Behold! A perfectly ordinary wetland. Grass, trees, boggy knee-deep water, pond scum, mud, fog, everything a person could possibly want in their swamp.
Except, of course, not being a swamp.
Field Marshal Adrien Durante of the Consular Republic of Ajanta did not expect to be in a swamp today! At least not this swamp. Some swamps were possible, since yesterday he was leading the Army of the South on a multipronged assault on separatists, pro-separatist supporters, and crab-men. But whoever, exactly, dressed him in his military uniform, quietly provided him with his holstered sidearm, pocketknife and bootknife, then dragged him out to the middle of a totally unfamiliar swamp, is not merely engaging on a prank on his commanding officer, but a really, really impressive one.
His eyes, like the rest of him, were genetically engineered by people genetically engineered by people genetically engineered by people smarter than any earthling not named Johnny von Neumann.
"If you stop trying to hurt me," he says (very calmly for someone rapidly dancing away from swiftly-spreading silt), "I won't have to hurt you."
Is this a knows-martial-arts-with-superhuman-strength kind of neck-breaking attempt, per se? Because if it merely has normal human strength and no particular martial arts training, it is going to be on the far side of Durante and moving very slightly faster than it was before before it quite realizes what went wrong.
She's still gone, briefly; it was her strength he was using to throw her, not his. His gun almost slips from his other hand and he barely tightens his grip -
Durante is going to try to push his muscles as well as he can and run away as fast as his overstrained, exhausted muscles can carry him.
Tired, tired Durante wants to go in SOME DIRECTION that is NOT A SWAMP.
He has wilderness survival skills! He trained in this!
He's just... really, really tired. This is more tired than he usually gets. He's going to be looking for a good place to set up camp, once he's well out of the leafwing's reach.
... Unless you can fly.
Yeah. He... does not think he'll see a better option.
He will camp on the roots, see if there's anything he can recognize with his wilderness survival skills as being edible, make the obvious preparations that occur to him, and see about recovering from that ordeal.
He will sleep, if he sleeps, very, very lightly.
You know, the Attani wiped those out. In the morning, he sees why.
Watercress and wild rice will provide him calories. He needs more calories than that, because the Attani were not genetically engineered for WANDERING AROUND A SWAMP, they were genetically engineered for starships in which food cost a negligible amount.
Is there any chance at all he will get out of the swamp before something horrible happens to him?
OH THANK THE EMPEROR, a cute preindustrial - what is that SMELL.
Right. A cute little preindustrial village. He's smelled worse. For instance, dead bodies!
Does the cute little preindustrial village have anyone prepared to trade him food and language lessons for song, poetry, or manual labor?
NO. Do not eat Durante's leg. Eating his leg is BAD. You will stop eating Durante's leg IMMEDIATELY (this is also the voice he uses on new recruits) because he is supposed to CHOP FIREWOOD. And then you can explain what an elemental is.
(Though, frankly, he has a guess.)
"Yeah! Once they're caught they're useful. Liiiiiiike dogs! If you find a stray dog it bites but if you have a dog it'll let you pet it and stuff... I want a dog... we had a dog but it died... you should get me a dog, you should go chop more firewood till you can get a puppy from the smith's dog! I have good ideas. I want to sit on your shoulders and eat your monster spines."
... Okay, it's not as if the elemental talked to him, but he still feels really uncomfortable about that idea as applied to anything human-shaped.
"I need to try to fix the world, so I can't spend all my time chopping you enough firewood for a puppy. I am sorry."
And the kid will NOT be allowed to sit on his shoulders if it will get him his spines eaten.
The Lord doesn't normally just walk around talking to random people but if you do run into him you call him Lord, and you bow like so, and you do whatever he tells you to. You have to pay a fee to enter Wuld but usually they pay it in whatever goods they're bringing to market; he could probably collect enough firewood along the trip for the entry if he wanted.
The firewood availability thins out near the town, perhaps because people in the town gather firewood too sometimes. Assuming he planned for that, he'll have an armload and the gate guards will take it as passage. Here's Wuld! It's full of dung and clay buildings. There's an elemental over there, one with metal feathers, but he's meekly following a teenager who wears nicer clothes than everyone else.
Interesting. He's very curious about that tool-mending. How complex are the things it can build?
