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Mutagenesis (Novelized Playthrough)


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Prologue

A single mutation can reshape the course of a species.

So too can a single person.

Or even a single act.

 

Even sailing without a soul in sight for the past week has not dampened Dakro’s excitement. He will apprentice under the Shapers: the oldest, most respected, most secretive, and most powerful of the magical sets - those with the power to create life. They even created the living ship upon which he sails.

 

He grabs the scaled neck of his ship and leans forward, straining his eyes as he passes a small island. His chart identifies as Sucia Island and enticingly marks as being Barred by the Shapers. It is forbidden, likely due to some failed biological experiment that resulted in deadly rogue creations and abandoned secrets. Visiting it is punishable by death, but it can’t hurt to look from afar, right? Little does he know how wrong he is.

 

Distracted by the island, he fails to notice the warship off to the east. His craft cries out in alarm as the warship fires a long spear. The razor-sharp bolt strikes his craft, which roars in anger and breathes a bolt of fire, striking the enemy’s sails and setting them ablaze.

 

The battle takes only seconds. His living craft founders, mortally wounded, and drops him into the water, vital equipment sinking into the depths. Unable to swim, Dakro starts to sink into the rough waves, but, with one last effort, his living ship saves him. Bleeding, it drags him toward Sucia Island. Dakro grabs the crumbling dock as his ship slumps against the dock, dying.

 

Dakro scrambles to retrieve what equipment he can: a Shaper-bred plant that purifies water, a canister of food, chitin armor, and a sword. As he starts to carry back charts and books, the craft suddenly shifts violently and begins going under the crimsoned water. Dakro drops everything and makes a desperate lunge for the dock, catching the edge and hauling himself up. 

 

He watches, morose, as his hope for escape sinks into the sea, leaving him alone, abandoned, on a forbidden shore. Marooned on Sucia Island.

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Chapter 1: Marooned

 

Dakro lies on the hard dock, weakened to the point of collapse. He lifts his bloody hand and watches his Shaper-bred clothing taking in the sunlight, water, and ambient magic to regrow itself where torn. If only he could do that so easily. Or if his healing supplies hadn’t gone down when the warship first attacked. “The warship!” he shouts to himself.

 

Suddenly remembering the warship, he bolts upright and scans the horizon, but thankfully sees no sign of the ship or any survivors. The ship’s design was unfamiliar to him, but surely they would have recognized his ship as Shaper-bred. Who would be audacious and suicidal enough to attack a Shaper ship?

 

Dakro sighs. He has more pressing questions right now. Questions of survival and escape.

 

The beach stretches off to the east. He dons the armor and straps the remaining supplies to his body. With one last look at the red-tinged water, he begins a slow walk through the uneven sand. It keeps him off-balance, but no more so than he already is in spirit.

 

The sand gives way to a well-overgrown road. Amongst the vegetation Dakro spots a ratty Shaper-bread cloak on the ground. It has been discarded here for so long that it has regrown roots. He takes his sword and clumsily slices the cloak free. He really needs to find a knife. 

 

Wrapping the cloak around himself, he feels a bit warmer as the cloak not only helps shield him from the chill sea air, but starts absorbing the saltwater still clinging to him.

 

He continues following the poor excuse for a road past a tunnel built into the cliff to the north. It is probably a storeroom or warehouse, as one is usually placed near the docks of a settlement. However, this structure is crumbling and appears to have been abandoned for at least a century, probably two. He will come back if he has to, but right now it appears a bit too hazardous to risk when all the goods inside are probably useless after all these years.

 

When he reaches the end of the path, he sees it is blocked by a thick stone door marked with the symbol of the Shapers. When he gets close, his skin tingles from the complex magical protections. He hears a soft, reassuring voice, “Sucia Island has been Barred by the Shapers. For more information, send a request to the Council. Only full Shapers are allowed entry. No Shaper qualities have been detected in you. Please go.”

 

His first thought is one of relief, for it means any deadly rogue creations on the island cannot get to him, unless they can somehow bypass the cliffs. However, his thoughts quickly turn to the dangers of starvation. He reluctantly turns back to the crumbling underground warehouse.

 

He cautiously makes his way through the structure, stepping around myriad junk and being guided by red crystals that luminesce when they detect his motion. Another cloak lies here. Without sunlight and soil, this one has gone into long-term hibernation, surviving off limited ambient magic.

 

He soon finds an office. The shelves hold nothing but dust, but a cabinet in the back corner contains a variety of papers. Dakro rifles through them eagerly, hoping for a clue as to why the island was Barred or where he might go for supplies. It’s no use. The papers crumble at his touch. Beneath the papers, though, he finds a brass key, none the worse for wear for its long concealment. 

 

He takes it, in case it proves a key to surviving or escaping. He chuckles, trying in vain to convince himself this is a time for laughter, rather than soul-crushing despair.

 

Gingerly moving along, he makes his way to a small chamber. Inside, there once were several cylindrical canisters, each about four feet high, made of thick, carefully blown glass with a metal needle on top. Most of the canisters have been broken, but one of them is still intact with glowing fluid that swirls and moves about, seemingly under its own power. It looks like it is (in its own way) alive.

 

It probably is. Dakro remembers seeing similar objects. The Shapers can store essence concoctions, filled with life energy, which heal and energize those in need. He takes his cut hand and places it on the sharp metal needle on top. 

 

The essence-filled emerald goo of the canister flows into him, healing his wounds, but then doing something more…. He is suddenly struck by a dizzy spell, driving him to his knees as the goo rewrites some of his very being.

 

A strange urge, an instinct, seizes him. He extends his fingers and focuses. A bolt of fire flies across the room and explodes on the far wall, causing the structure to shift unsteadily. Dakro clenches his burned hand to his chest as he quickly picks his way outside.

 

Part of him is excited. It’s magic. Actual magic! What would have taken years of training, he learned to do in an instant. It is exhilarating and, at the same time, utterly alien. He had no idea Shapers could do something so wonderful. 

 

However, he questions whether the essence worked correctly after all these years in storage. Using magic shouldn’t hurt so much, right? Then he thinks back to Heika, the Agent who came to tell him he had passed the tests and would be allowed to train under the Shapers. When he shook her hands, he thought how strange that she had the rough, scarred hands of a worker.

 

Dakro mumbles to himself, “If burned flesh is the price of this magic, then it is not for me.” He thinks to himself, “Still, it may be worthwhile if it will fool the door into thinking I am a Shaper. If.”

 

Re-approaching the door, it says, “Shaper qualities have been detected within you. You may pass. Please do not remove or interact with any -” and then the voice cuts out. “Strange.” he thinks pensively as the portal opens.

 

Just beyond the portal is a hazy, insubstantial humanoid. Dakro cries out and starts to run when he sees that the “ghost” is warping and twisting in the light breeze, like a strong wind would tear it apart. Probably not a ghost then, but a spy or scout woven from essence by a Shaper to explore, learn, return, and report.

 

Dakro pleads, “I was shipwrecked. I didn’t mean to come here. Please, please help me be on my way from his accursed Barred isle. You'll be guaranteed my silence, for I know the penalty for coming here is death.”

 

The shade does not respond for a moment. Then it starts to move slowly toward Dakro, but breaks apart, as if the motion was too much for it. It dissolved rapidly in the warm sunlight.

 

Dakro stares for a moment, and then - giving the area where the shade dissolved a wide berth - continues following the path up the cliff.

 

At the top, he finds a guard tower next to a massive door that neither opens nor speaks, no matter what names he calls its mother. 

 

Entering the guard tower, he finds a locked lever. Trying the key, he finds it fits perfectly, and uses the lever to open the door with a loud screech. The cliff trembles slightly.

 

After hastily passing through, he peers to his right into what appears to be barracks for Guardians (the Shaper police/military force) or Agents (Shapers not in research or enforcement). There are rotted beds and trash everywhere. A quick peek into a chest near the door reveals several javelins, which he takes. Whoever left, left very quickly.

 

Turning a corner, Dakro sees a roamer, often used by Shapers as scouts or attack dog, watching him. Since it is a creation, it should be naturally inclined to obey him. However, this creature isn’t servile at all. It doesn’t look hostile; it’s just staring. It is an eerie feeling, being watched by a creation in this way. Creations have always obeyed him mindlessly before, unless a Shaper instructed it otherwise.

 

It is clear that, whatever this island is, Shapers have been here (and may yet be, given the shade). However, if this isle is full of rogue creations, he may have a serious problem.

 

After a seemingly interminable time, Dakro masters his courage and approaches the roamer blocking his way forward, ordering it to let him by. The roamer sniffs the air and then gets nervous and runs away. Odd.

 

Further on, there is an inn, where visitors and travelers could stop for steaks, drinks, and sleep. A crumbling roasting pit still dominates the center of the room. Dakro's mind wanders to better times: The savory aroma of basted ornk at his celebratory going-away party. The soothing sound of insects as he lay awake all night in anticipation. His mother's final words...

 

He recoils from the memory.

 

His mind back in the present, Dakro finds himself confused and even more worried. This island appears to have once been fully settled. But most islands are Barred because of experiments gone awry, and most such experiments are performed by very small labs, in crude quarters, safely far from society. Yet, here he’s seen warehouses, guideposts, and now an inn. At one point, a lot of Shapers lived here. 

 

What could have driven so many of the powerful Shapers off? And what took their place?

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 2: Transmogrification

 

Dakro’s musings are interrupted by creations bellowing to the north. He scans the horizon for horrible, mutant creations and sees that he is not alone on this island. 

 

However, the next creations he encounters are nowhere near so terrifying. It is a flock of ornks, which are cow-like Shaper creations. They are slow, clumsy livestock animals, hardy and laden with meat. Shapers created them to stock lands unfriendly to non-created animals, such as, apparently, this one. He notices that these ornks have large tusks, probably added by the Shapers to protect them from predators. Fortunately, they are likely to leave him alone if he leaves them alone.

 

He sets course for a huge stone hall on the horizon. As he crosses the grassy field, the salty scent of the sea gives way to the smell of grass and flowers. Walking on dry land is refreshing after a week at sea. Dakro can feel the strange essence canister continuing to work its changes in him. His strength is slowly returning, and he feels a deep compulsion to find and use more of these canisters.

 

The stone hall is still intact, and soft lights glow inside. His skin tingles. There is more Shaper magic inside. He immediately recognizes this large building as a Shaping Hall. There had to be one of them on this island somewhere. Here, the Shapers on this island used magic and force of will to make creations, for both utility and battle. Amazingly, this building is mostly intact. Shapers build things to last.

 

Dakro sees energizing pools in the side chambers. Holes in the ceiling allow light to shine on them, keeping them alive. The goo inside each pool is a semi-living essence-charged algae, capable of drawing energy from the air and the sun. 

 

In the corners of the hall, he sees two glowing glass canisters. The essence mixture churns and glows within, ready to give him power. He races across western corner and immediately pierces his hand on the canister's needle. Then, before he even tries to learn what it did to him, he runs to the eastern corner and does the same with the other.

 

A feeling of euphoria and power seizes him. He suddenly knows how the essence is healing him and demands it heal him even faster. As he forces it to work unnaturally fast, he can feel some of the essence dying, but that is no problem. He moves to the nearby sunlit essence pool and draws more into him. It is exhilarating.

 

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. He now understands the basics of shaping a fyora! 

 

A fyora is a simpler version of the drayk, of which his living craft was one variant. The fyora version is a small, fierce lizard creature with sharp teeth and large glands in its throat that give it the ability to spit globules of flaming saliva. It's a very common model of creation. Shapers have made them for centuries to serve as bodyguards, watchdogs, and even pets.

 

Dakro begins drawing on essence to form the creature until he gets to the flaming saliva sack and remembers his burned hand. His concentration wavers and the would-be fyora become a viscous pool of blood and ichor with bones sticking out at odd angles. Dakro dissolves the unusable bits down the drain and draws more essence, taking it a bit slower, experimenting with the constituent parts.

 

At last, he feels ready for a second try at a cohesive creation. As he finishes it, he can feel explosive energies building within it uncontrollably. He orders it as far away as possible, where it detonates, shaking the building. He continues experimenting through the day.

 

Mid-way through he gives up on fire, switching from exothermic reactions to endothermic ones. In the end, he manages to produce an ill-formed cryoa, a larger version of the fyora that breathes sprays of magical ice. The reactions are barely held in place, so ice shards leaks from the creation. He actually considers this an improvement, because it means that all nearby enemies will be damaged. He will just need to keep a safe distance himself.

 

He sends the cryoa well ahead down the road and follows, but the road soon becomes impassable due to a thick wall of trees and undergrowth that has completely overgrown it. He directs the cryoa off the original path. It clears a path, snapping branches and tearing up bushes with its claws, teeth, and ice.

 

As they press onward, Dakro begins to feel on edge. His Shaper training has left him attuned to sensing certain sorts of magic. He knows hostile creatures lurk ahead.

 

Sure enough, they soon clear the foliage and see a fyora standing on the path ahead of more ruins. This one doesn’t have the usual expression of servility and obedience. It doesn't look at him with fear or respect. Instead, it is drooling. As if it sees him as ... food.

 

He has heard tales of creations which have turned on their creators, have gone rogue, but it only rarely happens. When it does, the rogue is instantly destroyed. This fyora has spent years free of Shaper control. It bares its teeth at him, daring him to step forward. He can see shadows moving in the ruined buildings behind it. It is not the only creation lurking here. The creation stares at him with a confused look on its face. It bares its teeth, but it isn't fully rogue. 

 

Using what he learned from the canisters, Dakro psychically extends his will into the obedience organ built into the core of every creation, attempting to pacify the confused beast. The beast shudders and snarls, but it can’t shake his control. He stares at the fiery beast in the eyes. It looks down at the ground, demoralized. The sense of calm spreads through the ruins, touching the other creations.

 

Dakro smiles and says, “The Shapers built you well. I can’t wait to apprentice for them!” He then tilts his head and looks at the cryoa. “Actually, I guess… I am a Shaper.” He shouts, “Look what I have wrought with my own hands and force of will! This island is mine to command!”

 

The cryoa bows low, and then follows his silent command to scout ahead. Dakro is somewhat confused as to why he felt the need to shout.

 

The two ransack the ruins, eventually coming to what was once a storage warehouse. Well, it still is. But now, instead of housing useful supplies, it holds old trash and rotten sacks. Nevertheless, on one counter are several thorn batons. Most are dried up and dead, but one looks like it’s still alive.

 

Thorn batons are one of the Shapers' most ingenious creations. They are a mix of living and inert matter, plants (mixed with a touch of animal) grown in a metal frame, capable of firing a long, sharp thorn at high velocity. When unused, they go into hibernation and can live for a long time. 

 

They also find several healing pods. These gourds contain specially formulated and mildly enchanted shaper-made goo that causes the body to rapidly heal.

 

Dakro tries strapping some supplies to the cryoa, but the straps just keep falling down. A bird alights on a nearby tree and Dakro gets an idea. He begins to form protrusions from the cryoa’s back. The sound of tearing skin, cracking bones, and anguished roars fills the ruins as Dakro forces the cryoa to grow wings.

 

Dakro finishes and stands back proudly, “You might not get much lift, but that should give you a bit of an edge in combat and - more importantly - give me something to anchor these straps to so I don’t have to carry everything myself.”
 

At the end of the ruins, they enter a Quarantine Hall. It is not entirely abandoned. They see another feral creation in the far corner. A thin, mangy thahd is leaning against a pillar, barely recognizing its surroundings. Thahds are large, clumsy humanoids. They have thick bones, strong muscles, small internal organs, and tiny brains. The bones of its prey litter the floor around it. It is a pathetic creature, but dangerous.

 

Dakro can feel the obedience organ has atrophied within the creature, just as all muscles atrophy when not used. There will be no controlling it. Remembering his ordinarily cautious self, he orders the cryoa to lead them down a side passage that will enable them to safely skirt around the creature.

 

They enter the quarantine waiting hall. People wishing to enter or leave Sucia Island through this port waited here to be questioned and inspected by the servant mind. And, sure enough, the mind is still here, resting to the north. Dakro marvels at the skill of the Shapers who shaped these remarkable creatures. They were given remarkable lifespans. The thing is still alive.

 

A servant mind is a very specialized and useful sort of creature. Once grown, it never moves again. It spends its life in a stone crib made to fit it. Once there, it spends its entire life thinking, remembering, analyzing, and advising the Shapers.

 

He carefully approaches the servant mind, unsure how its long solitude has affected its brain. Fortunately, Fortunately, its eyes are clear and bright, and its body appears whole. It has the massive, lumpy skull characteristic of these strange creations.

 

“Welcome, Shaper. I am Mind Tavit,” it says, reflexively reading from an internal script centuries old. “Do you wish to pass through quarantine?”

 

Dakro ignores the creature’s desire for an answer and asks, “What happened to this island? Why was it Barred?”

 

“I am sorry, Shaper. I am limited in the scope of my knowledge. When I was left here, I was given no further information or instructions. If it helps, I can tell you that the decay in my internal organs indicates that it was abandoned well over a century ago. I am sorry that I cannot be more precise, as I was in hibernation all this time.”

 

Dakro mulls this over. “What was the purpose of this island?”

 

“Research.” Not the most useful answer he could have hoped for.

 

Dakro asks a few other questions, but it quickly becomes clear that the creature was programmed with pathetically little information.

 

Irritated, Dakro orders, “Let me through quarantine. I need to find someone useful.”

 

The creature looks at him carefully. It makes a low, soft humming noise. He doesn’t feel anything, but Dakro suspects some sort of magical augmentation is allowing the creature to analyze him in minute detail. Eventually, the noise ceases. Mind Tavit says, “I find no reason to impede your progress further. The exit door will open at your approach.”

 

On the other side of the quarantine hall, Dakro sees another flock of ornks, watched over by a servile. Serviles are one of the greatest Shaper creations. They are the most common and valued servants of your people: intelligent, hardy, obedient, and featuring hands with opposable thumbs. They are also easily controlled.

 

If there are serviles here, this isle must not be as savage as he feared. Serviles are weak and easily cowed creatures. If there were any real threat here, they would have been quickly wiped out. 

 

His emergence from this hall is clearly the last thing this servile expected. He looks terrified at first, then curious. He leaves his flock behind to run and speak with the Shaper. He probably wants fresh orders.

 

Nearing Dakro, the servile breaks his stride and boldly walks up. They inspect each other. It seems to be the same design of creation with which Dakro’s completely familiar. Same hunched posture, number of limbs, and so on. It looks very surprised to see him. However, it doesn't have the attitude of immediate obedience he has come to expect. It seems more curious than anything. 

 

After a few awkward seconds of staring, it speaks. “I don't think I'm mad. It's a Shaper! A Shaper has come at last! Oh, it has been years, years, since anyone has come through that door. A Shaper has come! This is so wonderful!” 

 

He gazes with awe. “Oh, but where are my manners. I am Timo. I am a shepherd. I graze my ornks here because nobody comes here. Oh. I must go to Vakkiri. I must tell my people a Shaper has come at last!"

 

Dakro feels the servile’s obedience organ isn’t completely atrophied, but it isn’t normal either. Mutated, perhaps. Like it has been getting nourishment (for lack of a better word) from orders given by those who are not Shapers. Is that even possible?

 

Mentally off-balance, Dakro asks, “Who or what is Vakkiri?”

 

“It is our humble village.” He points east. “It is that way, not far. Not far. I should tell them a Shaper has come at last. Our home is humble and small, but, with no Shapers around, we did what we could.”

 

Remembering the shade, Dakro asks, “There are no shapers here?”

 

Timo grows even more nervous. “I do not … No. You are the only one. You are the Shaper. You have returned, and we … we can serve.” He seemed somewhat reticent about saying that last word. “If you need food or a safe place to rest there are people in Vakkiri who can help.”

 

Dakro considers how odd it is that Timo is referring to his fellow serviles as “people.” Creations are called creations, not people. Frowning, Dakro says, “That’s right. You had better serve me, or you will be disciplined harshly.”

 

Before, Timo was nervous. Now he is openly terrified. “Of course,” he says meekly. “Of course we will serve. The might of the Shapers must always be obeyed.” Timo looks unsure what to do next. His entire world just changed in a moment.

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Chapter 3: Vakkiri

 

On the trek to Vakkiri, Timo watches Dakro nervously. He is happy to be in the presence of a Shaper, and yet ... He is nervous, too. He well knows how much power his creators have, and he doesn't know how to feel about it.

 

When they enter the servile colony Vakkiri, there is a good deal of astonishment on both sides. 

 

Dakro sees that the creations seem to have done well on their own, much better than he would have suspected. They moved into the Shaper ruins and made them their own. They have crops, shops, and guard patrols.

 

The serviles, in turn, are speechless. They have clearly been without Shaper influence for many years, and they have no idea how to react. They look overjoyed, relieved, and terrified at the same time.

 

Most of all, though, they look expectant. They watch Dakro carefully, gauging his every move, wondering how he is going to treat them. The power of the Shapers has always completely overwhelmed that of their creations.

 

Dakro, however, doesn’t have the full power of the Shapers. He is weak, tired, untrained, and alone. Fortunately for him, they don’t seem to know that.

 

Dakro largely ignores the creations and looks for the Shaping Hall, his best bet for more canisters. He quickly spots the ruins, its entrance flanked by two imposing statues of Shapers. Here, Shapers built the creatures this town needed to function. They would make fyoras and thahds for defense, ornks to breed, and so on.

 

Inside, he meets a withered, bent servile, at least a century old. They are designed to live for a long time, but this one is setting a record. 

 

When she sees Dakro, she is overwhelmed with emotion. The servile must exert great effort to keep from breaking down. She stares up with awe, as if gods walk the earth now. To her, maybe they do. With a trembling voice, she says, “Welcome back, Shaper. I am Learned Pinner. Welcome to my home. Welcome, at last.”

 

Dakro smiles, “Thank you. I have found some strange artifacts on this island. Cylindrical containers full of goo about four feet high. Do you know anything about them?”

 

“You mean the canisters? I have some of the fragments of them in a back room. They were created by the Shapers here before they left.” She shudders. “We serviles do not use them. Letting them infect us kills us instantly. I have seen it.” She winces, turning her face into a maze of wrinkles. “We fear your Shaper creations. We avoid them.”

 

Disappointed, Dakro purses his lips, then asks, “Why is Sucia Island Barred? Why was it abandoned?”

 

“We do not know. Your kind left a century ago. They left behind us serviles. They did not tell us why they fled. I have an idea, though. Where you might get a clue of why the isle was abandoned. One moment.”

 

She walks to a cabinet and pulls out a large map case. Spreading it on the table, she says, “Here, to the north, there is a large ruin. It was once a school, where your kind learned their arts. Many years ago, before the island went wild and the rogues came, I met a servant mind there.  It was friendly then, but confused. Maybe you can get it to talk sense.”

 

She looks up from the map. “Not that it is my place to tell a Shaper what to do! I only mention this because the mind might have been told why Sucia was abandoned. I would go myself, but there are rogue creations now.”

 

Dakro yawns. “Rogues are hardly a concern for a Shaper. Anyways, who should I see about my room?”

 

Learned Pinner looks uneasy. “Ask for Leader Khobar in the large central building.”


 

Unlike the others, the muscular Leader Khobar does not fear Dakro. Or, if he does, he doesn’t show it. He sizes the Shaper up, trying to figure out whether he is a help or a threat to the serviles under his care. A sword hangs from his belt, which is shocking. Serviles are not allowed weapons.

 

He bows to Dakro, a very short, sharp motion, all the time keeping his eyes upon the Shaper. “Welcome to our home. I am Leader Khobar, proud Awakened and the chosen leader of the tribe of Vakkiri. It is a pleasure to have the Shapers among us again at last.”

 

Dakro cannot help but notice the way Khobar emphasizes the word Leader. Or the lack of enthusiasm he put into saying the last sentence. Dakro sees the large number of armed serviles and considers his options. Finally, he says, “Pinner told me to see you for my room.”

 

Leader Khobar sighs, “She loves your kind more than is safe. Before we speak of ‘your room,’ you need to understand the current situation. After the Shapers abandoned us, we serviles struggled for survival. Most were unable to live without your commands. Some of us were selected by cruel nature to be allowed to survive.”

 

Dakro extends his senses and feels mutations in the obedience organs of almost all nearby serviles, which explains how these ones survived without Shaper commands.

 

Leader Khobar continues, “Without the Shapers, we serviles had to find our own ways and beliefs. As the years passed, we split into three sects: the Awakened, the Obeyers, and the Takers of Free.”

 

“The Obeyers are the ones who wish to follow. They are the ones who worship your kind as gods. You will find them in Pentil, to the northeast, as obedient and pliable as you could possibly wish. Their leader is called Rydell. I’m sure they will give you a friendly welcome and all the groveling you desire.”

 

“This village is dedicated to the Awakened sect. We have been Awakened from the dark sleep of Shaper Mastery. Our eyes are open. We wish to deal with the Shapers as equals, with friendship and gratitude, but we will not be slaves to you any longer.”

 

Dakro scoffs.

 

Ignoring him, Leader Khobar finishes, “The Takers of Free are the mad ones of Kazg to the east, led by Gnorrel. They have been warped by the cruelty of their lives here. They were made by the Shapers, and now they wish to overthrow them. They wish to separate from the Shapers completely, and if the Shapers attempt to deal with them, they wish to die fighting.”

 

Dakro realizes his mouth has dropped ajar and quickly closes it. “Okay, so what does this have to do with my room?”

 

Leader Khobar rubs his forehead in frustration, seeing his words have not penetrated the thick skull of the Shaper. “We of the Awakened will freely trade with you for lodging, but if you wish slaves, you need to head to Pentil. Speak with Sencia over there if you wish lodging here.” He points to a servile woman tending to rows of pallets.

 

Hardly trusting himself not to attack this roguish servile, he takes his leave, strutting over to Sencia. She looks up at Dakro strangely. There is none of the expected awe and fear in her eyes. She looks at the Shaper as if he were merely another servile. She says, “I am Sencia. Sencia of the Awakened. I welcome you to our humble home, Shaper.”

 

Dakro grits his teeth, “I require a room.”

 

Sencia points to the barracks. “Only those of rank and stature live in private homes. You may sleep in the barracks. Aid us, and you may earn the privilege of a private room.”

 

Dakro’s eyes go wide. He cannot believe how this creation is speaking to him.

 

Sencia says, “I see by your reaction that you are ignorant of our ways. We are the Awakened. We are a sect of serviles, led by the mighty Ellhrah. We believe that we serviles must stand up for ourselves, be proud, claim our intelligence and our birthright, and look to you Shapers as our equals."

 

Dakro tries to interrupt, but Sencia talks over him, “We know that many Shapers will not approve of this. We will accept the consequences of this. If you would like to learn more, you should speak with Ellhrah. He lives to the east, in the fortress past Watchhill."

 

Many of the nearby serviles start looking extremely nervous and start leaving, soon replaced by even more guards.

 

Dakro raises his voice, “I will permit you creations to continue living as you have, as I have more important business elsewhere.” He then leaves, openly stealing some venom thorns on the way out. He stares daggers at anyone daring to meet his eyes.


 

On the outskirts of town, a short, pale servile sits slumped in an old stone chair inside his home. When he sees Dakro, he calls out and beckons Dakro inside his home. He is clean and quiet, but he doesn’t look like he has been out of his home for some time. He speaks without looking up from the floor. “Welcome, Shaper. I am Nabb. I have been waiting for you to come see me.”

 

“Greetings, Nabb. I take it from your posture that you have not been corrupted by the beliefs of the Awakened?”

 

“Yes. I am risking much to speak with you. I must say what I have to say. I act without instructions from my sect, because I believe it is worth the risk.”

 

Nabb takes a deep breath. “I am of the Takers. I am a spy here, from the village of Kazg. I have come to see what the Awakened are doing. I tell you this because we wish your alliance. Do not listen to the lies of the Awakened and the Obeyers. Do not throw your lot with them until you have been to Kazg and seen truth.”

 

Dakro says dangerously, “Khobar told me the Takers of Free would attack me on sight. Are you trying to trick a Shaper into a trap?” 

 

“No! Khobar lies to keep you from the truth! Aid us and we can repay you. This island is full of secrets. Full of power. We know those who can unlock it for you. To learn more, you must give us help.”

 

Dakro relaxes a bit. “I am listening.”

 

Nabb swallows and says, “We will do anything to make the Serviles free, even work with a Shaper. We will accept your support, through one day we must leave you behind. There is no hope of true freedom and happiness for the servile race until we totally shed the influence of your kind. With you and our other allies, we may break free of the Shaper fist.”

 

Dakro asks, “And who are your other allies?”

 

Nabb lowers his head even further, “I am forbidden to say. If I do, I will be punished harshly. There are powerful forces on this isle, and we are linked with them. Forces that may make even the Shapers tremble. Join us, help us, and you may share in those powers too.”

 

Dakro scoffs. “I believe I met them. They killed my living drayk ship and marooned me here. Now, you want me to betray the Shapers and aid my attackers?”

 

“Of course! You should! You crush the creations. You abandon us. You are cruel to us. You are unjust. You must betray your kind, for justice. It is a hard choice. Fortunately, as I said, we can repay you with power.”

 

With barely controlled rage, Dakro shakes the dust off his shoes and strides out of Vakkiri toward the school Pinner told him about. His last act in Vakkiri is to order his cryoa to relieve itself on Nabb’s sidewalk.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 4: Entrepreneurs

 

Dakro treks onward and soon enters the wild land north of Vakkiri. He exercise and natural surroundings soothe his anger. In the wilds, e finds the remnants of servile farms and camps. He also finds patches of scorched land. The serviles tried to expand here, only to be driven back by rogues.

 

There are fyora tracks all over the place, clearly visible in the patches of ground among the scrub. There is also a crudely-painted sign by the road reading:

LAND OF GHURK

Pass Toll 10 coins

 

Three serviles approach, weapons drawn. The leader is an aging servile who has been left bent and scarred by his years fending for himself in these woods. However, he still holds his blade with a steady hand. He looks Dakro straight in the eyes. “Stop! Am Ghurk.”

 

The servile is trying to hide his fear, but even his long, harsh life hasn't erased his inbred terror of the Shapers. He barely manages to speak. “This our woods, Shaper. Woods of inutile. Though you are of lofty race, you still must pay the toll to pass. Ten coins, or go the way you came."

 

Inutile serviles are those who for whatever reason, do not serve Shapers properly. Most are killed and a few live lives of desperate isolation.

 

Dakro bellows, psychically amplifying his speech in the servile’s brain, “You dare threaten me? I am a Shaper! If you make one move towards me, servile, I will dissolve your arms and legs with my Shaper powers. You will starve and die. Slowly.”

 

Ghurk is terrified. This is beyond Dakro’s powers, right now, but the inutile doesn’t know that. Ghurk backs away.

 

Dakro demands, “Explain yourselves.”

 

Ghurk bows his head. “Am inutile. Thrown from towns. Now life best if we live out here and take food from Vakkiri. Less work than toiling in fields. No farming when so many rogues. Is a lifestyle we invented!"

 

Dakro’s anger gives way to amusement. “You invented theft?”

 

“Yes! Had much thought. Reading old Shaper tomes. It is called 'banditry.' We may be first servile bandits! We are proud.”

 

Dakro starts outright laughing. “Good for you! And because you have remembered your place with regards to Shapers, I am going to reward you. Here, take these javelins. They are weighing me down and I think you can put them to good use against the so-called ‘Awakened’ to the south.

 

Ghurk takes the javelins and begins to count them (with some difficulty).

 

Dakro proceeds past Ghurk. One of the two accompanying servile bandits scowls at Dakro as he passes. The Shapers' presence is filling him with terror and rage. A volatile combination. Fortunately, Ghurk’s presence keeps the inutile under control.

 

In a secluded area, Dakro finds a wealth of stolen food. He picks out some of the better meat and (pear-like) fruit, eating a bit and stowing the rest.

 

Deeper in, he sees the living area of the inutiles with numerous armed guards. Not wanting to press his luck, he holds his head high and struts on by.


 

Keeping to the trees, Dakro follows the remnants of a road to the east. At the edge of the tree line, he spots a few rogue fyora wandering the plains, looking for animals to eat. Wanting to gauge their strength and cunning, he waits patiently in the woods until one is alone and nearby.

 

After ten minutes or so, he thinks he finds his chance and fires a thorn from his concealed place. Simultaneously, his cryoa leaps into the air, aided by its new wings, and comes crashing down on the fyora, pinning it to the ground. The fyora bellows forth a terrible screech that draws others. Still pinning the fyora, the cryoa breathes ice shards at an approaching fyora, sending frozen blood flying across the grass. 

 

Dakro involuntarily takes a step back as he sees his number of enemies has quadrupled. He hastily re-aims his baton toward the one intent on him and catches it in the leg, forcing it to stumble.

 

Like Dakro, the cryoa also takes a step back. However, unlike Dakro, this is an intentional movement in order to catch the fyora under its feet in the massive storm of ice crystals that it launches from its body. 

 

Dakro looks on in wonder, not having realized that the cryoa could control the “leaking” ice shards. The storm catches all four attackers in its storm, killing two and severely wounding the one that stumbled.

 

The storm rages, only to be parted by several plumes of flame, scorching the cryoa. Dakro and the cryoa quickly finish off the last attackers. Dakro breathes a sigh of relief, all too soon. Even though all the enemies are dead, his momentary lack of concentration causes the cryoa to go rogue from its injuries. Dakro runs, but fortunately soon re-asserts dominance.

 

Having seen how quickly things went south, they continue north along the treeline, skirting the fyora-filled plains.

 

Nestled amongst the trees, they find an old, ruined Shaper shed. The front door died years ago, so he can enter easily. 

 

These doors are one of the Shapers’ most cunning creations. They are thin stone shells, intertwined with a large, custom-made plant. The plant detects motion nearby and lifts and lowers the door accordingly. Of course, sometimes, the plant dies and rots away. Then the door sinks into the open position permanently, like this one has.

 

Inside, Dakro finds several living tools. Living tools are actual living organisms. They have several long, thin tentacles, which a skilled Shaper can manipulate to open or repair mechanical devices. They are delicate, though, and generally expire after only one use.

 

Dakro never learned to use them, but takes them anyway for later experimentation. He leaves the metal tools and rotting lumber.

 

At last they come to the massive ruin that is hopefully the former school Pinner talked about. Fortunately, the entrance hasn’t caved in. Dakro doesn’t see any signs of what was here, but the facility is buried underground. That usually means Shaper research or experimentation.

 

As he scopes the place out, four fyoras wander out of the tunnel. The ruins are probably infested with the creatures. Dakro and the cryoa shout warcries and two of the fyoras immediately run back underground in terror.

 

Dakro races forward, ducking into a roll underneath a fyora’s fireball. Regaining his feet, he jabs his sword up into the exothermic sack within the fyora. An explosion, contained by the flame-resistant skin, rips through the fyora’s organs. By the time Dakro has disengaged, he sees the cryoa has already dealt with the other one.

 

They creep inside. The interior hall was built centuries ago and has been crumbling ever since. The traditional statues at the entrance, arms held out in welcome, tell Dakro what this building is. These are the ruins of a Shaper training hall. He smiles widely.

 

Here, initiates were both taught and modified, undergoing the grueling tests and schooling necessary to master both magic and the creation of life. It has been a long time since a Shaper was tested here, but that is about to change.

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Chapter 5: Schooling

 

This hall was built centuries ago and has been crumbling ever since. The traditional statues at the entrance, arms held out in welcome, tell Dakro what this building is. These are the ruins of a Shaper training hall. Here, initiates were both taught and modified, undergoing the grueling tests and schooling necessary to master both magic and the creation of life.

 

Although the school has been long abandoned, it is not unoccupied. He can hear the snarls and growls of rogue creations. Their trash and waste litter the floor. He wonders what Shaper artifacts they might be guarding.

