Chapter 24 of Quest for the Blue Crystal

“The Gliss hydro power station in Retil is completely owned by the Esaf Mileu,” stated the petite blond girl giving the tour. “Unlike many of the more recent ventures which have been cooperative efforts with the Esaf Condeu or even with private investors. The power plant is rated at 200 megawatts, and is usually running at full power.”

From their vantage point high above the operating floor they had an excellent view of the four vertical axis water turbines. She pointed at the turbines. “Each one rated for 50 megawatts,” she said. “Essentially no down time for outages, since we contract with the Wizards Guild for maintenance. Wizards take care of all non-biological repairs and constructions. All biological maintenance is handled through BioPowerTech, of course. And in either case, almost all maintenance is done with the plant on-line.”

“What about the muckers?” asked Billy. “Can we see them?”

The guide’s smile wavered. “Their proper name is Organic Security Conduits. Are you sure you want to see them?” she asked doubtfully. Billy nodded. Nexus smiled. She frowned.

“See the muckers,” chipped in Crow.

She took them down the stairs and through a corridor leading to a large door. A guard, so large that Billy immediately recognized him as a Rauder, stood blocking the door. Unlike the guards at the Guild, this one had a bare chest, and several sharp hooks embedded in the skin, still oozing blood. Billy turned to Nexus intending to ask about the reason for this mutilation but the wizard was listening intently to Crow. Then Billy’s attention returned to the guard as their guide said a few words to the Rauder and he moved aside.

“The Organic Security Conduits are the final stage before the electrical energy is stored in the accumulator/charger.” The guide resumed her lecture. “The accumulator is constructed of white crystal, ensuring that the energy is safe and secure until discharged into high capacity wands for transfer to the banks.”

She pulled out a small handkerchief and placed it over her nose and mouth before opening the door. The sudden onslaught of odor made Billy gag. The girl didn’t look quite well either, even with her nose and mouth covered. “The muckers – I mean Organic Security Conduits – are bred to live with the full energy output of the plant passing through their bodies,” she said, her voice muffled. “They feel great pain if the electrical current diminishes for any reason. They are utilized to protect power plants from magic-based sabotage or embezzlement.”

She let Billy peek through the door. A half dozen creatures that reminded Billy of fat seals were wallowing in a mud filled pit. The stench was intense. Billy noticed several people standing around the pit. One of them held a long pole with what looked like a syringe on the end, and was moving that end into the pit. Billy saw tiny puffs of flame occasionally erupted above some of the muckers; there was no pattern to the flames. He also noticed that there was no overhead crane or other heavy equipment, although there was a large empty pool labeled ‘Temporary Storage – Organic Security Conduits’. Billy pulled back and the guide shut the door.

“The creatures are nicknamed ‘muckers’ because they live on the rich organic mud. The muck that you saw,” stated the guide. “Some people call them ‘belchers’ because they release foul smelling gasses as the electrical current that is passing through their bodies electrolyzes the food in their digestive track. We ignite and burn off the gases continually so they don’t build up to explosive concentrations. The muckers are various sizes, are almost immobile, and have no sensory organs other than touch.”

“What were the people doing at the mucker pit?” asked Billy.

“Nothing, just routine medical exams. Seems that a couple of muck—Organic Security Conduits have caught a virus. Happens sometimes, no big deal. We give them a shot of medicine and they heal rapidly.”

“Some of the muckers are quite large. How do you move them into the storage pool I saw?” asked Billy. “Magic?”

“Oh, we try to avoid having wizards in close proximity to the muckers. We do have some wizards to make sure that the magnetic fields are properly aligned, but our engineers and technicians control the actual movement by applying the Left Hand Rule.” She noted Billy’s puzzlement at the phrase.

“The Left Hand Rule is an easy way to remember the interaction of electrical and magnetic forces in a conductor. Stick out you left hand, with the thumb, index, and middle finger each at right angles to the others.” She paused as Billy did so. “Good. Now if an electric current is flowing in a conductor in the direction of your middle finger, and a magnetic field is aligned pointing along your index finger, then the conductor will experience a force pushing it in the direction of your thumb. That’s the Left Hand Rule. Now because we can control the current flowing through the muckers, and can create and direct a large magnetic field inside the room, we can actually levitate and position the muckers without needing to have wizards and spells in place. It’s a carefully controlled evolution, because the magnetism and electricity needs to keep flowing precisely through the muckers right up until they are all in the pool, or else the mucker would fall to the floor or get banged against the walls or ceiling, and then the stink and the clean up would be horrible, plus the cost of replacing injured muckers and equipment. But we are very careful here and have not had a serious accident for many years.”

