Vaulting Ambition

Hardscrabble ground and a steep incline made the ascent slower, not painfully so, but slow enough to let the drizzle soak deep into the heavy robes. Tezzeret planted his feet with purpose and adjusted his weight carefully, inured to the cold and wet, he moved forward with mechanical deliberation. He hadn’t been here long and, having travelled unknowable distances to get to this place, he had to spend time in contact with the ground, let himself grow familiar and comfortable with new surroundings. Here, he wasn’t in favoured conditions and the curious blood that coursed through his veins and other mechanisms seemed to dull in its familiar pulse.

He stumbled. Forcing his left hand onto the ground, his right clutching a strangely pulsing machine to his chest. Raising a hooded brow, he looked toward the faintly flickering spot at the base of the greying mountain. He was close now, and the machine reminded him of his proximity with its silent alert. Glancing back to the village at the base of the hillside gave him fresh impetus. That’s where he’d arrived earlier in the day, to a perfectly silent welcome.

The journey, guided by his machine, had ended with Tezzeret drained but alert and entirely alone in the village’s communal area. The silence had struck him first. And then the stillness. Tezzeret always travelled with a good degree of clothing to hide his more interesting physical alterations but now he withdrew the umber robing from his right hand, unfurling the swirling metallic limb and the machine that had pointed his direction through the blind eternities. There was no need to conceal it here. There were no prying eyes, no suspicious onlookers. He knew almost immediately. There was no one. Everything was dead.

Everything, every living thing was dead in the village.

No man, beast or even the quiet ambient hum of the insects that existed on every plane he’d visited. Total silence.

With his flesh and blood hand, Tezzeret had somewhat symbolically touched the ground. He could access the mana anyway over time but he found the psychological aspect of touching the ground helped to speed the process, whether it was superstition that focused his thinking or a genuine technique, it mattered little. “It’s magic, not science.” he remembered someone once telling him. And here, in this solemn hamlet, that magic had been rapidly darkening and becoming ripe for someone with Tezzeret’s tastes. The richness of it had made him smile slightly. “Like smoked peat,” was his oft-given best description, “laced with ash.”

Back on the rock-strewn slopes at the base of the mountain, the memory of that taste gave Tezzeret the succour he needed to go on, despite his distaste for the uneven terrain. He carried on navigating his way upward, while the machine, so useful to this point, found itself deep in one the many inner pockets of the robe. He would need no help finding his mark now. After all, he was once a seeker of… things.

The word always triggered some of the more vague parts of Tezzeret’s mind, which only served to irritate him. He definitely was a ‘seeker’, on Alara, his home. He knew those things, but that was all he knew. The details were… unclear. But if they were going to remain unclear, that was a problem he could deal with. And he would deal with it by fighting and scrambling his way to the top. He could be incredibly persuasive, after all. That’s how he’d commissioned the machine. A small cabal of creative individuals offered access to certain riches and equipment and amongst all the hubbub of extraplanar travel and aether manipulation, there was that tiny speck of a thing. A small piece of ergonometric elegance that tracked a certain type of event across the vast number of known planes and more beyond. You could say it sought the sparks in the void.

Now, at the entrance to the cave set in the base of slate grey mountains it had brought him to a fresh spark. Shortly before arriving at the entrance his approach had evidently been felt, or at least heard, crunching toward the rocky fissure: the fire inside had been hastily extinguished and Tezzeret extended his dully reflective right arm forward into the opening emitting a cold electronic red glow. Peeling his hood back to reveal the matted locks of his hair he stepped in and immediately saw her.

She was pinned defensively at the back of the cave wall, partially obscured by buttressing rock. Slight, but not frail, she was old enough that she knew what others wanted but still able to claim innocence in prioritising herself. Or she had been. Whatever had happened back down in the village had lain a final claim to that innocence, sure that it would not surface again. Now there was a more animal knowledge of the horrors and dangers of nature, emulsified with shock. How much impact the appearance of a strange tall man with a glowing metallic arm had on the girl was unclear but her eyes were fixed on his, unwavering through the whip-curling smoke of the dying fire.

Tezzeret’s mind filled with translated language. Back in the village, his connection with the mana was firmly established, and with the particular mana he was harvesting were the freshly minted memories of some recent inhabitants. He entered the cave chamber fully, unfurling to his full height briefly before haunching down at the fire, their eyes locked still. With his right hand still emanating that synthetic dusklight glow, he pushed it into the embers and, without breaking gaze, brought the flames licking back up to their shared eyeline. Relaxing back to a seated position he finally broke the atmosphere with his rich and earthy voice, “It’s okay.”

Over the next half an hour he slowly and occasionally repeated the phrase, occasionally varying it to, “It’s not your fault.” and “You weren’t really ready.” and, “You couldn’t have known.” The words crept from his mouth in the strange language and yet the girl didn’t move, only occasionally did her eyes glance away from this odd figure before her, looking each time at the cave entrance, and potential escape. And yet he persisted, building the fire and relaxing to sit next to it, the flames illuminating his scarred face in tones of autumnal calm. And eventually, she gave in, moving closer to the flames but keeping their tongues between her and this stranger.