 

The large red light-emitting crystal near the entrance has died, but the one in a discarded lamp is still alive. Dakro rouses it from its hibernation, bathing the area in white-yellow light. They make their way into the ruins, finding more red crystals, most of which are alive, but enough have died to make the lamp worthwhile.


 

This ruined lecture hall smells of dust, mildew, and something else. The odor is slightly off, but Dakro can't mistake the smell of fresh essence. 

 

The basins around him were once filled with various chemicals and solutions, created, used, and destroyed by the students here. They are cracked and empty now. The two vats to the west, however, are intact and tell-tale steam rises from them.

 

If someone placed essence in the vats, it must have been done recently. Otherwise, it would have rotted away by now. Even from here, he can hear its bubbling and fizzing, ready for shaping.

 

Dakro approaches the left vat and is reminded that “recently” is a relative term. The large quantity of essence is not fresh. It must be several weeks old, as the proteins and other organic substances are starting to decay without sunlight.

 

Essence doesn’t just happen. It must be mixed up by a skilled Shaper following a complicated and secret recipe and then carefully guarded. It shouldn’t be here. Dakro grabs a nearby metal ladle to remove it.

 

However, the moment he pokes the liquid with a ladle, a horribly twisted fyora rises from beneath the surface. It’s as if someone tried to shape it, but lacked the proper materials and knowledge. The rogue horror immediately attacks. She bites not just Dakro’s hand, but his entire arm and ladle.

 

Dakro falls back, released as the rogue begins choking on the ladle. He turns his fall into a roll underneath a nearby table, shielding himself while he re-shapes his mutilated arm.

 

The larger cryoa begins clawing at the fyora, keeping out of range of her shorter arms and repeatedly batting her head to the side so she cannot breath fire.

 

The fyora puts a leg up on the edge of the vat to get out and the entire vat tips over, spilling the foul essence across the floor and the fyora on top of the cryoa. 

 

The two begin wrestling, tearing into each other with abandon and singular focus. So it is that the fyora does not notice when Dakor sneaks up behind and stabs his sword through the thing’s spine with a loud crack.

 

Dakro immediately turns to the other vat, sword raised. After a moment, he lowers it. If there was anything alive in there, surely it would have stirred after all this commotion.

 

He pushes over the right vat so the rancid essence will go down the drain. Shaking his head, he mumbles, “I should have done this in the first place, rather than messing around with one ladle scoop at a time.” 

 

As the essence spills out onto the floor, a cloud of vile gas rises. Dakro immediately begins choking, which soon gives way to vomiting. 

 

After a bit, he regains his composure, although tears still stream down his face. He instructs his cryoa to tip over the first vat and then run. “No, that’s what I should have done in the first place.”


 

With the cryoa leading the way, Dakro continues searching the ruins. They glance through classroom after classroom, each specially suited to a different kind of shaping.

 

Most have nothing of use after all this time, but the armor classroom proves useful. Inside are five sets of living shaper armor that have gone into hibernation and are still alive. He should be able to fetch a decent price for the self-repairing armor, at least on this backwater island.

 

Dakro begins to shape a fyora to serve as a pack mule for the armor. He begins as normal, but skips the fire-breathing glands, not wanting to risk an explosion underground. It will be all but useless in combat, but he has his sword and cryoa for that.

 

As he looks at his sword, he sees it has dulled a bit, especially after slicing through bone in the last conflict. He finds a sharpener and re-sharpens it. He also picks up a spare batton and a small armory worth of thorns.


 

Dakro chokes on the stench of decay as a large storeroom door opens for him. Inside are the remains of a human and rancid essence. She wears unusual garb and, from the odor, clearly has not been dead a century. Whoever she is, she died long after the Shaper fled.

 

Dakro is about to leave when he spots a book on an ornate pedestal, clearly out of place in the storage room. Time and decay have heavily damaged this journal, written by a teacher when this school was still functioning. Only a few pages at the end are legible:

 

"It has come to this. It is the end. Despite all our learning, our achievements, we are all being called away. There is some grumbling. Some students even whisper of rebellion. It will not come to that. We will be loyal."

 

"Supposedly, they will let us continue our work on the mainland. We have our suspicions, though. They would not end all of this and then let our teachings escape."

 

"All of our work is to be destroyed. Of course, there will be leaks, planned and unplanned. This journal, for example, will remain behind. Hopefully, all of the masterful techniques within will survive to...”

 

Nothing else in the tome survived. Whoever wrote it, their final wishes did not come to be.


 

Dakro comes to a guard room, quarantine doors, and narrow passages. He can guess where this hall leads: The Creation Hall. 

 

In the hall ahead, young Shapers first set their hand to molding life. This is, of course, insanely dangerous. Creation halls are always set up so that their keepers can seal them off in a moment.

 

Unfortunately, the doors are stuck open, and the walls have been crumbling for years. Not a good sign.

 

Dakro enters the Creation Hall and finds it occupied. There are several creations at the far end. They look at him with the insolent, mad eyes of rogues. One of them is an enormous thahd. He has a strange, unexpected level of intelligence. Thahds are stupid creatures, made for physical labor and melee combat. They have crude speech, but they never challenge their masters. Normally. 

 

This one shouts a challenge. “You! Invader! I Rawbone! This my home! You kill my pets! I Rawbone! We no follow you! We slay you now!”

 

Dakro has had enough, "How dare you challenge me? I am a Shaper!"

 

Rawbone laughs. “Pfaugh! Shaper! Shaper no exist! Just scary story."

 

"I will destroy you, rogue."

 

"Rogue! Me not rogue. Me Rawbone! Strong! Rrrragh! Eat you!” The huge thahd lumbers forward.

 

Dakro wades into the battle, hamstringing Rawbone. The cryoa takes advantage of the off-balance creation and pins it to the ground. 

 

However, another thahd and two fyoras have closed in. As the fyoras release a firestorm, the Dakro and the cryoa race out of the way, freeing Rawbone.

 

The thahd dogs Dakro, who slices across the thahd’s chest. Natural armor fragments break free, pelting Dakro and drawing several lines of blood down his chest and face. Dakro parries the thahd’s armored fist while urging the essence in him to seal his wounds.

 

Dakro fights defensively, looking for an opening that will not result in further shards slicing his skin. Just as he thinks he is gaining the upper hand, Rawbone joins the melee, forcing Dakro into full defense.

 

Then Dakro is blinded by a wall of ice in front of him. When it clears, but thahds are dead, the breakaway shards frozen to their corpses.

 

Looking to the source of the ice wall, he sees the remaining fyoras is about to attack the unguarded back of his cryoa. Dakro draws and aims his thorn baton, catching the fyora higher than he intended, right through the eye and into the brain. It dies instantly.

 

Looking around, they see two other fyoras in back cages. Fortunately, the fyoras seem unconcerned by the recent battle.

 

Keeping the cages closed, Dakro attempts to sift through Rawbone’s frozen corpse, but merely ends up breaking off a limb. He abandons the attempt and looks through the nearby boxes. They are mostly filled with trash, torn garments, and broken weapons, likely stolen from Vakkiri.

 

However, in one box he finds an iron key on a leather thong. It is old and rusty, but Dakro takes it anyway. Rawbone probably found the key when it took over these ruins, but he couldn’t figure out how to use it. Even an intelligent thahd is still a thahd.


 

Dakro goes back through the complex, unlocking doors with what appears to be a master key. 

 

He mostly finds yet more dead school supplies, but eventually uncovers his goal: a canister! He quickly makes his way and slams his hand down on the metal spike, a wave of euphoria filling him. He sits for a time, just basking in the feeling. 

 

When the initial rush finally fades an hour later, he looks around for the next one, but is greatly disappointed. If only he could find more! Or, he thinks, make more.

 

He immediately begins ordering the essence in his body to catalogue the changes that have been made. It looks like this one did not teach him to make magic, but re-wrote his synapsis, making him faster and… more arrogant, less cautious? That’s odd.

 

To learn more, he will need to study the next canister before he uses it. Upon reflection, he orders his cryoa to stop him from using the next canister they find.


 

Behind the next locked door they find the school’s servant mind. At first, he isn’t sure if it’s still alive. Then, slowly, quietly, it begins to speak, its long closed mouth breaking a thick crust of dust and dried saliva to speak.

 

“Welcome, Shaper. I am the mind who has been named Povralus. It has been long since I have spoken or thought. Forgive my slowness. I will attempt to wake quickly and serve you better. I have lost much of my knowledge. What remains is at your service.”

 

Dakro says, “Why have you lost so much of your knowledge?”

 

"A Shaper from off the island came to me. She said the school was to be closed forever. She said that I was to forget all the marvelous things we had learned here. I obeyed completely, of course. Then they sealed me away. This was many years ago."

 

Dakro has an epiphany, “Of course, I should have realized it earlier. This explains why the quarantine mind seemed so dull and ignorant. They ordered you to wipe your memories. So, you would not be able to tell me why this island was Barred directly, but perhaps… What happened to this school? Why is it in ruins?”

 

"I do not know. Is the school in ruins? Nobody has visited me for so long. I know little. The last contact I had with your kind was when most of my knowledge was blocked off. Gone."

 

"Why was the school closed?";

 

“I think I remember being told ... we on this island had discovered dangerous knowledge. But I serve. The ways of the Shapers are not for me to know. Unless they wish it."

 

Dakro mulls over the panels covered with rapidly-changing symbols. He can’t understand them, but he knows they tell the servant mind what is happening in the complex.

 

Realizing that talking with this lobotomized Mind would be a waste of time, he moves on. In one of the rooms beyond the mind, he finds another canister and immediately races toward it when his cryoa goes rogue, pinning him to the floor.

 

Dakro reasserts control, only to be confused, as he senses the cryoa sitting on his chest is not rogue. A second later, the answer hits him. Of course, he was going to study the canister!

 

He takes the canister Mind Pavralus, who believes he has never seen such canisters before. Putting two and two together, these canisters must be why the island was barred. They are too dangerous to use. He looks down at this mutated body and shudders.

 

Had he voiced his thoughts aloud, Mind Pavralus would have told him the flaw in his thinking. Why canisters could not be the reason Sucia Island was barred.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 6: Poison

 

Dakro finishes searching the school and finds the school’s life-sustaining reservoir, as well as a second life-enhancing canister.

 

Shapers always keep supplies of food and water in reserve. If there is an accident or something truly virulent or dangerous is created, Shaper labs are designed to be completely closed off and quarantined in an instant. This water was placed here to sustain the people inside while they destroyed all of the rogue creations. Or died trying. Either way, the people outside are safe. This reservoir is fed by a small, natural spring. The water in the basin is murky and covered with thick deposits of algae. Fortunately, his water-purifying plant is up to the task.

 

With plenty of purifiable water and twice-stolen food (thanks to the bandits), he spends the next few days analyzing the canisters and the mutagen inside. It seems that one will teach him how to magically poison enemies from a distance. The other will teach him the basics of creating an artila (a poison-spitting worm-like creation), but not enough to actually form one.

 

Teaching students about poison makes sense. At its core, it is basically just the destruction of the body. Destruction is easier than construction, so students are taught the latter after they have learned the basics of the former.

 

As the days pass, Dakro can feel the initial effects of the canisters wearing off. He realizes they have a side-effect of causing feelings of anger and grandiosity. His feelings remained poisoned, even after all these days.

 

Without even apprentice-level training, he cannot learn much more about the mutagen. However, with the toxicity in his body diminishing, he is thinking more clearly, and decides Vakkiri might not be a complete write-off after all. Strapping the canisters to the fyora, he treks back to Learned Pinner.


 

Learned Pinner watches Dakro intently, eager to assist. Sometimes, she glances around the ruins about her, embarrassed by their crumbling condition.

 

Dakro explains that he spoke with a servant mind in the school and asks that Pinner store the canisters for him.. 

 

Learned Pinner leans against a table as she considers his tale. Finally, she says, “This is very strange. Usually, islands are Barred because of a rogue or dangerous creation. We serviles know that much. We have lived in fear for years of what might be lurking here. But Sucia was abandoned because something was discovered. There is something powerful here, so scary that your kind abandoned us. Whatever it is, it must be farther to the east. There is nothing so important around here.

 

The old servile is growing tired. “Thank you for your help, Shaper. What you have learned will give us peace. If you want to know more about why this isle was Barred, the answers are not here.”

 

Dakro mulls this over and asks if there is anyone worthwhile to speak with in the village before he heads east. Learned Pinner takes the compliment that a Shaper would consider the possibility of a servile being worthy of speaking with. Then describes Clakkit, a stealthy, disheveled servile who travels between villages, delivering messages and spreading news.


 

In the town square, a young, dirty servile walks right up to Dakro and looks him in the eye. “I Clakkit. Glad see. Me know thing. Secrets.” Clakkit’s attitude is not what Dakro is used to, but the servile uses the sort of speech common to serviles.

 

“Why don’t the other serviles speak like you?

 

Clakkit says defensively, “I smart like them. I no dumb. I no talk Shaper. Not like you. I servile talk. Choice!”

 

Clakkit pounds his chest with his fist. “I prove smart! I travel. Listen. Talk. Learn lots. Want help you. Know what servile think of you. Know you crime if you crime. Know secrets.”

 

“Secrets?”

 

“Yes! Clakkit walks. Town to town. Through wilds. Seville hate other servile, but all servile like Clakkit. Share secret to all. Send news. Useful! Get food for it.”

 

“Yes, yes, but what secrets do you know?”

 

“There invaders on this isle. That what I know. Know no more than that. Secrets answered to east.”



 

Dakon enters the woods east of Vakkiri. They used to be more heavily settled by Shapers, and then serviles. Then the land was gradually abandoned and overgrown.

 

Rogues have moved into the abandoned lands, inching closer and closer to Vakkiri. There is a road going through these woods. At least one servile settlement must have survived out here.

 

A sign reads, “Ellhrah’s Keep - East”

 

Dakon takes his whittling knife and scratches out “East.” He then draws a crude picture of flaming excrement where the word used to be. His work complete, he heads northeast toward what appears to be an old Shaper watchpost.

 

At the entrance, he sees the word “Watchhill” was carved into these old timbers a long time ago, but is barely legible now. 

 

Watchhill is a burrow under a large hill. From the top, Guardians and Agents kept watch over the surrounding lands, looking for rogues and other sources of trouble. The guards lived in the warrens under the hill. It is a common arrangement. 

 

However, these caverns have been taken over by savage rouges. Their growls and grunts echo through the tunnels. It sounds dangerous, but the watchpost’s shaping chamber is a likely source of shaping knowledge, so Dakro decides it is worth the risk.

 

As they are about to enter, crimson crystals near the entrance turn vibrant red. With the warning, Dakro sidles along the wall and makes a two-handed overhead attack on the approaching thahd as it rounds the corner. 

 

The creation dodges, catching the blade in the shoulder instead of the skull, and retaliates with a swift knee to Dakro’s stomach.

 

Dakro crumples and the cryoa body slams the thahd, tearing into its flesh. By the time Dakro has recovered, the brief skirmish is over.

 

The duo continues to make their way through the watchpost. They throw debris to distract and separate the tiny-brained thahds, so they can take them on one or two at a time. It is slow work, but they eventually make it to the creation chamber.

 

The Shaping hall of this outpost is not abandoned. It is infested. In the far end, there are swirling pools of essence, but they have been corrupted. Dark and viscous, and reeking of vinegar.

 

In front of the pool, a bizarre creation grows, rooted to the floor. It’s a horrible, slimy beast. Roots extend from its base to the pools. Quivering tubes stick out of the top. As he watches, it starts to squeeze a small fyora out of one of them. 

 

If this horrible thing is a Shaper creation, he’s never seen its like. It’s a mindless machine for making rogues.

 

Dakro quickly recovers from his surprise and runs from the cheap wood flooring of the rest of the complex to the smooth, hard flooring of the shaping area. 

 

Without slowing, he squeezes his thorn baton, which lets out a small squeak. The high-velocity thorn pieces the slimy beast’s tube and impales a fyora about to emerge. The fyora thrashes, causing the thorn to tear into the monstrosity. Simultaneously, the cryoa unleashes an ice storm centered on the writhing mass. 

 

In response, the monstrosity expels a shockwave, driving back the storm and knocking Dakro and the cryoa to the ground.

 

While they recover, yet another fyora emerges. Gouts of fire from the fyora meet the retreating ice storm, filling the room with steam. Automatic vents in the shaping room activate, but it will take time.

 

In the blind confusion, rogue fyora and thahds turn on one another, giving Dakro and the cryoa the time they need to recover. Dakro drinks healing spores and shapes the cryoa’s wounds closed.

 

The messy, blind battle continues. Finally, the air clears enough just in time for Dakro to see the misbegotten creation collapse on its side, its rogue spawns all dead. Its flesh immediately starts to bubble and decay. It was not a stable creation, made using proper Shaper practices. It is better dead, despite the fact that the “awakened” village of Vakkiri will be safer.

 

The gore begins to slide down the hard floor to the nearby drains. As it does, Dakon notices it is leaving behind blue crystals. He quickly scavenges a few for later analysis and sifts through the gore, trying to learn all he can before too much is lost. 

 

Sadly, he learns little. He does, however, discern that it was not a natural mutation. Someone intentionally shaped this creation to poison the surrounding lands with rogues.

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Chapter 7: Thorns

 

Dakro finishes searching the watchpost and finds a canister that will soon fundamentally change the way he shapes forever.

 

Having pierced his hand on the canister, Dakro falls to his knees, overwhelmed by the flood of knowledge. As he falls, the needle tears a long gash in his hand, but he barely notices. 

 

He immediately knows he can now shape thahds, but he intuitively senses this means so much more. He takes the time to sort through the minutiae of what he just learned.

 

Several hours later, Dakro is still pondering the empty cavity within the thahd. It looks like the cavities shaped into all who take the tests to be Shapers, cavities that allow essence to be stored. But no creation can shape, and even if one could, it would not be the dim-witted thahd.

 

The obvious answer is that it allows a Shaper to carry more essence with them. This is certainly part of the answer, as essence vessels go from the cavity to the exterior, but there are also vessels that go into the body.

 

Frustrated, Dakro has been talking to himself for some time. “And these go to the -” He stops short, having an epiphany. “They allow for shaping mid-battle.”

 

The implications stagger him. Shaping normally takes hours, if not days. Even the best shapers take several minutes.

 

Sure, he can’t fully shape a new creation, but he could shape in new abilities mid-battle. He immediately goes about re-designing his cryoa template late into the night.



 

Two days later, Dakro passes through the logging forest and enters a fen. His feet sink into the moist soil. He notices that numerous shrubs have bunches of long, wicked thorns growing out of them. They are thorns for the thorn baton.

 

The thorn baton is a favored weapon of the Shaper. The batons themselves are living things, extremely long-lived animals nestled in a metal frame. The thorns they fire are grown on bushes much like this one. These plants are very hardy, they grow thorns at a good rate, and they are, in general, an excellent example of Shaper biological engineering.

 

As he makes his way through the fens, he picks ripe thorns.

 

In the distance he spots packs of roamers, like the one he saw when he was first marooned. Occasionally one wanders close, but like the first one, it sniffs the air and runs away when Dakro gets too close. Dakro soon pays them little mind and collects more torns.

 

Suddenly, a large specimen, perhaps the pack leader arrives and howls. All the roamers growl and race menacingly at Dakro and the cryoa.

 

As they get close, their skin begins releasing an acidic cloud. The roamers are apparently immune, but it begins to eat away both Dakro and the cryoa’s skin.

 

Vastly out-numbered, Dakro makes a run for it, ordering his cryoa to draw their attention. He’s been meaning to make a new model, anyways. This one has already been serving him since he was first marooned, saving him from the fyoras and thalds of the plains, school, and forest. Not all of its wounds have healed properly, and it is unfitting for a Shaper to be traveling with such a scarred creation.

 

Dakro looks over his shoulder and sees the cryoa’s left leg dissolve, causing the creation to fall into a swamp. The cryoa’s head falls underwater and the water freezes around it. Since it was ordered to be a distraction, it continues to launch ice shards blindly, rather than free itself from drowning. 

 

Dakro turns back and keeps running, giving it little thought as he thinks about the future.



 

The next day, Dakro returns. However, this time he is flanked not by a single strong, heroic cryoa, but by three three “base template” cryoas. They have no wings to help them leap and pin enemies. They have no “leaking” ice shards to harm nearby enemies or condense into ice storms. And they have less muscle mass and intelligence. However, they are versatile. He can instantly shape them for fighting either large numbers or a single strong foe.

 

Dakro carefully avoids the packs of roamers and makes his way toward the only building still standing on the fen. All the other structures must have collapsed over the years, but this one was built to last. It is filthy now, but in its time it was probably quite beautiful.

 

Nothing of value remains on the first floor, having been torn apart long ago by the roamers, but Dakro decides to investigate the second floor. As he enters the master bedroom, he is shocked to find two roamers and three thahds lounging within.

 

Fortunately, the occupants are shocked too, giving Dakro the time he needs to call upon the essence built into each cryoa. All three instantly form overlapping ice storms, tearing into the crowd of rogue creations.

 

With his new instant-shaping ability, a previously impossible fight became relatively trivial.

 

When the ice clears, everything in the once-stately room has been destroyed, save a large, ornate chest. Inside, he finds jewelry, makeup, a hand mirror, a comb, and a healing pod. 

 

Long ago, the healing pod would have been used with the other items to maintain a youthful, healthy appearance. It was a luxury item for gallant parties and elegant dances. Now, it is an item destined for war parties and the bloody dance of battle.

 

On the wall is a large painting of a forest road. Fog covers the end of the road, obscuring the path, or is it the destination?

 

Dakro looks outside the east window to see if he can see a good destination from this height and thinks he sees a village to the northeast.

 

Dakro exits the building and continues northeast, picking thorns and keeping clear of roamers. Suddenly, he hears a shriek of alarm, coming from the northeast. He looks and sees a servile, backed against a tree by a roamer. It lunges at her.

 

Running, he re-shapes one of his cryoa, giving it wings with which to leap and pin the roamer. The servile takes the opportunity to run away while Dakro and the cryoas claw and stomp the roamer into the mud. 

 

The one-sided beating over, the servile stumbles over to Dakro. She’s wounded, but not badly. A small bundle of wood and thorns is lung over her shoulder. She is eager to flee, but she insists on thanking Dakro before she goes.

 

“A Shaper! I dreamed of meeting a Shaper one day! And you saved my lowly life! I am so grateful. I am Sleet, of Pentil. Oh, my people will be so happy you are here!”

 

Dakro smiles, and then quickly drops the smile as the servile calls her fellow creations “people.” "I see. Why are you out here instead of with your fellow creations?" He stresses the last word.

 

"I am a scout and a scavenger. I hunt the wastes because I have a knack for evading the rogues. Well, I usually do. Sometimes I am trapped and must fight. It's a risk I must take to keep Pentil informed."

 

"I have heard good things about Pentil. Take me there.”

 

"I go north to the Hills of Jars and then east. However, be warned. Those old Shaper tunnels are full of traps. There are mines that ignore creations, but detonate in the presence of a Shaper. If you cannot disarm them, you should go east to the Pentil Woods and then north. Be careful. You will need to fight your way in. Lots of rogues that would surely kill me if I accompanied you."

 

"What awaits me in the Pentil Woods?";

 

"Vlish. Many of them. And they have the cunning and darkness of their kind. Be warned. If you attack one, kill it quickly. Otherwise, it will call its fellows to aid it.”

 

“How can I avoid them?”

 

“Can’t you just will them dead?”

 

Dakro hesitates than boasts, “Of course, but I would rather keep them alive for now so that I might study this variant later.”


“Hmmm. You might have your best luck evading them if you stay near the edges of the woods, especially to the south and east."

 

“Very well. You may go.”

 

“Thank you, Shaper. I will return quickly to Pentil. They must know what I have learned.” She runs north.



 

Dakro makes his way from the fen to Pentil Woods. The serviles have been very busy in this forest over the last century or so, cutting down the thick stands of trees for their fires and their homes.

 

The woods are quiet now. There are no serviles to be seen. It is very quiet. In fact, all sounds are muted. The noises of the birds and insects are strangely distant. There is something in the air, an indefinable presence, constantly itching at the back of Dakro’s mind. Unwelcome and disturbing thoughts constantly intrude upon him.

 

It is not an unfamiliar feeling. He has experienced this before. He is in the presence of vlish, quite a few of them. Vlish were created by the Shapers to shepherd simpler creations and send messages to distant areas. They are frail, highly magical, and their minds are linked.

 

Keeping to the suggested path, he is able to avoid the Vlish. Part-way through he comes upon a glade full of gnawed ornk bones. Dakro can smell sulfur, and the nest has been recently occupied. Though the owner is absent, he feels like he is being watched. 

 

He would rather avoid it, but can feel Vlish blocking the other paths. He quickly attempts to  pass through, holding his breath and straining his ears. To his mild surprise, nothing comes to eat him.

 

After a few more close calls, he finally enters the village of Pentil. Once, this was a large Shaper fort, probably the administrative center. Now serviles are nestled in the ruins.

 

As he enters, the effect on the serviles is dramatic. They stare at him in awe. Considering how independent the serviles in Vakkiri were, the change is remarkable. Some of the serviles fall to their knees.

 

One of their guards walks up to him, staring at the ground and shuffling his feet. “Shaper, welcome to Pentil. In the name of the Obeyers, we welcome you. We are grateful that you have returned to rule and guide us at last."

 

He shuffles back to his post, not daring to look directly at the Shaper. When Dakro meets the gaze of these meek creatures, they look away. For once, the serviles are acting like he expects, rather than thorns in his side.

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Chapter 8: Pentil

 

Dakro meanders about the city of Pentil past farmers sweeping cobblestone streets, serviles cleaning a row of empty mansions, and what looks like the early stages of siege weapons. His increasing confusion battles with his desire to maintain his all-knowing Shaper mystique by not asking questions.

 

Finally, he can take it no longer. He goes up to one of the serviles garbed in traditional farmer attire. 

 

Her hard work has given her rough hands and strong muscles. As he approaches, she bows, “I am pleased by your attention, Shaper. I hope I can help you.”

 

“Why are you here sweeping instead of tending your farm?”

 

“The farmland is out the west gate, but the gate is blocked by a massive crowd of rogues. Until they can be destroyed, there is little I can do.” She looks at Dakro hopefully.

 

“You’re a farmer? Can I have some food?”

 

“Um, I’m sorry, Shaper. I know I make food, but I don’t carry it all around with me. There are merchants by the east gate.”

 

So much for Shaper mystique. He quickly changes the subject. “Why are all those mansions unfurnished?”

 

“They have been reserved for the Shapers since before I was born. Now that you are here, they are yours, humble as they are.”

 

Dakro stares for a moment, then asks, “Where might I learn more?”

 

“Rydell is our leader and the one with the most knowledge. He is the leader of the Obeyers. I know that he would be honored by a visit. His hall is at the west side of the central building. Over there is our library. And Natley leads the farmers. Here she comes now.”

 

Natley is young, but moves as if she bears a heavy burden. When she sees Dakro, she kneels. A single tear runs down her cheek. “I heard, but I did not dare believe. It is true. After all our waiting, you have returned to us. Welcome, Shaper. I am Natley, head of the farmers. I have trained the serviles as you would wish."

 

She is exhausted, and her eyes are red. Still, she manages to talk. “We serviles always grew food for the Shapers of Sucia Isle. When you left, we knew you would return. We are able to resume service to our creators. For generations, we have trained our children to grow food for you.”

 

“What did you do with the food, since we weren’t here?

 

“Of course, eating the food ourselves helped us survive to serve you better.”



 

Having excused himself from the conversation, Dakro makes his way to the library. The library is both impressive and pitiful. It is a monument to Obeyer worship of the Shapers. The shelves are piled with scrolls. He picks up one and inspects it, and then another. They are records, bureaucratic notes of the colony here before it was abandoned. Inventories. Notes. Bureaucratic mundanity. 

 

They aren't the originals, though. They are copies, painstakingly made and kept legible by servile scribes in case the Shapers ever returned. The records are worthless, though. Whatever information they contained has been rendered obsolete and useless by years of abandonment. So much time was wasted here, just because the serviles thought your people might appreciate it.



 

Dakro makes his way to the central building, a massive hall arranged with rows of crude benches. An old Shaper throne, salvaged by the Obeyers, is at the far end. It is too large for the serviles, but they use it anyway. This is the meeting hall of Pentil and the heart of the Obeyer sect. From here, the plans of the serviles are set into motion, all with the sole intention of pleasing the Shapers.

 

Parchment with elegant, intricate bordering and beautiful, flowing script is prominently displayed on a pedestal at the entrance. It reads:

 

OBEYER’S REMINDER

Every moment of happiness you ever have is because of the Shapers. (And sadness too.)

All satisfaction at work properly performed is because of a Shaper. (And is owed.)

The joys of food, of children, and song, all comes from the Shapers. (And can be taken, if one is wise.)

All wisdom and guidance comes from the Shapers. (Shaper errors only lead to purer truth.)

All protection comes from the Shapers. (The Shapers are the greatest of powers.)

We must be thankful, and we must obey. (All comes from the Shapers.)

 

Dakro struts down the hall until he comes face-to-face with the leader of Pentil, an old servile sitting on his throne. Dakro is trained to look at creations and evaluate their mental state. He has never met a creation so conflicted.

 

Finally, the servile says, “Shaper, I have heard of your arrival. I ... I am awed and grateful that you have returned to us at last. I am Rydell. I am the leader of the Obeyers, the only sect that has stayed steadfast and true to you. We know that you are alone here. Rogues hunt you, as they do us all. We hope that you have come to assist us. And to reward us for our obedience.” He watches Dakro expectantly.;

 

Dakro introduces himself. It is the first time he has given his name on the isle. The nuance is not lost on the servile. Then Dakro says, “Your obedience pleases me. I will look after you.”

 

This servile has spent many years in command, plotting and scheming. He has now come face to face with what he has worshipped for many years. Awe and cunning fight within him, as he tries to decide how to deal with Dakro.

 

"Then ... We have done well? We have been frightened. We never knew if we were doing the right thing. Sometimes, we had to ... guess. Now we know. I will spread the good news. What do you want here, Shaper? We Obeyers can provide shelter and information. We only need to hear what you want."

 

“First, I want to know what you have been doing, to ensure everything is in line with the Shapers’ commands.”

 

“I am glad you asked, Shaper. We have attempted to maintain your structures. We kept ourselves trained in the skills you require. In addition, we have interfered as much as we can with the rogue servile sects around us.”

 

“Interfered? How?”

 

“However we could. If the Awakened or the Takers gain strength, their ideas might escape Sucia Isle and infect others. So we have maintained the servant minds, harassed rogue villages, kept them from needed supplies, and so on. For example, we kept the servant mind Control Four, to the west, alive and well. This has helped keep Vakkiri small and weak, and thus unable to spread their anti-Shaper views."

 

“You have served us well, and this isle must be more obedient to the Shapers. You will now be rewarded. First, transfer the library records to my mansion; I will ensure the important information is kept, while letting the outdated rot. Second, it is decreed that those mansions no longer stand empty waiting for Shapers. This island is declared Barred; no more are coming. Do not squander resources you have; you will need them for the coming war. Third, I will support you directly. You know this island better than I. What assistance do you request?”

 

For a moment, Rydell's awe is eclipsed by his cunning. He thinks about how well Dakro could aid the Obeyer cause and whether he is a true representative of the Shapers. Finally, he speaks. “I am gratified that you would join us. Your words have marked you as a true Shaper. You may be worthy of our obedience. However, we require an act of you, to show that you are not trying to mislead us and act against the true Shapers."

 

Dakro raises an eye. "You would dare to refuse me to obey me?";

 

"Shaper, we can't take the risk of rebelling against one of our true masters. The stakes are too high. This island is home to a dark power born of the highest crimes against your kind. We must be absolutely sure you won’t claim the power for your own. And ... This island is Barred to your kind, is it not? Haven't you broken the law by coming here? That makes a test necessary."

 

“Yes, I was marooned and should be leaving. Very well. Where can I find a boat?”

 

Leader Rydell looks startled. After centuries of waiting for Shapers to return, it did not occur to him that, upon your return, you would immediately want to leave. Still, he is obedient. I do not generally think of such things, but I heard Pixley speak of a boat recently. She is in town somewhere."

 

“I will speak with her. In the meantime, it is my responsibility to safeguard the lives of serviles and it is prudent that you are cautious. How do you want me to prove myself?”

 

Leader Rydell breathes a sigh of relief. "There is a place to the west called Crag Valley. There is a warren of spiraling tunnels within. It contains a servant mind called Control Four. For years, this true servant of the Shapers has bottled up the rogue serviles of Vakkiri. Recently, though, it has grown weak. It requires nutrient solution, and we have none. We don't know where any might be found. Worse, rogue creations have kept us from reaching poor Control Four to assist it. Feed Control Four to show you are a true Shaper. Then we can be allied with you."

 

“Allied? You are serviles. Know your place, just as I know mine. As I Shaper I am required to protect you, and so I will feed Control Four. But know this: I am a Shaper and you are serviles. We will never be allies.”

 

Leader Rydell nods. “Apologies for the poor choice of words. Thank you for your protection. I think you would best learn of the threats which face us from those who must deal with them directly, every day. Find Mickall in the barracks. He can tell you much. 



 

In the barracks, Dakro doubts that he will ever get used to seeing serviles like this: tall, armored, and trained with weapons. Fortunately, Dakro has little to fear from this one. It's all the servile can do to keep from throwing himself to the floor at the Shaper’s feet. 

 

“Welcome, great Shaper. I am Mickall Blade, commander of the armed serviles here. We have waited so long for the return of your kind. There are so many foes facing us and so little we can do to oppose them. Without help."

 

Dakro says, “Rydell says you know the threats to the Shapers.”

 

“We are surrounded by rogues. Rogue monsters, rogue serviles. Insolent Awakened to the west. Mad Takers to the east. Even rumors of evil humans on our isle. All humans are Barred from Sucia, and yet they come. We tried to teach them the error of their ways. Then we had to fight them. We have been fighting for many years."

 

“Tell me more about the humans.”

 

“I’ve never seen on. I’ve only heard rumors. They look different. They speak a strange tongue. They came here on ships from far away. Each one has the strength of ten thahds, and they can shoot beams of flame from their eyes. This is all rumor, though. Some of it might not be reliable.”

 

“And the dark power rising on Sucia Island?”

 

“I… Leader Rydell would be the one to ask. I concentrate now on the Thorny Wood, where we must block in a band of dangerous, rogue serviles. They are inutile. Castoffs from Kazg, we think. They won’t work with us or follow your will. They squat on our lands and steal food from us. This task wastes valuable forces. If you could slay them, it would be most helpful to your loyal serviles here.”

 

“You have served well. I will go to Thorny Wood to protect you.”

 

“Thank you, Shaper. You can reach the Thorny Wood by leaving the city gates to the east and traveling down the road to the south…. The endless war has cost us so much. I am glad it was the right thing to do.”



 

As Dakro heads toward the east gate, he passes by a Shaper laboratory, once used for shaping new creations. It has been scrupulously maintained by the serviles. Though the serviles of Pentil claim total obedience to the Shapers, it is very strange what he sees. 

 

It also looks like, despite the absence of Shapers for many years, this lab has been in use. The serviles here seem to have been trying to use Shaper powers on their own. Very strange. And forbidden. 

 

Dakro looks inside and sees an old servile alchemist. That is what he must be, as strange as it is. Serviles can be used as laboratory assistants, but this one clearly aspires to be something more. Dakro smells the sulfur stink of living fyoras nearby.

 

"Welcome, Shaper,” the old servile says. “I am Learned Jaffee, of the Obeyers. I have been here long and learned much. I am sure there is much you want to know about this isle. I can help you." 

