There wasn’t really a lot of thinking that went into things after I was punched in the gut. My fist just went straight for Comhghall’s face, and most of what happened after the old orc’s head snapped back was a blur. We were a tangle of limbs and nothing more.
Blood came into the picture at some point, probably due to our tusks. Either someone misaimed their strike or one of us headbutted the other. They weren’t practical to actually use as weapons, but they were still there and dangerous.
I know I took at least a few knocks to the head during the whole thing, which didn’t help much with my recollection. I mostly remembered my vision coming into focus, looking into the dirt while I felt a heavy weight on my back.
“Why are you angry, kid?”
I tried to shift and throw him off, but somehow he’d gotten my arms. “You attacked me out of nowhere.”
“What do you mean so? Responding to hostilities with hostilities is perfectly rational.”
The old man’s gruff voice came close. “But why be angry about it?”
“It’s perfectly reasonable when someone you don’t know attacks you,” I grunted. “I shoulda used magic.”
“Now that would be an unreasonable escalation,” Comhghall said. “Someone could get hurt.”
I looked at a few droplets of dirt encrusted blood below my face, “Can get hurt without magic too.”
“Only if you don’t know what you’re doing. Tell me, kid, did your parents never teach you how to fight?”
My head hurt. It wasn’t just from being battered around, though. Translation was working as hard as it could, and something about the way he said fight messed with me. In my head, it almost came to mean ‘meet new people’. But given the context, it was pretty clear. “Would have had to meet them for that,” I said.
“Then your chief of shaman. Or literally anyone else.”
“I picked up… combat,” I struggled with the words.
The pressure on my back lifted, and a moment later I was dragged to my feet. Sharp eyes stared into my own from up close. “What are they even doing on the material plane? Did they forget everything?”
I shrugged, “People know a lot of things,” I said. “But it’s not like they’d share them with orcs.”
“And why not?”
“Maybe because orcs are the type of person to punch someone in the gut before saying hello.”
His confused frown made me confused. As if I was somehow the crazy one. “You have Aspect of the Barbarian, don’t you?”
“Not by choice,” I replied.
“If the orcs still have that, I don’t know why you wouldn’t greet each other this way.”
I spit a little bit of blood to the side. “Don’t know. I’d have to meet other orcs I guess. Grew up basically among humans.”
“… And orcs never passed through?”
“Not really,” I said.
The old man frowned, his dark green skin bunching up on his forehead. “Can’t believe they’d give up our culture like that.”
“What, punching people? They still do that.”
He shook his head, “That’s not it, kid. Helping out other orcs. With Aspect of the Barbarian, isn’t it just polite to help each other get some experience when we meet each other?”
“Normal people get experience for battle too,” I said.
“Normal?” he raised a bushy eyebrow. “Sure, they do. But it’s not the same. Who taught you about orcs?”
“Books,” I said. My tongue felt along my teeth. Were some of them loose? Hopefully Ceira’s magic could fix that. “I was told you could help us get back home.”
“What’s your class?”
“Mage,” I folded my arms across my chest.
“Then I’m already helping, aren’t I?” Comhghall grinned. “Unless some of your other friends are higher level than they seem, you’re the best option.”
“It sounded like you were a shaman of some sort,” I frowned, “Can you not cast Gate?”
“Hmmn. What did they tell you?”
“That you were the best chance of returning somewhere familiar.”
Comhghall nodded. “That I am. But I can’t just whisk you off to the material plane. Disregarding other reasons, I’ve never been there.”
“Then what was the point of coming here?”
“To help you do it, I imagine,” Comhghall said. “Most of your friends’ magic there doesn’t seem like the right type.”
Oh right. My friends. I looked over at them, all standing around doing nothing. “Why didn’t you help, Midnight?”
“You looked like you had it handled.” The black-furred Celmothian didn’t even have an ounce of shame as he said that. No, he mostly seemed to feel… curiosity?
Some of the others should have stepped in as well, but only Ceira looked ashamed about not helping. I doubt she could have done anything, and ultimately I wasn’t in serious danger.
“I can level up on my own,” I said to the old man. “Seems like we wasted our time coming here.”
“You know how Gate works?” Comhghall asked.
“Obviously. I’ve used it before.”
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I reopened a portal… with Midnight’s help.”
“That is much more achievable,” Comhghall said. “What level are you?”
That wasn’t information I normally kept secret but… I wasn’t feeling inclined to give this guy anything.
“He’s level 30,” Ailen said, immediately betraying me. I clicked my tongue.
“Quite a bit early to be learning Gate. Didn’t think about the mana cost? Thought you could overcome the fatigue?”
I didn’t really want to answer him but… he was also theoretically our best shot out of here. For some reason. “Well, there were all sorts of portals popping up everywhere so… it should have been easier.”
Comhghall furrowed his brow, “How many is ‘all sorts’?”
I shrugged. “Dunno. Dozens? Hundreds, maybe, over the last year.”
“All sorts of weird places. But mostly those with high mana. Which is odd, because back home most people can’t use mana at all.”
The old orc nodded. I realized he still didn’t have a shirt on, and though Francois made sure that our outfits were extremely breathable I could see the benefit. I was still sweating from out battle, but this guy was almost cooled down already. “Likely the cause of the disturbances here.”
“Correct,” Ailen said. “This individual also made many metal golems.”