“What if you had an unexpected power outage? With the muckers in pain, wizards couldn’t help you.”

“We have some emergency wands in reserve. We can use these to pacify the muckers while the wizards help restore the plant.”

***

As they left the power plant, Billy asked Nexus about the piercings on the Rauder guard. Nexus pointed to his head, and Billy scowled. After thinking a few minutes, it came to him. “The guard was keeping himself in pain, so that he wouldn’t be affected by magic spells!”

“Good, Billy,” responded Nexus. “You are learning to think like a native. Though you’re not yet thinking like a wizard.”

“What do you mean?”

“You let the smell of the muckers bother you.”

Billy snorted. “Didn’t it bother you?”

“Didn’t bother me at all. I turned off my sense of smell before we went near the room or the guard.”

Billy scowled again and turned his horse to follow Nexus as he headed along the north road. A few minutes later, Billy was ready for more conversation. “Nexus, how come you know so much about the Rauders? There isn’t very much information on them in the library.”

“How would you know what knowledge is or isn’t in the library?”

Billy smiled. “I memorized the master catalogue. Thought it might come in handy.”

Nexus grunted. “I suppose it may, if you ever visit the library again.” Nexus leaned over, whispered some words to Crow, which flew off into the forest with a noisy flapping of wings.

“The library is not the sole source of knowledge in Salmineria. It isn’t even the best, in my opinion,” said Nexus.

“Lembro told me it was the largest accumulation of information in the world.”

“That makes it convenient. Doesn’t make it the best.”

“What about the Rauders?”

“I spent a few months with a Rauder tribe.”

“I heard you were married to a Rauder woman.”

“That damn Nasan! Yapping to young apprentices when he claims to be practicing his listening skills. Aarg! If it weren’t for the Strictures, I’d turn him into a toad.”

“Then it’s true.”

“Yes.”

Billy waited but no more information was volunteered. He decided to push for more. “I thought the Rauders were fierce, and had no fondness for outsiders.” As the seconds dragged on, Billy had nearly resigned himself to riding in silence when Nexus responded.

“Well, that’s partially true. The Rauders are fierce. They love to fight, both physically and magically. From birth they are taught to honor strength and despise weakness. You never seen so much fighting! Broken bones, ruptured spleens, concussions. And that’s only from the physical fighting. Their culture is steeped in demonstrations of strength, and it carries over into their dealings with strangers. Unfortunately, most of the folk south of the Rauder lands don’t share such cultural values, and are not very accomplished at combat. Hence the Rauder disdain for strangers.”

“I think there’s more to it, Nexus. Rauders make raids into the south. They kill and steal. They are actively hostile.”

“Squabbles over borders are just another manifestation of the culture. If you’re not strong enough to hold on to what you have, then you don’t deserve to have it in the Rauder’s eyes. But they don’t practice indiscriminate killing, Billy. They prefer to treat every encounter on an individual basis. Even in raids, if a person makes a brave stand against the Rauder band, assuming that he or she has some talent and isn’t just too stupid to run away, they will earn the respect of the Rauders and be left alone. They won’t bother that person again. In fact, if they are really impressed, they might even invite that person to visit their village. A great honor.”

“So you must have impressed the Rauders enough to get invited to one of their villages.”

“I met up with a band along the northern border of Aloria. I was younger than you, and had just passed the exams for promotion to master class magician. I had been celebrating with Tome Qam…”

“The last leader of the Elves.”

“I’m glad you said leader and not ruler. You paid attention to the subtlety in your history lessons.”

Billy smiled. The Elves had been perfect telepaths, able to link up their minds effortlessly; it was not unusual for the entire nation to join together for making major decisions with a unanimous voice. It wouldn’t work for humans. Most people were far more individualistic than any Elf; that’s why it was so difficult to achieve high level spells.

Nexus continued. “Remember, this was before Murgorath’s forces had begun warring; Aloria was still in its prime. The Rauders and the Elves have a history that’s rather intertwined;  I’ll tell you about that another time. Tome Qam had hinted that the Rauders could teach me a few things about magic, and I wanted to prove him wrong.”