 

Dakro, sword drawn, demands, “Just what do you think you are doing here?”

 

"Do not fear, Shaper. I am not following the arts forbidden to us serviles. I would never attempt to try to make my own creation. I have been trying to tame existing creations. I would control rogues and have them fight for us instead of against us. I expose them to training, to beating, and to essence, and appeal to their natural obedience to true Shaper thoughts."

 

Dakro relaxes from his aggressive stance and sheaths his sword, then asks, “Does it work?”

 

“It does. Sometimes. Sort of. Most of the rogues we capture do not survive the taming. A few have, all fyoras.They fight for us now, in some places. We need all the defenders we can get to survive."

 

“Tell me some of what you have learned.”

 

Learned Jaffee bows his head. “I am ashamed, Shaper. I cannot bear to expose my ignorance to you. It would be too humiliating.” Dakro tries to convince him to help, but his shame is too great. When Jaffee looks to be on the verge of tears, Dakro relents and leaves.

 

Suddenly, he remembers he must at least keep up the pretense of wanting to leave the island. He seeks out Pixley.



 

Dakro meets a happy servile, good natured despite the horrors that surround her. His approach elevates her from happiness to ecstasy. “The Shaper! Visiting me! I am honored. I am Pixley, the leader of the travelers. The ones who move things about, who roam the whole isle. Sometimes to aid the Shapers, sometimes for ourselves. It is the greatest honor to meet a Shaper at last."

 

"I wish to find a boat. In your travels, have you ever seen one?"

 

"I wish I could meet your every need, Shaper, but I have never seen a boat. But ..._ She thinks. One of my scouts told me that she saw a ship. Recently, near the shore south of here.” She tells him how many days ago. Coincidentally, it was the same day he was attacked and swam to this island. "She was traveling through the Tombs. To get there, go south through the Pentil Woods, and then east. If you explore the shore, you might find something."

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Chapter 9: Reflections

 

Dakro walks toward the Pentil Woods. As always, solitude and exercise do much to assuage his mind. At home, he loved hiking. He and his friends would hike to abandoned gold mines, slide down natural water slides, and skirt the boundaries of distant Shaper research facilities. 

 

Although he would never admit it, they even crossed the boundaries a few times. Depending on what the researchers were doing, he might have even been risking his life, but it probably saved his life. Without the knowledge he gained back then, his first fyora probably have blown up in his face, killing him.

 

When he came to this island, he was just trying to survive. Then, under the influence of the drugs (a better word than the innocuous “canisters”), he wanted to conquer it. And now?

 

He sits down and starts writing:

[  ]  Escape Sucia Island (Self)

[  ]  Find nutrients to feed Control Four (Rydell, Pentil)

[  ]  Investigate boat to south (whats-her-name, Pentil)

[  ]  Slaughter betrayers in Thorny Wood (Mickall Blade, Pentil)

[  ]  Slaughter rogues west of Pentil (Some farmer, Pentil)

[  ]  Investigate the “dark power” to the east

 

Dakro sighs. “It’s too much. Technically, I’m not even an apprentice yet. As much as I want to stay, I have to go. I have to get proper Shapers.” He changes direction to the south. To the boat.

 

He once again sneaks through Pentil Woods, avoiding the vlish, and eventually enters narrow valleys near the coast. A river carved these gullies out long ago. The land is dead, and there is a bitter stink in the air.

 

There is a weather-worn obelisk by the road. Two symbols have been etched into it. The upper one means “Dead Land”. A failed experiment must have rendered this area inhospitable to life quite some time ago. The second symbol means “Tombs”. Not ones to waste good land, the Shapers must have used this area to inter their more valued dead. 

 

Dakro reflects that if he could enter some of the tombs, you might gain valuable information. Shapers inter their dead with knowledge, not loot. However, he resists. The Shapers will reward him with knowledge when he has earned it.

 

Soon, he sees the valley ahead is blocked by rogues. They are skulking around an old, worn altar. He has no idea what purpose it was put here to serve. It does, however, have a strange fascination for the vicious creatures. They don’t approach him. 

 

Seeing a small animal trail, Dakro and his cryoas climb up the valley wall, looking for a way around them. At the top, he gets a good view of the sea south of Sucia Island. Far to the south, he can see the mainland, close enough to be visible but far too far to swim, even if he knew how. To the southwest, he thinks he can see the mast of a ship. However, his view is blocked by a wall. 

 

Unfortunately, there is no trail down to the ship. He will need to pass by the roamers. Fortunately, looking around, he finds quite a few large boulders. He orders his cryoas to take them to the edge of the cliff, and then to start an avalanche in unison.

 

Most of the roamers, entranced by the altar, don’t run in time and are crushed. Those that survive roar in anger as they inspect the smashed, half-buried altar, then begin running up the animal trail toward Dakro.

 

With the high ground and plenty of boulders, Dakro doesn’t let the roamers make it even half-way up.

 

Back down on the valley floor, Dakro inspects the altar. The roamers have spent years bringing it offerings: Bones, skulls, dried flowers, a net, a teapot, and various other tools they scavenged. As he gets closer, he feels a chill. There is a hostile power here. He can't see anything odd, but he can sense the essence in the air.

 

He quickly backs away from the altar and makes his way to the ship. Turning a corner, he sees the ship to the south. It is the same foreign ship he saw a few days ago, just before it slew his craft and left him stranded on this horrible island. It will never threaten him again. The fire from his drayk destroyed its sails, and it ran aground on a reef. As he watches, it sinks slowly below the water. Soon, it will be gone.

 

Dakro feels relief. He probably shouldn’t, but he does. He wants an excuse to explore the mysteries of this island, and now he has it.

 

He makes his way back to the closest tomb door. Unsurprisingly, it does not open. He makes his way north to a cliffside that has been carved into a series of massive shaper heads. They must have been important. At the base, he finds a lever, opening a massive double set of doors.

 

Behind it, he sees bolts of lightning arcing out into his cryoas and his body, causing muscle spasms. He goes cross-eyed and by the time he recovers he can see his cryoas battling something resembling a human-shaped electrical storm. A ghost, perhaps?

 

He has no idea how to even start fighting such a thing, but at least he can reshape his cryoas to have electrical resistance. Worst case, it will buy him time to flee. As he does so, he cryoas somehow start gaining the upper hand, ripping balls of lighting off the figure and swallowing them.

 

More ghosts float through the walls into the room, but they bear the same fate. Soon, the only sign of them is the static electricity in the air that is making his hair stand on end.

 

Looking around, he sees thats this is where dead Shapers were brought to be embalmed. He can still smell the stink of chemicals in the air. Dead Shapers are generally embalmed with a combination of wax, formaldehyde, and the excretions of specially shaped fungi. It is strange that defenders were left here. The Shapers may have wanted to leave their dead protected.

 

He opens a book, shocking himself with static electricity. The book lists all of the Shaper dead embalmed in this hall. The most valued Shapers were given private tombs in this valley. Others were taken elsewhere. None of the names are familiar. There is a note near the end:

“Corata has instructed for defenses to be placed in the tombs. Interlopers who try to study at the crypts without permission must be stopped."

 

Not wanting to be shocked again, he has a cryoa open the cabinets. They contain various embalming materials and garments that crumble to the touch. However, in one cabinet he finds a small, iron amulet. It has several symbols on it, but he only recognizes one. It means “Caretaker”.

 

With the Caretaker Amulet around his neck, he heads to the closest tomb, which dutifully opens at his approach. 

 

Less advanced races place valuable physical objects with the bodies of their dead. Not the Shapers. The memorials to great Shapers don't contain crude items like gold. Instead, inside the sarcophagus of any great Shaper, you will find a book containing the knowledge accumulated by the Shaper throughout his or her life. When a Shaper is wrestling with a tough problem, it is customary to come to tombs to learn, study, and meditate.

 

Inside, he finds a box mine. He suddenly understands the debris he saw inside the embalming room. This must summon those electrical “ghosts.” Someone skilled in engineering could probably disarm the thing, but he will just have to use his skill in shaping. Taking his time, he reforms his cryoas for even better electrical resistance.

 

When he is done, the triggered “ghost” doesn’t even get to fully form before the cryoas have torn it apart.

 

The trap “disarmed,” he inspects the book. Strangely, the learnings there aren't familiar or out of date. It contains techniques researched on Sucia Island. Some of it is actually quite interesting. Nothing useful, but interesting.

 

He continues the process, tomb after tomb. When finally finishes late into the night, he has learned quite a bit about magic, shaping, and outdoor cooking, amongst other things.

 

It is past time to make camp, so he heads to the graveyard’s storeroom. As he opens the door, he sees the room is filled with ghosts. Real ghosts, not electrical constructions. They ignore him.

 

The thin sound of flute playing draws him to the back corner of this abandoned storeroom. There is an old servile sitting back here. He is pale and wrinkled. His hood is down, and he wears a hat of an old, outdated style. It is full of holes. He must have scavenged it. He sits slumped against the wall, playing the flute. He doesn't seem to notice either Dakro or the flitting ghosts.

 

Dakro stares as he listens to the melodious, melancholy music. It reminds him of loss. Loss of home. Loss of direction. Loss of self.

 

Eventually, the music trails off. The servile sighs deeply, looks up, and sees Dakro. He isn't surprised by his presence. “A Shaper. We knew you would return someday. Wish you'd done it when I still had hope. I am Hiley. Once of Pentil. Now alone."

 

"What are you doing here?"

 

"I am alone. A hermit. Just me and the ghosts now, until I finally die. But I miss talking, sometimes. I will tell my story. You Shapers should learn what happened to those you left behind. You won't want to, but you should."

 

"A graveyard is a good place for an old fashioned ghosts-of-the-past story."

 

There is no delay. He launches into it. He must have said it to himself in this dark hall a thousand times. "I was once in Pentil. A farmer. A musician. I took part in the life of the Obeyers. I was honored by them for my loyalty and work. I had a mate, sweet Sperl. And a child, little Maudrey. Then I had my first tragedy.”

 

"The first tragedy?"

 

"Sperl died. She got sick and died. That was ten years ago. It happens. Life is hard on the island. A lot of us get sick. Some of us die. She was one. You Shapers take good care of your possessions. If you'd been here, you could have saved her. But I recovered. I went on. Then three years ago, the second tragedy."

 

"What happened?"

 

"At that time, there weren't rogues everywhere. When the first roamers started to hunt us, it was a surprise. Maudrey's death. That was the surprise. She was one of the first we lost. The Obeyers were determined to serve the Shapers even better. I thought I was going mad. Only I saw that the Shapers were responsible. I was so alone, surrounded by the mad. My grief, and my new solitude. They ate away at me. So I acted."

 

"So you failed our test and were not rewarded like the others have been. What did you do instead?"

 

"I packed up my things, and I ran. I came to these valleys, thinking the roamers would kill me. But they didn't. They let me by. They ... saw something in me. It was a mystery, but I accepted it. I found this ruin to use as my little camp. Then I had to pay the price for the roamers sparing me. I was ... bothered.”

 

"Who bothered you, I mean besides your own conscious for failing the Shapers?"

 

He points at the ghosts. “Them. They came to me. Protected me. Kept me safe. The spirits. I had a power here. Sometimes, I can be peaceful."

 

"What sort of spirits?"

 

"I don't know. Humans. Shapers. Serviles. Ancient inhabitants of Sucia. I sense them. The things they think. The memories. A jumble of thoughts. Some confusing. Some lies."

 

"How did you gain this power?"

 

He suddenly shouts, “I don't know! I didn't ask for it! I don't want it! Maybe it comes from my grief! I got this power by giving everything!" He grabs his flute and plays it for a minute to calm down.

 

Calmed, he continues, "I like the dead. They don't scare me. Being around them makes me feel peace. I don't care if they kill me, and they don't care about me. This is where I can spend my time, until the Shapers return to torment us anew. I just wish ... The dark spirits. They have been angrier lately. They still hide, but I can feel their unrest."

 

"I felt their presence at an altar I destroyed."

 

"They get angrier every day. Sucia Island is out of balance. Powerful magic is being worked here. They are angry. Mad anger. They may need to be removed. Ghosts are very single-minded. Sometimes it is necessary."

 

“Who are these dark spirits? Why are they angry?”

 

"I think ... I think they are the ghosts of Shapers long dead. They know their island has been invaded. The essence in their bodies has come out, ready to hunt. They can do nothing to help their cause. They are trapped here. However, they might murder somebody. Shades are simple things."

 

“Perhaps we can purge them.”

 

"No. I am no warrior. I can't talk to them either. Even ghost Shapers have contempt for my kind.” He looks Dakro over. “You are not strong enough either. These shades are full of essence and power. Even I can sense it. I think they would destroy you. I am tired now. I want to be alone.”

 

Dakro looks around. He now understands why the boat was here, at a graveyard. This was a dock. This warehouse housed supplies brought through here. Then something happened that corrupted the land. The dock was closed, the dead were buried here.

 

He finds a plethora of useful camping supplies and makes camp in an adjoining room away from the ghosts and the despondent servile.

 

He takes one last look at his list and falls asleep.

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Chapter 10: Roamers

 

Dakro awakes late to the sound of snoring. It would seem the inutile is nocturnal. Dakro considers cutting the inutile’s throat, but puts it off for today. He might yet be useful.

 

He reviews his list. Without direct Shaper support, the next best thing are the Servant Minds, and then the serviles themselves.

 

He packs supplies, strapping them securely to his cryoas, and begins his trek northwest to the spiraling tunnels, home of Control Four. 



 

At last, Dakro finds his goal: Another Shaper ruin, mostly torn down and buried in the dirt. Rogue roamers here have burrowed deep channels through these rocky hills, perhaps at random, perhaps guided by some other intelligence.

 

There are lots of roamers living in these gullies. It's not hard to tell. It is a common creation design, and he immediately recognizes the tracks and smells. Roamers are not intelligent, but they can be fierce and cunning in battle.

 

The interiors are not lit by the red crystals that Shapers tend to use. Red is preferred because it does not harm night vision. Instead, these caverns are lit by green crystals. Green is used in places with creations that become aggressive in red light, such as roamers.

 

Shapers usually use roamers as guard dogs. These creations are taught a single route, which they patrol faithfully. Keeping his in mind, Dakro listens and scouts, evading all the roamers as he makes his way deeper into the warren.

 

After a while, he starts to feel uncomfortable. Nervous. As if he is being watched, sensed, probed. He shuffles from foot to foot, nervously, trying to resist the urge to flee. Then he shakes his head and concentrates a moment. His mind clears. Shapers are immune to such tricks.

 

He can sense an intelligence nearby. Twisted, probing, attempting to influence him. He recognizes the feeling. Creations sometimes emanate such vibrations. It is a sure sign of a dangerous rogue.

 

Deep in the warren, constructed stone walls replace the dirt tunnels. Inside, an old, withered vlish turns its eyestalks toward Dakro. It has been living in these ruins for many years, growing stronger. And more mad. Vlish have alien thought structures beyond Shaper comprehension, and have gifted them with limited capability to affect the minds of other creations. They are used as shepherds and enforcers, keeping the servants of the Shapers under control. 

 

When it turns its eyestalks toward Dakro, he develops a light headache. Could this creature be so rogue that it would dare try to control a Shaper?

 

Dakro easily shakes off this pathetic creation's efforts. His will isn't strong enough to command it, but he uses a brute force mental assault to disrupt its chaotic thoughts. It starts to move erratically. It unsteadily floats toward him, hungry for battle.

 

Three of Dakro’s cryoas leap to pin the vlish, but the fourth is frozen in place. A mental battle wages in its mind as Dakro and the vlish vie for its allegiance.

 

The vlish pours more of its concentration, sensing this creation is the weak link. Dakro takes a more direct approach, striding toward the vlish and cutting off its one of its tentacles. The vlish loses concentration.

 

The crazed vlish starts to flail its remaining tentacles around. It lets out a loud screech. It is broadcasting a message. The cryoas all fall to the ground, clutching their heads. Dakro gets a mild headache.

 

Dakro attempts to impale the vlish with his sword, but the vlish parries with an armored tentacle. Each attempt is parried, almost as if the vlish is reading his mind. Realization dawning, he puts up a mental barrier and finally makes it through the vlish’s defenses. A cloud of helium erupts into the air and the creation falls to the ground.

 

Just in time for six thahds to come bursting into the room, answering the vlish’s call.

 

Dakro quickly and deftly shapes ice storm abilities into each cryoa. Within the confines of the warren, the storms rage even more fiercely, tearing into the very walls themselves. The thahds don’t stand a chance.

 

The battle over, Dakro looks down at the vlish. He can’t be angry at it. Vlish naturally decay when left on their own, without the gentle, guiding influence of the Shapers. The fault for this lies with whoever abandoned this old, withered creature.

 

Using some of the knowledge he gleaned from the tombs, he begins skinning the vlish. Their hides can make exceptional jerkins for serviles. It should fetch a good price.

 

The work is long and bloody, nothing he could have done before being shaped by the drugs in the canisters.

 

Finally finished, Dakro goes into the next room and finds Control Four. He approaches the servant mind. It is still alive and functioning, though it is clearly weak from lack of nutrients. It looks up at him.

 

"Welcome, Shaper. I am Control Four. I am pleased to be in contact with you. It has been a long silence.” Its eyes are dull and confused.

"There are many rogues in the lands around here. Why have you not dealt with them?"

 

"There are? I have been too weak to have an influence in affairs here for some time. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry for your inconvenience. I tried to control creations and use them keep the serviles nearby in line. I was too weak to keep them from going rogue as well. Your destroying the rogues relieves me. I am sorry you had to perform my duties for me."

 

“Perhaps you cannot control distant ones, but what about the crazed vlish right outside your door?!”

 

"What? Warp was rogue? I am so sorry. So much has escaped my notice."

 

“Seeing how you are completely incompetant with regards to rogues, what use are you? What is your given purpose?”

 

"I am one of Sucia Island's control minds. We watch the creations here for signs of going rogue and deal with problems when they occur. When the Shapers left, we were to watch over the creations left behind."

 

“Great.”

 

“I have not had nutrient solution for many, many years. I am very feeble. There was solution here, but a rogue servile raider managed to destroy it before I was able to absorb it. Please feed me, Shaper. If you do, I can continue to serve you well.”

 

“Where can I find this solution?”

 

“I do not know.”

 

“I will find some feeding solution.”

 

“Thank you, Shaper. Now I must rest. I am weak.”

 

In the final room, Dakro finds another canister. He turns away, but then looks at the almost worthless Mind. The drugs affect a terrible toll on his mind, but they may be the only support the Shapers give him. He reluctantly turns back and places his hand on it.

 

As he essence fills him, all his self-doubt disappears. Sure, it might influence him a little, but surely his genius-level mind can resist the effects now that he knows about them. He should find more so that he might carve a bloody path through the Awakened and Takers of Free. He will build a monument to himself from their bones so that all might know his glory!

 

But first… he sifts through the knowledge flooding into his mind.

 

It teaches him how to shape roamers. They seem a weak compared to his cryoas, but then he considers. “Their weakness can be my strength.”

 

On the way out of the warrens, he does not bother with scouting and stealth. Any roamers he crosses will feel his fury. All who oppose him will know his wrath! The red clay of the tunnels gains an even darker hue.

 

All the way back to Pentil, he thinks about how to exploit this roamer weakness. Building geneprints in his mind.



 

At last, he arrives back in Pentil. “Hear me, serviles! This city is to be my stronghold. From here, we will wage war across the island, and beyond! Our first order of business is reclaiming our farms. Bring buckets of essence from the Shaper Hall to me at the west gate. Now!”

 

At the gate, Dakro sees that the west approach to Pentil has been blockaded. There is a mob of thahds and siege artilas. They sit there, patiently waiting. Serviles have tried to break through the crowd before. Scorched earth and bones show how that story ended.

 

Dakro begins shaping a roamer, but this one is the standard yellow-and-black variety. This is a sickly green version. Serviles watch with a mixture of awe, fear, and excitement.

 

Dakro sees them gawking and bellows, “Keep bringing me more essence!”

 

He continues to shape more of them. Lacking essence and feeling himself losing control, he dissolves his cryoas and keeps making more sickly green roamers.

 

Happy with his number at last, he sends one out toward the blockade as a test. As it nears, it is hit by half a dozen globules of acid. It explodes in a massive fireball and leaves behind a crater in the road used to bring food from the farms.

 

Dakro, lost in thought, begins reshaping his green roamers, increasing thee muscle mass in their legs. Then he divides them in half and sends them out on each side of the road. Just before they reach the artila’s range, he orders them to leap the final distance. They soar high above the acid globules and land within the blockade. A thahd immediately attacks one and it detonates.

 

It triggers a chain detonation obliterating the front lines of the blockade. A few of the creations farther back survive, just in time to see why Dakro was having the serviles bring him essence. The second wave of roamers attacks, completely wiping out the blockade, as well as the road, banners, and a sizable portion of the nearby cliffside.

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Chapter 11: Taking from Takers

 

The next day Dakro still could not understand the looks of horror on serviles faces when he saved them from the siege. He climbs to the rooftop and looks out at the serviles carrying away the detritus and bodily remains to the mass grave they had dug outside town. 

 

He had made them a nice crater for the dead, but the serviles said they would prefer not to walk on a mass grave. They must be superstitious about ghosts or something.

 

Not wanting to waste more of his time thinking about serviles, he turns south. His stronghold will be secure after he clears the rogues from the south and east.

 

Dakro heads south until he meets a servile warrior, alone in a vast and hostile wilderness. Though he is a Shaper, his approach justifiably worries her. Keeping her hand near her weapon, she says, “Welcome to my post, Shaper. I am Obeyer Demel. I wish you well, and I hope you extend the same to me. If you are a Taker, you should go home." 

 

Dakro boasts, “I am reclaiming the land around Pentil for the Obeyers. I cleared what was a two ten-day siege in a matter of minutes. Mickall Blade informs me that you have a betrayer problem nearby. Something that I will no doubt resolve faster than it took me to walk here. Where is it?"

 

She is visibly relieved. “I am pleased to hear it, Shaper. This is a small post. Attacks are constant. It is good to meet you. Sad to say, Shaper, there are Takers in the woods to the west. They came to raid Pentil, and we were able to box them up in these woods. We cannot reach them, though, The woods are heavily trapped. These fyoras and I keep them here, so they can do no harm."

 

Dakro looks to the stables where she points and sees four tame fyoras, waiting for a command from their master.

 

“You have fyoras under your command? How is this possible?”

 

"It is thanks to the wisdom of Learned Jaffee, in Pentil. He struggles to bring about the true will of the Shapers. He cannot make fyoras like you can, but he has been able to tame rogues. These fyoras were once rogues. Now they are tame, and they serve us and you."

 

“Very well, you and they are ordered to stay here and ensure none escape my judgement.”

 

Dakro strides forth and comes to a tripod supporting a translucent red ball. Guessing they are proximity-based, he slowly walks up to one. When he here a soft “tick,” he turns and runs behind the cover of a large tree. Two seconds after he takes cover, a wave of heat rushes by. The ground is scorched, but the red ball is now black.

 

He continues through the forest, repeating the process where necessary using a variety of cover, mostly trees and rocks, with the occasional expendable fyora.

 

The traps slow him a bit, but otherwise aren’t real hindrances. He can’t understand why the Takers of Free would waste resources making these. The only thing they are going to gain from the traps are more painful deaths for irritating him.

 

Ahead, he sees a similar tripod trap, but this one is blue. Wary, he makes sure to have better cover by felling a tree upon another before triggering the trap.

 

Instead of the customary “whooshing” sound and blast of heat, he hears an electrical zapping sound. A moment later, he hears the footsteps of a fyora. Before he can even extricate himself from cover, the rogue is dead, blasted apart by his cryoas.

 

The self-shaping technology piques his curiosity and gets his mind thinking. He inspects it, looking for similarities to the spawner. It is quite beyond him, but the rogues who created it gave him something interesting. He may not torture them after all for wasting him time.

 

Moving through the forest becomes faster. Rather than wasting time finding cover, he just stabs each fyora as the trap tries to shape it.

 

Eventually, he realizes he has not seen a trap in a while. He must be heading the wrong way. "So kind of the rogues to help me find them." Mapping out the type and location of each mine, he quickly identifies the most likely location of the rogues.

 

As he approaches the area, he hears angry servile voices. He stops and listens. 

 

Someone says, "We have to slip out. We have to get to Kazg!”

 

Someone else says, “The guard lives. Demel lives. We can’t slip away when Demel lives.”

 

Then the speakers walk away.

 

Telling his creations to follow at a distance, he follows the sound of the speakers until they reach a cave. Suddenly, a lookup spots Dakro and sounds the alarm.

 

The Takers of Free begins weaving runes in the air. It is not Shaper magic, but it could prove problematic. Their skin begins to turn darker.

 

Unsure what the magic does, He takes cover and calls his creations to make the first charge. 

 

This gives each servile the time to cast one more spell before the two sides collide. The lookout’s movements become faster and more fluid. The first speaker has a shimmering, translucent wall in front of him. The second speaker’s spell is inordinately complex, so he doesn’t have time to complete it before a cryoa is sitting on his chest. Or, more accurately, digging into his chest.

 

Dakro winces as another cryoa leaps to attack the servile behind the magic "wall." Interestingly, the cryoa passes right through it without any noticeable harm, and the wall appears unchanged. 

 

Knowing the servile are vastly inferior to his creations, let alone him, Dakro chooses not to engage in the battle, but to inspect the spell wall.

 

He is vaguely aware of more serviles racing to defend the cave, particularly as one attempts to stab the distracted shaper. Dakro instinctively parries it and follows through by slashing the servile across the throat. All the while, never taking his eyes off the spell wall. The other serviles leave him alone after that.

 

On a hunch, Dakro backs up and takes out his baton, firing a thorn at the spell wall. The thorn sails through the air and hits the wall, disintegrating both the thorn and wall. But that is not all. A magical phantom of the thorn is formed and launches itself at Dakro. He instinctively ducts out of the way, but leaves his arm in the thorn’s path at the last second.

 

The magical bolt impales his arm and vanishes. He inspects his bleeding arm. The damage seems roughly equivalent to what he would expect from the original thorn. Interesting.

 

With nothing left to analyze, he looks around the cave. Numerous servile bodies are on the ground, as are two of his cryoas. A pity, but they can be much more easily replaced than the knowledge he just gained. If he had taken part in the battle, the spell might have faded before he could learn from it.

 

Investigating the cave, he finds a natural spring, partially-completed traps, cabinets, tables, chairs, … basically a fully-stocked outpost. It is too far from Pentil to be of use, but could be a forward outpost for an invasion. He begins looting and destroying everything.

 

In the back he finds a jar full of old scraps of leather and grimy cloth. He kicks the jar, shattering it, and to his surprise a rusty iron key falls out.

 

Using the key, he unlocks a nearby door and stares puzzled at a tripod with a white sphere. He “disarms” it using his tried-and-true method. He hopes for something interesting, but it turns out to just be a variant of the red ones.

 

Behind the pitiful trap, he finds another canister. He eagerly reaches out for the power. The essence flows into him. He vaguely recalls resisting it in the past, but now he can’t remember why. His skin tingles and his muscles feel like he is receiving a massage. Feeling of confidence, if not outright grandiosity, fill him as he makes his way back to Demel.

 

As Dakro returns, with half his creations, he sees Demel’s fyoras fighting over bones and scrapes of meat. “I have destroyed the rebels. Their cave is to the south. Go and loot all you can, bringing it to Pentil for the war effort.”

 

Demel looks surprised and pleased, “I thank you, Shaper. After they finish eating, we will go. Soon, my fyoras and I can return to Pentil and continue our fight against the Taker scum. I shall spread word of your good deed.”

 

 

Dakro begins marching his creations back to Pentil and into the barracks. Although Mickall is obviously a competent creation and skilled with a blade, Dakro’s mere presence reduces him to a quivering, obedient mass. “What else do you wish, Shaper?”

 

“I have destroyed the rebels to the south. A pitifully easy job.”

 

Mickall falls to his knees and presses his head against the floor. It is an archaic sign of respect and obedience, out of practice for many, many years. “Thank you, Shaper,” Mickall says, his voice muffled by the floor. “You have done much for us. We are unworthy of your kind, of our mighty and wise creators."

 

He stands. “I will spread the word of your deed, so all can learn of your kindness. Also, we want to pay for your help.” At Mickall’s signal, a servile brings Dakro an old, polished steel sword and a pouch of coins.

 

“As I said, it was a pitifully easy job, but I learned much about traps and spells, so your request pleases me. Do you have any further requests that would be worthy of my time?”

 

"I should not ask, after you have been so kind to us. However, we have another problem. To the east is a river, and the river is spanned by two bridges. We haven't been able to cross those bridges lately. Thus, we've been unable to contact one of our outposts. It is along the south coast of the island, well-concealed among jagged peaks. The leader there is named Doge. Meet with him and make sure that things are alright.”

 

“Why is this outpost of importance to me?”

 

“The hills there have a good view of the waters to the south and the Taker lands to the northeast. They look for raiders and rogues. It aids us greatly in our war against the Takers, so that you will not have to waste as much time directly intervening.”

 

“Very well. I am heading east anyways, to clear the last rogue holdout in the area.”

 

At the east gate, Dakro meets a servile scout. She is small and sure on her feet, and several small knives hang from her belt. “I am Obeyer Pool, scout for East Pentil. Greetings."

 

"What foes will I face to the east?"

 

"Well, there are two bridges. Past that are Taker lands. They are mad. Then, farther east, is a colony of human invaders. I have actually laid eyes on them. Nobody else has."

 

“I see, my nearest foes are… bridges. How am I supposed to return his isle to glory with serviles who are afraid of bridges?!"

 

Pool clarifies that the northern bridge is covered with box mines and the southern bridge has hostile turrets.

 

"I see. What can you tell me about the humans? And please stop leaving out important details.”

 

“I've only spied on them a little. They speak a weird language. They look strange. Their clothes are different. There aren't many of them. In the southeast corner of the isle are more. I know that much. I only saw them once. When I spied on them, they were walking through the woods. They said Kazg a lot. I think there are more of them there. I tried to follow them more, but they went into unfamiliar lands."

 

“Hmm. Interesting. Think carefully. Did you hear anything else?”

 

She thinks for a while. “Hmm. I think ... now that I think about it, the time I saw them, I heard them refer to the leader of the group by name. It was Trajkov. This was months ago.”

 

Dakro mulls over the name and tries it on his tongue, “Trajkov.” Definitely foreign. Definitely trouble.

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Chapter 12: Cunning

 

Dakro passes from the last warm area he will feel for some time. There are several rough wood buildings surrounding the east gate of Pentil. This is where many of their guards live, securing the east gate of the city. 

 

The woods beyond are cold. Unnaturally so. Dakro can hear the hisses of rogue creations out in the woods. It makes sense to keep guards out here, he supposes, but it’s not a job he would want.

 

As he walks through the woods, he suddenly hears loud hissing coming from nearby. He has the distinct impression that Pool left out yet another important detail about the foes to the east.

 

A moment later, several rogue cryoas leap into his pack, ambushing him. With twice as my cryoas, it’s like seeing double. He rarely pays much attention to the cryoas and is unsure which ones are his.

 

As the cryoas tear into each other, Dakro dodges failing claws and teeth, heading back toward Pentil. Another cryoa joins the ambush, blocking his way. He smiles, “Finally, one I know I can attack.”

 

Knowing how cryoa fight, he dives into a roll before the cryoa even begins to suck in its breath to breath ice. After the ice passes safely over him, he braces himself and holds his sword to the right. The cryoa makes to claw him, but cuts off its own hand at the wrist on the sword.

 

Dakro then dives under the cryoa, who kindly makes way for him and it bends down to bite him.

 

Coming up under its tail, he pushes up, causing the cryoa to fall over on its head. Dakro then follows through with a few expertly placed stabs, collapsing the rogue’s lungs and piercing other vital organs.

 

The rogue dead, he looks back at the ambush and sees a cryoa racing toward him. He prepares a battle stance when the thing suddenly stops. Dakro belatedly realizes it is his cryoa. It had been racing to aid him.

 

Dakro makes his way back to the safety of Pentil. Most rogues on Sucia Isle are old, scarred things. It should have been no problem differentiating his new ones from the old ones. With the ambush cryoas looking new, there is probably a spawner nearby.

 

He begins to shape and re-shape cryoa. This time, he makes them purple. With his new purple cryoas, Dakro is better able to direct the battles and the next few ambushes go much more smoothly. However, that does not take away his constant paranoia and nervousness. His nerves become increasingly frayed and he wishes the ambushes would just stop.

 

Unfortunately for him, he gets his wish.

 

Ahead he hears the sound of at least a dozen cryoa who make no attempt at stealth. Sneaking up, he sees three pass by, but that does little to quiet the roar as new ones replace them. He has found the spawner.

 

He withdraws a distance and begins re-shaping his cryoas from purple to blue. Then he sends them in one at a time to mingle with the others. The rogue cryoas largely ignore the trojan cryoas. Soon, Dakro has seven cryoas in place. Most of the rogue cryoas have left, since there are seemingly plenty of guards for the spawner.

 

It is then that Dakro makes his move. He makes his way into the spawner’s clearing and squeezes his baton, sending a thorn careening into the spawner. 

 

As the rogue cryoas move to attack him, his cryoas turn and begin tearing into the spawner with claws and teeth. Vastly outnumbered and with its guards busy, the spawner is dead almost before it realizes the danger, assuming it is even capable of that level of thought.

 

The few rogue cryoas are outnumbered, outflanked, and quite confused as to what just happened. They are dispatched easily. Without the spawner, the serviles of Pentil should have little trouble keeping back the remaining cryoa.

 

Dakro reflects that wits, not brute force, won the battle. He continues to think along those lines as he makes his way east. 



 

Eventually, the forest gives way to valleys. Chilling wind blows out of the valleys, as if warning Dakro away. Dakro pulls his cloak tighter.

 

As he makes his way through, he sees a cave burrowed out of the soft stone of the valley walls. Dakro recognizes the markings. These tunnels were dug out by clawbugs, one of the nastier battle creations. When left alone, these scorpion-like creatures burrow networks of warrens and start to lay eggs. 

 

The burrow entrance does not look entirely stable. Dakra shapes a few thahds. They are his first attempt and look rather misshapen, but they at least have opposable thumbs. 

 

He gives one a shovel he uses to bury excrement, one his old sword he used before he replaced it with the better one Blade gave him, and one a crudely-fashioned pick-like contraption cobbled together from his supplies.

 

Then he orders them to collapse the cave. He expects the clawbugs to come running, but they remain inside, tending their nests. They will be able to burrow out eventually, but at least for now, they cannot flank him while he investigates the bridge in the distance.

 

With the burrow entrance collapsed, Dakro approaches the bridge. It's clearly very old. The stone is worn and covered with moss. Fortunately, it has not yet crumbled. Good servile workmanship, guided by Shaper engineering.

 

Unfortunately, someone is very keen on keeping anyone from crossing. Numerous turrets have been grown along its length. Even at this distance, they are all pointing at Dakro. The turrets are slightly misshapen, and their color isn't quite right. They were grown by an amateur, not a proper Shaper. They are still sufficiently well-made to kill.

 

Dakro orders his creations into formation, with the shovel thahd up front. As the group approaches, the first line of turrets fire at the thahd. It is overkill. If the thorns did not kill it, the shear weight of the number of thorns in its body might have driven it to the ground. Shaper-made turrets would have worked together, not wasting thorns.

 

While the turrets draw thorns from within their bodies to fire again, the cryoas take advantage of the lull, killing many in the first line and freezing the firing holes of the rest. The cryoas work together, as creations should.

