Nej, Second Rotation, 5099
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Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Nej, Second Rotation, 5099

Morning came and I left the Obsidian Cathedral for the Sacred Library. Chief Librarian Jhutla was at the front desk, welcoming a towering Jötunn scholar.

"Did you get what you wished for?" she asked as the giant disappeared from view.

I assented, and the elderly amphibian shook her head.

"I pray it is for the best. Tanun1 Mortis was a great Emperor, and he is a good man, but his ways extract heavy tolls, damik Ulak. You must know that whatever he has asked in exchange will haunt you."

"He has asked for quite little," I said before explaining the details of my deal with the Archmage.

"Then I hope that Aníbal's company in your journey is a boon," Jhutla responded, though her tone betrayed worry. "And I hope that wherever you go next you find yourself safe."

"I cannot thank you enough, Chief Librarian. Hopefully one day you may read all about my journey, and know what your help has been worth. Farewell, my friend."

Having said goodbye to the Chief Librarian, I headed for my hotel. Excitement grew on par with melancholy; I knew the chances of ever seeing Jhutla again were scarce. My travels through Midgard were about to reach their end.

As I picked up my few belongings, someone knocked at the door; it was one of Lord Mortis' androids.

"Our Lord sends his best wishes for you, sir," the android said. "He apologizes for not being able to see you off in person, as he is currently attending official Imperial matters, but hopes this token will make up for his absence."

It handed me a small package containing a single black coin bearing the Archmage's personal emblem, and a note with a message:

For your supplies and expenses. Safe travels, and may the gods watch over you. – Mortis

Before I could ask any questions, the Archmage's servant delivered the rest of its message.

"Aníbal Žalost awaits for you downstairs. He will escort you to your ship. May you enjoy the rest of your stay on Idhai."

Just like the robot had informed me, the necromancer sat in the hotel's lobby. He had shed his cloak and tunic for a more casual attire, though the most noticeable difference was that his head was now completely shaven.

"Got that black coin on you?" he asked as I approached him. I showed him both the coin and the Archmage's message.

"Good. Let's go shopping."

He then wordlessly exited the hotel, not bothering to look back to see if I was following him.

Our footsteps took us to the hyper-train station, where we took a train towards Hukob, Idhai's largest trading district for items both magic and mundane. For a few minutes we sat in odd silence as the train departed the station, the necromancer apparently amused by my reluctance to speak.

"If you're wondering about the haircut," he finally said, "I simply figured there are no barbers on Amvat."

I couldn't help but smile as the young man passed his hand over his neatly shaven skull.

"So I see… excuse me, I never asked how you wish to be addressed."

"Aníbal will do. No need for titles or epithets; I have none of my own. As for yours, I already know what a "Drifter" does. I hope to one day read all about your adventures; I'm about to become part of one, after all."

"And I will make sure to include all about your and Archmage Mortis' generosity in helping me with this journey. Truly I am indebted—"

"Please, Ulak," the necromancer interjected. "No need for pretenses either. You do not want me here; it goes against your ways, and I respect that. But I do my Lord's bidding, and so I find myself imposing on you."

"Forgive me. I do not mean to imply that your presence is unwelcome, Aníbal. I am not used to have any long-term partners in my troubles, only those I make along the way. This is… new for me."

"I take no offense. I too am used to solo assignments. Autonomy is something we both value, but for this particular task… well, Amvat is a hellhole of a world; best to keep our partnership tight. You provide the expertise dealing with the environment and the natives, and I keep us both out of unnecessary danger."

"I guess we can't really prescind from each other, can we?"

The necromancer stretched his legs as our train left the station.

"Oh, Drifter," Aníbal smiled. "You make it sound like you're trapped in here with me."

For the next hour and a half2 Aníbal and I discussed plans for our journey, as well as what supplies we'd need to face Amvat's hostile environment. We'd both been possessed by Miguel Guerra's spirit, witnessed the horrors he had experienced while stranded on that merciless planet, and sought to avoid facing a similar fate.