(He's wondering if it can duplicate his air-gun, specifically. Because if so, with six metal-mages and a couple dozen men he might well be able to take over the city, at least if those guards are state-of-the-art.)
Apparently they do watch for ten hours, and if they get antsy they can do a patrol shift for a couple of those hours. They don't have precise timekeeping so it's fuzzy, but that's the ballpark. They get two free meals of bread and beans and half a preserved lemon per day as part of the wage; the rest is paid in salt, a sack yea heavy. If there's some kind of shortage of something the food can be substituted and the salt can be delayed or replaced with a similar value in shells but that hasn't happened in awhile.
Is the job long-term or can he quit if he gets a better offer, does it come with equipment or do you need to buy your own, same for lodging and for both what are the standard prices, do they pay extra for people with extra skills like the ability to outwrestle anyone here (this is spoken in the tone of someone who is absolutely willing to show this off), and is this the same thing as the militia or a different thing and if so how does the pay compare.
He's not allowed to quit if they need him but if everything's basically normal he can quit the day after any festival (these occur roughly once every thirty or forty days but it's not very regular). You're supposed to buy your own equipment and your own place to live. If he can outwrestle everyone here they can give him a signing bonus. The guard is automatically part of the militia but people can be part of the militia without being part of the guard, which mostly takes the place of a portion of taxes rather than being directly paid.
Understood, thanks. (Unless the signing bonus is quite high he doubts this is his comparative advantage, but he'd rather not say it.) Do they know when the next festival is, do they know about how much housing and panoply costs, and he assumes there's no war on right now?
Understood, thanks. He's best with a dagger or his bare hands, quite good with a bow or spear (Xian actually did consider that the succession contest might be on a primitive world), and a very quick study with everything else. He'll be back if he decides to take them up on the job.
Next priority: Check lodging prices, check weapon prices, check other employment options to see if they pay better. Ten days is an acceptable period to learn a city, if he needs it.
They have not invented hotels. Or apartments. He can get a spot in a barn or on a hearth in a house outside the city walls, even one that comes with food, if he's willing to do farm labor; inside the city there's a leatherworker who can use him in exchange for a spot of floor and dinner, and a potter whose apprentice just died of a fever.
Wow. This is presumably metal-magic. Yeah, he's not competent to take over the world yet.
Well, he'll pick up the gear, and he'll take a nine-day job with the guard while he gets his feet under him, and see if any of his fellow guardsmen has a spare room. He knows he'll look funny (what he knows are bayonet drills for close-combat and spear-hunting), but he is very confident that he's ahead of the local guards in unarmed martial arts and that makes him valuable, so he'll take a ten-day job and see about spending it learning the city, becoming reasonably well-liked (he can teach people Attani martial arts! He knows dirty foreign songs he can translate! He buys people drinks!), and learning just what kind of world he's landed in.
He has landed in a Shattered State! There was an empire, and the Emperor (a mage) was killed by elementals he unwisely attempted to release, which he for some reason did at the same time as a lot of simultaneous magic-backed rebellions around when magic became more commonplace. The rebellions had no trouble in succeeding and establishing the independence of everyone who wanted it.
He can't learn magic, you have to be born a mage.
The guard wouldn't be irrelevant in a war but magic is very important both for direct violence (if in small quantities - neither mages nor elementals can keep going with the magic for hours) and for intelligence and logistics (shadow-walking, scrying, healing, working objects made of the elements).
Huh. Fair enough.
Well, Durante will spend his time guarding and learning. Learning the language, learning how to write, learning what magic does and what technologies they have and what they don't... he doesn't want to leap into anything. He just wants to make friends with people.
Most people don't know how to read, although a surprising fraction of the kids do - apparently it's in vogue to teach mage kids even if you skip it for non-mage kids. He can pick it up without too much trouble. They have a pretty simple alphabet but no standardization of spelling and a handful of ideograms for certain concepts sprinkled in among the phonetics.
The guards are pretty friendly, especially if he likes beer and wrestling!
He learns how to read very quickly, about as quickly as he learns to speak the language. He's not surprised by the non-standardization of spelling, because Cocoon Academy has an excellent history course, albeit unusually focused on how past rulers navigated or more commonly failed to navigate difficult situations.
As for their tastes, well, He likes wrestling and is really, really good it and wants to teach them to be really, really good at it and this will help him make friends. Beer is slightly less cheerful; he can win money off of drinking contests, but that's because he cannot actually get drunk off of non-distilled liquor. He'll buy lots of drinks for other people, though!
