"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
– Arthur C. Clarke, 21st century CE
When Jerren woke it was dark again. Pale moonlight filtered in through the porthole window in his cabin, casting dancing shadows upon his cot. All around, the Seafarer ship hummed in alien voices, vibrating and chirping as it sped through the waves. He heard rhythmic clanging in the distance, and some kind of hissing sound, much like escaping steam.
He wondered where all the time had gone, and vaguely recalled being really, really sick. But there had been someone with him, he was sure, a warm, comforting presence bathing him in cool, white light when he felt his most miserable.
He was famished, emptied with a hunger so acute that it made his belly hollow out into a desolate pit. If possible, he felt even more tired than before he went to sleep. He rolled over and reached for a pitcher of water laying on a stand bolted to the floor, bringing it to his lips and drinking greedily. It tasted like metal.
After a few moments he gathered his strength and slid out of bed, standing slowly upon shaky legs. His head reeled and spun, but he put a hand out against the wall and slowly recovered his ability to walk.
Where was Lacrimus? The last thing he remembered was being shown to his cot, where he had collapsed and remained unconscious for...why, nearly an entire day now. He needed to talk; to find Lacrimus, then then some food, then some answers.
He had no idea where he was, but he supposed there was no better way to find out than to explore. Hunger lent him courage as he opened his heavy door and stepped into a narrow corridor. He traveled down it a little ways, his footsteps ringing hollowly in close, humid air. Strange, flameless lamp on the walls cast eerie shadows on the rusted metal plates the ship was constructed of. He rapped one with a hard knuckle and it rang hollowly. In the dim light it was hard to see for sure, but it seemed as if there were fine markings inscribed upon nearly every centimeter of the riveted metal plates. Were all Seafarer ships this ornate, this preposterous?
The corridor was short and capped at each end with a ladder and trap door. One led up, and the other down. Though he knew he shouldn't go snooping around in a stranger's ship, mysterious sounds from below leaked out of the trap door and gave him an incessant itch of curiosity that overcame his inhibition. No one that he knew of had ever been on a Seafarer ship. How did they get around? How could they float when they were all made of metal? He hesitated just a moment, then lifted up the trap door and clambered down the ladder.
It was much noisier than it had been above. Darker, too. It took his eyes a moment to adjust, but he seemed to be in a large, open area. There were no rooms or cots down here, just rows and rows of strange shapes. Flies buzzed in the air. He moved closer and could see he was in some kind of cargo area, with crates and sacks stacked up all around. Hunger forgotten, he wandered through the maze of mysteriousness, fascinated with the dimly-seen shapes, until something warm and wet suddenly pressed itself against the back of his hand.
Jerren yelped and spun around, stumbling backward onto a pile of moldy sacks. A large and shadowy object reared up and let out a strange animal wail, kicking its front legs in the air. Jerren scrambled backward, trying to get away from what was surely a Nightmare attack. After a moment the beast lowered itself back to the ground, casting one last wary look at him before dropping its elongated nose back into a bag and beginning to munch contentedly. Jerren cocked his head in puzzlement, trying to figure out what it was. It was eating something that wasn't people, so maybe it wasn't a Nightmare, but it was certainly huge and frightening like one. He backed slowly away from it until he ran into a door at the foot of the ladder he had come down. Without thinking, he fumbled for the latch and slipped in, leaving the strange beast behind.
This room was much, much louder, but thankfully brighter, too. The large metal door swung shut with a clang behind him, and he suddenly found himself looking upon four or five very startled Seafarers bent over their work. One of them leapt up from its task and strode angrily toward him, clicking and chirping in their odd, wet-sounding language, waving its arms frightfully and shooing him toward the door.
Jerren raised his hands pacifically, saying, "Ho ha, I didn't mean to bother you. I just found my way down here. I'll, err, get back up right away."
The Seafarer started pushing him back toward the door. With its full-body suit, head mask, and tinted goggles, Jerren couldn't see a single centimeter of it or its expression, but he could tell it was definitely upset. The others stood and looked nervously on as he backed toward the door.
Looking over his assailant's shoulder, Jerren could see a large machine spinning placidly in the middle of the room. His mouth dropped as he saw crackling arcs of silver-white light jumping across its worked surface. Large, eye-twisting symbols were etched onto the complex and prolific parts. It hummed and clanged and moved as it spun slowly in the air, turning some kind of crank or shaft system that disappeared into the wall.
When the Seafarer saw him looking it grew even more furious. It yanked open the door and grabbed his collar, picking him up and tossing him out into the storage room. He tumbled a little ways, then slammed into the ladder. Silt, but that thing was strong! The Seafarer spat one final string of withering abuse at him and then disappeared back into the machine room, slamming the door behind it with a hollow boom.