 

The first line down, Dakro and his creations try their luck on the second line of turrets. The only change being that shovel thahd has been replaced with sword thahd. The stupid turrets have not learned from the first line and fall for the same trick, wasting all their initial thorns.

 

And so it goes with the third line (and improvised-pick thahd).

 

Having crossed the bridge, Dakro finds a pair of invaders not three minutes walk from the bridge. They block the valley. The humans are not from Shaper lands. Their features and clothes are completely foreign. These outsiders have violated a forbidden Shaper area, stolen secrets, and broken a multitude of laws. Also, they killed his boat.

 

Seeing two of them at last, hearing them speak quickly to each other in their crude, harsh language, it is hard not to be overcome with disgust. Their strange features are repellent to Dakro. He prepares to kill them, especially since they are about to battle an approaching clawbug. Then, with a single swing of her axe, a foreigner cleaves the clawbug in two.

 

Dakro stands dumbfounded, realizing he cannot possibly beat them. He must use his wits. They are armed and agitated. The foreigners talk to each other for a few moments, clearly unsure about what to do. 

 

Finally, one of them, barely capable with Shaper language, says, “Me of Sholai. Sholai land! You go. Back! No go here."

 

Dakro considers his response carefully. Remembering what Pool said, he replies, "I have been sent by Trajkov. Let me pass."

 

As soon as they hear the word Trajkov, they begin talking animatedly. The name Trajkov must mean something to them. They look at Dakro and smile. Then they nod and begin to pack up their things.

 

Dakro watches him, analyzing everything they have. Most of their equipment is quite foreign. And nothing looks alive. Taking a closer look, even their clothes look dead, incapable of repairing themselves. Dakro stares in disbelief at how poorly they have taken care of their equipment to have let it all die.

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Chapter 13: Enigma

 

Dakro has been following the Sholai for days, looking for an opportunity to kill them.

 

They have long since left the chilly valley behind and now sludge through a huge expanse of chilly swamp. It makes for miserable traveling. The shifting mud constantly erases their tracks. The Sholai, who so confidently led the way before, repeatedly get lost.

 

Finally, they find the remnants of a path. That's the good news. Unfortunately, this region is icy cold and eerily quiet. Ancient pillars of carved stone jut out of the muck. The occasional old bone is visible under the moss.

 

Yet more rogues roam these swamps. Normally, this would be the same-old-same-old. But this time, it is not a single type of rouge, but multiple types working synergistically together. Vlish float above the swamp, each leading a pack of roamers.

 

The overconfident Sholai don’t see the danger. They don’t have the teaching or experience. The vlish will cast spells, strengthening and healing the roamers. The roamers will incinerate anything that gets near the vlish. And if any enemy should survive their third degree burns, the roamers will quickly put them out of their misery with fangs and claws.

 

While the Sholai lazily approach the first pack, Dakro quietly slips away, heading toward a familiar smell. It is coming from what appears to have once been a traveler’s waypost or station for maintenance of creations. 

 

As Dakro enters the building, he hears the casting of the vlish and the roar of the roamers. He doesn’t hear the silent screams of the Sholai. After all, their vocal cords have been burned well beyond use.

 

Now that rogues have overrun the area, the building is completely abandoned, save anti-rogue defenses. There is evidence of servile travelers having used it as a safe place to camp, but they are long gone. In the back, he finds his goal: a living essence pool. These facilities can survive untended for a long time.

 

He begins shaping. Attempting to take on the packs outside would be suicide, so he shapes creations custom-built for suicide. Obviously, he cannot make the sickly-green roamers he used to break the siege against Pentil. Vlish are specially-created to take control of roamers and would easily turn them against him.

 

Instead, he begins experimenting with shaping those same explosive tendencies into thahds. They are stupid. Really stupid. So stupid they give vlish splitting headaches when they try to influence their minds.

 

He begins experimenting, which results in a few explosions over the next few hours. At first, the sounds draw a few packs, but the building’s defenses quickly drive them away.

 

At last, he finds a “stable” creation (if you can call it that, when it is designed to explode). Physically, is slightly weaker than a thahd, but it is not designed to fight. It is designed to explode. Feeling kind, he even takes the unusual step of shaping emotions into this creation. It will now feel happy about exploding.

 

With half a dozen of the creations, he goes out and tests them on the nearest pack. It works beautifully. Or, at least, the eye-searingly bright explosions leave beautiful, sparkly spots before his eyes.

 

Even before his vision clears, he begins heading back to the essence pool to shape more.

 

He doesn’t have to repeat the process overly much. Soon, one vlish realizes his threat and communicates it to the others. They all not only leave him alone, they give him a wide berth.

 

Free of immediate threats, he continues walking east. He may have lost his guides that he has been looking forward to killing, but from what he has been told, finding threats to the east will not be difficult. It will be a long, slow process to reclaim this island for the Shapers.

 

Dakro repeats his last inner thought, “For the Shapers.” He’s back to himself. No longer is it, “For myself.” Those drugs have worn off. He keeps telling himself to not let the drugs get to him, but they always do. At least the effects seem to be temporary. For now at least...

 

As he travels the marshes, he sees an ancient, worn, stone pylon. It is old enough to predate the Shapers' settling of this island. The years of exposure to the elements have left most markings on it completely illegible. The remaining symbols have no meaning to him. 

 

At its base, he finds an old notebook, dating from Shaper days. The pages were coated to protect them from the elements, and the serviles have respectfully left it alone. It might have been an old study journal, protected from harsh conditions.

 

Flipping through it, he finds that it was kept by a Shaper who was researching the tribes that lived on Sucia Island. They died off a few centuries before the Shapers settled here. The reason is an utter mystery.

 

The researcher comments that these woods seem to have some strange energy in them, centered around the nearby stone circle. He has had no luck solving the mystery. He thought that the strange, crumbling stone pylons might have something to do with it. The journal ends with a rapidly scrawled note: “Moss around one pylon keeps dying. Intriguing. Residual magic?”

 

Dakro looks into the distance through fog. Things he took for dead trees could be pylons. After walking a bit, he finds that to be the case. He also comes across several stone platforms inscribed with glowing runes that pulsate slightly. He investigates them briefly, but with his lack of magical background, only learns that they are “quite interesting.”

 

However, he soon finds something far more interesting. He sees a circle of large, piled stones (reminiscent of stonehenge) with an altar in the middle. The ancient structure must have been erected by whoever lived on this island before the Shapers did. It certainly predates them. It's a remarkable structure. It's a pity this island is Barred. If it wasn't, Sucia Island might have a solid tourist trade.

 

His father would have loved to set up shop here. He loved selling to tourists, but more than that, he loved talking with them. He loved sharing stories of wondrous far-off places, incredible events, and amazing people.

 

Dakro loved his father’s bedtime stories when he was a child and his father’s stories as an adult (although the “bedtime stories” and “stories” were only different in name). Perhaps his father exaggerated a bit, but that only made the world a bit more magical, a bit more joyful.

 

Reminiscing, Dakro approaches the central stone and starts to feel ill. Not enough to be in danger. Just enough to feel uncomfortable. There is a lot of unfamiliar ambient magic on Sucia Island. Most of it is the result of spells cast many years ago by mages long dead. He can't understand or affect it. He can only try to keep from being hurt by it. He backs away.

 

Continuing on, he finds four stone pylons placed together. Investigating them, he finds one has a small crack running up its side. He feels like this is an opportunity to learn more about these pylons.

 

He wedges a knife into the crack and begins to pry. Underneath the stone facade is crystal. Solid crystal. It could be that the entire twelve-foot tall pylon is one solid crystal. He reaches in and is immediately thrown back as if he touched live electricity. Voices fill his head and his vision goes white.


 

He opens his eyes to find himself in a crystal-filled cavern. Beautiful crystal stalactites hang from the ceiling. Even larger crystal stalagmites sit on the floor, with the largest ones raised on stone platforms. His creations are nowhere to be seen.

 

He tries to recall the voices. What they said to him. What they sounded like. They seemed so important at the time, but have faded like a dream. 

 

As he looks around his surreal surroundings, he wonders if he is in a dream. Or seeing a vision? But it seems so real…

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Chapter 14: Fear

 

Dakro ceases marveling at the crystal wonders and takes stock of his personal resources. His creations are gone, as are the supplies and extra essence they carried. Just a little while ago he was planning on taming this island, but now he is back to worrying about basic survival. He has his clothes, armor, sword, and his water filtration plant. However, he has lost his food, shelter, and most of his other essentials.

 

The crystals bathe the cavern in a spectrum of lights, mostly lime green and sea blue. It would be soothing, if he were not about ready to panic.

 

He approaches the largest crystal, hoping he can extract a bit of essence from it. When he gets close to it, it emits a bright flash of light and a loud keening sound, and then goes dim. Definitely not soothing.

 

The sound of running echoes through the cavern. The running is getting faster.

 

Dakro ducks behind the large crystal and attempts to hide as an enormous, bulging thahd races into the chamber and begins punching the offending crystal that woke it from its nap. After a few punches, its blind rage begins to wear off and it shakes the remaining sleep from its mind. It sees Dakro and stops to stare.

 

Dakro begins punching the offending crystal.

 

The thahd continues to stare for a moment, then roars with approval and resumes assaulting the crystal. Dakro’s pulled punches have no other effect, other than to bruise him slightly when he misjudges the distance once.

 

However, soon the thahd breaks the outer crystal casing and begins attacking the fleshy creature within. It’s remains begin to ooze across the floor. Satisfied, the thahd gives one last roar of approval and goes back to bed.

 

Dakro stares dumbfounded, surprised it worked and once again re-evaluates if this is reality.

 

Regaining his senses, he slowly, quietly begins slinking away from the sleeping thahd and comes to a dead end.

 

It looks like the best place he will get to shape creations. If the roars, pounding, and shattering did not bring anything else down on his head by now, then nothing should interrupt him.

 

As he finishes his last cryoa, he wishes he could make more, but he just doesn’t have the spare essence.

 

He quietly re-enters the cavern where he woke up and sees it is much more brightly lit. Looking up, he sees daylight through a hole. He couldn’t see it before because it was night and vegetation covers most of the opening. Judging from its placement, it looks like he could have fallen down it. Perhaps he got a concussion when he hit the ground? 

 

If so, his creations should be nearby. He reaches out for them, but feels nothing but a few rogue creations. Really mutated rogue creations. They are like nothing he has felt before. 

 

Ever so quiet, he walks on, searching for an exit and avoiding the large crystals.

 

Unfortunately for him, one of his cryoa is not so careful about the crystals. The familiar bright flash and keeping sound fills the cavern. Dakro begins punching the crystal as a different bulging thahd comes pounding in.

 

Before the thahd sees the crystal, it sees a cryoa intruder and punches it in the head, instantly breaking its neck. He stomps on its skull and turns to the next one as Dakro draws his sword.

 

The second cryoa spins 360° to dodge its head out of the way and slams the thahd with its muscular tail. The thahd staggers, off balance, toward Darko who eviscerates it. It’s entrails begin to spill onto the floor, but that is not all that falls out. Three tiny creations begin to make their way out of the thahd.

 

A tiny vlish floats out first, then a tiny artila burns away the thahds flesh to make a wider hole and emerges next to a tiny roamer.

 

The thahd tries in vain to put its organs and the tiny creations back in it’s body, but only received burns from the artila on its hands for its efforts. 

 

Weakened from blood and organ loss, it falls to the ground, barely breathing as it watches the roamer drag its intestines across the floor, trying to untangle itself.

 

Dakro stares in horror, a thousand questions going through his mind.

 

When he finally regains a semblance of his wits, he sees that his cryoa are valiantly battling the artila and roamer. Meanwhile, the vlish is nowhere to be seen and his dead cryoa is now budging and beginning to rise from the floor. It is too much. He runs.

 

In his panicked run, he gets too close to another large crystal. Light and sound assault his already-frayed senses and he runs faster, flinching at every shifting shadow.

 

Some time later - what seems like an eternity, but might have been minutes - Dakro sits on the ground, clutching his knees to his chest and slightly rocking. The cavern is quiet except for the soft sound of his sobs. Every once in a while he re-checks his skin to ensure nothing is crawling under it.

 

Eventually, his breathing slows as realization dawns on him: It must have been a terror vlish. Shapers are trained to make themselves immune, but he’s not a real Shaper, is he? He questions how much of what he saw was real. He questions whether any of it is.

 

He slaps himself hard, trying to wake up. To no avail.

 

Slowly, he puts one foot in front of the other. Whether this is real or not, he will find a way out.


At long last, Dakro finds the first place that makes sense since he woke up: an old Shaper supply cavern. Shapers often keep goods in deep, cool caves like this one. Inside, there are no strange crystals, no infested creations, nothing that makes him lose his memory. Just a refuge in this storm of madness.

 

He immediately barricades the door and then takes his time searching the cavern, taking what he needs. When he comes to a canister, he stares long and hard at it. It is extremely tempting, but his mind is questionable enough as it is right now. Reluctantly, he leaves it alone.

 

He can’t even risk bringing it with him, since any creation he shaped to carry it might accidentally activate one of those keening crystals.

 

Exhausted, he falls into restless sleep.

 

 

The next morning, he opens some of the stored food and begins to eat breakfast. It is rather chewy, but better than nothing. At least, until the worms begin to emerge. He throws the contaminated food away. Looking down in horror, he sees his stomach begin to budge. He lets loose a primal scream and awakes from his nightmare-filled sleep, still screaming.

 

He forces himself to calm down and puts his ear to the barricaded door, listening for the sound of running thahds. Fortunately, he hears nothing.

 

In the strained quiet, he begins to think a bit more clearly. If this is a shaper storeroom, then it must be near an exit. As silently as possible, he unbarricades the door and presses onward.

 

Soon, he feels the chill breeze that has bothered him since leaving Pentil. It feels refreshing. 

 

Outside, he takes a deep, cleansing breath and is elated to find “pinwheels.” He doesn’t remember their real name, but any shaper worth their salt can turn these plants into pure, malleable essence.

 

He immediately goes about converting them into a warm, furry thahd, which he orders to hold him tight. It has been too long since he has been hugged and held. And he’ll vehemently deny ever having done this.

 

Once his mind settles, he begins shaping cryoa and sets out once more. Soon, he comes across an outsider’s corpse. It’s neck has been neatly snapped. He was attacked by something very big and muscular, perhaps a thahd. The assailant looted the body, but left behind a small packet of papers in a belt pouch.

 

Dakro tries to read the papers, but has no luck. They are in a strange and unfamiliar language. He takes them with him. Not much as made sense to him lately, but in time, perhaps it will.

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Chapter 15: Front Lines

 

Dakro stumbles along, still somewhat in a haze. It has been so long since the Accident, but it still haunts him today. He checks his skin for the fiftieth time. Half those who sought to become Shaper apprentices with him dropped out after that horrific day.

 

But not him. Despite regrets that he will take to the grave, the Accident only emboldened him. He learned the world is much more wondrous - and dangerous - than even what he heard in his father’s stories. The world needs the gifts of the Shapers, but most of the world is not ready to wield the gift of Shaping itself. These secrets must be guarded.

 

This island must be brought to heel. He is literally on a potentially world-saving quest, right out of his father’s stories. Not yet out of his teens, he will have to grow up fast.



 

Dakro reaches an old Shaper road. Shapers believe in the importance of good infrastructure. Serviles are often assigned to maintain the roads and keep them clear. Some of them have clearly been at work here. 

 

There are lots of fresh rogue tracks, but the woods are calm and quiet. The monsters - both physical and those of the mind - must be lurking around somewhere. That always seems to be the case.

 

Dakro attempts to read a road sign, but it has been recently defaced with crude scratches. Nothing like the message-sending defacing he did outside Ellhrah’s Keep.

 

Remembering the cryoa ambushes, he cautiously makes his way into the woods, looking for signs. Coming to a glade, he finds a large nest, maybe ten feet across. It has been recently occupied, but its occupant is nowhere in sight. Maybe they went to lie in ambush when they detected a Shaper.

 

Dakro quietly leads his cryoas and a roamer through the woods. He comes across three more empty nests and no rogues. Maybe the rogues fled the area when they detected a Shaper? His luck might be changing.

 

He begins walking at a normal pace and begins passing by a fifth nest. Suddenly, a slimy head rises from where it was curled up in the nest. A long, multi-segmented worm rises up and hisses. Dakro reflexively aims and squeezes his baton. With a small squeak, the baton fires a thorn at the artila, with recoils as the thorn pierces its side.

 

In response, the artila spits a globule of acid, which immediately begins dissolving Dakro’s clothes and skin.

 

Dakro has lost his modesty and perhaps his ability to father children, but not his fighting spirit. He calls on his creations to destroy the worm - correction - worms (for now he sees another head rise from the nest) while desperately directing his essence to neutralize the acid and restore his manhood.

 

Fortunately for him (and the world, for they will have the benefit of his progeny), he is able to heal the damage. In his battle-rage, he perhaps directed his creations to go a bit overboard. He meant to inspect the nest, but there is no sign of there having ever been one. All that is left is a nice bonfire, courtesy of the roamer.

 

Dakro directs his cryoas to put out the fire before it spreads, but soon discovers that all the fire and smoke has attracted attention. Several serviles, armed and armored, are quick-step marching toward him.

 

Dakro puts his creations in battle formation, but then sees that he doesn’t have to worry about them causing trouble. They are clearly in awe of him. They're in danger of dropping their weapons and passing out.

 

One says, “A Shaper! On Sucia! We had not heard. Welcome! Welcome! Our commander is Doge.” She points to the west. “I am sure he would love to meet you. And help you."

 

Dakro’s spirits lift. He had feared that the Crystal Incident had sent him far afield. This is exactly where he meant to go after being briefed by Mickall Blade.

 

Another says, "You shouldn't go that way, though.” She points to the east. “There are rogues down there. We are sorry. We will destroy them very soon. We promise.”

 

Dakro allows them to lead him to their outpost, settled next to a small lake. The outpost is small, with no walls and only a handful of buildings.

 

Dakro is directed to the northernmost building,  where he meets the leader of this tiny outpost. Like all of the serviles here, he has been enduring constant battle for months. He is on the edge of exhaustion.

 

He leaps smartly to attention. Though he is wobbly, he will not look incapable in front of a Shaper. “Greetings, we are greatly honored. We never dreamed that one of your kind would ever visit us. I am Obeyer Doge, from Pentil. We have been guarding the roads here, at the order of my commander. We are now at your service."

 

Dakro tells Doge about his activities on the island, emphasizing his overwhelming power and leaving out most of the Crystal Incident.

 

Doge says, “Thank you for clearing the bridge, Shaper, but it sounds like there are still many dangers between us and Pentil. Please, if you return before we can get a messenger through, tell him we are doing badly. Low on food and supplies. Attacked constantly. Half of us are dead. Please get him to help us. He would listen to your Shaper wisdom.”

 

Dakro approves of this servile. He did not improperly ask for help directly from a Shaper. He only asked for a few words if he happened to be in the area. He resolves to help them.

 

“Tell me about this outpost.”

 

"It is a humble thing. It used to be a Shaper workshop. We don't know what it was for. There was an essence pool. We have been feeding it. We think it is still alive."

 

Dakro knows maintaining essence pools is one of the jobs usually given to serviles, so it is probably still functional. Helping them should prove quite easy.

 

“What are your orders?”

 

“The last Shapers told us to keep the road clear and in good condition for merchants and couriers. We continue, despite the fact that Kazg doesn’t trade ever since the Takers went completely mad. Now, though, all we really do is try to stay alive. We get attacked all the time.”

 

“What made the Takers change?”

 

"I do not know. The changes only came a year ago or so. They became more hostile to non-Takers. Rogue creations started to appear everywhere. Everything went mad."

 

“I will destroy them. What can you tell me about the area, especially Kazg?”

 

Doge briefly covers Kazg’s known defenses. In the first few sentences, Dakro realizes he has no chance of destroying the city, but lets Doge continue. Doge finishes with “But that was before they became paranoid. They have likely increased defenses since then.”

 

“I see…. Do you know of any allies in the area? So I don’t accidentally destroy them, too.”

 

Dodge thinks. "Well, we did hear some rumors months ago. Outlandish tales of invaders from off Sucia Island. Other stories, of Shapers hiding east of Kazg. One Shaper even dealt with them. I dismissed those stories. The townsfolk like to gossip. I had never dreamed of actually meeting one of you."

 

“It would seem I am not the first one marooned by the foreigners. Tell me about the Shapers east of Kazg.”

 

"I only heard rumors. Some fishermen from Pentil, in their little boats, got caught in a storm and blown east. They saw humans walking around the docks there, on the southeast corner of the island. There were creations with them. They stopped here for food on their slow trip home, and they told us the story.”

 

“Tell me the rumors about this Shaper who supposedly dealt with Kazg."

 

"Maybe a Shaper. Or a wizard. Definitely a human. This person was dealing with Gnorrel, leader of the Takers. We know that much. I wish we knew more, to help you."

 

"What else did you hear?"

 

He thinks. “I don't want to tell you anything false. I don't want to waste your time with rumors, especially rumors about you. I met one servile, though. He was fleeing Kazg. He was scared of what was happening there. He said that the Takers were looking for something called the Geneforge. It scared him, so he left.”

 

“Interesting. What happened to him?”

 

“Oh, he died. We found his body eventually. He got caught by an artila not far west of here."

 

Dakro sees that more and more serviles are making excuses to walk or work nearby, trying at very least to catch a glimpse of him. “Thank you. You are serving well, and now I will work to protect you so that you can continue serving. Take me to the Shaping Hall.”

 

Dakro takes the rest of the day to shape food- and thorn-producing plants and turrets for the serviles. He instructs them on how to plant, care, and harvest them. And learns a bit more about the area from the never-ending stream of serviles coming to ask if they can be of assistance.

 

He then finds the most luxurious (or, in this case, least offensive) bed and goes to sleep.



 

The next day, as he walks between the outpost pillars to leave, he hears loud roars. They echo through the woods. It sounds like all of the rogues in these woods are now on the hunt.

 

The serviles around him immediately spring into action. “Attack! Attack!” They grab their weapons and move to meet the onslaught.

 

A minute passes. There aren't any rogues in sight, and the roaring soon ends. He starts to wonder if they’re just being paranoid.

 

Then the sound of feet, claws, and slithering fills the air. An enormous thahd - correction, battle alpha - is the first to break from the treeline. Dakro has only read about these fearsome giant humanoids that have long been the core shock troops of Shaper armies. Their descriptions do not do them justice.

 

Two turrets swivel and let out whistling sounds. The battle alpha, knowing the dangers of turrets, thunders across the ground and body-slams one while punching the other into wet goo. The turrets were too young to fire thorns, but not too young to be a decent distraction.

 

Dakro, the serviles, and the creations form a self-circle and fire thorns into the battle alpha from a distance. With their own thorn bushes, they can now “waste” them, rather than risking wasting their lives trying to go into melee with a battle alpha.

 

The alpha shrugs off the attacks and grabs a servile, using him as an unwieldy club to beat another servile. Simultaneously, a clawbug with metallic plates and half a dozen artilla emerge from the treeline.

 

From the top of an outpost pillar, Doge throws a crystal, using the extra height to gain range. It separates into icy fragments, chilling and slicing into the oncoming horde. As the artilas come within spitting range, he drops down the back of the pillar, shielding him from the retaliatory strikes.

 

With the artilas distracted and looking up, the servile firing line lets loose, killing the most injured artila. 

 

Meanwhile, the alpha continues its deadly melee. Dakro orders his cryoas to hold onto the alpha’s limbs. In order to dislodge them, the alpha drops the “servile-club,” who slowly crawls away. 

 

In seconds, all the cryoa are dead. Battle alphas are Shaper shock troops for a reason. Second matter in battle, and seconds are all that Dakro and the serviles need to finish off the alpha. The alpha dies and its bowels let loose. A terrible stench fills the air.

 

The iron clawbug takes point, guarding the artila as they spit acid upon the defenders. Half are blinded by the acid. The rest have trouble moving their arms or legs. It is a losing battle for the defenders.

 

Dakro races back to the essence pool and hurriedly creates a sickly-green roamer. It has been made too hastily and will die within a few minutes, but right now, a few minutes is enough. He sends it to the front line. He hears the nearby explosion just as he sends a second. After the third explosion rocks his building, he hears a great cheer of victory sweep over the outpost.

 

The rouge attack has ended. They are victorious.

 

It was a surprisingly lethal and coordinated force. It is very worrying that a battle alpha was with them. That is an advanced creation design, very much not the sort of thing he wants wandering around rogue.

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Chapter 16: Alpha

 

Dakro looks at the dissolving corpses of his cryoas, all killed in seconds by the Battle Alpha… and smiles.

 

He may have lost his history book to the bottom of the ocean, but he did start reading it. It told of massive battles where battle alpha shock troops laid waste to enemy strongholds and cities.

 

Kazg will fall.

 

All he needs to do is track this battle alpha back to where it was shaped and find Shaper notes or a canister. He has no training in tracking, but he needs none. The deep footprints of the Battle Alphas are easy to follow. He leaves the outpost serviles to tend their wounded.

 

He makes his way north, through the woods and comes to a wooded valley. Here, the tracks are even easier to follow, and even if they weren’t, there really is only one way to go.

 

It is an isolated, peaceful place. There are even a few ornks. Seeing the ornks, Dakro follows a hunch and abandons the trail, instead following a small trail up the cliff. It leads to a cave where a lone servile lives. She sits on a stool and leans back against the stone wall. In the back of the cave, there is a closed door.

 

This servile is no crazy, scrawny hermit. She is reasonably calm and well-fed. She acts like she has been expecting Dakro. “Greetings, Shaper,” she says. “I am Sniff.” Sniff leans back on her stool and looks up at him. Sometimes, she picks bits of moss off of her robes.

 

Dakro recalls the servile in the shaper graveyard who had abandoned his duties to serve the Shapers and demands, “What are you doing out here?”

 

“I am waiting for help, Shaper.”

 

“You are expected to help me in exchange for the gift of life and protection, and you expect me to help you?”

 

“If you have some sort of message or if you’re looking for someone specific, I can help. Otherwise, I can’t.”

 

Dakro ponders the intriguing response. “What sort of message?”

 

Sniff is silent.

 

“Well, can you at least give me a hint of where I should look to get the message you need?”

 

Sniff thinks. “Good question. There are people trapped east of Kazg. Sholai, and others. Look for them. They serve the interests of the Shapers.”

 

“The Obeyer fort to the south could use reinforcements, and provide you with protection. Go there.”

 

“I don’t deal with those factions any more, Shaper. I have a new path. I follow the true will of the Shapers. More than that, I can’t say.”

 

“The Obeyer’s don’t follow the true will of the Shapers?”

 

Sniff is once again silent.

 

“You are acting quite suspiciously, servile. I must search your home.” He goes to the door, but it refuses to open. “I command you to open the door. If you do not, I will destroy you.”

 

“I'm sorry, Shaper. That wouldn't serve the interests of your kind. I can't let you in. Destroy me if you must.” She closes her eyes.

 

Under most other circumstances, Dakro would, but there is something about this servile. After a long, uncomfortable minute, Dakro asks, “Where are the battle alphas created? Where do they live?”

 

Eyes still closed, Sniff points north. “Follow this small valley north, then keep north through the large vale. Follow the living trees to the northwest, avoiding the large swath of dead land to the northeast. The battle alphas live in a cave and are quite noisy. You should have no difficulty finding them.

 

Dakro considers one last time whether or not to kill the servile, and then leaves. 



 

Darko follows the mysterious servile's directions. When he enters the vale, he immediately sees campfire smoke rising from near one of the valley walls. He treks on up a wide path created by the battle alphas.

 

In front of the cave is a large clearing. Trees have been violently uprooted and tossed aside, forming a crude barricade around the clearing. The clearing looks raked, but rather than using a rake, it looks like entire trees were used to sweep the area.

 

There is a battle alpha standing in the middle of this clearing. He is clearly a young specimen. Either he was recently created, or the battle alphas left behind on this island centuries ago have been breeding. He slaps itself on the chest and shouts “I am Aitch.” 

 

It's a standard name. Shapers give all the battle alphas in a unit preset names to aid in standardization. 

 

The alpha continues to bellow, "This Freeplace! We no want Shapers here. No follow no more. We greater than Shapers! I challenge you! Duel! Duel!” He raises his arms in the air, roars, and lunges forward.

 

Dakro orders his cryoa to fan out and attack the rogue from a distance. Hundreds of icy shards crash into the alpha, but Aitch ignores them and comes straight for Dakro. Dakro parries the incoming punch from the alpha’s armored fist, leaving Dakro’s arm numb. Before Dakro can recover, the alpha knees Dakro in the chest, sending him flying over a barricade.

 

Dakro looks up to see the alpha leaping over the barricade. With seconds to live, Dakro desperately shouts, “But you’re right! You are greater than Shapers.”

 

Somehow, his words pierce Aitch's tiny brain. He stops moving. “Uhh... What?”

 

“Of course. You are clearly greater than me. I won't try to tell you what to do. You have won the duel.”

 

“Oh. I ... Oh. Hah! I have beaten you! You will have no leadering here!” He proudly tromps back to his post. He looks slightly doubtful. Something about what happened is bothering him, but he can't quite figure out what.

 

Dakro instinctively tries to sheath his sword, and then belatedly realizes he no longer has it. A helpful cryoa brings it to him in its mouth.

 

Realizing he is probably slightly concussed, he takes a moment to rest, allowing the essence within him to heal his cuts and bruises.

 

Swallowing his pride, he leaves his cryoas outside and then enters the lair of a large group of battle alphas, head bowed.

 

The creatures are bred to function in groups. However, seeing how they try to live on their own is, in a bleak way, quite comical. Battle alphas are often used to dig trenches and build fortifications. They have done all right widening these caves, and they have even laid down a crude wooden floor. All the sorts of things they were intended to do.

 

However, they are not very good at providing for themselves. The rooms are full of random items they have scavenged, seemingly without awareness of what they are for. Shelves line the walls, but objects have simply been left scattered on the floor. They have gathered some food, but not much. Dakro can smell some of it rotting. Battle alphas were not made to live unsupervised, and it shows.

 

The battle alphas inside seems surprised and bothered by his presence in their lair. However, they don’t move against him. They just snarl and shuffle around the cave.

 

Dakro is disheartened to see that it is not a Shaper lab. However, they may have scavenged a canister. He presses on, head still bowed.

 

As he makes his way deeper, he finds an extremely old battle alpha. It may be the father (or mother, he’s not sure) of this clan. It stares morosely into the fire. It is not as strong and confident as the others. It looks up at Dakro. “I am Ell. I lead Freeplace.” His voice marks him as male. He looks back at the fire.

 

Dakro barely hears him, having eyed a canister. The destruction of Kazg, incarnate.

 

The two ignore each other, lost in their own thoughts. The alpha continues to basically talk to himself. “I have to think lots. Have to take care of home. Is hard. Have to find food. Lead. Strange. Hard for us.” 

 

Surely it is difficult. These creatures were not designed to live on their own. They were not given versatile brains.

 

Dakro allows the essence to fill him, re-writing him.

 

He sees the pitiful battle alpha crouching next to the fire. He is tempted to kill it, but it’s not worth his time. These moronic creations will soon die of stupidity. Perhaps from eating spoiled food, perhaps from failing to reinforce the cave as they expand, perhaps something else. Their death is already sealed. He has more important uses for his time. He has new knowledge. He can create battle alphas far stronger than his pitiful specimen and then march on Kazg.

 

Dakro struts out of the filthy cave and into the sunlight. It is time to return to the outpost’s essence pool for experimentation.

 

Soon, he will march to war.

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Chapter 17: Side Effects

 

Dakro returns to Pentil’s eastern outpost and is greeted by cheering. Dakro largely ignores it. After all, what good is the praise of lowly serviles? Soon, he will have the praise of the world.

 

However, one servile does catch his interest: Dina. She cares for this outpost's pitiful remaining supplies. Her pouches are full of thorns and other goods, and she was repairing some javelins when he arrived. Like the others, she is in awe of him. She is also very nervous.

 

Dakro looks down at his boots. After having walked through forests, fens, valleys, caves, and more, his boots are practically dead. He says, “I require a new pair of Shaped boots.”

 

She looks down at the ground. This is clearly what she was afraid he would ask. Still, she stays true to her nature and her beliefs. “Of course, Shaper, Take all you want. Anything we have is yours.” She hands him a pair of slightly off-color boots. Still, they are better than his current ones.

 

In exchange, Dakro hands her his old ones to plant until they can sustain themselves again out of the soil.

 

Dakro then considers that he is about to storm a city. “I require more. Give me everything you are carrying.”

 

“Of course, Shaper.” She removes several packs of thorns and two pods from her belt pouches and gives them to him. This upsets her, but she hides it well. The outpost must be very low on supplies.

 

He glares at her, “Are you sure there isn’t anything else you could be giving me?”

 

“Of course, Shaper.” She fishes several tiny gems from the bottom of one of her pouches and hands them to him. “This is really all we have. I hope our sacrifice pleases you.” She could not look more unhappy if he had stabbed her.



 

Dakro has been diligently working, trying to create a battle alpha for the past two days. The first went rogue and injured several serviles before being taken down. One servile will still be in recovery for the next week. Of more concern, the rogue damaged irreplaceable Shaper equipment in the lab.

 

Since then, Dakro has been experimenting farther away from the important lab equipment (and closer to the serviles, much to their distress).

 

At long last, he creates two stable battle alphas. He goes through standard names for battle alphas in his head: Aitch, Eks, Ell, Eee, Enn, Jay, Kay, Woo, Zee. It suddenly dawns on him that most are just the letters of the alphabets, only spelled out phonetically. Since these are his tenth and eleventh attempts, he names them Jay and Kay.

 

He then marches to war.



 

The war party approaches Kazg. These ruins were the largest settlement on Sucia Island, back when Shapers were still here. It is a far larger town than he expected to find here. Far too large to be part of a small research facility.

 

The buildings in this neighborhood have crumbled into ruin. The process was not entirely natural. They were looted and defaced by serviles. A vandalized statue nearby testifies to their handiwork.

 

The dirt around Kazg is dry and barren. He doubts it was always this way. Blight crept across this area after Shapers abandoned the island.

 

As he walks down the crumbling street, he starts to feel nervous. An odd feeling, after days of overconfidence. The drugs have all but worn off. He can hear servile patrols nearby. He doubts he will get a friendly reception.

 

He sets up his war party in defensive formation, but after five minutes, no patrol has come near. He is leery of taking his party deeper into the ruins before knowing what he faces.

 

He relieves his boredom by defacing a sign that reads:

Taker Lands

Slaves to the Shapers will be slain!

 

After scratches out some of the letters, it now reads:

Taker Lands

Slaves to the Shapers will be slain!

 

He then goes about carving serviles being executed in elaborate ways on the sign. It’s kind of relaxing, reminding him of his dad teaching him to whittle on a camping trip. 

 

Dakro always loved the outdoors. His mother took him hiking ever since he was a small child. His dad was not as much of a fan, preferring his shop and lots of people, but he kindly took Dakro camping each year.

 

If he and his dad were hiking far, they might bring a servile to carry their belongings. He never imagined serviles like the ones on this island. When he gets home, his dad is going to have a field day with his stories.

 

Or will he? How much of what he knows will the Shapers allow to spread? The ideas of the Takers of Free and the Awakened might be too dangerous for the public.

 

Dakro’s thoughts are interrupted as an armed, savage servile walks up to the war party. In his eyes, Dakro sees no sign of obedience. Or sanity. He is covered with scars, and his robes are torn and filthy.

 

He seems to blame all of his problems on Dakro personally. He points his weapon at the Shaper and says, “Now, Shaper! We take Taker vengeance! You are slain!"