That's his goal.
His other goal is, of course, to start scouting out other employment prospects. Preferably better paying, higher-status ones. What can he learn about the local political scene? Who is the local lord, and what are his goals, and who are the people who he needs to talk to politely? Which people are obviously important, so that the guard refrains from picking quarrels with them? Are there any brilliant inventors with metal-magic who might be interested in learning how to make moderately advanced weaponry, and, if so, what are their political opinions? And are there neighboring regions where it looks like it would be a much better place to start, with lots more money and resources and conquering urges and political instability?
(Also, can he take a look at maps of the area? Maps are very important for world domination, though not as important as seeing the land yourself.)
The lord is a fellow called Vun who took over from his uncle and is largely inoffensive except for having a kind of unseemly number of wives (six). There's one adult mage in town and everyone respects him and he takes in a lot of work and sometimes shows the kid mages how to do something. His political opinion appears to be that he wants a steady job and to be depended upon; he isn't an obvious yes or no for exotic weapons. All the neighbors are about the same, the empire hasn't been fragmented that long.
There is a map in the lord's manor, and he can swing an invite for dinner after he's been in town for three weeks.
Hmm. Is Vun popular? Does he have cousins (on his ex-uncle-ruler's side) or children? Where does he get his wives; where are they on the scale from political marriages to love matches to kidnappings? Are there exciting stories about foreign parts? Who was the emperor, and can he find out how large his empire was? How much are the kid mages kids, as opposed to teenagers who are going to start pushing for adulthood Real Soon Now? Are there other people who want to learn martial arts Ajanta wrestling, and are willing to pay for classes in his spare time? (He only sleeps four hours a day, he has more spare time than most.)
He'll want to swing an invite once it's been a few weeks. Short-term, he's going to be working for the guard, building up resources of popular opinion, money, and informal debts, and telling lots of stories. (This is a whole world that has never heard of Achilles, and storytelling has a significant skill-overlap with making inspiring speeches.)
Vun doesn't inspire much comment any which way except about the wives. He has one living cousin on that side, female, who is married to one of his brothers-in-law. The wives are a mix - the first one was a prisoner of war from the imperial capital in the war for independence, two are twins and the daughters of the owner of the largest farm estate in the environs of the city, the fourth one is reported to be his favorite and not even the prettiest one, the fifth he acquired in exchange for a daughter of his (by wife #3) from among the sisters the lord of the next city over, the sixth (the prettiest one) is much younger than he is, and the only mage of the lot, daughter of a merchant family who were early adopters of prenatal seaweed consumption.
Most people around here are monogamous but it's not that irregular for particularly important men to have a few wives, around here.
Vun's heir is his favorite son (via wife #2) and he's been clear about the succession after that - next in line after that son is the mage woman's eldest, who is a girl, and that's kind of irregular and people think it's intended to make assassinating the first choice less appealing, not that there's an obvious faction that would like to.
Right. Well, assuming that that's actually Vun's preferred prioritization of heirs, he takes it as a moderately good sign. (Nobody having complaints about him, on the other hand, is a very good sign. Durante is used to a world where there is nothing people will not blame their government over, which admittedly makes changing the government much easier.)
Durante's fundamental battle plan boils down to "pick up information, pick up rumors, pick up any and all languages, and wait for something to occur which he can exploit somewhere in hearing-range." Being the one who made a mess plays badly, being the one who fixed a mess plays well. But he'll pick up the invite, once it's been a few weeks; he always wants to know more about the situation he's in.
Lots and lots of countries! Some of them have jungles! Some of them have mountains! Some of them have really big oceans! Once he was campaigning in Harghana...
(And he launches into an exciting story that carefully downplays all the exciting technological developments, giving the impression that people are accomplishing everything with spears and wagons instead of guns and trucks, but that still suggests that wherever he's from is pretty amazing at organization.)
So, he could refrain from jumping on this opportunity, or he could jump on it.
... Well, if Vun wants his advice, legion reforms, underofficer training, pike infantry, the longbow and a number of other developments will all function quite well under the circumstances. There's other things that he might be able to do - in armor, for instance - but he'd want to talk to metal-mages about that.