Jerren sat on the floor and rubbed his head. "Well, I guess they don't like visitors," he mumbled to himself as he stood and climbed back up the ladder.
The Seafarers sure were an odd people. He wanted to know more about them, but they always kept to themselves. They traded well with Glen's Hope villagers, though, or at least they used to. That was where they got their metal, without which they'd have a hard time farming or sawing wood.
Jerren climbed back up to the cabin level, then went to his room and pushed open the door. He was beginning to despair of finding some food when an odd sound drifted in from down the hall. He cocked an ear, trying to pick the sound out from the regular hum and buzz of the ship. It almost sounded like something grunting in one of the rooms up ahead.
Bothered again by that little persistent itch, Jerren walked up the hall and pressed his ear against the door of the room that seemed to host the sound. Garbled bits of what sounded like human voice came from within. He knocked but heard no reply.
Curious and just a little bit worried, Jerren opened the door, getting ready to put his hands up to his face in case his eyes saw something he shouldn't. At first the room looked empty: a single cot, some shelves, a battered footlocker, and a desk. Nothing remarkable. Then he saw something dark moving up and down in the corner.
Lacrimus was hanging from the low rafters of the cabin. Bare chested, he was doing upside-down sit-ups, reaching up and touching the ceiling, then dropping down and touching the floor. In the diffuse moonlight his damp skin glistened and his muscles rippled. His eyes were closed and he was muttering some kind of chant, apparently oblivious to Jerren's presence.
"Lacrimus?" Jerren stepped into the room. "Lacrimus? Hello?"
The Shade's eyes snapped open. He let out a grunt of surprise and dropped to the floor, flipping as he fell to land gracefully on his feet. He winced as he put pressure on his wounded leg. "Jerren!" he exclaimed when he saw him. "I was just exercising." He straightened. "How are you feeling?"
"I...I heard noises and came to see what was going on. I feel better, I guess. Less sick. Did you do something to help me while I was asleep?"
Lacrimus reached for a towel and wiped his brow. "I tried to heal you, if that's what you mean. The disease you have is attacking your body's energy matrix, clogging your sai channels and slowly killing you. I had to do something to try to stop it. It's contained for now, but I suspect it won't be long before it flares up again." He dried himself off and slipped on a loose shirt. He looked a lot friendlier when he wasn't wearing his long, black leather jacket.
"So I'm going to die for sure, then, huh?" Jerren asked
Lacrimus tried to keep his tone light. "It looks that way. I've seen something almost like this before, something that attacks not only a person's body but their very life force. Back in the city some are calling it the Evanescing disease."
"Because it eats you alive until you literally pass out of existence. Evanesce."
"But yours is different. Maybe it's because I was there right away to heal you, but it seems like it's actually converting your sai and cells instead of consuming them. The mechanism of spread is like a virus instead of a bacterium."
"Never mind. Here, you must be hungry." He reached for a platter of cold bread and gruel on the bed stand and held it out for him to eat.
Jerren sat on the cot, took the food, and dug into it, eating like he hadn't in days, which was probably almost true. The food wasn't really very good, but he didn't care one bit. At that moment he could have eaten anything.
Lacrimus watched, impressed, as the food disappeared in a manner of moments. "Still hungry?"
"Alright, I'll be right back, then." The sorcerer stood and swept out of the room. Well, he didn't really sweep anything, because he wasn't wearing a cape or cloak, but that was still the impression Jerren got whenever the other man moved. Power and majesty, he reeked of them both.
He was left on his own for a little while then. He sat on Lacrimus's bed and busied himself by thinking of questions he'd get to ask now that he had some time with the stranger.
Lacrimus returned, bearing a large tray of steaming food. He set it down in Jerren's lap. "There you are: bread, fish fillet, and spirinta tea."
Jerren gazed down at the food, enraptured. "Wow, a warm meal. It's been ages."
Lacrimus smiled. "It's not hard to warm things up when you're a Medorian."
He took a sip of the tea and sighed. Before he started eating, he had to get his new companion to start talking. Jerren had a feeling his strength wouldn't last long. "You know, I've done some awfully brave things recently," he said, setting his cup down. "I left my family and my village on your word alone. But you're still more or less a stranger to me. If we're going to be traveling together..."
"...Then you want to have some questions answered," Lacrimus interrupted. "I can empathize with your confusion. I'll do the best I can to help you understand." He pulled up a chair and sat down across from him, twining his fingers together. "I guess I'll start with who I am.
"My name, again, is Keider Lacrimus. I'm a Shade for the Medorians – a special agent of sorts. It's kind of strange to explain this, because most people in the world already know who we are, but I'll try. We're the scholars and innovators of the civilized world. Like the sorcerers of the old stories, we can wield sai to manipulate the very fabric of existence. We work with the government to keep the peace in Myrsena and abroad."