We agreed to travel light, taking only what we could each carry; it would do us no good to drag around unnecessary items that slowed our passing through the desert. Besides, we did not know who we might meet on our journeys; best not to attract raiders with a caravan. We would also have to prioritize water above all things: despite my Uhb'Seq physiology allowing me to forgo food for quite a long time, and Aníbal claiming his cybernetics allowed him to subsist on alternative sources of nourishment, neither of us could spend more than a week without the precious liquid, a resource sure to be scarce on Amvat. We would need to take as much of it as we were able to.

There was also the issue of the suns' deadly light, as well as the unending dust coughed up by the winds that scoured the desert. We would need garments and equipment that guaranteed our bodily integrity, if not our comfort.

Finally, there was the question of whether or not to take weapons with us. I held no doubt that the necromancer's magic and cybernetics were more than enough to keep both of us safe, but I wished to be capable of defending myself should the need arise.3 Upon hearing my concerns, Aníbal simply reassured me that I would find any deadly implement I fancied once we reached Hukob.

"You don't look like the violent type, Ulak," he said. "But it's always good being able to take care of oneself; I've made sure I can carry my own weight."

I thought of the tattoo etched across the necromancer's back, its eerie glow, but I spoke not of the matter.

Our train arrived at Hukob, the station immediately giving way to the sprawling open-air market that made up the entirety of the district. Though Aníbal insisted in separating and meeting back at the hyper-train station, I eventually convinced him that going together was the better option: that way we could agree on which items to purchase for both of us; afterwards, each could pick that which best suited his own individual needs.

Thus, we went into the market, trying not to get too carried away by the immensity of both the place and the diversity of items it offered— every sight was tantalizing, every vendor's wares as tempting as gold to a leprechaun. To each merchant the necromancer and I showed the black coin Lord Mortis had procured us. I soon understood it to be a sort of payment token backed by the Archmage's own private funds: all those who we showed it to reverently bowed their heads and provided us with whatever we asked.

"Don't be too impressed," the necromancer said after a while. "You should see how they treat the holder of one of these back on Earth."

The issue of carrying water with us was quickly solved: from a naiad trader we bought a magic flask capable of holding enough water to last us an entire month. Aníbal advised against filling it up immediately, lest we waited an entire hour until it was filled to the brim. I agreed.

Midday came and went as we procured the rest of our supplies and equipment. From an elderly Nholo4 couple we acquired half a kilogram of nutrient pills, enough to sustain us for a month, perhaps more. From one of my prior acquaintances, a half-demon, we acquired two pairs of special boots resistant enough to traverse Hell. Aníbal bought us a pair of magic robes and a cloak from a Suhnca5 sorcerer to protect us from the brutal temperatures on Amvat, and an ointment capable of soothing and healing but the worst of burns in a few days, should we somehow get exposed to the suns' light. We also traded one of my writing quills for a couple of healing potions, to be used only in the direst of emergencies.

Finally, Aníbal restocked his basic ingredient kit for potion-brewing and magic rituals. I did not see the entirety of it, though I do recall him complaining about the quality of kelpie musk with an irritated harpy. I meanwhile bought a flask of kraken ink6 from a young merrow, a small dagger from a dwarf weapon master7 and a magic-detecting pendant from a kappa priest.

At long last, we sat down to rest at a small diner named Phabak's Delight, owned and staffed by a family of Xermaq.8 I ordered some misdhe,9 while Aníbal asked to have our magic flask filled with water, not without first reminding our server to charge the Archmage for both our food and the egregious water bill they would undoubtedly get.

It was a good day.

As our train leaves Hubok behind for the spaceport where our transport off-world awaits, I take these few last moments to write down some farewell words for the Immortal Empire and its people. In all my travels, few civilizations, let alone empires, have shown me such kindness, offered me such fascinating sights and experiences. It is with heavy hearts that I say goodbye to this noble part of the Universe, to this triumph of peace and progress. I hope to return one day to find you still standing proud and prosper, still holding on strong and just. A thousand eons may pass, and still I shall admire all you have achieved. May my Chronicle pay homage and testimony to your greatness.

Farewell to you, Empire of a billion worlds. Farewell to you, champion of them all.

– Ulak the Drifter

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