So the fundamental idea is that by using a bow made out of the right wood - which they might have trouble tracking down, but wood-elementals might just be able to make - you can get something that can take the full strength of an archer regardless of how strong he is, and use that to drive an arrow. Rates of fire are very impressive; the main weaknesses are armor penetration and that longbows-and-quivers are fairly bulky, limiting the weight of secondary weapons an archer can carry in a fight.
Well, Durante will bring it up only insofar as he needs to make excuses, due to his duties with the Guard and with his students tragically preventing him from devoting as much time as he would like to this project. And perhaps also very indirectly if someone asks how his homeland does projects, since it does indeed do them by hiring experts and paying them lots of money.
(Are there other people at the table? If so, what do they have to say on all these subjects?)
He can leave his guard contract after any festival if he has somewhere else lined up; he's not intending to stay in one place forever, even one as nice as this; he likes travel and adventure and danger and exploring new lands.
Taxes, yes, and tribute from neighbors.
A wood bow is easy and inexpensive to make, a composite bow is very hard and expensive, and archers need training but most of that is strength-building.
Oh. Well, he's in bed with his wife, who he hasn't seen in ages, and a naked man with a knife leaps out of the closet (he'll use whatever the best translation of "wardrobe" is, actually) and says, "I am the fugitive criminal Gabriel!" and runs through the door. A few seconds later another naked man jumps out and says "I'm guard officer Arthur, did you see where the fugitive criminal Gabriel went?" and the very confused man points.
"Thank you, citizen! Guard squad, after me!"
Understood! Durante will thank them for a lovely dinner, and, assuming nobody wants to speak to him after dinner (if they do, he will of course be happy to discuss it), start putting together rumors about this war he's hearing about. He doesn't need to do it secretly; he's fairly open about the fact that he's interested in Adventure! and is from another land and wants to know what kind of Adventure! showing up to fight in the war will be.
The locals don't know a ton about it but he can put together that:
- Clat will pay top dollar for food if you'll bring it to them but it's too dangerous for most people to bother
- Soror has water elementals (2) and Clat doesn't, but if you're trying to get a river to behave a certain way Stone and Earth are also useful and Clat has more of those
- Clat's current king is a twelve year old but he seems to be doing a surprising amount of the decisionmaking himself
- Soror's current king is more experienced but has mostly been leaving the war to his generals
- they are both hiring mercenaries, and Clat pays slightly better; rumor has it they can use the Stone elemental to mine for underground salt
That will do, then.
For someone who spent so long hanging out, drinking with the guards and telling war stories and teaching martial arts to pick up a little extra cash, Durante moves surprisingly fast.
(For someone who is still working a full-time job, Durante moves surprisingly fast. Maybe it helps that he only sleeps four hours a night.)
He's already carried out the first step, which was building his name. Now the second step is to find a backer. He goes to every noble with relatives in Clat, every major merchant in Wuld, every great landholder with too much food to sell, and explains, with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way, that he’s an experienced captain who would like to put together an expedition to relieve Clat - a very large delivery of food and (insert other standard export goods that have been piling up and are valueless here and desperately desired in Clat here), plus an escort that he can command; lots of people know him know, mostly in the Guard, they know he’s honest (or, well, that he can convince people he’s honest), and he’s looking for either a partner or a loan - funds to equip his band, funds to pay their salary on the way there, and either the food or the funds to buy it. He expects someone will take the chance, if he has to go through every merchant in the city.
The third step, once he has a backer, is that he'll let people know he's recruiting. One man is worth so much less than a dozen trained soldiers, especially a dozen some of whom are young wizards, eager for adventure. Durante's been telling everyone stories of heroes and glory and fighting monsters and war, of the horrors and tragedies of battle and campaign (that, somehow, spur so many young men onwards, for the greater the horror the greater the tragedy in overcoming it), and while most of these stories are those of Earth, of Hector before Troy and Roland at Roncesvalles, but enough of them are of his own expeditions that they'll have a pretty good idea he knows what he's doing. So why not come and be heroes? The romance of war is strong in his voice, songs of raining arrows and flashing swords and the charge of lances, to thrill the heart and set a fire in the mind.
Some of them will think better when his voice falls silent. Others... well. Durante will see about the others.
The concept of "funding" is a little underdeveloped around here, but he can, with enough looking, turn up a landholder who would love to sell some food in Clat and can comprehend the concept of supplying money now and taking more money later in the event of venture success. He has a few caravan guards he can lend to the purpose, too, and some of them have friends who'll come along if he's hiring more.
