mage known as Avorlus was particularly useful. His speciality might be Elixirs but he was in possession of more than a few interesting tidbits about mana stones as well.
The mage stared at one letter in particular. It wasn’t from Avorlus, although it had passed through his hands. The sender had offered Mahedium an exchange of knowledge and favors. If they were telling the truth then his research would be able to leap years ahead, if not decades.
His thoughts were interrupted by the creak of a door opening. Mahedium frowned and glanced over his shoulder. A young man, barely out of adolescence, stood in the door. He was carrying a sack over his shoulder, and was obviously straining to support its weight.
“Master, I have the charcoal you wanted,” the young man announced.
He was sweating from exertion and strands of his short brown hair were sticking to his forehead. He looked to be about 16 or so years of age.
“Ah, thank you. Just leave it there by the door please,” Mahedium told the new arrival.
“Yes, master,” the youth replied as he did as he was told.
The mage had recruited his assistant in the nearby city of Riverdown. He was just a young man who had been down on his luck and seemed to have more intelligence than most street trash. Honest work was hard to come by these days, especially in the North.
He had the mage gift too, of course. Mage blood was a crucial component of all aspects of magic, and Mahedium had grown really tired of cutting himself. He was lucky he used to be an herbalist and thus knew how to deal with infections.
Now that he had both an assistant and his pet goblin he almost never had to slice open his own fingers for a few drops of blood. Keeping the wounds clean had been such a pain.
“Come over here, Ressus. I want to show you how to take care of this,” Mahedium told the young man.
“Yes, master,” his assistant replied quickly as he walked over to the mage.
On his way, the young man noticed the goblin standing over to Mahedium’s left. He paused and stared at it suspiciously.
“Should that critter really be left out?” he asked.
“Sure, why not?” the mage replied absentmindedly. “It’s never been a problem before and it’s quite useful really. I haven’t seen a single mouse or rat around since I started letting it out of its cage. The bloody vermin used to get into all my herbs. I even found a nest in one of the pots a while back. That isn’t sanitary.”
“Alright,” his assistant commented as he walked over to peer over his master’s shoulder and see what he was doing.
“I started this culture while you were gone,” Mahedium explained. “It should be done in a few hours. During that time, the heat must be kept steady so you have to replace the charcoal if it gets low.”
“As you wish, master. That sounds simple enough,” his assistant replied unenthusiastically.
Mahedium sighed and shook his head. Why did Ressus sound so apathetic? They were studying magic!
“You have no idea how lucky you are!” the mage accused the young man. “You’re learning secrets here that men would kill to possess. If you were to join one of the mage guilds you would end up as combat fodder and would never be allowed anywhere near real magic like this.”
“Yes, master. Sorry,” Ressus quickly replied as he flushed in embarrassment.
“The guilds keep all their secrets locked up in their colleges. Unless you’re of noble blood or politically connected you would never be able to create your own spell stones, no matter how intelligent you were!” Mahedium ranted. “They would keep you reliant on them, and you would be nothing but a pawn in the games they play amongst themselves.”
“I am very thankful, sir,” his assistant replied but it was obvious the mage wasn’t listening.
“The petty quarrels of the mage guilds are almost as harmful as their squandering of magical knowledge,” the mage continued irately. “It was right before the old empire’s collapse that the guild’s first came into power. Now, they have benefitted more than anyone else from all the constant warfare. They have grown rich and influential by selling war magic...”
Mahedium lost his train of thought and froze. His hands were held up above his head dramatically and there was a confused look on his face. Why where they discussing history? Didn’t he have research to do?
“What was I just talking about?” he asked Ressus.
“You were showing me how to take care of the crystal culture here,” his assistant replied dryly.
“Ah, yes. That’s right. Just check in on it every few minutes and to make sure the heat is kept steady. If a mana stone starts to form within it inform me at once,” the mage told the young man.
With that done, Mahedium made his way over to a different table. What looked to be a disassembled staff lay upon it. Small metal bits and gears were scattered around a long wooden rod. The staff had holes of various sizes in it and seemed to have a metal core.