 

Without waiting for the rest of his patrol, the servile charges. Kay grabs the servile and throws him in the air. The servile crashes on a nearby roof and slides off, falling on another charging servile. As the two try to untangle and right themselves, the battle is fully joined.

 

At first, it goes well for Dakro, but as patrol after patrol arrives, the war party’s wounds begin to mount. The only advantage they are gaining is that the serviles are now having a more difficult time approaching because of all bodies blocking the street and blood making the rest slippery.

 

Dakro makes his retreat, leaving his creations behind to cover him.



 

Dakro reconsiders his plan. Kazg is far larger than Vakkiri or Pentil, and far more populated. Taking it will be difficult, especially now that they will likely be better prepared for him. An unfortunate side effect of his attack.

 

The serviles of Pentil would be fairly worthless in battle, even if they could be spared from defending their lands from rogues.

 

It may be time to gain more Shaper allies. Taking to heart what Doge and the servile hermit said, he begins a circumspect route south around Kazg to the lands east of it.

 

Unlike much of the land around Vakkiri and Pentil, these lands are rogue-free. The Takers of Free have swept the area, and no one has placed spawners to create more. It would take exceptionally high-level creations to have survived the Taker patrols.

 

No sooner does Dakro have this thought than he sees familiar footprints. He’s tracked these recently, and found that even a single one was more than a match for him. However, now he knows how they are made.

 

They are mounds of massive muscles and bones surrounding a tiny brain and encased with living armor. They were made to survive severe poundings, rapidly able to heal themselves with an exceptionally quick cardiovascular system. Therein lies their weaknesses. The natural armor is susceptible to acid, and their bodies are practically designed to quickly spread poison throughout their bodies.

 

It is finally time to shape artilas. He has avoided them before because their bodies are extremely frail. They practically die to a stiff breeze. However, now that he has battle alphas to hold the front line, they are the perfect creation. “Everything's coming together.” 

 

He chuckles at his unintended pun as he continues shaping.

 

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Chapter 18: Writing History

 

Blah, blah, blah. Wall of text. Dakro has found a crate of paper and is trying to write a journal. Or, rather, three journals.

 

The first is for himself. An accurate account of what is happening.

 

The second is for his father. It embellishes a bit, as is appropriate for his father, and includes thrilling descriptions of battles, anguished inner thoughts, and surreal conversations with serviles who think they are “people.” It is more a novel than a journal. Dakro just hopes he gets the balance of exploration, combat, and conversation right so that his father finds it all interesting. Sadly, he cannot get any specific feedback from his far-away father right now.

 

The third is for the Shapers. It is the current wall of boring text. It is even more of a work of fiction than the one for his father. It will doubtlessly be important when he faces the Shapers’ judgement. It is a difficult piece of writing, made all the more-so by the loud, distracting brawl in front of him.

 

Ell, Emm, and Enn wrestle with a pair of rogue battle alphas, while artila rain poison and acid down from a cliff. He would have named the artila, except for the fact that he would run out of alphabet for them within a month, perhaps a week. Glancing up, he sees a battle alpha throw a boulder, killing an artila. Acid leaks out, eroding the cliffside.

 

The battle would doubtlessly go better if he directed it, but the journals are important. Even the second one. Especially the second one. It helps him morph the horrors of war into a cutesy adventure in his mind.

 

As the last rogue falls, it too loses control of its bowels. Feces mixes with the iron smell of blood, gagging him. As the battle quiets, he hears the sounds of young battle alphas crying in the camp ahead. He never mentions the children in his second journal.



 

Dakro writes his way to a cave filled with turrets. A while back, he dealt with turrets from afar with the sacrificial thahds “shovel,” “sword,” and “improvised pickaxe.” Now, he has Ell, Emm, and Enn. Before the turrets have a chance to react, the battle alphas barrel in and grab their thorn barrels, pointing them away. The grappled turrets are helpless as the battle-alphas beat them to death with their free hands.

 

The remaining turrets defend their fellow flora, but the battle alphas shrug off the damage. One even grabs a thorn from its side and uses it as a weapon to tear into its grappled turret.

 

Dakro looks for his artila support, but it seems they have all died at some point in his writings. When he looks back, the one-sided battle is over. Dakro closes his journal. If there are turrets here, then there are thinking beings. It is time to get serious. It is time to meet the Shapers.

 

However, Dakro has not found the expected Shapers. Instead, he has discovered a small outpost full of humans who are not from his lands, not Shapers or common. They are the invaders, the ones who stranded him on Sucia. They see him and draw their weapons, but they don't approach. One of them shouts something in their tongue. Dakro doesn’t understand it.

 

Then one of them sheathes his blade. He points at the other people and says “Sholai. Peace.” Then he holds out open hands. Others shout news of his arrival through the tunnels. The hostile turrets turn their barrels away.

 

Apparently, these 'Sholai' are willing to let him enter peacefully. Considering their kind invaded his lands and killed his ship, he isn’t sure how friendly he feels.

 

Most of the outsiders don't speak any of Dakro’s tongue. The one who sheathed his blade appears slightly more friendly than the other Sholai. He points at his chest and says, with a smile, “Kevin Williams.” Then points at a nearby campfire and says, “Masha. Talk Masha.”

 

A woman by the campfire rises, standing tall and proud. Her facial features are clearly human, but strange and alien. She is but a person, trapped here like Dakro, yet he can't help but feel anger and disgust.

 

This is an invader, after all, in lands Barred by the Shapers. There is only one punishment for that crime. Swift death. He manages to crush his instinct to lash out at her, for the moment.

 

She holds out her hands in a gesture of peace. She speaks, crudely using his own language. “Shaper, I am Masha, of the Sholai. We are strangers, from far away, stranded in your land. We wish to deal with you.”

 

"Who are the Sholai?"

 

“We are people from land far away.” She points west. “Icy land, harsh, across sea. We are great explorers. We came here.”

 

This makes sense. No Shaper has ever crossed the Western Sea. Some consider it to be impassable. This is obviously incorrect. The Sholai had probably never even heard of the Shapers before they landed here. This does not, of course, change the fact that the law dictates that all outsiders on Barred lands must be killed.

 

Dakro grinds his teeth. "You are an invader. Being here is punishable by death!"

 

Masha shakes her head. “We did not know. We give no insult. We would go. Want to go. But others not go. That why talk to you. Ask mercy and time. Ask me. I will tell all.”

 

Not trusting himself not to lash out, Dakro simply nods for Masha to continue talking.

 

Masha smiles, relieved that he is willing to listen. “This is core of deal, being much I tell now. I tell you our story. You ready?”

 

Dakro motions for her to get on with it.

 

“Yes. We were explorers. To cross great sea. Three large ships. One sinks on way. Many lost. Hunger. Water and wind eat sails. No food. Then miracle. We see island here. We land. One more boat lost, bottom ripped on harsh rocks. Only one boat left, not enough for us. We trapped on this Sucia Isle. Our leader, tall captain, go to explore. Leader is Trajkov.”

 

Dakro considers how much of the story to believe. Even if she thinks she is telling the truth, did Trajkov tell her the truth? Was it truly an accident they landed on this barred island, or did Trajkov come seeking something?

 

Dakro says, “Tell me more about Trajkov.”

 

“He found old deep tunnels.” She points to the northeast. “Mad Trajkov explore. Finds secrets of you. He look for shelter. He find madness. He find books and labs and your secrets. He has all come ashore. Tells to hide in tunnels. We look for food and settle to repair. He studies your secrets. Learns your talk. Learns how to use canisters. He gains your power, and shares it with those he trusts most. And then he gets plans -”

 

Dakro’s skin starts to glow slightly. A strange rage grows within him, making his muscles twitch and his skin burn. Overtaken by rage, he draws his sword. He moves to attack Masha, to lash out at these outsiders who dare to steal his secrets, his power. 

 

Others move to defend her, but Masha makes no move to defender herself. She stands with innocent eyes. He saw such innocent eyes recently at the battle alpha camps. Sorrow sweeps through him, trying to douse the fiery rage.

 

Dakro changes the trajectory of his blade, attacking a nearby stool. The sword sticks into it. Lifting it into the air, he vents all his rage and regret into the stool as he repeatedly crashes to the ground, splintering.

 

Surprisingly, Masha seems to understand. She saw the unbridled rage that overtook Trajkov after he used each canister. So unlike who he was. The bouts of rage lasted longer each time, until constant anger overtook him. She lets Dakro spend his pent-up energy and keeps the other Sholai back.

 

At last, Dakro regains control of himself. Unlike Masha, he doesn’t really understand why he was suddenly overcome. He should be angry, no doubt, but before he kills these gnats, he should learn all he can from them. He makes no apology for the stool and asks Masha to continue.

 

“He find out you have something. Call it Geneforge. Amazing power thing. He want to use it. Can't. It not ready. It need full Shaper for some reason. So he get a Shaper. Not you, though. He get another Shaper first. He send out ship. Steal Goettsch. Goettsch is old Shaper. He comes and learns of Geneforge. But then he flees. Trajkov anger. Goettsch is still on island. We don't know what he doing. He here. 

 

“Where is he?”

 

“Hiding. Far. Not know where. Maybe dead.”

 

After a pause, she continues, “Trajkov want power. He give command to get you. Madness. Stupid madness. Trajkov send our last ship, you destroy us, we trapped. That all we know. Forgive our foolishness. Then we know we must flee. Anfisa, Trajkov assistant, make plan. We take small boat. We slip away. Then things go wrong.”

 

She says something that sounds like cursing in her native tongue and then continues. “I was just less than Anfisa. Know less of what Trajkov was doing. She know much, and she have journal. It in chest.” She points to the sea chest against the wall just northwest of the fire.”
 

Dakro recognizes the sigils on the chest. Impenetrable. There will be no breaking it open with force. The chest cannot even be moved. A pity, as it would make magnificent armor if the magic did not have the side effect of immobility.

 

"Magical chest. Locked. But when we flee, Trajkov knows. Sends ship after us. He sink small on docks at southeast corner of isle. Anfisa killed. We see other humans. Afraid of them. We flee into tunnels. Key to chest still on Anfisa body. We think it is back at docks. We want to be in chest. We think things inside help us with goals.”

 

“And just what are your goals?”

 

“Trajkov is mad. He plays with awful balance. Angers your people. Attacks them. Sholai mission is to meet people and make peace. Trajkov is true rogue. Raising hate in your people, hurting the Sholai. Trajkov must be dead. Then we will try to meet with your people in peace. That is the goal we have.”

 

Masha says the words with regret. Once, Trajkov was a great leader. She would have followed him to the ends of the earth, and in fact did in a way. But the canisters changed him. She would love to tell his Shaper of the great good Trajkov has done, but she can’t risk it. They need a scapegoat. Trajkov’s name will go down in Shaper history as a villain. A tragedy, but a burden his former self would have been willing to bear for their people.

 

“I will help you open the chest, but I will be the first to read the journal. Then I will know whether or not you speak true.”

 

“That is dealing we want. Go southeast. Find body and Anfisa. Hope to find her key. In return, we share with you. We hope you angry by Trajkov as we are. We find common cause.”

 

“What should I know about the docks?”

 

“Had been secured. Traps. Monsters. Are humans there. Don't know them. Maybe they make defenses. Watch for them. They might be friend. Maybe?”

 

As they continue to converse over the next few hours, Masha seems less and less like a gnat to be squashed and more like a friend. He glances down at this third journal, conflicted.

 

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Chapter 19: Division

 

Dakro enters what might be called by a drunken optimist, “the docks.” Anyone else would call it unsalvageable ruins. The wood piers have completely rotted away, and what might have once been a rock pier is now just a pile of rocks. Or perhaps that is a spilled ore shipment. None of the buildings look stable.

 

Eventually, he finds what appears to be a somewhat intact building built like a hall of records. The door is still alive and dutifully opens at this approach. With the door sealed, he hopes that some useful records have survived. Peering inside, he sees that the back left corner of the building has completely caved in. The elements invaded the document’s sanctuary, slaughtering them all. 

 

However, amongst the carnage, he sees a lone cabinet still stands triumphant, having “weathered” the attack. Dakro moves to open it, but it is locked. He has no training with living tools, but he figures now would be a good time to try and get some experience.

 

It squeals and flops around in his hand. It’s tentacles flail around, forming various shapes. Dakro haphazardly puts it in the lock. It fails against the rusted lock, cutting a major vein and dies within seconds. Dakro stands back, extremely disappointed. He’ll need to practice controlling them without locks, first. 

 

After more walking, he finds another seemingly intact building. The door opens and he sees the remains of a receptionist desk and waiting benches, with a second door in the back. Some kind of administrative building? 

 

Sure enough, through the second door is a dusty servant mind. It's not dead, it's not asleep, and it's not deranged. It does, however, look pretty stupid. One look at its dull eyes makes Dakro suspect that it wasn't too alert when it was first created.

 

“Shaper, I am Tro. Welcome to the docks. It has been time since I received instructions.” It doesn't seem to even have noticed its centuries of isolation.

 

“You administer this area?”

 

“I ad ... admini... look after this area.”

 

“What, specifically, can you do here?”

 

“I admini ... I do things. People say, 'We need essence.' And I say, 'Oh.' And someone says, 'Do you need anything?' And I say, 'Essence'. And they say, 'Oh.' Then things happen. Nobody has told me I have done anything wrong for two hundred years, so I am doing good.”

 

Crossing his fingers and uttering a quick prayer (can’t hurt, right?), Dakro describes Anfisa and asks if Tro has seen her.

 

It thinks. “She went to the secure east docks. The gateway is to the southeast. Just ask the guards there. They will be glad to let a Shaper through. I ... I think I remember visitors with her. Not long ago. But ... I forget. Remembering takes energy.” It falls asleep.

 

Dakro prods it awake. “The guards are gone. Can you unlock the gateway for me?”

 

Lethargically, Tro says, “No, but I have a key thing. I can give it to my supervisor.”

 

Dakro lies, "Oh. I have just been made your supervisor.”

 

“You have? I am glad! I haven't had a supervisor for a long time.” Dakro hears a clicking noise from one of the cabinets.”

 

Dakro remembers that such cabinets hold nutrient solution. He asks Tro if he needs some.

 

“No. I would rather just be sleepy.” A moment later, Tro is softly snoring.

 

Dakro opens the cabinet to find two empty ceramic jars, some crumbling documents, and a large iron key.

 

He continues walking through the ruins, climbing over shifting rubble where necessary. He recognizes a barracks, an inn, warehouses, a shaping hall (completely collapsed), and holding areas for creations. Nothing extraordinary, until he stumbles (literally) across a research hall.

 

Research halls are often put in place in small communities. If a full shaping hall is in place, there is no need for such redundancy. It intrigues him enough to risk the ruins. Carefully passing through a break in the wall, he finds strange equipment he has never seen in any shaping hall.

 

Along one wall are what look like canisters, only they are three times taller and twice as wide. They don’t contain the vibrant goo of canisters, but a darker, more viscous substance.

 

He is tempted to try and fiddle with the equipment to learn something, but remembers what happened to his living tool when he tried that. He leaves the equipment alone and presses onward.

 

As he makes his way east, he sees a massive wall and realizes he has been in the “common docks.” The “Shaper docks” are to the east. Massive shaper symbols are imprinted on the wall and not one, but two, guard barracks flank the imposing gate separating the two docks.

 

There is always a wall that separates the commons from the Shapers, but it is not often so literal. Fortunately, he has the key. Time to get on the right side of this wall.

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Chapter 20: Shaper vs Shaper

 

Dakro has reached the main docks of Sucia Island. It’s another huge ruin, but one still recognizable as docks. The materials used here were built to last. 

 

There is a tapestry bearing the symbol of the Shapers hanging by him. At first, he ignores it. Then he realizes something. It is new. It was brought here from off-island. Someone hung it here recently, claiming this ruin. Another shaper.

 

An apparent honor guard of ghlaaks and clawbugs come to greet him. Ghlaaks are muscular, armored scorpions that run on two legs. Reaching out to their obedience organs, Dakro can instantly tell they are no rogues. Safety, at last.

 

The patrolling creations feel the would-be Shaper apprentice attempting to control him. A non-Shaper. A threat. They attack.

 

Dakro is caught off-guard as the ghlaaks attempt to wrestle control of his creations from him, urging them to kill the false Shaper. Ell and Emm flee back through the gate. Enn’s movements become jerky and lethargic. Outmatched, Dakro retreats through the massive gate and pulls the levers to lock it.

 

Darko is furious that a Shaper would attack a fellow Shaper, betraying their kind. This cannot stand. He goes back to the collapsed Shaper Hall and orders his battle alphas to start clearing away the rubble. It will take the better part of the two days, but he can feel the essence pool is still alive somewhere in the back. 



 

Dakro returns to the Shaper docks, a creation army of battle alphas and artilas at his command.

 

Upon opening the gate, waiting clawbugs and ghlaaks skitter through. They make no mark on the Shaper-dock stone, but as they enter the common docks, their sharp claws begin to tear up the stone.

 

Dakro’s battle-alphas, standing on the first and second floors of the crumbling gate houses, push over the pre-prepared walls. A few of the ghlaaks scamper back to safety and a few clawbugs out-race the walls, but half of the attacking force is killed or trapped by the collapsing walls.

 

Without the walls in the way, Dakro’s artila have clear lines of fire from the second stories. They have the attackers trapped in a killbox.

 

The surprise trap decimated the attacking force, but they rally themselves. Clawbugs, built for digging, claw their way out from underneath the rubble and help rescue the ghlaaks. The ghlaaks start attacking the minds of the artilla as they begin stinging the battle alphas on the first floor. Half the artilla flee in terror, while the ghlaak’s immobilizing poison effectively takes the battle alphas out of the battle.

 

The attackers gather on the first floors to tear apart the battle alphas and take shelter from the artila. Dakro then enacts his second trap. From his hidden position, he mentally orders the remaining artila target the support beams with their acid. The two-story buildings come crashing down on the attacking force.

 

All the ghlaaks die, freeing the minds of the fleeing artila. A few clawbugs manage to dig their way out, but the previously fleeing artila swarm each one as it surfaces.

 

The battle to enter the docks is won. But a Shaper is an army of one. More will come. He has no time to waste.

 

He races through the massive gate with his handful of artila. If the Shaper left any creations in reserve, he might be in trouble, but more of his artila survived than he expected in his all-in gamble. He needs to kill the rogue Shaper and find Anfisa quickly.

 

Racing down the streets, he is blessed to quickly find the bodies of several people, with one bearing Anfisa’s description. This outsider wizard was struck down from a distance by a large, fiery missile. She didn't have a chance of surviving the massive trauma. 

 

Most of her supplies were destroyed in the attack. Her weapon was taken away. Dakro does, however, see a glint of metal at her head. It turns out to be a key. It is silver and bears small, delicate runes along its length. He takes it. At least if he has to retreat, he has what he came for.

 

Breathing hard, he continues to race down the streets, throwing open doors of the largest buildings. The sea’s wind blows cool against his sweat.

 

Out of breath, Dakro throws open the old Customs Office of the docks and sees the Shaper sitting in a chair, sharpening a blade. 

 

Seeing the artila following Dakro, the Shaper leaps to his feet and exclaims, “A Shaper! A true Shaper! At last -” His broad smile turns into a look of concern as he sees Dakro is out of breath and has drawn his sword. He asks, “Are we under attack?”

 

Dakro, cautious for a trick or trap, demands the Shaper drop his sword. He does so at once. It is then that Dakro realizes this is no Shaper. He has no essence in him. He is a common.

 

“Where is the Shaper?!”

 

“They are upstairs.” Dakro races upstairs as the common shouts, “They will want to see you, I am sure. This is a great day.”

 

Upstairs, he sees a young agent sitting and staring into the fire. There is a Guardian sitting across from the Agent. He is grim and gruff, like so many of their class. 

 

Before Dakro can do anything, the agent smiles, “I am Arixy. A young Shaper, trapped. Like yourself. Pleased to see you. You might have some skill to move through this island. Where you are not allowed to be.” 

 

Sizing up his threats and buying time for his artilla to make it up the stairs, he says, “Well, you have no more right to be here than I do.”

 

“Yes, we are on a Barred island. We can be spared this. Our lives don't need be lost. If we can prove to our masters that our visit here was justified. So yes, we can escape. After the disaster is cleaned up a bit, of course.” 

 

“Was it one of you who sent the creations to kill me?”

 

The two look confused. “The three of us ordered creations to guard these docks. Perhaps you encountered them, but we have no intentions of killing you. We want to work with you.”

 

“So you greet me with a threat about not being allowed here?”

 

The agent looks puzzled for a moment and then gives a short laugh. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. I meant it as a compliment of your skills, not as a threat.”

 

Somehow, the words get through Dakro’s paranoia. Though, the fact that his artila have arrived helped significantly. They agree to sit down to dinner together and have a civilized conversation. Still cautious, Dakro insists on eating his own food.


 

Arixy, a Agent, sips her tea, lost in thought. She occasionally whispers something to herself. Her armor is dirty and torn, and a wand hangs at her side."

 

Kevin, a Guardian, is grim and gruff, like so many of their class. Judging by his appearance, he's been in battle recently.

 

Thrackerzod, a Shaper, is speaking. “My story is a  tale of struggle, courage, and perseverance. A tale of determination to serve the Shapers as they serve the world. I come from an illustrious family, you see, a clan of skilled Shapers. Yes. My father is Meltar, you see. A great Shaper. He has developed three lasting improvements for the vlish and two for the wingbolt. Before his end, he may get permission to try to develop a whole new line. Remarkable man! Perhaps you’ve heard of him?"

 

"He sounds skilled, I’m sorry to say I have not.”

 

"Ah, you must come from quite far away indeed. Anyways, I trained as a Shaper, hoping to live up to his example. So I studied for years and endured the Testing."

 

“How did it go?”

 

He hangs his head, “Miserably, I'm afraid. I passed. I became a Shaper. But I shamed Meltar. I did not pass well. I attained the worst balance. I have a license to use our powers, but I have no patron. My life has become one of hard travel, hard work, and endless risk, doing the many small jobs that keep the kingdom of the Shapers running. Making thahd forces to defend small towns. Scouring the villages for prospective Shapers. That sort of thing. Tedium, unworthy of the son of Meltar. Kevin and Arixy are in the same trap.”

 

“Do you have any patrons in mind?”

 

“No, but they should be someone with influence. Someone with power and many licenses for research. In the great halls of the Shaper Council would be best, of course, but there are many mighty cities on Terrestia. Perikalia is nice most of the year.”

 

“It surely is. That is my home town.”

 

“And you never heard of my father? Nevermind. We have a plan to escape this life. Through wisdom, bravery, and effectiveness. We need to obtain some valuable piece of knowledge or put down a particularly nasty uprising of rogues or commons. Happily, Sucia Island has the opportunities we need.”

 

Dakro exclaims. “You came here intentionally?!”

 

The three are quick to deny it. Arixy explains, “We heard rumors of the island chains to the north, extending out into the Western Sea. Not far off of the Terrestian coast. Mysterious excesses of rogues. Seemed like a good place to look for glory. Then a Sholai ship gave chase to us not far from here. Drove us into the mist. Our exhausted craft landed on the first land it could find. Sucia Island.”

 

“So you have a craft. You can leave this barred island at any time.”

 

She looks nervous. “When we arrived, our craft was exhausted. It would not be ready for a trip for a week. In that time, we used canisters, not knowing what they were. Now, we can’t leave until we can prove that our actions on Sucia Island were forced, properly considered, and for the good of the Shapers. To do otherwise, would be suicide... and of detriment to the Shapers.”

 

“What have you been doing to prove yourself?”

 

“Hunting rogues. What better purpose is there for a Shaper without a patron? And there are rogues aplenty on Sucia Island. Not mere fyora or thahds either, but true rogues. A real peril hides here.”

 

“The geneforge?”

 

“The servile colonies. They seem weak, yes? Just a scattering of small towns. Yet, they are deadly. They are independent! They have formed sects. They have beliefs. This must be dealt with. It is lucky you are here. We need your help.”
 

“You are worried so much about mere serviles?”

 

“There is no such thing. Serviles are the most dangerous of creations. They are smart and cunning. They have language, both spoken and written. They can fight. They can believe. A rogue servile is the most dangerous sort of rogue.”

 

“How can I help? “

 

“Help us prove our visit to the Barred island has improved the safety of Shapers everywhere. The first step on our paths to the rest of Sucia Island are blocked by a servile settlement called Kazg. The serviles there are strange. Crude, violent, scarred, tattooed. They won't let us get close, but they clearly are organized. I need to learn about them.”

 

Dakro explains all he learned about them and his failed attempt at eradicating their city.

 

“They are too strong to overpower. We must use cunning. Go as an ally seeking power. Learn about their organization from the inside. Their principles. Who their leader is. Talk to their leader and find out their beliefs. I would know the nature of the infection.”

 

Dakro looks uneasy. “You want me to walk into an enemy stronghold where they could easily overpower me, and ask to be infected with their beliefs?”

 

Thrackerzod changes the subject. “There is more we can do to prove ourselves besides killing rogues. Many outsiders are trapped here. All mine Sucia Island for treasure. Some outsiders have come to visit us. I have learned of valuable opportunities.”
 

Dakro takes the bait. “What ‘valuable opportunities?’”

 

Thrackerzod grins. He looks very young. “Now we are talking business! Now we can seize glory. There is enough for us both. A Sholai woman came here some weeks ago. Her name is Yu-La. Very odd woman. She said she was returning to her camp. She had an offering for me, for the Shapers. I can't leave here. Too dangerous. But you can. Find Yu-La's camp, get her offering, and bring it to me.”

 

“What is Yu-La offering?”

 

“Ahhhh ... I am not sure. She promised it was from the main research halls. A sample of some highly valuable substance from their storerooms. She thought it would make a good offering to our kind.”

 

Dakro looks doubtful. “Assuming the reward is even worth it, why should we trust this foreigner who flouts our laws?”

 

“The Sholai have multiple factions. Her group wants to make contact with us. Make friends. They come from a mighty nation over the sea. They could be good allies. Thus, the offering. If we could collect it for the Shapers, and bring a new ally in the bargain, you and I would be in a very profitable position.”

 

Dakro can’t help but notice Thrackerzod has side-stepped the question, but the answer reveals much. “And where is Yu-La?”

 

“Ah. She was ... vague. She said she was hiding with inutiles. To the west. That is what she said. It might take a little searching to find her. You've been traveling a lot, though. You can manage it!”

 

Dakro looks to Kevin. “You have been a bit quiet.”

 

“It is Thrackerzod's expedition. Arixy also has plans. I am here to guard. You should talk to them. I should go polish my shield and feed my thorn baton.” He leaves.

 

The terse response says volumes. Kevin is perhaps his only true ally here. Thrackerzod seems obsessed with power at any cost. Arixy walks a different, but equally dangerous path. He will have to speak with Kevin privately.

 

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Chapter 21: Politics

 

Dakro would love to tell Thrackerzod and Arixy  where they can shove their plans, but knows they could be useful in helping him get back in the Shaper’s good graces. Worst case, he should take at least one of them with him to serve as the scapegoat required by hated politics.

 

“I will seek this Lu-La, but if my experiences at Kazg are any indication, this inutile stronghold may prove a problem. Will you teach me to create Ghlaaks?”

 

Kevin laughs. “That would take months, if not years.” Learning how to shape a creation with hundreds of miles of blood vessels, not to mention unique organs not found in any other creation, takes time. The canisters unique to this island make it easy, but don’t misunderstand how difficult Shaping is.”

 

Dakro, not from a Shaper family, had no idea. Shaper secrets are guarded, even seemingly trivial ones like training time. He had assumed most of the time was for serving Shapers as payment.

 

After a beat, the new knowledge floors him. Shapers willingly gave up the power of the canisters. Why? And, more importantly, will he ever be accepted back in Shaper society? Escaping the island is looking less important by the day. Here he could rule.

 

But he would never see his family again. His friends. He would never marry. Some things are more important than power. Caring for others, and being cared for. These give life meaning.



 

It takes nearly a week, but Dakro tracks down the inutile village from little more than vague rumors.

 

Dakro enters a secluded, green region of Sucia Island, just off the south coast. A gravel path leads ahead, flanked by totems and skulls. Someone is living out here. He looks around for a hint of who is ahead. A crude sign reads, “REFUGE.”

 

As the path heads south, he can see that it is guarded by two rows of creations. They stand at attention, blocking the way. One of them sniffs the air and snarls. They seem like rogues. Very organized rogues.

 

They move in formation, rogue clawbugs and thahds racing to intercept his battle-alphas while rogue artila and fyora launch deadly missiles into his haphazard formation.

 

Fire leaks out of the poorly-made fyoras as they launch flaming saliva. However, unlike the leaking ice of his cryoa, this fire does not get far. Instead, it starts burning the skin of the fyoras. 

 

Ignoring the fyoras, Dakro orders his forces to separate and flank the formation. He stands and meets a charging clawbug. The clawbug stabs with its scorpion-like tail, which Dakro dodges and then grabs. He uses the tail as an impromptu shield against the scorpion’s claws while stabbing between the clawbug’s plates.

 

As thahd moves to flank him, Dakro stabs it with the scorpion-like tail. Blinded by bloodlust, the two begin to fight amongst themselves as Dakro slips out from between them.

 

The well-organized formation has broken down. Without the strong will of a Shaper or vlish, the differing creations fall upon one another. Most creations are not naturally inclined to work with others. Some are even outright hostile by nature.

 

Soon it is over. His forces never even attacked the fyora. They pretty much burned themselves to death.

 

Beyond the rogues is a small servile village. It's not organized and defended like Kazg, Pentil or even Vakkiri. It's dirty and crude, much closer to what he would have expected a servile village to be like until he came here. Undernourished creations skulk around. When they see him, they shudder and shuffle away. They chose to take no part in the battle. He realizes he found the inutile village.

 

Back home, inutile serviles are those who are rogue, damaged, or somehow unable to serve the Shapers. Their fates vary, depending on the kindness of their masters. Here, they have been left to hide out here and fend for themselves.

 

Most flee, fearing the Shaper’s wrath. However, one thahd walks right up to him, staring. The creation is fascinated.

 

“Shaper. I Krodar. I ... meet you.” Dakro can’t read the emotions on its face, but it is feeling a lot of them.

 

Thahds are arguably the stupidest of shaper creations. They were not made to have emotions. “Aren’t you a thahd?”

 

“Am thahd! Was guard of Kazg. Now guard here. Thahd guard. Thahd punch. Is what we do. Makes us useful!”

 

Normally, he would not waste his time talking to a thahd, but this one served in Kazg. Learning why this defender betrayed them could be useful to breaking their defenses.

 

“Why did you abandon your post at Kazg?”

 

“Was cast out. Not angry enough. Too many words. Did not fight fast enough. Too much thinking. That say a thahd who fights less is inutile. So Refuge is my place. Refuge likes Krodar. Talks to me. I talk very good for a thahd. With talk, can think. A strange life, for a thahd. I still fight. But when I not fight, I can …” Krodar trails off.

 

Krodar is unique among his kind. Many Shapers would declare him hopelessly rogue for this behavior.";

 

“Who created you?”

 

“Created? I ... Was born. Thahd can make babies. I was a thahd baby.” 

 

Normally, thahds, like other battle creations, are Shaped to be sterile. A large fertile population of them must have been left on Sucia Island. An unusual choice. One that has caused Dakro endless grief.

 

“Tell me all you know about Kazg.”

 

Krodar spends the next hour detailing the layout and social-geopolitical environment. Dakro tries not to fall asleep. Apparently, high-level leaders felt free to speak quite openly in front of the “dumb” creation. Dakro could have quite easily made the same mistake.

 

Of particular interest, it seems that Dakro would be quite welcome in the city. The Taker leaders are so obsessed with power that they cannot understand anyone else valuing anything else. They think that Dakro will betray the Shapers without a thought after hearing the power they offer.

 

Dakro wonders if Krodar was cast out because he reminded them too much that there are more important things than power. Or if all of this is just an elaborate trap.


 

Seeing the Shaper did not destroy the thahd, the others have relaxed a bit. Those who remain, that is. Many have gone into hiding in the surrounding woods.

 

One sits at the end of a long, crude wood table. Crystals are arrayed on the table in front of her. She is obsessed with them. Polishing them. Counting and rearranging them.

 

When Dakro enters her shop, she (with difficulty) sets the polished stones aside. “A Shaper!” She rises to greet him. “I am Brea Dawn, leader of this village. I welcome you. We are inutile, but we are humble. Please do not destroy us. Why are you here?” She then sits down at the end of her table. She is unable to go for long without playing with her crystals. She is constantly pushing and polishing them.

 

"I am here seeking Yu-La.”

 

“I do not know what that is.” The servile appears confused by the foreign name. “We are humble, Shaper. We will not interfere. We just want to live quietly in our little village.”

 

“I was attacked when entering your village. Seems like quite a bit of interference.”

 

“The Awakened of Vakkiri protect us. They left the rogues.... The Shapers allow the inutile to live, as long as we don't cause trouble.” This is true. Usually.

 

“You may wander where you want. Just be wary if you cross the river to the east. There are dangers. And places of interest.” 

 

Dakro waits for her to continue, but she has taken a sudden interest in polishing a particular spot of a crystal. He interrupts, “Places of interest?”

 

“Refuge is open to all inutile. But ... some came to us and claimed land. They seemed like brave fighters. Then they became brigands. They threaten us in many ways. We can't tolerate it. If you help us, I can trade a secret. It is ... I'm not sure if I should. But I think so. It is a secret you should know. If you help us.”

 

Dakro is angered that the beliefs of the Awakened have infected this servile. He thinks to force it from her, but realizes it would probably be quicker (and more reliable) to just destroy the brigands. Torture is hardly reliable with serviles. Looks like he will have to play politics with this village leader. He sighs.

 

He hates politics. He thinks back to when he was anxious about starving to death on this island or being eaten by rogues. Yeah, those were better times.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 22: Life

 

As Dakro crosses the river to the east, he sees several inutiles playing in the water. Here they have created a dam of what appears to be bags of sand, forming an artificial swimming hole. It stands in stark contrast to the violence and politics that has become his life.

 

The inutiles see him staring and he quickly moves on. The village leader is waiting for him to solve the bandit problem. More politics. More violence.

 

Following the river north, he soon finds the bandit village. When the serviles ahead see him, they shout an alarm. Soon, they are all holding weapons. The serviles back in the village were broken, passive creatures. Some inutile, on the other hand, grow bitter and angry. These serviles are willing to fight, no matter how futile the struggle.

 

It is easy to identify the bandit leader. He stands at the front, holding a sword, looking really belligerent. He holds out his hand. “Stop right there, Shaper. I am Rook. This is our camp. You are a visitor here. We aren't taking orders. We came here and claimed this land. Now it is ours. We will fight if we have to.” The other brigands nod. They show no fear.

 

“Brea Dawn sent me to deal with you.”

 

Rook nods. “Cowardly inutile, hiding with her pretty rocks. She hates us being here, but she can't stop us. We use her defenses and take what we need. We are strong, so it is right.” He sweeps his sword in circular arcs, attempting to appear menacing. To Dakro, it looks more like a child playing with a stick.

 

Dakro smiles somewhere between kindly and condescendingly. Despite their age, they are children. Children who have been abandoned by the Shapers. Children who have forgotten their place.

 

At Dakro’s mental command, his battle alphas heft a monolith and throw it high in the air in an impressive feat of strength. As it sails upward, his artila target it with their acid. It explodes, a shower of shrapnel and acid raining down on the river.

 

“You say ‘we are strong, so it is right.’ Well, I am stronger. End your theft, or else.” He puts all of his authority into the words. 

 

Rook shudders. Even a servile as rogue as this one, can't ignore the force of his words and actions. The brigands turn away, ashamed. Rook whispers, “I do not want to die. You are a Shaper. I will obey. The thefts will end. I give up.”