“Robots,” I said. I wondered why none of the others shared their own opinions, then I realized it was likely that only Midnight and I had Translate going at the moment. “So can you actually help? Because if we’re just going to punch each other I could have stayed out in the jungle killing things for another month or two.”
“Experience is just part of the process,” the old shaman said. “What do you actually know about magic?”
“More than enough to fill a small library,” I said.
“Do you, though? Where does mana come from?”
“Mana comes from… things that are magical…”
“What about levels and points?”
“I know how those work.”
“Do you, though?” the old man tilted his head almost ninety degrees. “Have you ever learned anything without points?”
“He has,” before I could answer that, Ailen gave the reply. “This group has been working to develop their abilities outside of the level system. Except for that one, who has a strange power set.”
“Most people on Earth have no powers,” I explained. “But if they get them, they’re usually like him.”
Comhghall nodded, “Interesting. I will inquire more about that later. But first we should determine the limits of your knowledge so that I can help you in the most expedient manner. Or you can go off on your own to fight things for a few months.”
“No,” Midnight said when I briefly considered that option.
I sighed. “Fine. I will learn what you have to tell me.”
Somehow I had ended up on the ground again, except instead of sitting on me this time the shaman was sitting in the dirt in front of me. “So about mana. It doesn’t come from ‘magical things’, or nothing would be magical to begin with. It comes from life.”
“Okay,” I said, pushing myself up into a sitting position. “Why would people not say that?”
“I cannot speculate about what people on the material plane might have taught you,” the old man said. “But while it seems simple, it is more complicated than just that. Not all life produces the same amount of mana.”
“And mana is not alive,” I said.
“How do you know that for sure?” Comhghall asked.
As a response, I pulled out a mana crystal. “This is mana, and it is not alive.”
Comhghall held out his hand. I gave it to him, and he turned it over to inspect it carefully. “Where did this come from?”
“I made it,” I said.
The crystal was tossed back at me with some force, but I caught it. “Well, you are correct that mana is not alive. But it is not far from it.”
“If something is not alive, it simply is not,” I said. “How could it be not far from it?”
“Life tends to make more of itself. Mana, like a flame, consumes and grows. But it has no thoughts, not even the primitive sort of insects.”
“… What does it consume?”
“Life force. Consciousness. Willpower.”
I frowned. “Will magic kill me?”
He shrugged, “It might. But not if handled responsibly.”
“When someone runs out of mana or tries to push past what they can control… is that dangerous? I was told that it was not.” I trusted Master Uvithar’s intentions, though some of his instruction might not have been his own will.
Comhghall rubbed his scarred chin. “In most cases, it is not dangerous. That is the body’s defense against actual harm. And while mana consumes life force, it is not some predator or parasite. It takes only what life energy overflows and would otherwise be wasted.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if it worked differently we would all be dead and mana as well,” Comhghall said. “Or perhaps it is best to say that it doesn’t have a why and simply works this way or it would not work at all. It is not truly alive, after all.”
“What about levels?” I asked. “My friend Ceira… and others from Earth. They have classes and the level system.”
“Though I know many things, in truth… if you speak of another world, I will know less than you for having been there. However, I can say that if they are here it would be stranger not to have it.”
“Right?” I asked. “They think it’s abnormal.”
“Perhaps it is. Like mana, it is a construct that simply is. But it is an odd one.”
“Yeah, you’re telling me,” I said. “It works in our own language, and I have no idea how it selects that. Before I could even read, it was in common.”
“Was it?” Comhghall raised an eyebrow.
“Of course. I picked a class early, and a spell.”
“And it was in common.”
“Well, I couldn’t read it at the time but it was letters and numbers…”
“Or your impression of letters and numbers.”
“I- no, it was definitely… it had to be the same, right?”
The shaman carved something in the dirt with his finger. “What does that say?”
It was just squiggles. But Translation didn’t work with just speech. Unfortunately, not having been exposed to these letters before meant it was difficult. “I think… your name? In orcish?”
“Basically,” he said. “And this?” he wrote something else.
“Is that how it is in your status window?”
“Well, no. It’s in common.”
“And this is how my name looks in mine,” he gestured.
“Well, sure. But that’s your first language, I presume?”
“More or less,” he said. “But before I could read, it would have been just the concept of letters.”
“… How do you know?”
“Children have been asked to transcribe what they see. No matter how carefully they write, the letters are not letters. Nor arranged into words if they are. Except… words they might see frequently. But these would not be words that should appear in their status windows.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Before they understand, it is just shapes. And they mean nothing. If children are informed about the meaning of what they write, what do you think happens to their status window?”
“… Nothing?” I tilted my head. “They don’t really change.”
“Of course they do. All the time. They update with what you have learned, or what you hope to learn when you are looking to choose a class or spend points.”
“I suppose,” I said. “And… when I actually began to learn stuff, it got weird. Like, with a separating line and stuff.”
“Is that how yours looked?” Comhghall nodded. “Reasonable enough.”
“Is it not normally like that?”
“It is like whatever people believe it should be like. In short, a form that is accepted and understood. Most likely, you, I, and Ailen would find our status windows quite different. As for your companions, they either grew up around you or had your explanations and mental impressions, so they should be similar.”
“… but in English. For Ceira and Jerome, at least.”
“Their native tongue, of course,” Comhghall nodded. “But this is enough for now. Before the day is out, you must meet new people.”
Strange. I could have sworn I recognized a word in there that meant something else.