“Right now, however, take a look at this. I’m in the process of creating a new focus device. It’s important that you understand at least the basic concepts involved in such a thing,” the mage explained excitedly.
Ressus was just hired help. He wasn’t being trained as a researcher but he needed to know enough to lend a hand and fetch the correct tools.
“There is practically nothing magical about a staff or amulet,” the mage added. “Their purpose is to simply hold mana stones and channel their power in the correct direction, although they are sometimes reinforced by materials from crystal caverns. Most mana stones are far too dangerous to ignite by hand, and the results would be unpleasant anyway. Even a simple heat stone would burn the user.”
“What does this staff do?” his assistant asked.
Mahedium smiled smugly before responding. He had been working on this idea for a while.
“My army staff is fine for producing light, heat, or explosive force but now that I have mastered producing other types of crystals I need something with more... punch,” he answered.
The young man just frowned thoughtfully and threw his master a questioning look. This just made the mage feel even smugger.
“I’ve had problems piercing hard targets recently, such as giant mutant snakes,” Mahedium explained. “Once finished, this staff is designed to fire crystalline spikes. A force stone located here will propel the projectiles created by a second mana stone in this chamber.”
“Giant mutant snakes?” his assistant asked in surprise. “You’re kidding, right sir?”
“Hmm? No that was just a few months ago. The Deep Green is full of such things, or so I hear,” Mahedium answered absentmindedly as he stared at the disassembled staff before him. “It’s unlikely another one will show up, but it would make a great weapons test.”
Behind him, the goblin had turned to look at the beaker of liquid Mahedium had set up earlier to grow a crystal in. While the mage and his assistant had been talking it had turned black and started to boil with ever increasing fervor. The goblin eyed it for a second and then hurriedly backed away. Less than a second later, he was back in his cage and the door was firmly shut.
The noise attracted Mahedium’s attention as well. He looked up and stared at the beaker.
“You were supposed to keep the heat steady. Quickly, remove the coals,” the mage ordered his assistant.
The young man quickly spun around but he froze when his eyes took in the sight of the black boiling liquid. He clearly didn’t want to go anywhere near it.
“Don’t worry it’s perfectly safe,” the mage reassured him.
Ressus reluctantly stepped forward, and Mahedium reached into one of his pockets. Carefully, the young man picked up a small rod and pushed the metal charcoal tray out from under the beaker.
There was a loud bang as it exploded. The glass container instantly shattered and the liquid expanded outwards in a black cloud. Shards of black crystal shot out of the smoke.
They flew around the room and several of them slammed into Ressus. His eyes went wide with shock and he crumpled bonelessly over backwards.
Mahedium had been ready, however. His hand came out of his pocket holding a small steel amulet. The gem set in its center glowed. A see-through barrier appeared in front of him and the crystal shards headed his way shattered against it.
Mahedium dropped his shield and tucked the amulet back away. He hadn’t really expected the beaker to explode. Something like that had actually had been a very low probability outcome, but it paid to be prepared.
Ressuss’ body was lying on the lab floor. Several long black crystalline shards were impaled in him. One of them had pierced his left eye, so he was obviously very dead.
The mage looked at his deceased assistant and sighed regretfully. He had actually liked the young man. He had shown a glimmer of promise, if only a glimmer.
Oh well, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a new assistant. He would undoubtedly be moving around a lot soon anyway, so having him underfoot might have been an inconvenience. Better to use disposable helpers for now.
The knowledge he could glean from his experiments was worth the lives of a few assistants. They were just uneducated and unmotivated mage-gifted anyway. There were always more of them around.
Mahedium threw a glance back towards his desk. There was a big battle coming and he had a crucial part to play. As a mage, the power he commanded could easily turn the tides of war, and he was just getting stronger as he learned to harness new spells. One day his magic would change the world!
Now though, he had better call someone to remove the corpse from his lab. It might contaminate something. When that was done, the mess from the explosion had to be cleaned up and the experiment restarted. Even magic could be tedious sometimes.