 

“Now you have an acceptable attitude, unlike those who seek to use politics and bartering to control Shapers. Tell me, would you like to have a village and all the wealth inside it?”

 

Several of the serviles’ eyes go wide, but Rook’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “What is the catch?”


 

Back in the village leader’s shop, Dakro tells Brea, “The bandits are unharmed, but they won't be a problem for you now.”

 

“Thank you, Shaper. I did not want to expose them to your power. We were both inutile, after all. But how can I be assured they will not threaten me when you are gone?”

 

“Because you will be dead.”

 

Her eyes go wide in horror and begins begging for her life. Dakro laughs heartily. “Just kidding. I’m taking them to a new home where they will steal from others.”

 

Furious, she almost risks scratching a gem by throwing it at him. “Why would you say such a horrible thing to me?!”

 

“As punishment for being a politician. And for treating me like an Awakened, bartering instead of giving me what I deserve.”

 

Trying to regain control of her emotions, she says, “There is something I should give you.” She removes a key from her pouch and gives it to him. “Take this. You can use it to get some supplies below. And ... It will let you find secrets.”

 

“Where are these supplies and secrets?”

 

“Across the river to the east, then south. The guards there will not attack you if they see the key. Inside you will find an Ascended. The Ascended are older than me. Beyond me. They are truly apart from us. But ... They need things. They have problems.”

 

Dakro turns to leave, but she calls out, “You spoke of a new home? Where will you take them?”

 

“Vakkiri. The inutile have agreed to make and transport all the necessary supplies I will need to take the village. Afterwards, they will restrict their raiding to the Awakened.”

 

“But Vakkiri protects us! They are not our enemy!”

 

“The Awakened protect themselves. You are merely a useful buffer to them. I offer the chance of real protection behind strong walls, standing beside allies, beneath the shelter of a Shaper.”

 

Dakro leaves, ignoring her further questions. Following her directions, he soon comes to a door guarded by two huge battle betas. They snarl and flex their muscles as he approaches. Dakro is perplexed. These are highly advanced creations. Why are they here? And under control, no less? Who in this remote forest is able to master them?”

 

Fortunately, he has Brea’s key. When he shows it to them, they step aside. He puts the key into a nearby lock and the door falls open. A tunnel beckons. He lights a lamp and carefully makes his way through.


 

He emerges from the tunnel and finds an isolated grove, hidden away on the south coast. It is not might brighter outside and in the cave, as night has fallen.

 

There is yet another old Shaper ruin, mostly overgrown. There are settlers here, though. He can't see any of the residents, but he does find their guards. A listless crowd of huge creations wanders in circles not far to the east. They haven't seen him yet, so he can't be sure how they will react to him.

 

Timing the slow, meandering paths of the creations, Dakro sneaks past them using the cover of night. 

 

His path leads to an old Shaper crafting workshop. Machinery and chemicals for powerful and dangerous works of magic were created here. It is still surprisingly intact. Serviles have claimed it, restored it, and put it back to work. Dakro sees, in varying stages of completion, the materials for ambitious works of magic. Whatever these serviles are trying to do, they want it to be impressive.

 

Dakro follows the tracks laid into the floor. They appear in good enough conditions to still bring materials in and out. It leads to a workshop room filled with tools and supplies for working with just about everything, from metal to wood to cloth. The master of the workshop is an old servile. She awakes to the sound of the door lowering. 

 

Seeing the Shaper, she leaps out of bed and kneels, “Word travels fast on Sucia Island, Shaper. Attire withstanding, I am ready for your coming. I am Mixer Valyra, at your service.”

 

“A mixer? You are an alchemist?”

 

“Of sorts. I make things. Mixtures and reagents, yes, but also other sorts of materials. Sucia Island has many learned servile artisans, and we work together. I came here from Pentil when I was young.”

 

“The serviles of Pentil serve the Shapers well. I have cleared their lands of dangers, should you wish to return.”

 

Valyra sighs. “When I was young, I did not fit in. They let me know it. Never let me forget. So now I am here, working for their benefit.”

 

Dakro nods. “Where is the Ascended?”

 

“Ascended Sessina is asleep in the building to the east. He leads here. I know he will want to see you in the morning. He has a long and sad story, full of importance.”

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Chapter 23: Ascended

 

Dakro wakes to the smell of cooking eggs. He quickly dresses and joins Mixer Valyra for breakfast. As he savors the exotic eggs and meat, he wonders if he’s ever had such a good home cooked meal. Valyra is a superb chef. Pentil has no idea who they banished.

 

He meant to quickly see the Ascended today and get on with his plans, but the meal is so delicious that he enjoys seconds. And thirds. Stuffed at last, he loosens his belt, says he will be back for lunch, and follows the tracks east.

 

He enters the exhibition hall, where Shapers came to show the results of their research. He knows now why this facility is so remote. Some demonstrations have to take place far from civilization, in case of an explosion or other disaster.

 

Now this hall has been turned into a workshop for a servile. Dakro can see him at the far end of the hall, lurching awkwardly among his experiments. From the way he moves, Dakro sees that he is unwell. The hunched-over servile walks around this makeshift laboratory, examining mixtures and poking at bowls of slime. His hood and gloves cover all exposed skin. He is entirely absorbed with his work. A single guard watches over him.

 

As Dakro gets close, he hears him mutter, “They come for help. Come for mixtures from Ascended Sessina. Must finish the next order.” He still hasn't noticed Dakro.

 

Dakro looks at the guard, who shrugs and then clears his throat. The servile turns.

 

His face is warped. The skin is cracked and waxy. The eyes glow and look in different directions. His hair has fallen out in patches. Something horrific has been done to him. He leans forward and inspects Dakro. “A ... Shaper? You are a Shaper?”

 

Dakro looks back to the small army of battle alphas and artila behind him and says, “Me? No. I just picked up a few strange-looking stray dogs.”

 

“You are. A Shaper. At last. We knew you would come back. I am Ascended Sessina. I ... It has been an ordeal. I have a story to tell. If only I could tell it, things could be better.” He self-consciously touches his twisted face. “Things are so wrong. But ... First, I must see to your safety.”

 

“Safety?”

 

He waves a hand and mutters a few words. His body convulses slightly. “The guards outside. They will leave you alone. Other rogues here ... Might not be friendly. Be careful. Now I can talk. I am Ascended Sessina.”

 

“I am Shaper Dakro. What are the Ascended?”

 

Ascended Sessina nods. His head tilts to the side in an odd, awkward way. “Yessss ... At last. We can confess to a true Shaper. This is the story of a band of inutile. Not yet Ascended. We came together. We didn't want a pointless life, hiding or begging or stealing. We went on a journey.” He stops speaking. One eye gazes off in the distance, lost in thought. The other seemingly rolls around randomly.

 

Dakro clears his throat to regain Sessina’s attention. “Where did you go?”

 

“All over! We explored most of our miserable prison. The desert. The eastern mines. The northern hills. We went everywhere. Saw so many things. We scavenged weapons. Blades. Batons. Pods. We hunted rogues. Saved small settlements. Even found treasures. It did no good for us. We needed a purpose. But we were aimless. Then we found a great guide.” He begins trembling slightly.

 

Dakro presses, “Who is this guide?”

 

“It was in the deserts. We met a ... a …” He slaps his palm against his forehead several times, hard. “This is where the story breaks up, Shaper. After we Ascended, many thoughts were ... lost. Will you forgive me?”

 

“Tell me what you can and we will see.”

 

“The name was Swanwick. I remember that. Swanwick gave us a purpose. A great quest. Swanwick sent us to the one place we were afraid to explore: The research warrens.”

 

Dakro’s face lights up. “Where are the research warrens?”

 

“In the northeast corner of the island. That is where the Shapers did all of their work. Their secrets and experiments were all still there. We got so much. We learned. We snuck out artifacts. But, while we were there, we did ... something. We were changed.” He shudders violently.

 

Quietly, Dakro asks, “Changed how?”

 

Ascended Sessina wails, “I don't know!” 

 

His guard looks concerned. 

 

Ascended Sessina slowly regains control. “We had a temptation. We had a way to Shape ourselves. We couldn't resist it. I don't remember what it was, but ..." He throws back his hood, exposing himself fully to the light. Dakro can see that he has been touched by powerful Shaping magic, and it warped him. It's amazing that he is still alive. “Ascended!”

 

Dakro reaches out to touch his skin.

 

Sessina hastily puts his hood back on. “That is the word Swanwick gave us, so we accepted it. We brought Swanwick something. Then we were sent here, to this ruin, to do a thing, the few Ascended who didn't die in the warrens. We did an experiment.” Suddenly noticing that Dakro is staring at his semi-exposed skin, Sessina turns away and stops talking.

 

Dakro asks, “And what was this experiment?”

 

Not turning around, he says, “I don't know. It was the last thing I don't remember. When it was done, there was a new creation here. But it was wrong. Twisted. Rogue and dangerous. It devoured two Ascended, and the others fled. They fled, and the danger remains.”

 

Dakro reaches out mentally, soothing the servile. Easing his trauma. Even this simple brain manipulation would be impossible on a common, let alone a Shaper, but serviles are simple things.

 

Slowly, Sessina’s tight muscles relax a bit. 

 

Dakro says, “It’s alright. Let the memory out. Don’t let it fester inside you.”

 

Ascended Sessina turns around. “Swanwick gave us instructions, and we carried them out. Then the cockatrice was there. We fought to tame it, then to bottle it in. Several Ascended died, but it is in its cave, for now.”

 

Dakro knows better than to press too hard right now. “It sounds like you were Shaping.”

 

Sessina shakes his head. “Impossible. Even Ascended, I am a servile still. Serviles can never shape. Not ever. It would kill us. We all know that.”

 

Dakro keeps his face impassive, hiding his doubt and confusion. How should he treat a servile who might also be a Shaper? He realizes that from the moment he entered here, he has treated this servile with far more respect than he would have treated any other. Instinctively, unconsciously, he knew this servile was a Shaper from the moment he entered.

 

Dakro tries to purge the blasphemous ideas from his mind and think about something else. He asks, “What exactly is this cockatrice?”

 

“A mixture of creatures. Bird and reptile and I don't know what else. It was designed to be full of magical energy. Too much. It is wild and mad. It is full of energy, utterly rogue. Pure chaos. It is happy to hide now, but it will not stay quiet forever. Its gaze has strange powers. Part of the thing's magic is that it takes the minds of its prey. They stand still, happy and content, as they are devoured. But where did it come from? Who made the design? Why-”

 

Sessina’s mind is clearly breaking from stress, so Dakro interrupts the servile’s ramblings and tries to redirect the conversation. “Have you had breakfast?”

 

“What? Yes. A piece of jerky.”

 

“So that’s a no. Come on, let’s go to Valyra’s. All this talk has worked up my appetite. I think I could go for another serving.”

 

 

Over second breakfast, they continue to talk about everything Sessina has been through. Sensing that this servile could literally die from stress, Dakro is careful in what questions he asks, and how he asks them. It is clear that without the guard's constant ministrations, this servile would have died long ago.

 

After breakfast, Dakro goes to investigate this cockatrice. It is beyond a graveyard haunted by Ascended ghosts. He has never heard of a servile ghost before, as it takes an incredibly strong mind and unimaginable anguish for a soul to anchor itself to the world by force of will alone. Further evidence that they were Shapers.

 

As Dakro approaches the sealed door to the cockatrice, he can feel it vying for control of his creations. It is similar to what vlish do, but this is much stronger. Extending his mind, he feels the cockatrice controls numerous battle betas, stinging clawbugs, and charged artila. He would no doubt lose many of his creations if he presses onward. Ordinarily he would, but right now he needs them for the battle of Vikkari. Time to head back.

 

But first, a quick stop at Sessina's to pick up food for the road.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 24: Ward

 

Dakro stands before what was once the Refuge. Half the buildings are in shambles, and the bandits are busy destroying the rest.

 

A member of the Refuge runs up to Dakro. “It’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it? Who would have thought we would be working together with the bandit inutiles?”

 

Beyond confused, Dakro does a double take. Now he can see that the bandits aren’t so much destroying the building as dismantling them. Looking farther on, he can see the citizens of the Refuge are busy turning the supplies into wagons and siege equipment. 

 

“I am Lily Belle, merchant of the inutile.” She then brazenly takes a healing pod off of his pack fyora and adds it to a large pile of clutter she is gathering.

 

Dakro’s confusion is the only thing that keeps him from striking her dead for the theft before Krodar runs up and puts the pod back.

 

“Sorry, Shaper,” Lily says deferentially. “I am broken. I … gather. Gather items. My line of serviles were quartermasters. Hunters. Created to get things and care for them. Perhaps I ... I am too enthusiastic. I take things. I gather them together. Not all these things are mine. I know I shouldn't take them, but I ... do.”

 

“Isn’t that a big problem here? Why aren’t you with the bandits?”

 

“We are too poor to have many items. Where the items are, I try to stay away. I know that if I take one of Brea's crystals I will have nowhere to live. When I take from others, they just come and take them back. They understand me here.”

 

“If you are to come with us to Vakkiri, I command you to stop stealing from these creations.”

 

She laughs bitterly. “So many times, I have been told that. If it was that simple, I would have a true home. I can't stop. Gathering is part of me, like breathing. I hate it.”

 

Krodar interjects, “It okay, Shaper. Here, we all broken.”

 

Dakro stares for a moment. “Very well. As long as you are to *too* broken. Always remember that we Shapers made you and protect you, and in return you must obey and serve us.”

 

They agree as Brea Dawn walks up, polishing a gem. “We will follow you, Shaper. I have spoken with Rook about your plan and most of us will follow you to Vakkiri. Despite the fact that Vakkiri protected us, many of us hold grudges against them. They threw us out like trash. But, together, we have made a family. I will do all I can to protect my family.”

 

Dakro is still a bit confused, but this, at least, he understands.


 

Having finished his conversation with Brea and cleared up a bit of the details that confused him, he inspects the work, providing guidance where he can. However, he quickly learns that he can’t really be of much help. Without exception, every servile here is inutile. They are broken, incapable of serving Shapers as others do. But, when allowed to work their own way, they can still serve.

 

He leaves them be. They are better off on their own, with overarching goals, not direct guidance.

 

It will be some time before the caravan is ready to march. And even then, they will move much more slowly than he can. He has time to recruit the third group of inutiles in the area, the bandits to the north of Vakkiri.



 

Upon seeing Dakro, Ghurk frowns. He doesn’t want to talk, but he fears angering the Shaper more. “Think we have no business, Shaper. What more you wish of me?”

 

“The serviles in Vakkiri will kill you someday. You know that, right?”

 

“In Shaper books, bandits always get away. Live to fight. We will be same. If not, we kill weak Vakkiri serviles. We know they weak. They think they strong, but easy to act strong there in big fort with food and no rogues.”

 

“I gave you javelins once, now I offer you the fort in exchange for serving the Shapers. I will drive out the Awakened.”

 

Ghurk shakes his head. “If you drive out Awkened, then who we steal from? We no want to work.”

 

“Ellhrah’s Keep, stronghold of the Awakened. The people of the Refuge know a secret way into their storerooms.”

 

They spend the rest of the day discussing the details of what must be done. As in the Refuge, not all of the inutiles want to follow Shaper Dakro’s plan. Some will find refuge in the ruined school. Others will make their way east. Dakro lets them go. Eventually, the inutiles will serve or die. As long as they don’t rebel, Shapes let inutiles find their own way in life.



 

At last, the day of battle arrives. Even before dawn, Dakro’s battle alphas use enormous  harnesses to pull the siege weaponry into place. The inutiles line up in formation in front of the weapons. Those who live to fight wait anxiously in the front lines. The back lines are filled with terrified and distracted inutiles. Brea Dawn tries to quietly comfort them, when she herself is not directed by her gem polishing.

 

Vikkiri’s quiet dawn is shattered by cries of alarm from the east guards. Strout rolls out of bed and begins putting on her armor. She takes her time, knowing the guards can probably handle it themselves and not really wanting to risk injury herself. Then, as she is about to leave his room, her wall and roof collapses on her, killing her. Like so many others will this day, she dies without Dakro ever having known her name.

 

The first volley of the siege onagers opens wide gashes in the eastern wall and even collapses one building. Dakro’s forces could easily enter, but they wait, trying to draw out the defenders. After all, the defenders don’t know they want to take the city. For all they know, they are here to destroy it from a distance.

 

Sure enough, the guards begin pouring out toward the catapults. As the guards get close, the attacking creations and serviles part, revealing scorpion ballistas (oversized crossbows). They fire, each bolt killing or maiming multiple guards. Parting further, they reveal artila, whose acid and poison begin eating into the survivors. 

 

The back rows, having served their part in helping draw out the defenders, retreat to safety.

 

Dakro’s remaining forces begin moving back in two waves, each wave protecting the other with cover fire as it moves. This puts the siege equipment out of range of the fort, but it draws the guards even farther away from the fort.

 

It is then that the northern farmers shout cries of alarm. The northern bandits have apparently chosen this moment to raid the village. However, this time they don’t come skulking in the night, but armed with Shaper armor and weapons. They slip inside and begin working their way through the residential area. With most of the guards outside the east gate, the civilians stand little chance.

 

Some of the charging force turns back, but most close in on the eastern attackers. Mayhem ensues as the two sides clash. They efficiently cut the ropes on the siege weapons and slaughter the artila.

 

Rook supports his lieutenant, who wades straight into the battle. He loves it. Relishes it. Lives for it. To take the life of another is to dominate them completely. The ultimate form of rule.

 

Brea Dawn stands well back, polishing her gems and comforting the scared serviles.

 

Lily comforts herself by amassing a large pile of items. She sits cross-legged on a rug, the ruler of her little empire of junk.

 

Battle alpha Ohh hefts the remains of a scorpion ballista and throws it at a group of guards, crushing them. Brodus Blade, seeing the regular guards are no match for the creation, takes it on, deftly dodging the massive blows of the creation. 

 

Judging from the creation’s punches that leave holes in the ground, a single hit might kill him. But Brodus is fast. Unlike the other guards, he only wears light armor, enhancing his dodging fighting style. The cuts and slashes are shallow, but eventually Brodus wears down the creation. Enn falls with a ponderous crash.

 

Dakro’s creations are dying. However, without having to control them, his mind is free to make more. Serviles bring him pods of essence. The essence is dying away from a pool, but enough of it has survived. He begins reviving his army.

 

Brodus Blade’s resolve breaks. He calls for a retreat to the trees, only to see that almost everyone else is already running or lies dead. Before he can join the former group, he is surrounded and joins the latter.

 

The inutiles march on the walls. Inside, they find the northern bandits have largely taken the fort. Dakro sends his creations to handle the few holdouts.

 

In the midst of the carnage, Clakkit, the dirty servile messenger, knells on the ground, no weapon in sight. Dakro tells battle alpha Queue to guard him and begins to walk away.

 

Seeing he has Dakro’s favor, or at least that Dakro isn’t going to kill him right away, Clakkit speaks up. “More loyal. I gather them in building behind me.”

 

“Very well. Queue, guard this building.”

 

Dakro catches up to battle alpha Pee. He has slain all his enemies and is now living up to his name on their corpses.

 

The battle for Vakkiri is won.



 

The three groups of inutiles gather as one group in the fort’s town square. Most, at least. Some are too broken for such a gathering, for various reasons. Dakro leaves them be.

 

“Vakkiri has fallen, and upon its fertile corpse will grow the first inutile city. Not a fort or village, but a city. The city of Ward! For you broken serviles are now my wards. I will protect you. And while I am away, this city will ward you from danger. Welcome to Ward.”

 

The inutile response is varied, but generally positive. Dakro had hoped for more enthusiasm, but his words did not come out as well as he would have liked. He consoles himself with the fact that the blame falls on them. They are inutile, after all.

 

He hopes he has done the right thing. Doubtlessly, Awakened Leader Ellhrah will respond to the destruction of the Awakened fort.

 

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Chapter 25: Unbridled Power

 

Dakro is pouring over maps in the command room when Clakkit is brought to him. He immediately tears himself away to address the messenger. “Clakkit. You are neutral. You may not actually be liked by any of the factions, but they all tolerate you and welcome the knowledge you bring. You can go anywhere.”

 

Clakkit nods. “Talk you more. Me talk. Me know.”

 

“Go to Ellhrah’s Keep as fast as you can. Tell them the Shapers have returned to protect the serviles. Tell them (to put it in a manner they can understand) we offer a trade. We will allow the Awakened to live peacefully locked away in Ellhrah’s Keep. Ward will even deliver free supplies since they have inutile who are never truly happy unless they are obsessively delivering things... Do you need to write this down?”

 

“No. You talk. Me know.”

 

“In exchange, they must allow the inutiles of Ward to live in peace and steal limited supplies from Ellhrah’s Keep. Ward has serviles who are obsessed with stealing. Their mental health requires it. Got it?”

 

“Yes. Me talk others. Then go.”

 

Dakro turns back to the confiscated maps. His eyes linger on two quite interesting places.



 

Over the next two days, Dakro works diligently on Ward’s defenses, shaping turrets. The inutiles are not so diligent. In fact, it is a good day for most if they are not actively setting things back. Dakro tries to ignore them and let them work it out between themselves. The few times he tried to intervene, he only made things worse.

 

At last, emissaries from Ellhrah’s Keep arrive. At least, they claim to be emissaries and not advanced scouts for a retaliatory army.

 

Screaming and fighting between the various inutiles is a regular day-to-day activity in Ward. Negotiations are not easy, as the inutiles of Ward spend more time negotiating between themselves than with the rogues of Ellhrah’s Keep.

 

Dakro mostly stays out of it, only occasionally threatening to single-handedly destroy Ellhrah’s Keep and everyone in it if they don’t come to some sort of agreement to help the inutiles.

 

Eventually, Brea and Rook come to him while he is shaping a turret. Brea says meekly, “We have come to an agreement, but there are a lot of changes.”

 

Concentrating on his work, Dakro doesn’t look up, but says “Both sides will be content?”

 

“Yes, but-”

 

“Look. I’m busy. I don’t care about inutile details. If you are protected, that is enough. Leave me.”

 

Brea shifts from foot to foot nervously and polishes a gem with vigor. Gathering her courage, she says, “They respectfully request that you go to another area of the island.”

 

Dakro’s concentration slips and the turret starts to turn yellow. “They are kicking me out of my own fort?”

 

Rook explains, “You make them quite nervous. You make us all-”

 

Brea interrupts, “This backwater fort does not have the comforts you deserve.”

 

Dakro gives up on the turret and it begins an accelerated rotting process. “I intended to leave anyway. I need to take care of one last rogue in the area, and then I will be heading north to another inutile stronghold I found on the maps. I need to find this Yu-La.”



 

Dakro has arrived at the cave to the cockatrice. He has come prepared. Instead of his battle-hardened battle alphas and artila, he has brought thahds. Exceptionally stupid thahds, to be exact.

 

As he gets closer, he can feel the cockatrice reaching out to the thahds, trying to control them. Fortunately for Dakro, the thahds affect the cockatrice the same way as they do vlish. Their stupid thoughts give the cockatrice a splitting headache.

 

Dakro uses the lapse of concentration to influence a few of the other rogues. The differing rogues are natural enemies. It does not take much to get them to start fighting one another.

 

Amidst the commotion, Dakro slips through the cave. Through one tunnel he finds four battle alphas just standing, swaying softly from side to side, drool running down their ugly faces.

 

Battle betas are later, more advanced versions of the battle alphas. However, when Dakro was young, he and his young classmates got the two mixed up. According to school-yard rumor, they were the “beta” and “alpha” versions of a “battle thrall” that would serve as the epitome of the Shaper shock troops. Rumor also had it that they had four arms each. 

 

Hearing these fantastic rumors, Dakro decided at an early age to be a Shaper. Some of his classmates had similar thoughts, but most were disillusioned over the years as rumor fell away to truth. Not Dakro.

 

Dakro extends his will into the minds of the battle betas, feeling the mental battle being waged between them and the cockatrice. Dakro upsets the delicate stalemate, breaking them out of their trances. The four let out anguished, furious hows and charge north.

 

Dakro follows in the wake of their warpath and soon sees the source of the dark thoughts permeating this area. It is clearly a creation. However, it is of a design never seen outside Sucia Island. It's a bird variant. That much is clear. However, it stands as tall as him, with rainbow-colored feathers and parts that are clearly of lizard origin.

 

It is curled up in a magic circle, its wings covering its aching head. The thahds have clearly affected it. Its eyes are open, revealing a pair of mad, glowing orbs. Dakro can sense more energy has been pumped into it than any creation should bear, and the result is utterly unstable.

 

As the battle betas charge, Dakro squeezes a yellowish baton and an envenomed thorn flies out with a small squeak. The thorn impales itself inside the cockatrices’ chest and poison begins to flow through its veins. However, before the poison can get far, the cockatrice magically purges the poison. 

 

The thorn and a small section of vein filled with the poison fall to the ground. It is unlike any kind of magical purging Dakro has ever seen. It is a savage, brute-force method. Too much pent-up power wielded like a club.

 

The cockatrice lets out a shrill cry. It echoes through the tunnels. Dakro can hear the stomping and skittering of creations fast approaching.

 

The battle betas close the distance and begin attempting to take vengeance on the cockatrice. The cockatrice deftly dodges, its strength and reflexes enhanced by magic. However, one battle beta gets a lucky bite in.

 

The intense magic stored within begins to leak out, searing the battle betas’ flesh. The battle beta that bit the cockatrice has it even worse as it suddenly doubles over in agony. It swallowed a bit of the cockatrice, and now that piece is burning the beta from the inside out.

 

The cockatrice’s reinforcements arrive, hounded by the creations Dakro has influence over. Dakro is soon hard pressed as he fights both physical and mental battles.

 

He fights and dodges his way toward the cockatrice to put an end to this, but as he gets close its rainbow feathers glow hypnotically.

 

Dakro suddenly wonders why he is fighting this cockatrice. He shouldn’t kill such a miraculous specimen. He should study it and learn to control it. But to do that, he needs to defend it from its attackers. 

 

However, before he can act on the thoughts, a battle beta gets in a lucky hit, shattering the cockatrice’s skull. The magic of the cockatrice can no longer support its ravaged body. It collapses to the ground, and the essence inside its body begins to consume it. 

 

The cave is soon full of greasy smoke and bits of bird ash, making the melee all the more chaotic as vision is impaired.

 

Only one thing remains of the creature: a single rainbow feather. It still glows slightly, infused with the power of the beast. Darko fights his way toward the source of light amidst the smoke and takes it. Then he fights his way out, leaving the creations to duke it out amongst themselves. 



 

Dakro returns to the former exhibition hall. Ascended Sessina wanders from experiment to experiment in his workshop, lost in thought. Sometimes, he mutters to himself. There is a strange, sour smell in the air. Sometimes, when he gets close to Dakro, Dakro’s hair stands on end.

 

Dakro tries to smooth his hair as he says, “I killed your mad creation.” Revealing the glowing feather, he tells an embellished version of the battle with the cockatrice.

 

Ascended Sessina collapses into a chair. “At last. This curse ... it is lifted.” He starts to cry. The tears steam and hiss as they run down his face. “You are the one who came to save us. This act ... It is only the beginning. We failed to do the great work before. Now, at last, it can be complete.”

 

The guard looks extremely uncomfortable.

 

Ascended Sessina continues, “You should speak with the other Ascended now. They need your help, and there is much they can do for you. They are hiding in the desert to the north, but at the south end. They are secretive. They attack those who get close. But ... Show them that feather. They will know what it means. They will talk to you. Good luck.”

 

Dakro nods. “That will be quite a journey. Is there anything you can provide me for the journey?” Dakro is surprised at his own words. He should have demanded help, not asked.

 

“When we looted the research warrens, we looted some artifacts. We have no use for them, but you are a Shaper. You can master them. Talk to Valyra. She can give them to you.”

 

Dakro begins to wonder if this servile can affect his mind the same way Shapers can affect creations. After all, the cockatrice affected him. Shapers should be immune to such tricks, but he technically hasn’t even apprenticed yet. He decides to put some distance between himself and the servile and leaves a bit quicker than is dignified.

 

Dakro follows the tracks back to Sessina. Before he can say anything, she says matter-of-factly, “You killed the cockatrice. Everything feels different now. The power of that beast was everywhere. It was … oppressive.”

 

“Yes. Ascended Sessina told me that you have Shaper artifacts for me.”

 

“There are three Shaper artifacts. The Ascended looted them from the research warrens. We can't use them, but you are a Shaper. Perhaps you can. They are behind the doors upstairs. If Sessina wills you to be able to open them, you can. Two of the artifacts are not charged, but, if they were, they could be very useful.”

 

“The artifacts can be 'charged'?”

 

“The Ascended did learn about the items when they stole them. The Shapers made them as frameworks, meant to be infused with power. The pools where they can be charged were built in remote locations on Sucia Island. If they are still intact and you can find them, you can use them.”

 

“It seems these Shapers were obsessed with ‘charging’ things. They charged the cockatrice with far more power than is safe, and look what happened. Considering these items were left behind, I’m not sure charging these artifacts would be in accordance with the will of the Shapers. I will leave them behind, but will check out this third artifact.”

 

Dakro makes his way upstairs and finds the third artifact is a canister. Knowing how they affect him, he is leery of using it, but he can feel incredible, barely-restrained power emanating from it. Perhaps just his one last canister….

 

Placing his hand on the needle, the essence pours into him. Knowledge and power cascade into him. He tries sorting through the knowledge and suddenly realizes it is teaching him how to create a cockatrice. He yanks his hand away, half the canister still filled.

 

He can feel his knowledge is incomplete. He can make a cockatrice, a powerful, highly magical creation. However, until he learns more about how to make them, the result will be dangerously unstable.

 

As the essence settles in his mind and body, he realizes there is no reason to be afraid of power. He should embrace it. As a Shaper, it is not just his right, but his obligation, to seek out power.

 

He puts his hand back on the canister and embraces the essence.

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Chapter 26: Prism

 

Dakro and his cockatrices carve a bloody path across the landscape. An outsider has Shaper secrets. She must be dealt with.

 

A band of vlish lies ahead. They try to take control of the shaper and his cockatrices, but end up fighting each other for control. Disorganized, they are quickly reduced to carcasses rotting in the desert sun. For any successful society, there must be those who lead and those who follow. All else leads to chaos and death.

 

A cockatrice picks through the vlish nest and finds a gold goblet. It’s radiant feathers reflect in the goblet. Enchanted, the creation takes it. Dakro mentally tugs at the cockatrice, telling it to stop dawdling and catch up.

 

Dakro arrives at the second inutile stronghold, home of Yu-La. An obelisk reads: “Barrens Research.” It is a massive Shaper installation, kept out in the wastes a safe distance from any town. It was buried under the shifting sands for many years, and then someone dug it out.

 

A gruesome warning to intruders stands outside: Skulls on poles. The skulls were all removed from creations, not humans or serviles. Still, it is a clear message that he may not be welcome. He draws his sword, the metallic sound echoing off the structure.

 

Strutting into the complex, he sees drawings have been etched in the stone pillars. Serviles carved them into the stone with crude tools. The drawings depict cockatrices: huge, strange birds that stand upright, but they have reptilian wings and tails. The cockatrice with the gold cup looks at the crude drawings with interest.

 

Dakro notices rainbow patterns illuminating the interior. Looking behind him, he sees they are caused by reflections from the gold goblet. Dakro says to the cockatrice holding it, “Your name is Prism. Make sure the others stay out of trouble.”

 

A long passage leads into this facility. At the far end, he sees several servile guards. They are fierce inutiles, sharpened to a fine point by years surviving this harsh desert. One of them shouts, “We know you! You are the Shaper! Stay out, or we slay you! You have nothing for us!”

 

Just then, Prism rounds the passage corner. The effect on the guards is instant. They take a step backward, clearing the way into the fortress.

 

They gaze in awe. As Prism exits the passage, its many colors shimmer in the sun, making everything else seem dull and dusty in comparison.

 

Dakro emerges into the clearing in the middle of the research halls. Cliff walls rise high over his head to either side. This facility is sustained by a natural spring, which creates a small, cool oasis.

 

Serviles everywhere stare at him and his cockatrices as he passes. They are not friendly. These inutiles came here to escape intruders, and his presence alarms them. As he advances, they all find excuses to go somewhere else, as far away as possible.

 

There are several stone structures set in the cliff walls surrounding him. The largest, the main research hall, is to the east. Another large hall is directly across to the north.

 

Dakro enters the main research hall. Once it was active. But the Shapers left, and it was buried under the shifting sands. Then serviles dug it out. And then, most surprising of all, it was reactivated. He hears the hum of working machinery, and the air is heavy with intense, controlled power. After a century of neglect, someone is doing Shaping research here. If it is an outsider, they will pay the penalty.

 

Sword in hand, Dakro stealthily makes his way deeper into the complex, trusting the noisy machinery to cover the sounds of his cockatrices. 

 

In the back, he sees a bloated servant mind living in a tray. It is old and wrinkled, but its eyes are sharp and alert. It stares at the cockatrice with its bloodshot eyes. It tries to smile, baring yellow, cracked teeth.

 

After a moment, it turns its bloodshot eyes to Dakro and says, “A Shaper. At last. I am Mind Swanwick. I see you have come to help me with my mission. It is important. I must complete it.”

 

Putting his sword away, he says, “I will decide what is important. What is your mission?”

 

“To create a proper cockatrice. You have a decent prototype, but it is hardly up to the skill of Shaper Danette.”

 

Dakro narrows his eyes. “This is an improved version. The prototype poured too much power into the creation. And just who is this Shaper Danette?”

 

“Ahhh. She is the greatest of Shapers. Her experiments, her ideas, her mind ... Tell me, when have they ever been matched? It was a glory to be made and remade by her.” It lets out a long, self-satisfied sigh. “I was Shaped by a team under her personal direction. Then I was brought and installed here, again under her personal direction.”

 

“Who has matched them? Why I have! And more. In less than a few months, I have brought lands under control after no one else could for a hundred years! I have invented exciting new variations of creations that all Shapers will copy. My name will be known for all time!”

 

“So you are her apprentice?”

 

“I am Shaper Dakro, ruler of Sucia Island!”

 

“Ah, so not even her apprentice. Nevertheless, you could be useful for finishing the job the foolish, lazy serviles couldn't do for me the first time.”

 

Dakro begins to advance on the impertinent servant mind.

 

Seemingly unaware of the threat, Swanwick continues, “The machinery to shape the cockatrice exists, created and calibrated by Danette. I only need the final instructions to fully stabilize their bodies. Alas, this knowledge is still where it was left: Etched on steel plates in the main research hall.”

 

Dakro pauses. “Machinery? Machinery that can shape?”

 

“Yes, such is the mind of Shaper Danette. Now, bring me the plates. The serviles told me they finally found the tablets in the quarters of the research hall. They didn't know exactly what they were looking for, so they left some behind. I imagine you can still find them there.”

 

Dakro imagines the possibilities. Ever since he came to the island, the spawners have interested him, but they could never be controlled. Machinery could. Visions of unmatched power swim through his head.

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Chapter 27: Priorities

 

Thoughts of wasting time dealing with Yu-La vanish from Dakro’s mind. He must find these tablets. The distance is great and filled with hazards, both natural and non, but he fears nothing.


 

A day later, he ascends into a narrow, rocky mountain valley. His hair is starting to stand on end. Sparks occasionally fly from his clothes and sword.

 

There must be a power station nearby. In a power station, energy, magical and otherwise, is channeled into crystals. The crystals are then taken to fuel Shaper operations and research. After all these years, at least parts of the facility still function.

 

He smells sulfur in the air. Fyoras are near.

 

As he reaches a rise, he indeed sees three fyora, their fur sticking out from all the energy in the air. Dakro pays the lowly creations no need and keeps hiking. His cockatrices will handle them and then catch up.