And so Tezzeret shifted his tone, more exploration but still conciliatory. He gently told her that he too had experienced the strange explosion of the mind that she had. That he too had found himself alone in the world, that he too had made mistakes, had ‘accidents’ and that he too could feel the echoes of those mistakes in the very ground beneath his feet. He could hear them. Their voices crying out; and with this, the girl showed very little, but enough for him to know that he was getting through.

And with measure and patience, he did. Like taming a wild animal, Tezzeret’s conversation gradually encouraged a fragile but tangible bridge of trust. And eventually she spoke, a fluid language where words flowed into each other and she described what had happened just two days before. She was Halani and her story was of a life of happiness and an approaching responsibility, she was designed to lead the village, her abilities and proficiency with the earth and the animals meant that she was seen as a chosen fortunate in her small society. She had been leading the successful expansion of the village, other outlying dwellers in this forest world had joined and even become subservient. It happened then when she was on the cusp of becoming a genuine force in the land. An assassin, sent from a nearby clan presumably, sent with a simple mission of snuffing out the flame that threatened to blaze brightly. In that brief moment when the killer’s blade had just connected with her collarbone, she felt everything pause.

Halani couldn’t see anything at that moment but every other sense was completely overloaded with shuddering fury, every mind in the village, every creature consciousness of every conceivable kind flooded into hers. She briefly connected everybody and every living thing in the area. It was startling, exciting, horrifying and obscenely painful, like cold-water shock, knifing neuralgia and white-hot steel in the same instantaneous awakening. And then she pushed back. And then silence. And then she woke in a strange land of sand and steel, alone and confused. Through the conversation, he gathered she had travelled the blind eternities to get back to her homeland only to find her fears were confirmed.

Tezzeret knew what he was dealing with and despite the nascent trust being built between the two of them he also knew that he had to be careful. The girl was dangerous. Her powers were an obscenely raw form of mind magic and, whilst he had carefully layered protections over his own consciousness, he had some history of being vulnerable in that area.

Halani had run, fearful and frantic, into the village square in the pitch dark of night and straight up to the hillside. She knew the cave well from her childhood exploring and felt some measure of safety. When they didn’t come for her, she knew. She knew that the voices she could feel in her mind were not some byproduct of stress. They were the voices of the freshly dead and they were in agony. Only once had she approached the village and then the voices were too loud, too raw and piercing, forcing her back to her rocky sanctuary.

With her freshly expressed fears, Tezzeret had everything he needed to gain more of her trust and so he began his offer. He could make it all go away. All the voices and the pain and the misery and torment could be taken. She could sleep again without the echoes of the dead reverberating around her head. It might not be a painless process but she would be free. He showed her some of the things he could do, simple tricks really, animating elements and creating moving marionettes of steel shards and glistening. He explained where she had been, Kaladesh, a world of mechanical marvels and harvested aether. How she had come back to this place and how he had been able to follow her with his machine, tracing her path back through the blind eternities. To help her, he said.

Eventually, Tezzeret returned to his offer. He could remove all of Halani’s current pain, and leave only the fading memories. He could extinguish the voices as they were now, leaving only the natural echoes of guilt. And Halani understood, she didn’t want to be haunted anymore, Tezzeret could lead her to the path of less resistance. At this, he moved around the fire to be next to her and took another device from deep within his robes. Soft liquid metal glinted orange in the light of the flames, it was the size of Tezzeret’s palm and it looked to Halani like the crabs from the nearby shore, but cast in a strange shifting, almost fluid covering.

“It will hurt?” She asked, not afraid.

“Not for long.”

Tezzeret placed the device on the back of Halani’s neck. It was surprisingly warm.

“Just for a moment.” Tezzeret pushed it further and swiftly stood, staring in excited focus at Halani’s surprised face.

“What is it?” She was panicking, her hand went to the back of her neck but she couldn’t grip the thing that was fixed to her neck, almost like it was bolted to her spine.

“It is a prize. One which you don’t deserve.”

Halani would scream, but the words would not come. She would strike out at the man who had tricked her, but her arms remained still. She would cry, but her eyes stayed fixed and clear on her betrayer. She would have done all this, and more, but she could not. Instead, quietly and slowly she collapsed inward, her body unmoved until all that remained was a shell. It was unmistakably the same body, nothing had physically changed, but there was no life left in it all.

There was only the device, charged with some form energy now and fizzing with potential. Tezzeret looked at it nervously. This would be a first. He’d dealt with all manner of machinery, that was his business, and business had been uncommonly good until recent events: but this was different.

All through his time on Kaladesh he’d overseen innumerable projects, positioned himself so he could stand on the shoulders of the giants of that plane and guide them toward a real source of powers. And now, in a cave, outside a nothing village, on a backwater plane, he might have cracked it. As he drew closer, the light from the back of crab-like device pricked his eyes. They were wide with anticipation and even fear as his trembling hand plucked the device from Halani’s neck. She slumped to the ground, lifeless and empty.

He could feel it. It had worked. Despite his doubts and worries. He’d found the greatest source of power that existed. And now there were… possibilities. He placed the folded device inside a sheer container and pouched it into his robes.

Tezzeret smiled to himself. At what he’d achieved.

He’d harvested a spark.

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