Jerren sat very still at this. "Just what government do you work for?"
The Shade was taken aback. "Why, the Royal State of Myrsena, of course. The Empire formed by the partnership of the Yrsen Matriarchy and the Medorian organization. What government did you think I was talking about?" He peered at him carefully. "How long has your tribe been on that island, anyway?"
"Hundreds of years," he said absently. This is what he was afraid of. He was returning to the ancient evil his ancestors had feared so much. He had heard stories about the Empire and the terrible things it did during the Imperial Revolution. He just hoped that was all they were, stories, and that he wasn't making a grave mistake.
"I see. Well, I was sent here on a very specific quest, and it was very lucky that I arrived when I did. I am surprised that your people were able to survive Nightmare incursions for this long. Most isolated villages are quickly abandoned or destroyed."
"There have always been Nightmares, don't mistake me, but never like this." Jerren frowned and took a bite of the fish. "You said earlier that it was my fault the Nightmares attacked. But how would it not be your fault, too? They showed up after you arrived and you said yourself that powerful sorcerers – like you – attract them."
Lacrimus shook his head, offended. "I've been a trained Medorian for a very long time. I can mask my presence from the corruption in the Kardia."
"Well I've been me for a very long time. Even if I really am a sorcerer, which is hard to believe, what would make three nights ago any different from any other day? Why then?"
The Shade shrugged. "Several people I know can recall a specific day in his or her life when their powers suddenly manifested. Maybe something happened to you recently that unlocked your receptiveness to the Kardia."
Well, there was that Nightmare he fought off with Patris the day before the incident. But that couldn't have been it, could it? He did remember feeling very sick shortly after when the Nightmares began attacking. Maybe it had been his fault after all. No, he couldn't go blaming himself this quickly. He hadn't done anything. He had to wait and see. "You keep talking about this 'Kardia' as if it's something I should know about. What is it?"
Lacrimus snapped his fingers, one after the other in rapid succession. He seemed to be phrasing his words. Then, as if making his up his mind, he opened a hand and held it out for Jerren to see.
Pale, liquid golden light seeped out from his palm, beading like perspiration and running down the lines in his skin. It gathered into a semi-solid and opaque white sphere that rose up to hover before his face. "So. This is sai," he said simply. "It is the power formed by the joining of the elemental forces of the world. Light, magnetism, the bonding forces of atoms, and even what which pulls you to the ground, all these things go into the creation of sai. Some machines and the bodies of certain humans are able to perform this joining within them, generating raw sai themselves."
With his hands Lacrimus manipulated the growing sphere, stretching it out and weaving it into a patterned web. The strands glowed, illuminating the dark cabin with supernatural light. "This ubiquitous force lives inside everything. And I do mean everything. The flow of sai creates patterns that, over time, become solidly...engraved...in what they flow through. Basically, every individual thing has a sort of sai matrix that conducts the energy." He gestured to the web he was holding. "This is a model of a very simple one: fire. People have them, too, although much more complex in their own way, and no two are alike. Yours has become infected, for instance. These matrices exchange energy all the time, keeping the sai flowing in a great, never-ending river.
"On the micro level, all these little exchanges add up, until at the macro level net exchange creates channels of its own, forming one huge matrix that joins everything together."
Jerren sat on the bed, focusing hard on Lacrimus's words. Lacrimus saw his confusion and brought his palms together, extinguishing the light. "Okay, let me put this in simpler words," the Medorian said, rubbing his chin. "Rivers carve into the land, ri –?"
Comprehension dawned in Jerren's eyes. "No, no, I think I understand now," he said. "This one huge matrix is...the Kardia, right?"
Lacrimus closed his mouth in mid-word and smiled. "Right."
"And the Kardia covers the whole world because sai is everywhere, right?"
"And the Kardia is where the Nightmares come from, isn't it?"
"Yes, exactly!" Lacrimus beamed. "You're quicker than I thought."
He sobered. "We're still not sure. We Medorians, for all our wisdom, still have large gaps in our knowledge of the arcane. For example: how come people and machines can make sai, but not animals? Why can sai be generated only where the Kardia exists? Why does the Kardia exist over land but not deep water? Why do Nightmares eat humans?"
Jerren was nodding. These were things he suddenly desperately wanted to know, too.
"And most importantly of all, who were the Precursors, and what did they know then that we don't know now?"
"Wait, who are the Precurers?"
"Precursors. The civilization that lived before. You'll see plenty of their remnants once we get to the city." His eyes took on a wistful, longing look. "They could do things with sai that we can only dream about, and their technology was masterfully crafted. It doesn't break, not like what we make. Entire cities exist on things they built thousands of years ago, back before the Imperial Revolution."
"Did they discover a way to stop the Nightmares?"