 

However, as he advances, he notices that the fyora’s fur all suddenly drops. They are sucking the ambient energy into themselves. 

 

They combine the energy with their natural fire breaths. A wall of flame races toward him and he dives to the side just in time. Even without being hit by the wall, the residual heat scorches his skin and clothes.

 

The fyora, having taken in too much energy, have scorch marks of their own. One can barely stand. Dakro uses his baton to put it out of its misery.

 

The middle fyora begins pulling in more energy, but its body cannot take it and it bursts into flame.

 

The final one flees, only to be cut down as Dakro embeds a thorn in its neck.

 

Dakro rises from the ground and takes a long look at the power station. He doesn’t want to delay, but this power station has modified lowly fyora into something fearsome. Perhaps he could learn something.

 

He walks up to the closest door, but finds it locked. He still has no idea how to use living tools to pick locks, so he moves on. The second door is also locked. And third. Finally, he finds one door that has died, leaving it open.

 

Choosing the left passage, he finds many more locked doors and eventually a dead end. As he turns back to try the other way, he is ambushed. Fyora pour down the hallway. In the narrow confines, there will be no dodging the wall of fire.

 

Dakro ducks behind one of his cockatrices, using it as a shield, and covers his eyes protectively. He only needs to survive the initial attack.

 

The sound of roaring fire fills his ears and he braces for the pain, but none comes. Peeking out, he seeks that the corridor is filled with a cloud of smoke, making it impossible to see. Prism lets Dakro know that she took control of a fyora and roasted the others.

 

The smoke has drifted to him now. Soon, it will be impossible to breathe. Covering his nose and mouth with his cloak, the races through the smoke to fresh air. As he bursts out of the cloud, he surprises several additional fyora.

 

Without stopping, he cuts the throat of the nearest one and continues racing for fresh air. Smoke and flame dog his heels.

 

He reaches sunlight, hacking and coughing, barely aware his creations are covering his escape. When he finally regains his composure, he sees that only three cockatrices remain. The other dead from lowly fyora. He kicks some sand in irritation.

 

Much of this could probably have been avoided if he knew a little bit about mechanics. He could have picked the locks and surprised the fyora, rather than being ambushed himself. Or, better yet, perhaps he could have been able to create his own creation-generating machinery by now.

 

It is past time to learn.

 

He re-enters the complex, looking for a machine shop. He lets his cockatrices take lead, as they can handle the fyora better than he.

 

Down one corridor he sees several large crystals. Mallets, chisels, and other working equipment lay discarded next to them. 

 

He follows the passage and finds the armory with boots, iron shields, chitin armor, and the remains of non-shaped cloaks. If this power station were staffed, the people could teach him, but it is not. He finds nothing useful. It was a long-shot anyways.

 

Perhaps he can teach himself. He pulls out a living tool and starts trying to communicate with it. It continues to wriggle seemingly uncontrollably. After ten minutes, he smashes it into the ground in a fit of rage. And then stomps on it for good measure.

 

The regular shocks from the ambient energy are not doing his mood any good.

 

He reaches out with his mind for nearby fyora. He really feels like killing something with his bare hands right now.

 

He feels countless fyora, but he also feels two stronger minds. A servant mind and something else…. 

 

He follows the feeling, letting his cockatrices handle the regular ambushes. After quite a few dead ends, he eventually comes to the lair of an old drayk, left here when the Shapers abandoned Sucia Island. 

 

The drayk lets out a long, deep snarl. “So you have returned. You want to enslave me again. No. I am Gyah-Ki, and I am free. I will always be free.” The beast, for all its age, is still a mighty cube of muscle, eager to bathe Dakro in flame.

 

Dakro is intrigued. He has only rarely seen drayks before. These miniature dragons require special licenses to make, and even then are rarely made because of their tendency to go rogue. 

 

Dakro puts aside his homicidal feelings for a moment. “You must submit, rogue. I command it." A drayk is too much for his cockatrices, but Dakro should have enough mental fortitude to control it himself. He reaches out.

 

Dakro quickly discovers his will is nowhere near strong enough to control the drayk, but he does daze it.

 

Gyah-Ki stumbles back and howls. “No! Noooo! Never again!” He lunges toward Dakro on unsteady legs and a side door opens.

 

Several particularly large fyoras pour in. Dakro directs his cockatrices to handle them while he takes on the drayk alone.

 

Dakro begins a dance of death with the drayk, trying to wear it down physically so that he might assault it mentally. Dodging plumes of fire, pointed teeth, and razor-sharp claws, he slashes at its wings and tail, trying not to deal lethal damage to the rare creation.

 

Gyah-Ki sees Dakro’s plan and that he is no match for shaper. Not wanting to be captured again, he begins pulling in ambient energy. Either he will kill the Shaper, or the energy will kill him. He will not be taken prisoner again. 

 

Dakro, seeing this, sprints from the room. A second later, the room is filled with a firestorm. The roof collapses and fire spews into the open air. 

 

Dakro reflects on just how close to death he came. If the fire hadn’t gone up, he would surely be dead right now. 

 

Dakro looks back into the room, astonished to see the drayk is still alive. Then, Gyah-Ki lets out one final furious roar, flame and blood spraying into the air, and dies.

 

None of his creations survived the firestorm. Prism lies dead with her head in a pool of molten gold. Even dying, she never dropped the goblet. It’s funny how unimportant things can become so vital to creations. If the drayk would have just given up on the idea of creation freedom, he would still be living today.

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Chapter 28: Power Core

 

A faint, weak voice intrudes on Dakro’s thoughts. He turns to look, and then realizes it is inside his head. A servant mind calls. The destruction of part of its facility has caught its attention, waking it from its years of slumber.

 

The servant mind (at last noticing the rogues) reawakens the power station’s defenses. Long-dormant pylons activate and begin discharging deadly electricity. Howls of agony reverberates through the hallways as the fyoras fry.

 

Dakro makes his way through the halls unmolested, the scent of ozone and cooked flesh in the air.

 

With a bit of mental guidance from the servant mind, Dakro at last finds the Servant Mind. It still seems in good health, or at least it's intact. However, it is very thin and weak. It looks up at Dakro and says, “Urrrrhhhhaaaa.”

 

His mental communications have gone quiet. All of the recent activity has drained the last of his energy.

 

Dakro walks over to a cupboard and takes out nutrient solution, then hands it to the Servant Mind. The creature stays completely immobile.

 

Dakro berates the Mind for being too lazy to feed itself. When this doesn’t work, he forcefully stuffs solution into its mouth. It is a slow, messy job, made all the slower by Dakro’s disgust and anger. He stops several more times to berate the nearly comatose Mind for not feeding itself.

 

Dakro continues to scoop the food into its mouth, one tiny globule at a time. Eventually he is able to revive it enough for him to eat on its own.

 

After a few bites, it finally speaks its first spoken words in over a century. Its voice is weak, but Dakro is able to understand it. “I am happy, Shaper. I can serve again. I am Mind Gallus Meg. I am the controller of the power station in Shaper absence. Sorry you had to feed me. I did not have the strength to withstand the loss of food.”

 

“Fine. What resources are at my disposal?”

 

“I can only control the outer ward. Rogues have stripped away my crystals. I am weak and unable to control much of the station without them.”

 

Dakro looks over the large bank of crystals on the wall that aid the Mind. There must be hundreds. However, there are four sockets at the base of the creature’s stone try. They are all empty.

 

Indicating the sockets, Mind Gallus Meg explains, “They were taken and hidden by mischievous shades. They did not like my influence, so they acted to remove it. Without crystals, I cannot control much. Including, I should mention, the doors to nearby supply chambers. The missing crystals are black, multifaceted, and as long as your forearm. If you could replace them in my base, I could be of much greater aid to you.”

 

“Let me guess: You either have no idea where they took the crystals, or they are being guarded by some unholy monstrosity the likes of which should only exist in feverish nightmares.”

 

“In the inner station are the shades. The Shapers made these essence constructs to run the station. They are immune to the dangerous energies inside. But they are mercurial creatures, and they needed me to control them. The control was lost, and I cannot regain it without the crystals.”

 

“A catch-22, then. I can’t kill the shades for the crystals or you lose control of the inner station anyways.”

 

“Your people left machinery. It makes new shades to replace the ones who dissolved.”

 

Dakro’s attitude improves immensely, “You have machinery that makes creations? That is exactly what I was looking for!”

 

Mind Gallus Meg looks uncomfortable. “Such automatic, magical devices for making creations have been forbidden by the Shaper Council for centuries. These machines, if left untended, can cause much carnage.”

 

Dakro asks, “Why were they made? Surely there is some loophole in the law that allows them.”

 

Bowing his head, “I am only a servant mind. I cannot question the Shapers. I thought that the Shapers of Sucia Island had become crazed and arrogant, but it is not my place to say it.”

 

The words pierce the wall of anger in Dakro’s mind that blocks his more rational thoughts. He vaguely remembers that the canister drugs made him temporarily crazed and arrogant. But that didn’t happen last time, right? Of course not. Now his mind is too strong for such tricks. The wall reestablishes itself.

 

He asks himself why he is wasting his time speaking with this idiotic servant mind that was too stupid to feed itself. He stomps off.


 

An airlock of sorts separates the inner station from the other station. Inside, he finds a pethra of grounded tunics, grounded boots, and lanterns. Putting them on, he enters the inner station.

 

Only the largest and most important Shaper research centers have their own power stations. Sucia Island was one of the few that received this level of support.

 

Shaper experiments require a huge amount of energy, both mundane and magical. It is stored in specially created crystal batteries, usually called power spirals. Some of these spirals are small, and some are quite huge.

 

These devices are charged in installations like this one. Usually a steam vent or other volcanic feature is capped. Then massive magical engines absorb and channel the heat, storing it for Shaper use.

 

Of course, hauling in the huge crystals, funneling the energy into them, and hauling them out again is incredibly tiring and dangerous work. That is why it is left almost exclusively to serviles.

 

These halls are dark, steamy, and hot. The magical energy hanging in the air makes his skin itch and his stomach turn. This level of energy is both unusual and unsafe.

 

The sparks leaping from his equipment intensify in strength and frequency. It becomes quite painful, but he endures. He passes through the entry hall, which is full of old logs. Serviles would use these logs to roll the massive power spirals in and out.

 

Beyond, he finds the energizing room. Drained and damaged power spirals were brought to this room, where they were repaired and primed to receive energy.

 

Glowing, red lines of tile crisscross the floor. Long crystal fibers, set in the stone, carry energy from the core to the spirals. The tiles are very hot, but it should be safe to walk on those sections of floor. The Shapers made them to be stable.

 

He hears a loud, strange keening echoing through the halls. It doesn't sound like part of the machinery. The shades.

 

This corridor beyond is very hot, and the ambient, uncontrolled magical energy is making him feel ill. He is getting close to the power core. That is an extremely dangerous place to be. He backs away.

 

Continuing in a wide loop around the power core, Dakro spies two shades repairing a conduit. While they are distracted, he sneaks up on them and cleaves his sword straight through them both. They have no bodies, but the metal interferes with their energy cohesion. With a sharp crack and a puff of ozone, they dissipate.

 

He glances through their toolbox and finds a stone. It is shaped like a long crystal, but it is black, like onyx. When he watches it, he thinks he can see tiny flashes of light under its surface. Picking it up, he finds it warm to the touch. 

 

Holding it, he can feel that it is (in its own way) alive. The mind is completely alien to him, like that of living tools, but he can detect it. Now that he knows what he is looking for, he extends his senses and feels three more like it. This could be easy.

 

On his way to the second one, he sees the power core has a large and well stocked apothecary. Here, the Shapers cared for their creations. To some extent. The dangerous and unpleasant environs must have been wearing on the serviles here.

 

These days, serviles are generally not put to work in hostile environments like this. They are too costly to replace. Somewhere from behind the wall of anger, a small voice says, “Shapers were not as enlightened as they are now.”

 

Shaking his head, he continues his circuit and comes to a room where the servile bureaucrats and record keepers did their important work. He notices that the south door has some words carved into it: “High Security Storage - No entry without Shaper clearance and protection!”

 

Again cursing his lack of skill with living tools, he turns back. 

 

Halfway around the power core, he sees a hazy cloud being formed by four power spires channeling power from the core. A replacement for the shades he killed. After he finds the crystals, the servant mind can shut these off for his study. 

 

The crystal he needs is behind a locked door. Still, it is only a door. The servant mind should be able to open a mere door with three crystals. For now, he moves on to the next closest crystal.

 

He passes a room of cages, a shaping hall, and various rooms he cannot identify. 

 

In the last room he sees three shades and two massive turrets standing guard in front of the third crystal. The ambient energy has made the turrets twice as large as he has ever seen. If he could grow a pumpkin in here, he would win the local farmer’s fair contest for sure.

 

He will need to return with creations to take them on. For now, he makes his way around to the furthest crystal. Two should be plenty for a locked door.

 

The corridor brings him to a dead servile. The servile was running down this corridor, trying to get away from the deadly central core before it killed him. He didn't make it. Dakro looks closely, trying to figure out what the poor creature risked his life for. He soon finds out. Dakro removes a metal key clenched in the servile’s gloved hand.

 

Key in hand, he backtracks to the locked door where the shade is close to being formed. He casually slices it with his sword. With another loud crack and puff of ozone, the shade disappears. Half a second later, four pillars shoot lasers at his sword, melting it.

 

Dakro drops the scalding remains of the handle, his hand badly burned. He stands in shock. 

 

He is defenseless, without weapon or creation.

And seriously feeling ill from the ambient energy.

 

He uses a tiny amount of what little essence he has left to heal his hand and opens the locked door, looking for a weapon. Any weapon.

 

He sees plenty of dust he could throw in people’s eyes… except shades don’t have eyes.

 

Then he remembers. They are shades. All he needs is a large piece of metal to disrupt them. He can find a decent weapon later. Finding good leverage, he breaks a metal leg off a table. Good enough.

 

‘Weapon’ in hand, he takes the second stone and hastens away from the spires before anything else happens.

 

On the way back to the inner core, he stops by the locked bureaucrats office and finds the control key works there too. Inside are two turrets in separate alcoves.

 

He races toward the left alcove, trying to kill it before it can react. Half-way there, he remembers he’s only armed with a table leg. The thought causes him to freeze up for a second. Thorns zip in front of his face. The sudden stop may have just saved his life.

 

While the turrets reload, he finishes closing the distance and begins beating the turret with the leg. Their thorns are lightning fast, but the turrets are slow to pivot at close range. Dakro keeps circling the turret, slowly but surely beating it to death.

 

Dakro is really lucky they were in alcoves. If the other one had been firing at him during the inordinately long time it took him to kill the first one, he would have died.

 

Taking a breath, he bursts from the alcove and races to the second turret, taking a thorn in the shoulder. That is the first and only damage it manages to inflict on him. Not counting mental damage. He still can’t believe he reacted on reflex and forgot he was carrying a table leg.

 

Most of the cupboards contain bureaucratic nonsense. However, on the wall hangs a massive claymore with ornate stylings and glowing runes.

 

“Now that is a proper weapon.” He unclasps it from the wall and nearly falls over trying to catch it. It is incredibly heavy. Then, it suddenly becomes much lighter. The weapon magically infuses his muscles, making them stronger.

 

Invigorated, he gives it a few practice swings. Not accustomed to the new muscles, he finds the weapon rather unwieldy. Until he has time to train with it, it’s not much better than the table leg in a real battle. He actually finds himself debating which is the better weapon at the moment.

 

Table leg in hand, he makes his way back to the outer section and picks up the third crystal. It’s just lying in a cupboard, forgotten.

 

He returns to Mind Gallus Meg and places the three crystals in the holes at the base. As each one enters the slot, Mind Gallus Meg seems noticeably more alert.

 

“Thank you, Shaper. I am now partially restored.”

 

“Good. Can you shut off the shade-producing spires before I go back in?”

 

“I am sorry, Shaper. I cannot do anything until I have all four crystals.” Something about its voice makes Dakro think it is not telling the whole truth. It will not meet his gaze.

 

Dakro authoritatively says, "You are bound to serve me. If there is anything you can do, do it now."

 

It looks miserable. “I am sorry, Shaper. I want so much to be restored. I wanted to keep you having a reason to help me. Please forgive me. There is a way I can help you.” It closes its eyes. Dakro hears clicks from the nearby doors. “Now you can loot my home. Please continue to help me. I beg you.”

 

Dakro shutters with anger. “You lied to me. Never do so again.”

 

In the first storeroom, he finds a beautiful rapier with a strange, wavy blade. While holding it, he can hear it singing in his mind. Distracting. He puts it back in its scabbard for now. Must every weapon have a downside?

 

In the second storage room, he finds various valuable crystals he can barter.

 

In the third, he finds several canisters calling to him. He uses them in quick succession.

 

Power infuses him, reshaping him. Everything around him begins to look so small. So insignificant. This power was almost denied him by a slug in a tray. A lying slug.

 

Dakro unsheathes the rapier and begins stabbing Mind Gallus Meg. Each stab is accompanied by the wet squishing sounds of the creation’s strange organs. It can do nothing. It has already used all its defenses trying to defend the four crystals decades ago.

 

It dies, but Dakro continues to see red, venting his rage on the corpse.

 

Suddenly, the entire complex begins to shake. Dakro hears explosions and loose electricity in the distance. Dakro realizes that even in death, the servant mind betrays him. The whole facility is coming down.

 

He sprints for the exit, knowing he will never make it past the pylons. Fortunately, they all seem to be exploding. He leaps over debris and even runs through the occasional live electricity in a mad dash for the exit.

 

Outside, he doesn’t stop running. Rocks fall all around him. Suddenly, the earth heaves under him, launching him in the air. His breath catches in his lungs and time seems to stand still a moment before he crashes into a cliff.

 

All goes black.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 29: Singing

 

Dakro awakes in pain to the sound of melodious, soul-touching singing. His entire body aches, with various areas of agonizing pain sprinkled in.

 

He tries taking his mind off the pain, suffusing his consciousness in the singing. Comforting visions of his family fill his mind. Feeling the warm sun as he gardens with his mother. Laughing with his dad as they stocked goods.

 

The visions fade as he once again loses consciousness.


 

When he reawakes to the unabated singing, he is parched, famished, and aching. Judging by how thirsty he is, he was probably out for at least a day, perhaps two. If he weren’t a Shaper with essence symbiotically living in him, he probably would have died.

 

The power station is in ruins. Electricity continues to arcs over the rubble. As he continues to watch, there is an explosion from deep underneath.

 

With all the pain and everything that has happened, he should not be feeling anything close to calm. And yet he is, somewhat.

 

He struggles to stand, the rapier falling off his arm. As it does, the singing ceases and all the physical and mental pain threatens to overtake him. He grabs the rapier out of a feeling of self-preservation.

 

Not letting the rapier go, he drinks, changes into clean clothes, and eats. These simple tasks are not so simple with only one free hand.

 

While recovering, Dakro takes time to reflect on his life. The singing, which he at first immediately dismissed as distracting, actually helps him focus. There are thoughts of power and blind rage in his mind that are not his own. The singing helps keep them at bay.

 

The power station is gone, as is his chance to learn about its shaping machinery. Conflicting thoughts scream in his head. He is having a difficult time figuring out which ones are his. How does he feel about this?

 

Dakro looks deep inside himself and finds a wealth of knowledge. Amongst it, he realizes he now possesses the knowledge to make glaahks. Glaahks are muscular and armored two-legged creations with a scorpion-like tail. Their strength lies in their magical sting. A blow from it will temporarily paralyze a foe.

 

Dakro looks deeper and realizes he can improve it: Using the same principles uses in artila creation, he can swap out its magical poison sacks for acid. Using what he learned from cockatrices, he can enable them to take control of nearby creations. Using what he learned from cryoas, he can enable them to create magical storms. 

 

Shaping is much more than purely following directions. It is creativity.

More than brute force. It is strength through synergy and finesse.

 

He begins to shape glaahks. When he is about to make a mistake, the ever-present music makes a discordant note. With the singing’s unusual help, he wastes little essence and creates the creation far faster than he would have expected.

 

The glaahk is a thing of terrifying beauty, but lacks much of what makes cockatrices so valuable: the ability to self-shape healing into themselves. As he mentally prepares himself to make cockatrices the music becomes discordant. He immediately gives up on the idea.

 

He realizes he is being controlled, but he doesn’t really care. It’s like back when he was taking the tests for Shaper apprenticeship. Only those who were willing to accept the authority of Shapers passed. He can feel this rapier possess the will of the Shapers.

 

Holding the rapier, he will lose some of his freedom. However, the sword is the only means by which he may regain his freedom. The canisters have taken over his mind. They drive him to arrogant and violent actions against his will. If he continues down that self-destructive road, he will never be able to leave the island. The Shaper council would kill him for sure.

 

He must give up his freedom that he might have freedom.

 

The rapier sings a joyful song.



 

Darko continues his march eastward to the distant tablets. Even if he no longer plans to use the tablets, he cannot allow them to fall into the hands of the outsiders. He is flanked by three glaahks: Michelle, Joy and Sarah. Somehow, it felt right to name these creations.

 

They are at the low end of a rocky mountain path. The crude pathway is at the one end of a steep valley, spiraling up into the hills at the north end of Sucia Island. It is very cold and windy. Though the mountain breeze blows up the valley, it is not strong enough to hide the persistent, vinegary smell of essence.

 

They see a grotesque spawner surrounded by burning turrets, iron clawbugs, searing artila, and an unstable thahd. Unlike the spawners he has seen before, this one seems designed to create a variety of creations.

 

Dakro immediately begins racing toward it, Michelle at his side. She is always the first one to race into danger. He is unsure whether that is courage or stupidity. Joy and Sarah jog more slowly, using their concentration to take control of the rogues.

 

A glaahk-dominated clawbug grabs the thahd by the leg and stabs it in the chest. The explosive internal organs detonate, searing all the rogues. Dakro and Michelle are out of range of the explosion, but the displaced air batters them. Dakro presses through while Michelle staggers to maintain her balance.

 

This is the last of the glaahk’s actions that Dakro really notices as he fully joins the battle, dodging and slicing with the skill of a far more experienced Guardian. Releasing more of his will to the singing rapier, the world’s colors fade as he becomes a whirling dervish of death, his muscles moving of their own accord.

 

He is vaguely aware of more artilla arriving as he dodges an acid ball he didn’t even see coming. Delivering a death blow to the spawner, he races past the artilla toward their source: a second spawner. His creations are struggling to keep up. 

 

Alone, he stands no chance, but he is not alone. He has the rapier. Giving up more of his will to the rapier, the world begins to fade more. A sense of peace soothes him. All is going well. He vaguely realizes poison flows through his leg and shallow cuts are mounting, but cares little.

 

Some unknown time later, he stands at the top of the rocky pass next to a recently-used campsite. Looking down, he can see the remains of numerous turrets, four spawners, and countless creations. His clothes are covered in blood, much of which appears to be his own. He quickly directs his essence to heal his wounds.

 

The defences of this steep ascent were shaped only recently. Someone worked very hard to keep intruders from getting through. Dakro wonders if they were concerned about him, or someone else.

 

He searches the camp for some clue, but learns little other than that whoever was here planned to return. The tents were erected not long ago and are still in good shape. Numerous supplies remain, including two spore batons.

 

Spore batons release invisible clouds of spores into the air. Each type of spore is designed to affect certain mines or other similar objects. Judging by their color, these affect green and gray mines. Obviously, these items are highly regulated. Being the highest Shaper authority on this island, he gives himself permission to take them.



 

As he makes his way down the pass, he sees a lone servile walking up. She looks extremely nervous. The servile isn't like the others on the island. She looks innocent. Obedient. Dumb. Much closer to what he’s used to. She must be a fresh creation, shaped to be full, adult size. Body of adult, mind of child. 

 

Dakro wonders if perhaps he is not the highest Shaper authority on this island after all.

 

As they meet, she smiles and pokes the ground nervously with her toe. “I am Fwee. Welcome to the Realm of Kantre, Shaper. I am honored to see you. Now leave, or you will be slain.”

 

Dakro stares in disbelief. “Who is this Kantre?”

 

“A servant mind. Old and wise. It assures me that it is doing the true will of the Shapers. I have no reason to believe otherwise.” 

 

“I am a Shaper. Tell the servant mind that I command it to not attack me.”

 

“Kantre is charged by the great Danette to protect these sacred vales in the time of crisis. He has done this for all known time. Kantre is afraid you bring impurity, and he is charged to deal with you, and he wills it.”

 

Dakro chooses his words carefully. “Danette? I have been charged by Mind Swanwick to carry out Danette’s great work.”

 

“Oh. Well, that is not important. I am sure that the will of Kantre will be a harsh ...” Fwee stops speaking. Her head tilts to one side. There is a long pause. Then she speaks again. “Kantre wills that you shall speak with it. It is a surprising honor. The creations will not attack you until you can answer to Kantre. It is his will.”

 

Understanding that Kantre can hear him, he asks, “Where are you, Kantre?”

 

“Find the southern clearing with big stone pillars. Straight north from there.”

 

Dakro looks and sees a mountain looming over him to the northeast. It is dotted with stone doorways, windows, and chimneys. Even out here, he can feel the power radiating out of it.

 

He is close to the main workshop of the island. This is the gateway to the Research Core, where the true power on Sucia Island lies. If he is to solve the mysteries of this place, this is the only destination.

 

Dakro passes dozens of battle alphas and glaahks, not to mention turrets. He has only heard stories of such defenses.

 

Passing them, he meets Mind Kantre, servant mind and controller of this area. One look into the creature's watery eyes tells him that its isolation on Sucia Island has driven it thoroughly mad. It smiles and twitches.

 

“Shaper, you come to my dominion. It is the time of crisis. I am charged by Danette to protect the ... the ... protect. I see you as a thing of infection. Explain yourself, or I destroy you.”

 

“As I said, I serve Danette’s will. We both must serve the great Danette.”

 

Kantre stares, doubtful. Dakro stares back at it. Something in his voice made the creature think he might be telling the truth. “I cannot slay you, not if you serve the creator’s will. Tell me, what are my new instructions?”

 

“Continue doing what you have been doing. You are doing well. However, I need to pass safely.”

 

Kantre smiles. “Thank you. I am glad. I am glad my service and my will have been good. You may pass through here safely. Oh. I forgot. You will need a key.” It points at the cabinet next to it with its withered hand. “And I also have the items you wanted me to store.” He hears a click from a door in the east wall.

 

“So that I might better serve, what do you remember of Danette?”

 

“So little. I am sad. I remember her words, but not what she was like. She was head of research on Sucia Island. She was so mighty and wise. All the great accomplishments here came from her. Then she left. I will never see her again.”

 

A tear rolls down Kantre’s face and then he continues, “She set me here to control this area. This is where Shapers come in the time of crisis. There are shops and an apothecary and places for rogues and places to meet and organize. It is all here in case there is a disaster in the halls of research to the east.”

 

"How can I enter the halls of research to get the items I need to finish Danette’s research?”

 

“Take the key from my cabinet and go east. That is where the meeting halls and apothecary are. Beyond there is the research halls. You need an entry baton to enter, though.”

 

Dakro opens the cabinet. It contains several shattered ceramic containers, surrounded by dried goo. There is also a key, encrusted in a thick crust of mineral substances. He breaks it free and keep it.”

 

He then goes through the unlocked storage rooms. He takes what he needs, but is not greedy. Each time he opens a room with a canister, the rapier begins a screeching “song.” He quickly closes these doors.

 

He finds the typical rooms: A laboratory, a prison for rogues, a ruined workshop, barracks, etc. Most are untouched since the island was abandoned.

 

As he enters the barracks, the colors of the world brighten. The rapier has stopped pouring energy into him. A wave of weariness and exhaustion overcomes him. He is about to collapse in a bed, but remembers his nightly routine. He goes through the actions with hardly a thought, so ingrained are they. 

 

Instead, he concentrates his thoughts on feeling out the rapier. It is extending its will, feeling out the creations around it.

 

Continuing his routine with hardly a thought, he begins to sharpen his weapon. A terrible shriek assaults him, both audibly and in his mind. The rapier lets out discordant notes and attempts to seize control of him. He drops the sharpening stone, breaking it, as he falls unconscious on the bed.

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Chapter 30: Cold

 

Dakro awakes to pretty singing. A pessimist would instantly realize it is not the soul-touching singing of before. An optimist would note that at least he didn’t completely break the rapier. Dakro, being self-centered, thinks only about himself, not the signing.

 

He is exhausted and achy. He should not have fought his way up through a small army so soon after receiving a traumatic brain injury.

 

He performs his morning ablutions and is in the middle of eating breakfast before even the hint of a thought about others enters his mind. He suddenly realizes Michelle, Sarah, and Joy are gone. 

 

Extending his will, he feels that the servant mind has taken control of them and is feeding them along with other glaahk. Not wanting to track them down, Dakro decides to leave them and head east to the tablet. He will be heading back this way anyways, and can always make more if need be.

 

For now, it shapes a simple four-legged creation to carry jars of essence and other supplies at a distance. 

 

As he heads east, his rapier starts to pull him south. It shows him visions of a workshop and the forging of weapons. The visions aren’t nearly as clear as before he sharpened the blade.

 

Dakro ponders the request for a minute. The weapon has proven that it can take control of his body. Perhaps it would be better for it to be a bit weaker. He continues east, reminding the rapier who is in charge.

 

Dakro soon reaches a green vale high in the mountains of Sucia Island. To the northeast, looming above the trees and stone outcroppings, he sees a huge building. It is a massive, Shaper-built structure, a passage into the west side of the mountain.

 

He’s found an entrance to the Research Core of Sucia Island. Surely, the answers to all his questions are here. In addition, no doubt, to incredible power.

 

At first, the valley seems empty. Then, on the pathway ahead of him, he sees a fast, blurry motion. It was only there for a moment. Odd.

 

He takes a few steps when suddenly his arm flies upward, parrying an invisible attack. Dakro can barely make out the shimmering of what looks like a humanoid. 

 

Unable to fight what he can’t see, he gives his will to the rapier in a desperate attempt to save his life. Color drains from the world, but he does not lose his sense of awareness. The rapier is not strong enough. His dodges, parries, and ripostes come relatively slowly. His choice not to repair the rapier may cost him his life.

 

Then he has the presence of mind to kick dust toward the nearly invisible creature. Some sticks. Not much, but enough. He resumes full control of his body and soon has the creature on the defensive. It flees. Dakro turns and jogs south. As much as he hates to admit it, the guardians of the Research Core are well beyond his current abilities.



 

Half a day later, Dakro is still walking south when the weather changes with alarming suddenness. It is like he just walked into a wall of ice. One step, it was warm. The next, freezing cold. The sun still shines, but its rays have no effect on this frigid valley.

 

Powerful magic is at work here. He wraps his arms around himself, stamps his feet, and tries to stay warm as he makes his way forward.

 

A bit later, he spots a dilapidated building and makes for the shelter. Even a few minutes of shelter would be a relief. Unfortunately, the crumbling walls do little to alleviate the cold. Some unidentifiable meat has been preserved by the cold, although Dakro isn’t going to risk eating it

 

The interior door is locked and there is no way through it. Fortunately, unlike the living door, the walls are simple base materials. He summons some cryoas to tear through the interior wall while he tries to stoke the fireplace.

 

On the other side, he finds four frozen serviles. One has a scroll clenched to his chest. Dakro carefully removes it, snapping off the servile’s frozen fingers first so that they don’t damage the paper.

 

It reads:

 

To who reads this, avoid our mistake. When rogues came, we fled here. Thought there was peace. Hid in ruin here.

 

Then outsiders came, and did their workings. Did not know we hid here, or knew and did not care. Thought they would go and we would be safe.

 

But they left the rogues here. Then, next day, the cold started. So cold. Could not go out. Rogues everywhere. So we stayed and got more and more cold.

 

No hope left. If you read this, you must run! Run! Get away while still safe!

 

Dakro laughs, his frozen breath filling the air. “Poor, weak serviles. This is what happens when you go wandering off.”

 

Where possible, Dakro takes off the servile’s clothes and equipment, strapping them to his cryoas. These serviles are unworthy of such equipment, so he will drop it off at Pentil next time he passes by.

 

Opening the outer door, he sees vlish and clawbugs pouring out of a cave. He is not going to make the same mistake the serviles did of barricading himself inside. He jumps on the back of the nearest cryoa and orders them to all jump up on the roof.

 

One goes crashing through the dilapidated roof, but the rest find solid footing. From there, they rain down icy death upon the swarm.

 

Realizing they are at a significant disadvantage, the swarm pulls back and begins waiting them out.

 

Seeing them clumped, Dakro begins forming sickly green roamers. When he has enough, the leap from the building with their mighty legs toward the crowd. All are blasted out of the air, killed even before they land. 

 

However, they get close enough. Their internal organs detonate, laying waste to the crowd. The few weakened stragglers that survive are soon cut down as the cryoas close the distance. 

 

At the sound of the bombs, more vlish and clawbugs come out to investigate. Dakro is tempted to race away toward the workshop, but he smells vinegar.

 

He and his cyoas charge, slaughtering their way into the cave. Ordinarily, they might stand no chance against such numbers, but the vlish and clawbugs are not designed for cold weather. They are already weak from the cold and their movements are slow.

 

Dakro spots the putrid purple spawner and begins carving it up, trusting his cryoas to guard his flanks. As it dies, he begins to celebrate when suddenly a clawbug bites his armored leg and begins dragging him.

 

Dakro stabs it through the skull and looks for this cryoa. They are all fighting off a second spawner. Two? The thought never even occurred to him. The pass had multiple spawners to act as guards, but this is just a cave, isn’t it? What could be worth guarding?

 

Putting aside his questions, he leaps over the body of the clawbug and goes to aid his surviving cryoa. However, as he does, one turns and scoops him up, racing toward the exit. He is so surprised, that he doesn’t even fight it.

 

An instant later, he can no longer see as his remaining cryoa unleash a magical storm of ice inside the confined cave. Ice shards and displaced rocks tear into everything left inside. Howls of pain vie to be heard amongst the whirling ice and flying rocks.

 

Bursting from the cave, his guarding cryoa keeps running. Then it falls dead, scumming to its numerous wounds, and Dakro rolls across the ground.

 

Rising, he watches ice fly out of the cave like a swarm of bats on fire. Then silence reigns.

 

He dashes inside to ensure all the spawners are dead. Scratch marks and ice shards cover the rocky surfaces. The essence pools supplying the spawners are completely frozen over.

 

Whatever the deadly gauntlet of spawners were guarding has been destroyed, save a single magical box. Inside, he finds some frozen, broken tools and some used-up pods. He also finds a pouch. Inside the pouch, he finds an iron key, icy cold to the touch. 

 

There is a good chance that the key was to a nearby door that was completely obliterated, but he wipes off the frost and puts it in his pack anyways.

 

Using a piece of warped metal, he breaks the icy layer of an essence pool and begins pulling some out to form more cryoa. 

 

Outside, he transfers the remaining supplies for Pentil from his guardian cryoa. It is unfortunately how much he lost in the cave. Wondering if anything might have survived underneath a corpse, he re-enters the cave.

 

Next to one wall piled high with bodies, he finds the entrance to a large workshop. His rapier sings with joy. 

 

The workshop is freezing cold. The moment he steps inside, he starts to shiver uncontrollably. It's not half as cold as the frozen valleys outside. It's like a deep winter.

 

A nearby crystal container, sheathed in ice, tells him that this workshop must be a cold storage. Shapers have developed powerful magical techniques for making things extremely cold.

 

It's not surprising. Shapers deal with a lot of living, once-living, or soon-to-be-living substances. When not in use, they need to be kept cold. That's what places like this are for.

 

But cold storage is never this cold. Something must have gone wrong. That's the only way to explain why these tunnels are so painfully icy.