He shook his head. “I was young and foolish. They have always respected strength, intelligence, and courage. I had all of those,” Nexus chuckled. “Luckily they don’t penalize foolishness, as I had plenty of that as well!”

“So you were accepted?”

“So I managed to get myself into a serious situation. You see, when you meet a Rauder band inside their own territory, they’ll give you a choice; you can surrender without a fight, in which case you give up your valuables, and they let you turn around and go back where you came from. Or you can fight them. If you choose to fight, you get to choose a physical or a magical duel. And it’s only one on one; the Rauders have a decent code of fairness.

“Here I was, a self-proclaimed hot shot magician, with a total body mass of maybe 50 kilograms, very little of which was muscle, against a Rauder that massed about 150 kilos, all rock hard muscle.”

“You choose a wizard’s duel.”

“Damn right! Got my ass kicked, too. I was lucky that Tome Qam had sent word ahead, and they didn’t fry my brain totally.”

Nexus chuckled. Anyway, I had stood my ground and given a fair accounting of myself, and since I was friend of the Elves as well, the Rauders accepted me.”

“Did they have a few things to teach you, Nexus?”

“Oh, indeed they did.” Crow returned, alighting on the wizard’s shoulder. There was a small branch with several brightly colored berries clutched in its beak. Nexus took the branch, examined the berries, and petted Crow. “They taught me that all knowledge ultimately comes from nature. We are immersed in it, we are part of it. We apply what we know back to it. Take these berries, for example. Galva berries. Crushed and boiled, they make a powerful drug that inhibits fear without impairing other mental functions. You can buy the same active ingredients in a pharmacy for a hundred Ks a pill. Or you can walk out into the forest and find the right bush, and make it for Js.”

Billy had not yet become fully fluent with the monetary system, and did the conversion in his head. A ‘K’ was a kilowatt-hour, and was worth roughly ten cents. A ‘J’ was a Joule; the same as a watt-second. It took three point six million Js to make a K. So the cost of doing the work yourself was… practically nothing.

Billy thought about what it must be like to live a Rauder life. Such a lust for battle must be tough. Magic could probably heal most of the physical wounds. But what about the magic duels?

“Nexus, do the Rauders have magic duels among themselves?”

“Certainly. They believe in practicing all aspects of battle.”

“Then why haven’t they wiped themselves out? You told me how dangerous wizard’s duels are.”

“They talk to their horses a lot,” Nexus said, smiling.

Billy furrowed his brow at the language translation spell fed him a double image of the literal translation of the words and the common idiomatic meaning of the phrase. It basically meant that the answer to a question or a puzzle should be obvious; so obvious that your horse could give you the answer, were it able to speak. The phrase originated with the Rauders. And the Rauders respected their horses; depended on them for transportation across the wide stretches of the north lands. But it was still a strange phrase.

“And that’s probably the most important thing they taught me, as well.”

“What?”

“To talk to my horse!” Nexus and Crow both laughed; and Crow seemed to give Nexus a wink as Nexus patted his head. “Enough talk.” He ordered Billy to fill the water skins. Billy gathered the water skins and walked to the river as he tried unsuccessfully to puzzle out the wizard’s words.

The sun was beginning to lower itself to the western shore and Billy raised his hand to shield his eyes from the glare off the water. As he drew close to the bank, the hanging boughs of the huge trees that grew there provided shade. This close to its headwaters, the Gliasphorn was little more than a mountain brook, but at this spot it had widened into a pool that flowed wide and slow; the surface of the water was so smooth that he could count the leaves in the reflection of the trees.

The western shore had finally developed clearly defined shores; for much of the trip the glimpses Billy caught of the northern/western shore had shown bogs and marshlands that stretched on for unknown distances. The side they were on had been consistently firm and dry. Billy suspected some magical shoring up of the banks, but everything looked perfectly natural.

The opposite shore differed significantly. Billy saw few trees and the sparse marsh grasses looked brown and wilted. No sound crossed the river from that shore. No croak of frogs, no buzz of insects.

He suddenly realized that he stood within twenty yards of the Desolation.

A sudden splash in the water drew Billy’s attention. Nexus had turned his horse and was wading across the stream.

“Nexus, are you crazy! Get back over here.”

Nexus kept going and his horse lumbered up the far bank. He called back to Billy, “Come, ninja. Tonight we camp in Aloria.”

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