For a moment a cloud of great sorrow passed over Lacrimus's features, as if he was recalling a distant and painful memory. Then it cleared and he pulled the miniature sai matrix back out of his palm like a jester performing sleight of hand. One moment it wasn't there and the next it was. He saw Jerren's amazement. "It's a skill that you pick up after a little while," he explained.
He continued, saying, "Obviously they couldn't stop the Nightmares, otherwise they'd be alive today. But there was evidence of a great war that lasted many, many years. Today that period is called the Shadow Wars. After it came the Empire, and the rest is, as they say, history. A lot of history that we have lost over the years, unfortunately."
Jerren watched the man play with the matrix in his hands, bending it, sending ripples across it, stretching it out into new form. "Wait a moment... I thought you said sai couldn't exist over deep water. How are you doing that?"
"The Kardia doesn't exist over deep water," Lacrimus corrected. "At least, not in the manner we're used to. Sai can exist anywhere, and this stuff was stored in the sai battery I keep with me always. But the ability to generate sai and manipulate it with any kind of skill seems to be tied to dry land and the Kardia that exists there. Most Medorians are powerless elsewhere." He stretched the web to the breaking point, then snapped his fingers with a flourish. The matrix folded in on itself and collapsed away, bursting into a small fireball that briefly lit up the cabin before burning itself out.
"That doesn't look so 'powerless' to me," Jerren said.
"Ah, but I had to concentrate and build that matrix by hand. When one has access to the Kardia, sai seems to bend itself to one's will, but out here on the deep blue sea it requires a fine touch and a supreme understanding of the nature of what one seeks to create. Fire, for example, is something any novice can create on land. But out here one must first understand chemical structure, combustion, and how to quickly create them both from a single matrix. It's a lot harder than it sounds."
Jerren sat quietly for a few moments, hands in his lap, trying to absorb everything the Medorian was saying. "It's just...so fast. Too much too fast."
Lacrimus lowered his hands and sat down beside him. "I'm sorry. I know how strange this must be for you. You had one idea of what the world is and how it would always be, and here I am turning everything upside down. I'm throwing ideas and problems at you that until a couple days ago you never knew existed. I'm sorry I'm going so fast. It's just that...it's been a long time since I've had anoah to share my knowledge with, and I'm getting a little carried away."
"It's okay. Maybe we can talk about something simpler?"
"Like what's wrong with me."
Lacrimus exhaled, puffing out his cheeks. "That's hardly simpler."
"Okay, then what happened after I passed out that night?"
Lacrimus nodded. "Do you remember the thing that attacked you."
Jerren shivered. "Just...a white face...teeth...black, black eyes, images."
Lacrimus pursed his lips. "A Cutman. So called because they can cut you up before you even see them move. It's a relatively new kind of construct, one that has been a myth up until the last couple of decades. It is a Nightmare, but unlike anything we've ever seen before. They are...godlike, and no Medorian has ever faced one and lived to tell the story."
"Barely." He gestured to the bandages on his thigh. "It seemed intent on something else, as if it couldn't be trifled to stop and toy with me. It just...brushed me away. I was embarrassingly powerless to stop it."
Jerren closed his eyes, the memory of the pain making his body convulse in empathy. "It put its hand inside me," he said quietly. "It did something to me."
"I think it gave you this sickness. I'm afraid to know how or why, but it's imperative you get to the physicians in Myrsentha right away."
Frayed nerves made his tongue sour and sharp. "That's what you keep saying. I've agreed, haven't I? No need to press the issue." He winced, feeling guilty suddenly for snapping at his friend. He spoke more softly. "So what happens after I've been healed?"
"Well, that depends entirely upon what you choose. It's very likely that you will be offered a place at the schola. To be a Medorian, too."
Tonk's words suddenly echoed in his head, a ghost admonishing him anew. This man will try to make you join his cult. You must resist! "Why me?" he asked.
Lacrimus chuckled. "Come, don't play stupid. With the talent you showed, they'll be begging to take you. The ability to be a sorcerer is rare. Maybe one in a thousand are born with the potential, and even fewer – maybe one in ten of those – ever learn how to use sai. You are one of those few."
"Me? One in ten thousand?"
Lacrimus cocked his head. "You know arithmetic?"
Jerren shook his. "I...I don't know. I learned a few numbers when I was young. I'm not sure. What does that mean?"
"It means you are incredibly rare. Not only can you manipulate sai, but you can wield it with power far beyond what any self-taught should be able to. What you did was a phenomenon, and I'm surprised you haven't killed yourself yet. Until last night I didn't even think it was possible for a single person to store and release the amount of energy you did."
Jerren closed his eyes. He simply didn't know what to think of this. His stomach churned and he felt ill again. "I think I need to go lie down soon."
"I understand. Please, rest as much as you need to. It shouldn't be long before we arrive."