 

There used to be firepits here, burning brightly to protect visitors from the cold. These have long been extinguished. Even if they were lit, they wouldn't be sufficient to protect him.

 

To put things in perspective, his cryoa - beings made to produce magical ice - begin shivering.

 

Reluctantly, he heads back to Kantre’s Realm for the night. He’s going to need much warmer clothing.

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Chapter 31: Understanding

 

Dakro treks away from Kantre’s Realm, his three glaahks and other creations straining under their loads. It was unfortunate that he could not find the warm clothing he needed, but he can still turn to the serviles of Pentil.



 

It is slow-going, but he arrives to much cheering. Cheering that is doubled when he lets them know he has brought them scavenged goods from across the island.

 

Merchants immediately swarm his creations, unloading supplies. In all the shoving, a servile steps on Michelle’s toes. She lashes out, paralyzing the offending servile. Fortunately for the servile, the throng is so great that he falls against the crowd instead of immediately getting a concussion on the stones.

 

Even after that, the rush hardly abates.

 

Dakro pulls aside a particularly aggressive merchant. “You are quite enthusiastic. Has it been that difficult to get supplies?”

 

“Oh, Shaper. Since rogues started roaming everywhere, it has been very dangerous. We have been unable to scavenge for equipment and Shaper artifacts, and we have not been able to carry goods between settlements.”

 

The merchant keeps anxiously looking at the supplies as they are being picked over. “You cleared a bridge to the east, so we can now exchange supplies with the serviles to the east. Or, at least, those of them who will deal with us peacefully. The serviles of Kazg have become enraged by your…” The merchant looks embarrassed. “Trade is difficult with them.”

 

“I see. I require winter clothing, enchanted against magical cold.”

 

He thinks. “Difficult. It will take time, but we will not fail you Shaper.”

 

“Very well, you may go.”

 

As the merchant races back toward the supplies, Dakro notices Rydell staring at him, taking in every detail. He is in awe. He followed the Shapers all his life, but Darko is the first one he has ever seen.

 

Dakro gives him the honor of addressing him. “I have spoken with Doge.” Dakro goes on to describe the Pentil outpost.

 

Mickall is relieved. “These are hard times, but now that you are here, we have nothing to fear. Thank you again for your help, Shaper. We owe all we have to you.”

 

"You are most welcome. While I wait for you serviles to make me enchanted clothing, I am going to meet with Masha, leader of a group which split off from the outsiders.” He goes on to describe the previous meeting.

 

Rydell listens carefully. “Excellent. This is much as I suspected. The outsiders are divided, and not all are acting against us. Please, tell me all you learn of the Research Core to the northeast. Perhaps, together, we can bring about the true will of the Shapers. Let us further discuss affairs on our sad isle.”

 

"There is a man named Trajkov on this island. He comes from over the sea, and he is trying to utilize some sort of Shaper power. He lives in the research warrens to the northeast.”

 

“I understand. That would explain much, including where the strange rogue creations assaulting us are from. Still, our information is incomplete. If we could learn more about the power Trajkov is trying to harness, we could decide how to act.”

 

“I have learned that there is some sort of powerful Shaper secret on this island. It's called the 'Geneforge'.”

 

“We have heard something similar. We captured a servile from Kazg and, after much questioning, she revealed the same thing. If only we knew what it was, many mysteries might be solved. It might even reveal why the Shapers left this isle.”

 

“I will speak with this servile.”

 

“Sorry, Shaper. When we are done interrogating a Taker, we deal with them quickly, and in a way that ensures they never question the Shapers again. We never hesitate to do your will.”

 

Their conversation is interrupted as a messenger arrives letting Dakro know his feast is ready.



 

The next day, after ensuring he will indeed receive his clothing, he heads back to Sholai Masha in the refugee cave. Without the supplies, the trek is much faster.

 

They greet each other and Dakro lets her know that after much hardship, he finally recovered Anfisa’s key.

 

Smiling widely, Masha exclaims, “Wonderful! Yes! You do good! Open the chest! We will all be better!”

 

“I will, in time. We agreed to read the journal together. Therefore, before we open it, I need help better understanding your language.”

 

Her smile falters, but she says, “Gladly, Shaper. My knowledge weak and my skills soft, but I tell you what I can of things.”

 

She spends several hours teaching him what she knows. Her tongue is surprisingly similar to his. He learns a fair amount of syntax and numerous verbs and nouns. He is nowhere near fluent, but will be able to manage some crude communication.

 

Darko opens the chest. Inside, he finds salty, dirty clothes, some broken scrimshaw, and an old, battered journal. He flips through it and finds that, with concentration and a bit of help from Masha, he can understand it.

 

It was the journal of Anfisa, Trajkov's assistant. They were leading an expedition across an unexplored sea. They started with three ships. A storm left them with two.

 

When they reached Sucia Island, they were starving and without hope. Landfall at Sucia cost them a second ship. Once they landed, Trajkov led an expedition ashore. There, he and Anfisa found a huge Shaper research facility.

 

It was in the mountains at the northeast corner of the island. The tunnels provided shelter for all of the sailors as they stocked up on food and tried to figure out what to do.

 

Trajkov and Anfisa explored the research halls, translated documents, and figured out what the Shapers were doing.

 

Here, Anfisa's entries get shorter and more vague. Perhaps she was afraid that Trajkov would read her journal. She was worried about how events were developing.

 

"Andela 17 - Trajkov has figured out how to use the canisters. He places a hand on top of one, and it changes him. If the Shaper writings are to be believed, they are rewriting his genes. I don't know what that means.”

 

“Andela 21 - Trajkov has used eight canisters. I have used none, despite his urgings. They are changing him. He can use magic now. He never could before. It is very strange.”

 

“Andela 28 - Trajkov grows angry very easily now. He has used every canister we have found. The current total is twenty. That I know of.”

 

“Vit 3 - We have penetrated the deepest chambers. We believe we have located the Geneforge, referred to often in Shaper writings. Trajkov thinks he should use it. Only him.”

 

“Vit 8 - Trajkov is frustrated. His anger is frequent. He is missing something. He said he needs some 'gloves'. I am not sure what this word means. His speech is strange sometimes.”

 

“Vit 15 - We know that Shapers pass this island, in their living ships. Trajkov has a plan. He will abduct one, using our sole ship. Or maybe this plan is already taking place. Many Sholai are loyal, and he speaks with me less now.”

 

“He uses more canisters. Others use them too. Trajkov's warriors are loyal and strong, and they anger so easily.”

 

“Vit 20 - We have a Shaper. It is called Goettsch. It talks to Trajkov. I don't know what they say. Trajkov doesn't involve me. I know they are talking about the Geneforge.”

 

“Vit 25 - Trajkov and Goettsch spend lots of time in the Geneforge chambers. Some of us wonder when we will continue our mission. We have food. The boat is ready. Some are restless. We know, though, that Trajkov's path is the wisest.”

 

“Ermin 1 - Goettsch left, taking something from Trajkov. Trajkov is furious. He called me to the Geneforge. It is beautiful. He wants me to hunt down and kill Goettsch, hiding in the wastes to the west.”

 

“I told Trajkov I would kill Goettsch. He showed me the Geneforge. It has several power columns around it. Trajkov told me to stay away from them. They are unstable and can destroy the whole place.”

 

“Ermin 10 - I have not yet left to hunt Goettsch. Trajkov confronted me. Suggesting we continue our mission infuriates him. He has stopped using the canisters. He didn't say why.”

 

“Ermin 25 - Trajkov has returned. He and his assistants explored the island. He said they laid traps and made monsters. They also did diplomacy. He did not elaborate.”

 

“Ermin 27 - Trajkov has set his new plan in motion. He will abduct a new Shaper, a weaker one, who can be molded. We will anger these strange and powerful people even more. I am sure this is the wisest course.”

 

“Ermin 28 - My own plans have come to be. As I write this, we are rowing away from Trajkov and his loyal, mad minions. At last, I can write freely. Trajkov is mad.”

 

“Why is he doing what he is doing? Where did his lust for power come from? I do not know. I know this, though. We must stop him. We must return to our mission, our good mission, of exploration and peace.”

 

“We will land near a servile village. They call it Kazg. Hopefully, they know nothing of Trajkov or his plans. We can enlist their help.”

 

“We have been sighted. The ship is following us. There are docks ahead, though. We will land and disappear into the tunnels. It is a risky path, but I don't think they will give chase. We threw fire at the sails, and the ship turned back. They will not risk the ship.”

 

The journal ends. He closes the book and carefully replaces it in the chest. 

 

Dakro turns to Masha. “You told the truth. I find you as blameless as is possible, given the circumstances. Tell me, what has happened since Anfisa’s death?”

 

She lets out a sigh of relief. Then, taking a deep breath, says, “My group hide here in tunnels. We try to run west, only to find surprise. Trajkov? He deal with stunted people to west. These serviles, they called Takers. Trajkov make deal with them. He get them to block us in and kill us. We want to explore island, but we trapped here. We get some of us out to explore. I go with them and return. There are more of us on Sucia, good Sholai, not mad, but hidden.”

 

Dakro decides he will be the judge of whether or not they have been good. “I would like to meet them. Where are they?”

 

“I go with them when they sneak out. I help them find place. I come back here. Leader name is Astrov. Good Sholai. Can trust. Find him and talk to him. Let me know how he is doing, please, if you can. He make fight against Trajkov. He can help you, if you want same.”

 

Masha hands Dakro a letter. It is written in their language. “Give to Astrov. He helps you. This tells him you from me.”

 

“Tell me more about Astrov.”

 

“A true explorer. Greed to learn. Not for power. You can trust. I trust with life.”

 

“Just as you trusted Trajkov?”

 

She looks uncomfortable. “See Astrov for yourself. Astrove and fighters are in cave north of village serviles call Pentil. Look hard in peaceful valley of trees.”

 

Dakro thinks back. He has been all around Pentil, surely he would have noticed.... He suddenly remembers the crazed, scrawny hermit guarding the mysterious door. Her name is "Sniff.” Dakro remembers the name because of the servile's odor.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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Chapter 32: Strength

 

“I’m weak,” says Dakro despondently as he writes in his journal. “Can’t enter the Research Core. Can’t enter the Repair Workshop. Can’t even subdue Kazg. And worst of all, I can’t let go of this ‘teddy bear.’” Dakro looks down at the singing rapier strapped to his bare flesh. Each time he lets it go, he feels the rage in his mind seeking to reassert control.

 

Closing the journal, he continues practicing with the unwieldy Guardian Claymore. The practice is not made easier by the weight of the rapier throwing him off-balance. He wishes he had someone to teach him or, at the very least, spar with him.

 

He misses his people. He misses his family. These creations, outsiders, and enchanted weapons are poor replacements. Nevertheless, they are what he has. They are his strength when he is weak.



 

Sniff leans back on her stool and looks up at Dakro with a haughty look, her nose in the air. No… that’s the rage again. Sniff is simply looking up at Dakro impassively.

 

Dakro unstraps the rapier and holds it. With it in his hand, he feels calmer. He will need to be calm for this meeting. 

 

As Dakro draws his weapon, Sniff says, “That wouldn’t serve the interest of your kind, but destroy me if you must. I still cannot let you in.”

 

Dakro smirks. “I have a message here, from Masha, that you should let me see the Sholai.”

 

She looks at it carefully. “Yes, Shaper. We're glad you're here. Glad you are helping us.” She walks up to the door and raps on it with her knuckle.

 

The door opens briefly, and she passes the letter through. Then she returns to her place.

 

“Now you can serve the true will of the Shapers. I know Astrov will want to speak to you. He can also give you aid. You may enter. I hope you know the Sholai tongue, though. The outsiders here don't know yours.”

 

“I do. How did you come to help the Sholai?”

 

“I was a scout once, searching for the source of the spawners that were killing us. Then I saw the outsiders, the Sholai. I followed them. I saw them find one of the spawners. They killed it. I knew then that, whoever they were, they were not our enemies. I approached them. They didn't speak my tongue, and they almost killed me on sight. I don't know why they're so afraid of serviles. I didn't know then that the foul Takers of Kazg had joined with their leader.”

 

Dakro spits on the ground in disgust.

 

Sniff nods. “They knew a few words of my speech. I showed them I am not from Kazg. I wouldn't fight them. I followed them here, and I help them as I can. I know they are outsiders, in Barred land. But they oppose Trajkov, the true enemy of the Shapers. So I serve them, until the Shapers return and save us.”

 

“I have returned. I have saved the worthy serviles of Pentil, cleared much of the land of rogues, and…” Dakro suddenly questions why he even cares what his mere servile thinks of him. He walks through the door.

 

Sniff looks on impassively.

 

Through the door is a high, chilly cavern with multiple side passages. The cold is blunted slightly by the small smoky fire burning in the middle of the room. There are long strips of meat hanging from the wall, curing in the smoke.

 

As Dakro enters, weapon drawn and followed by three glaahks, several Sholai also draw their weapons, but make no move to attack. They know that Dakro has come from Masha, but they are understandably cautious.

 

Dakro suppresses his desire to automatically kill outsiders in Barred lands. He reminds himself that they are his strength.

 

The leader of the small group of outsiders does not draw his weapon. He is a small man, thin and nimble. Far less muscular than the other Sholai warriors. However, he is also quite agile and fast on his feet.

 

“Welcome,” he says. His accent is very thick, but Dakro can understand him (barely). “I am Astrov, leader here, scout. It is good to hear from Masha. Thank you for being here.”

 

There is so much he wants to say, but limited by the language, he simply says, “Greetings. I come from Masha, looking for information.”

 

Astrov speaks slowly and carefully and does a decent job of making himself comprehensible. “Good. We are glad. We fight Trajkov. We hope you fight Trajkov. He is dangerous and mad. First, I tell you our story. Then I say what we find.”

 

Not releasing his firm grip on his weapon, Dakro takes an offered seat and makes himself comfortable. Michelle stands guard vigilantly while Sarah and Joy look around curiously. “Tell me your story.”

 

“Yes, Shaper. Story. I am scout. Always been scout. Can run fast and silent. Help many explorers when land on new land. Find food and roads and people to meet. Going on trip to your land greatest honor. Meeting new people is marvelous. Sea journey hard. We land here with only one ship and many death. Then Trajkov mad. I am sure you learn this from Masha. Should have learned most of story there.”

 

“Yes. And I confirmed Masha’s story by reading wizard Anfisa’s journal. However, neither told me what you have done since you landed.”

 

“Nothing. I am eager to explore and contact, or just move quiet and see things. But Trajkov holds me. He only want to use canisters of magic and learn strange Shaper secrets.”

 

Dakro interrupts. “Trajkov no longer uses the canisters. He has seen their danger. I have a device that may yet help return him to himself.”

 

Astrov shakes his head. “No. Trajkov has gone too far. Trajkov kidnaps a Shaper! He takes one of your kind, called Goettsch. Your people will never forgive. But then Goettsch flees, and takes something with him. Trajkov furious!”

 

Dakro thinks back to his actions since arriving. Some might be interpreted as being even worse. He wants Trajkov to be redeemed, because if Trajkov can’t, what chance does he have himself?

 

Dakro forces himself to stop thinking about such things and listen to Astrove. “... though it horrible beyond words. No, final insult is he wants to go into wastes to find Goettsch. This could not be more far from our true goals and mission! Waste my skills and life for that!”

 

Dakro hopes he did not miss anything important in the conversation and asks, “What did Trajkov steal?”

 

“Trajkov said it was glove. But I do not believe him. Strange thing to steal.”

 

“What now?”

 

“We try to find ways to Trajkov, so we can kill him and make peace between our peoples. But ways to get to him are hard. Need one who knows secrets of island. Need one with powers. Need you, Shaper. I want to tell you how to get to Trajkov. He takes your secrets. You can deal with him. I can tell you what lies to northeast. I can tell you way to Geneforge. All I ask is you help us.”

 

“Go on.”

 

“To northeast is the Research Core, the great place where your kind made many huge things and much powerful magic. But it is guarded. You left many defenses. In places Sholai snuck in, Trajkov left defenses of own.”

 

“I have been to the borders of the Research Core. It was guarded by invisible attackers.”

 

“Yes, guarded by many of Trajkov fighters. He has few humans to spare, but he spares them there. Worse are turrets he grows. Deadly bridges. You can go that way, but is very very hard. However, there is another way.”

 

Drawing a crude map in the soil, Astrov continues, “Other ways is the Shapers mines in the mountain northeast of Kazg. You filled them with traps. We found ways to both ends, but we never could get past the pylons there. You can find corpses of those that tried. Go through those mines and you should find a way past the river. I think you should be good with machinery and traps and stealth. Battling with pylons leads to death.”

 

Dakro knows that if he can’t even control a simple living tool, then he has no chance with pylons and other complicated devices. He will need more inside information. “Where is Goettsch now?”

 

“First go northwest of here through wastes. Wastes are nasty and full of horrible monsters. And not natural waste, but poisoned. When you Shapers left, you left many tanks and pools of burning goo. That you used for your work. Some of them leaked over the years. They burned the ground. I don’t know about it. I don’t want to know about it.”
 

“Okay, but where is Goettsch?”

 

“More to northwest is ruins. Old ruins. Old old. Far in, that is where Goettsch hides. I didn’t go there. The rogues are very dangerous.”

 

“I will require Shaper artifacts to help you with Trajkov.” Dakro specifically avoids using the word “kill.”

 

“Take what supplies you want. What is ours is yours. Without you, no hope of killing Trajkov. Some artifacts are hidden away in the cave to the south. Maybe. We found an old cache. Guarded by Shaper guards. We think we saw a canister. You can have it. We fear those.”

 

When Dakro hears the word “canister,” his skin grows flushed. Beads of sweat emerge on his head. He has a powerful desire to go find it. He immediately jumps up and heads south.
 

A nervous Sholai brings back up his weapon at Dakro’s sudden movement, but Dakro doesn’t notice, so intent is he on the canisters.

 

Swiftly passing through cavern after cavern, he passes more nervous Sholai who have hidden away. Seeing he is intent on being elsewhere, they leave him alone.

 

That is, until he reaches one cavern with a Sholai woman in glimmering robes. She attempts to get his attention. He barely notices her.

 

Struggling to keep up in her constricting robes, she says, “I am Anya. How is it that your rapier calls to me?”

 

That gets Dakro’s attention. “You have used a canister?”

 

She considers lying, but then admits, “Yes. I feel strange things in me, strange things I want to do, but I do not know how to do them. I did not know how the glass jars were changing me, so I stopped using them and fled.”

 

“Then you no longer use them?”

 

“Yes. Can you not feel it? Can you not feel the changes? The strange changes? You are in a bad place. You must use them to live, but you must then be changed by them. I hope you have the strength in your mind to stay wise.”

 

As she speaks of it, Dakro finds that he is having a hard time keeping from striking out at her. Her manner is infuriating. Very strange. He remembers that normally, he wouldn't feel this way. It’s the canisters. He has to get his mind on something else. He can’t trust himself to even be in the same room as them.

 

But it is not enough to get his mind on something else. This insatiable desire for power must be sated. Suddenly, he has an idea. “Can you teach me any of your magic?”

 

It is difficult, but he convinces her to give him a brief magic lesson. She tells him all his limited grasp of the Sholai tongue enables him to comprehend. The Sholai have some focusing techniques that are new to him.

 

Her knowledge is surprisingly new and effective. More importantly, it helps him put off using the canisters. When they are done, he finds he has the willpower to leave. If he had more willpower, he would tell the Sholai to destroy the canisters, but he does not.

 

This does not bode well for when he encounters the Geneforge.

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Chapter 33: Trash

 

Dakro takes his first steps into the desert wastelands, remembering the warnings of the Sholai and Vikkari’s serviles. The former residents of former Vikkari were weak of mind and body, and it should be amusing to see what struck such fear into such trash.

 

A few vlish wander the desert. Nothing special. They try a few of their mind tricks, but Dakro easily shrugs it off, and his glaahk use their own, more refined mental control. Soon, he has a small patrol of vlish leading their way through the desert. Vlish were not meant to be front line soldiers and die easily, but they serve their purpose well as fodder, and there are plenty more vlish to take their place.

 

As the sun passes its zenith, the sweltering heat begins to become unbearable. Dakro spots a series of caves and ducks inside the closest to break for lunch. 

 

The cave is home to a pair of vlish. After killing one and dominating the other, he looks inside and finds the cave is too small to comfortably seat him and his creations.

 

The second cave has a half-dozen vlish. After neutralizing them (in one way or another), he enters and gags on the stench of a rotting corpse. Apparently vlish have no sense of smell. He has a vlish drag the corpse outside, but the vomit-inducing odor lingers. He tries the next cave.

 

To his surprise, the third cave has no vlish. Instead, he finds an ancient stone pillar. It has been sitting in this cave for many centuries. The constant drip of water from the ceiling has coated it with thick mineral deposits, concealing whatever purpose it once had. Remembering the pillar and the whole crystal cavern fiasco, he decides to try another cave. Especially since the vlish are wise enough to not live in an otherwise perfectly good cave.

 

The next cave catches him completely off guard. There is an entire building inside.

 

The serviles of Sucia Island have spent the last century industriously scouring Shaper ruins for any supplies of value. This building is a center for that sort of activity. He has never seen such an array of old, crumbling Shaper debris. There are broken vats, rusty equipment, used canisters, and a dazzling array of mixed trash.

 

Apparently, useful items are taken south to the cities. Junk comes here to die.

 

A servile walks up to greet him. She is middle-aged, full of energy, and unaffected by the fact that he is a Shaper. She smiles up at him. “Greetings. Welcome to our humble trash pit. I am Proof. I am the trader here.”

 

“You seem to be made of sterner stuff than those weaklings of former Vakkiri.”

 

“Perhaps. But even they did not fear this area. The vlish here, or their ancestors, have been living out there for many, many years. They are old rogues. We feed them. They leave us alone. The old rogues only rarely threaten serviles. Only when they are scared, or hungry. Speaking of which, I was about to sit down to eat. Won’t you join me?”

 

Deeper inside the cave, Dakro sees the first items that are not completely worthless. However, just because they aren’t worthless, doesn’t mean they have much value.

 

As they sit to eat, Proof asks, “Now where were we?... Oh, yes. The serviles fear the Dry Wastes to the west and north. Many of the old spirits, many vicious rogues. Very few serviles are brave enough to go out there.”

 

Between mouthfuls, Dakro asks, “What sort of things are in the Dry Wastes?"

 

“Well, there are these cactus fields due west of here. They're filled with clawbugs now. Very dangerous. Before the rogues appeared, though, I'd sometimes see a thahd wandering around out there. Didn't see it very often. It avoided me. One strange thing about it. It was always clutching a metal orb to its chest.”

 

“Interesting. And farther in?”

 

“Ah, now there is a mystery. I don't know. The Shapers, when they were here, only rarely went out there. There are ruins, old ruins, of the people who lived here long ago, before the Shapers came.” He stabs a piece of questionable meat. “At least, that is what the old Shaper records say. I found mentions that the Shapers built a tomb out there once. But that is all I found.”

 

Remembering the value of Shaper tombs with their stored knowledge, Dakro stops eating and looks up in interest. “What do you know about this tomb?"

 

“Almost nothing. It would be a place of great honor, for the greatest researchers of the Shapers on the island. I don't know where it was, or what would be put into it.”

 

“Of course. Serviles would not be privy to such knowledge. You were obviously made to provide Shapers with equipment, but none of these items seem useful to me. Where is your quality equipment?”

 

She pauses, thinking, and then says, “Hidden. Special things, which we are saving to sell for money for emergencies. But you are the Shaper. We might trade with you, if you help us.”

 

Dakro’s face clouds. “Surely, you are aware of what happened to Pentil after they attempted to thwart the Shapers.”

 

“I am sorry, Shaper. Your coming may mean that our freedom is about to end. However, until our freedom is taken, we will act as if we still have it.”

 

Dakro looks down at the serviles’ dubious food. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have something else for your last meal?”

 

Proof swallows prematurely and struggles to keep his voice steady. “I do not ask for much. It will be easy for a Shaper such as yourself. To the west, through the wastes, you will find a large gate. Some miles to the west. There are large stone pillars around it, and many ghosts.”

 

Dakro slides his rapier out of its sheath.

 

Proof begins speaking more quickly. “None of us have been able to explore and scavenge beyond that gate, because of the spirits. But you might be able to clear it, so we can go past there. If you clear that gateway, I will let you see our special stash.”

 

“All that just to see it. And even then you will not freely give it to me.”

 

Proof begins to respond, but all that comes out is a choking, wet gurgle as Dakro cuts her throat. There is little anger in his action. He has just done what he was taught since a small child. Brush his teeth, clean his room, and report such serviles for execution. With no one to report this servile to, he performed the execution himself.

 

Dakro is cleaning his rapier when another servile comes from the back. Seeing Proof’s body, he screams and freezes in terror. With the Shaper blocking the exit, there is nowhere to run.

 

Dakro puts his rapier away and says, “This servile attempted to barter with me, rather than giving me my due.”

 

The jittery old serviles stammers, “Welcoming to the Shaper. Welcome. I am Shock. I ... Welcome to our tiny shop. I… I must do work for Shapers now.”
 

He turns to a bench and works hard trying to repair an old thorn baton. It is still alive, but its stone casing is cracked. The servile manipulates his tools with surprising skill, trying to heal the creature. Occasionally, the tiny creature inside the weapon squeaks in annoyance. He immerses himself in the work, trying to remain calm by forgetting about everything else.

 

Dakro walks over to him and asks, “What are you working on?”

 

The closer Dakro gets, the more the servile shakes. “I… can’t… inutile.”

 

Dakro nods and wanders deeper in the cave, looking for the supplies Proof mentioned.

 

Soon after Dakro leaves the room, the inutile calls loudly, “I ... I fix things. We find many of your old things, and us tinkers, descendants of tinkers, we fix them and trade them so we can live. It is-”

 

As Dakro re-enters the room, the servile is once again reduced to a quivering, sputtering mess. “work.. hard… difficult… with… others...”

 

Realization dawns on Dakro. This inutile cannot function properly around others. Dakro leaves the room.

 

A minute later, the Shock calls in a loud voice. “It is hard work, but our ancestors were trained well. Right now, I am trying to repair this baton. Its housing is cracked, and the pressure on the creature prevents it from spitting the thorn properly. I wish I could repair better, but I don't have enough Shaper equipment. It is rare.”

 

Dakro looks around the back room and sees numerous items in various states of repair. Dakro’s knowledge is limited, but it looks to him like Shock is perhaps one of the finest tinkerers he has ever seen. Expensive, complicated equipment is being repaired with little more than trash. 

 

If any non-Shaper on this island could put Shaper equipment to good use, it might be this servile. Dakro calls back. “I will bring you what I can.”

 

The servile goes quiet, once again immersing himself in his work.

 

When Dakro leaves, having found nothing useful, he sees Shock has left the repaired baton and several other useful pieces of equipment next to his supplies.

 

Dakro takes the equipment and - out of kindness - does not say thanks or goodbye.

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Chapter 34: Toxic Waste

 

Dakro continues trekking through the barren, desert wasteland toward a building on the distant horizon. All too soon he is in the most dead, diseased area he has seen anywhere on Sucia Island. There is nothing alive here. Nothing.

 

The ground is covered with a fine dust, which is stirred up by the slightest breeze. It makes his eyes water and his skin burn. Even a little time here fills him with nausea. He can travel through, but only with difficulty.

 

It is almost completely silent. Almost, but not quite. Sometimes, he thinks he hears a low, angry moan. He looks around, but can't see where the sound is coming from.

 

He steps into the building, a workshop. Facilities like these usually serve as support for research. They make and repair the complex devices the Shapers use to build new, exciting creations.

 

There is something wrong here. The foul, sickening atmosphere, which was strong outside, is almost paralyzing in here. Poisonous motes of dust hang in the air, waiting for him to inhale them. 

 

Now he knows why this area (and probably all of the areas around here) are so barren and diseased. Darko steps back involuntarily, overwhelmed by the horror of it.

 

Shaper experiments tend to involve the production of a lot of poisonous and noxious substances, some of them alive. These foul byproducts are generally burned away using magic. To do otherwise would be horribly dangerous.

 

When Sucia Island was abandoned, however, there must have been a lot of experiments in place. In their rush to leave, the Shapers did not dispose of the experiments properly. They just put them in metal drums and dumped them here.

 

Some of the canisters have been leaking. This is a pit of poison, which has been leaking out and sinking into the ground. Who knows how many creations and plants have died because of it?

 

It is his duty as a Shaper to protect the serviles, but he can’t do that dead. He debates whether he dares expose himself to the risk of entering this poisonous place. Then he remembers that a workshop like this (naturally protected from scavengers) must still contain exceptional items. Yes, he will protect the serviles, as is his duty.

 

There is a defense pylon in the center of the entry room. It doesn't look like it was originally a part of the chamber. It was probably added to protect the workshop from invaders in the Shapers' absence. 

 

Dakro cautiously approaches it, seeing if it recognizes him as a Shaper. Fortunately, it remains dormant. 

 

He then tests it with a valiant Michelle, who is always willing to take the greatest risks. Again, the pylon remains dormant. Apparently it is unpowered. He sees crystal fibers running from the base of the pylon into the ground. The pylon must draw its power from a source somewhere else.

 

Guessing the direction of the fibers, he makes his way deeper into the noxious facility, his lungs hurting with every breath. His purple glaahks are beginning to look a bit green. Joy looks to be doing the best, but he knows she always tries to put up a good front when hurting.

 

He passes through a records room. The records have been bleached and destroyed by the noxious environment. The pages crumble into dust under his touch. 

 

However, there are also steel tablets bolted into the walls. Each is a thin sheet of metal, etched with details about the designs of creations. How much lizard went into the fyora. The influence of the octopus on the invention of the vlish. Sarah, the most inquisitive, looks at the sheets as if reading them, although she is probably just looking at her reflection.

 

If he were not feeling so ill, he would study them more or try to take them with him, but instead he decides the technical details are probably of little value to him. He would never know what this seemingly inconsequential decision cost him.

 

He makes his way deeper, bypassing rooms of leaking sludge and picking up shaper equipment along the way for Shock.

 

While the kitchens have no such sludge, he bypasses them too. Even the thought of food is making him more ill, if that is even possible.

 

Joy staggers and vomits on the floor. Dakro attempts to shape the poisons out of his glaahk’s systems. He’s glad he didn’t bring any battle alphas. But, even so, his essence supply will not last long here.

 

Quickening his pace, Dakro enters a massive hall, the largest in the whole complex. In the center, he sees a ghastly specter. It is the spirit of a Shaper, kept in unending unlife by some powerful, horrible magic.

 

When he enters the hall, it points a finger at him. “I am Corata,” it intones. “One of the masters of Sucia Island! You are here now, Shaper, and I bid you to serve me. I need your help.”

 

Dakro bows low. “Of course, Shaper. How may I serve?” The glaahks bow too, Michelle in front as always.

 

“Save me! I can see you have great Shaper power in you! Use it to rebuild my body and restore me to life. End this imprisonment and maddening torment. Then I will give you anything you want!”

 

Dakro immediately realizes that he can't do what it wants. Nobody can. What it wants, the creation of a Shaper body and filling it with an existing spirit, is impossible. Even to a Shaper, dead is dead. But then Dakro realizes he has seen the “impossible” being done here on Sucia Island.

 

“How do I do this?”

 

Corata bellows, “If I knew, I would have done it myself! Go! Discover the method!”

 

Dakro looks confused for a moment. His aching body is not making concentrating any easier. His rapier hums soothingly and his mind clears a bit. “I will find a method for you faster if I better understood how you came to be in your condition.”

 

It intones its story in flat, slurred tones. “I am one of the three masters of Sucia. When the isle was Barred, I snuck back. I came here with those loyal to me. We wanted the power here, the power of the Geneforge, for ourselves. But we needed the control rod. It was here. So we came here.”

 

Dakro begins reconsidering if he should serve this Shaper. It is one thing to accidentally arrive on a Barred isle, and another to intentionally come.

 

“We made a mistake. We didn't think the poison here could affect us. We were wrong. It was much fresher and stronger then than it is now, before the worst of it leaked into the soil. We didn't see how sick we were getting until we were in too far. Some of us escaped. The rest were warped, changed, held. I, the strongest of all, found the control rod, but was trapped in this horrible form. Those who escaped did no better. I made sure that they died. That was their penalty for leaving me!”

 

Dakro isn’t sure he caught everything. The Shaper’s flat, slurred tones combined with the poison are making it hard to think. So he simply says, “Let me think. I will go and try to find a way to make you a body.”

 

He quickly begins making his way out of the complex. He needs to get away from the poison so he can think.

 

In his haste and physical state, he gets lost. The facility is beginning to look a lot larger inside than it did outside.

 

He stumbles upon an air lock. He throws himself through and lands on the floor of the servant mind room. He barely hears the ancient filters pumping out most (but not all) of the poisons. Joy nudges him, trying to get him up.

 

The servant mind is amazingly, still alive. However, it is not well. Years of exposure to the poisons here have left it perpetually ill and quite mad. The moment it sees Dakro, it shrieks. “You! A Shaper! Servant of Corata! You will pay! I will kill you! Die!”

 

In his weakened state, Dakro barely comprehends the words. The rapier, sensing Dakro is debilitated and near death, seizes control of his body. “You have made a mistake. I am here to kill the rogue Shaper."

 

Somehow, the authoritative tone manages to cut through the creature's madness. It stops. “I ... You ... You have stopped me. Now, Shaper, you will torment me again. My foolishness. Now you will hurt poor Mind Ramel.”

 

Dakro lays there for some time trying to purge the poison from his system while Mind Ramel whimpers. Joy watches over him, Michelle watches the door, and Sarah looks around at the various displays.

 

At last, Dakro regains control of his senses. All the pain makes him want to lash out at something. To blame someone for his decision to come in here. “Tell me more about Corata, that I might kill him.”

 

“Shade. Specter. Ghost of foul Shaper who came here to raid. He is dead, and he torments me. He wants a body, a return to life, and I can not give it, so he torments me, he lashes out at me.” The servant mind quivers in its tray. “Oh, the pain. Oh, how I would give all the rest of my strength to reward any who could kill Corata. Kill, kill.”

 

Dakro rests his rapier against the servant mind. “Focus, mind. Focus through the pain. Listen to my question: What do you know about Corata that might help me kill him?”

 

The servant mind is quiet for a few heartbeats and then begins to sway slightly to some unheard music. “Pylons. Pylons there. He ignores them. He has foolish times. He does not realize two power spirals needed to power pylons. Four rooms off Corata chamber. Storage rooms. Power spirals are in northwest and southeast corner rooms.”
 

“I command you to turn these Pylons against Corata in ten minutes. Together, we will destroy the rogue Shaper.”

 

The servant mind’s cries in anguish, “I cannot control them! They have been disconnected. And no one repairs them. Nobody help me. Nobody helps poor me.” Michelle glares at the servant mind.

 

Dakro sighs. “I can still barely think, let alone help right now, but I will return to help. First, tell me how to escape this labyrinth.”

 

“Good, good. You not hurt me yet. But you will be back. Back to hurt. All Ramel gets is hurt. Poor Ramel.” Joy runs her nose against Ramel, attempting to comfort him.

 

“Focus, Ramel! How do I get -”

 

Dakro stops mid-sentence as he sees Sarah has opened a cupboard with nutrient solution. Invaluable, Dakro takes it before Sarah can break it.

 

He then begins coaxing rather poor directions out of the servant mind.

 

Dakro learns can make it out, but he knows he will never make it far enough away from the toxic waste with his remaining essence. He will need to dissolve a creation back into essence.

 

He looks at Michelle, Sarah, and Joy. He never should have named them.

 

Edited by Ardent Trove
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