Great! Durante is getting as much capital as he can for this caravan he's organizing. He is absolutely hiring people, in the full hopes that some of them will want to stick around in Clat doing mercenary work there with him, provided they're willing to take orders on the way there. He'll also be equipping them himself if he can find an Adamant mage who's interested in going along with the adventure and/or just being paid.
(Durante is not going to commit petty theft. He's a robber, not a thief - to paraphrase the punchline of one of the stories he's been telling.) If anyone changes their mind he'll take advantage of it, but these people have been nothing but courteous to him except their government and he has no intention of wronging them.
Still, considering just how many young mages there are in the city, Durante expects he can get an Adamant mage eventually. Teenage mages? Female mages? Female teenage mages?
Then he wants her to transmute metal into this alloy. (But keep it secret, for now, until they're on the road.)
He draws the medal out of his pocket. There are letters written into it on an alien language, but it is the shape of a small shield, and metal, and he taps it.
"It is much lighter than any metal made in your country, and much, much, stronger."
He wants - for every man or woman of his company - a spear, sword, greaves, breastplate, round, wide shield and helm of the metal. He can show how to shape the designs simply and easily. The plates he wants are thin and do not look as though they would stand up to an arrow, and when they leave he will show them that no bronze weapon can pierce it.
He calls it titanium.
Well, Durante may not know how to horrifically abuse the powers of shadow or stone elementals to his military gain (wait, no, he knows how to abuse both of them - lightning or... water?), but he certainly knows how to use Adamant.
He's potentially interested in buying this Adamant, since the ability to make metal would help a great deal. Does his Adamant mage want to come with?
She'll come! He'll need her if he wants to actually buy the elemental, he's not a mage and can't hold onto one of the amulets properly.
The seller is perfectly happy to explain to him that Shadow elementals can permit you to teleport. (Between dark places.) If that's the sort of thing that might be interesting.
In that case he is going to suggest that, if there's no magical reason why not he isn't aware of, she could get her job done much faster (and then she and her new comrades would have better armor, very important for her job) if the elemental participated in armormaking too!
Just so long as the dad isn't damaged.
Durante wants to leave comparatively bright and early, as he told everyone he would! This will involve SO MUCH work getting people who got drunk in the festival out of bed, and SO MUCH use of his Officer's Voice. (If people want to desert immediately, well, he hasn't paid them yet, and better now then later. But if not they should get ready to get on the road.)
Excellent! Let's get this army on the road. Durante is ready with advice and assistance and morale-building (he has SO MANY SONGS and is now getting to the point where he can translate lyrics on the fly) to keep his caravan moving.
He won't be making any objections if the noncombatants want an early stop, but that's because he wants to get some training underway.
(He also wants to have a quiet conversation with his Adamant-mage, once they're away from the city, about tech sharing, if they can find a moment.)
They're mostly used to doing a lot of walking but marching is a different story and they don't have unlimited endurance for it even with the Adamant carrying a lot of their stuff.
The Adamant mage (her name is Pajuna) is amenable to a quiet conversation, though she brings the elemental, possibly in case Durante decides to attack her or something.
Well, before they arrive he's going to stop, and pause, and smile at Pajuna and her elemental, and quietly draw his gun without pointing it at anything he does not want destroyed, and hand it to her carefully, safety-on.
"This is a military airpistol," he says, treating it as a loan-word. "You can think of it as the next step after a bow, the way a bow is the next step after a javelin. The javelin delivers the power of an instant's exertion at a distance, and the bow concentrates your muscles to deliver the force of more than an instant's draw. The airpistol uses your strength to compress air, then uses the compressed air's desire to escape to drive a bullet -" he uses the native word for a crafted projectile made for a sling "- through an enemy. I want to know if you can replicate copies of this pistol made wholly out of titanium; if so, they would be an amazingly valuable advantage, and one no one knows we have."
(And they'll also be obsolete as soon as he gets an R&D facility that can turn out chemical-propellant rifles, let alone railguns.)
He'll demonstrate! It's supposed to be possible to field-strip and reassemble without difficulty; here's the magazine with the bullets in it and the spring action that makes it go, the barrel, the slide, the safety so you can't shoot people... it's a really neat little device, if a little bulky for a pistol. (Given the need for air instead of a better propellant.)