When he’d begun his training as a Techne, Nicholas had possessed great expectations. How could he not, as a student to one of the great masters of new science and old magic. It had conjured certain images in the young boy’s mind, ideas of the kind of activities he would be engaged with. Long hours spent studying forces that could reshape reality with a snap of the fingers. Plumbing the very depths of the world for great truths and greater mysteries. Crafting, with his own two hands nothing short of miracles. Such grand, grand ideas.
Not one of which had involved housework.
Nicholas dragged his broom across the workshop floor, an action he’d repeated countless times over the last six and a half hours. leaving his arms burning and his back ready to snap in half. Looking around at the result, Nicholas had to say, the effort had not been worth it.
Greytower’s main workshop was in the kind of state that only years of passive neglect and active slobbery could create. The large circular space had once upon a time been a combination of machine shop and esoteric library, bookshelves flowing seamlessly into workbenches of every size, shape and purpose.
It all sat awash in a sea of discarded food containers, half drank cups of coffee, random tools and various other knick-knacks left to settle where they may. Clothing thrown over the backs of chairs or forgotten on the floor, smelling musty from lack of washing. And, for some reason, a seemingly infinite supply of hair pins, despite no one living in Greytower possessing hair long enough to have need of them.
And the dust. Gods help him, the dust. It clung to any and every surface that saw less than daily use. Some corners had it piled so deep that it looked almost like grey snow. Cleaning those were particularly bad, the slightest movement throwing up thick plumes into the air that never failed to set off a violent fit of sneezing. Not even covering his face helped. The hellish motes always found a way in.
But the worst part was that this wasn’t even his mess. It had been here long before Nicholas had ever come to Greytower and, he suspected, would be here long after. He had contributed nothing to it and yet it had somehow fallen to him to clean it up.
This, he suspected, was largely on account of his suffering from the terrible affliction known as “being the apprentice”. Symptoms included having no say in the matter and being utterly incapable of arguing with the words “because I said so”. Not that he hadn’t tried, it just hadn’t proven very effective.
So it was that Nicholas had spent the morning working away at it. Just him and his broom against the mess.
Sighing at his lot in life, Nicholas crouched down to check under a desk, grumbling at the dirt he found underneath. He’d just managed to get himself wedged into position to sweep it up when Zephyr broke cover, sensing a chance for fresh mischief. Before Nicholas could do anything, the sprite had zipped across the room, hauling a sharp wind in his wake that scattered the pile into the air.
Instantly Nicholas was sent into another sneezing fit, bent double as it wracked his entire body. It lasted a solid ten seconds, leaving him a wheezing, half blind wreck. When it had finally passed, Nicholas still had to take several long breaths before he recovered enough to confront his mortal annoyance.
“Stop that! You’re not helping!”
“I’m not trying to help!” Came Zephyr’s chipper reply.
Nicholas could only glare at the little sprite as he wafted happily through the air, making no effort to conceal himself. He was one of Master Orlin’s familiar’s, a wind elemental bound within a metal sphere the size of Nicholas’ fist. Though the sphere lacked a face equivalent, Nicholas had known Zephyr long enough to recognize he was playing innocent, hoping to get yet more of a rise out of the young apprentice.
Nicholas refused to give him the satisfaction. He turned back to his work, pointedly ignoring the sprite. Zephyr did not take the hint and started flying around the room, repeatedly brushing past Nicholas’ head with calculated nearness. Always just close enough to be felt but never quite making contact.
“Go. Away.” Nicholas growled through clenched teeth.
Zephyr did not go away. Instead, he tittered mischievously and made a show of pretending just long enough for Nicholas to turn his back. Only then did the little sprite zip straight back, abandoning subtly and firing a blast of ice-cold air straight down Nicholas’ neck.
“Alright that’s it!” Nicholas shouted, raising his broom like a battle axe. “Come here!”
With all the grace of a spring breeze, Zephyr deftly evaded the first swing, leaving the broom to smack against the floor. Rather than flee, the little sprite wobbled from side to side, the wind-based equivalent of blowing a raspberry.
Undeterred, Nicholas leapt forward with broom held high. It was exactly what Zephyr wanted him to do but Nicholas didn’t care. The little sprite had been driving him up the wall all morning and his patience had run out.
Zephyr buzzed with delight and began expertly dodging every swing Nicholas threw at him. He led the way on a merry chase around the room, fanning Nicholas’ annoyance into genuine anger. It pushed him to begin taking faster and wilder strokes, neither helping his accuracy but Nicholas was well past caring.
Eventually the chase brought them to a wall, presenting an opportunity for the young apprentice. With effortless grace, Zephyr did a hairpin turn and began flying back the way they had come. It was during the switchback that Nicholas was provided a window, however brief, to catch Zephyr off guard and he intended to make the most of it. Bracing a foot against the wall, Nicholas pushed back and in one smooth motion, swung around with all his might.
Straight into Master Orlin’s face.
For long, agonizing seconds, master and apprentice just stood there, blinking rapidly at one another. Orlin to clear the dust from his eyes, Nicholas in hopes that the man might vanish between each blink. No such luck in the latter case as Orlin remained standing before him, sniffling sharply to clear his nose.
“When I told you to clean the workshop,” Orlins said in his low, rumbling voice. “I didn’t mean me as well Nicholas.”
“I, uh, I was, um…” Nicholas flailed. “Sorry master…”
“It’s alright. Though let’s try and keep the broom on the floor, yes?”
Nicholas nodded tightly, noting that Zephyr was conspicuously absent.
“Anyway, just came to tell you I need to step out for a few hours and I probably won’t be back until after dinner.”
“Where are you going?” The question was half curiosity, half trying to gauge how many hours ‘a few’ would be.
“Meeting with the Council, something to do with the Wall I imagine. Won’t find out until I get there.”
Those words improved Nicholas’ mood significantly. The day had not yet come that the City Council could do anything quickly. Just the opening statements alone could take hours. Something as important as the Wall could drag on for most of the night, leaving Nicholas with free reign of the tower. The possibilities of that were tantalizing to say the least.
A smile must have crept onto Nicholas’ face at the thought because Master Orlin’s expression suddenly flipped to its stern setting.
“No slacking off while I’m gone. I’d like to see a dent in the next level up before I get back.”
Nicholas’ mood came tumbling straight back down. He’d barely put a dent in this level after an entire morning of work. He didn’t want to think about how long it would take to even scratch a completely untouched space.
“No buts. The longer you complain, the longer it will take.”
“You could do it in seconds,” Nicholas muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“That’s what I thought. I’ll see you when I get back.”
Nodding one last time, Master Orlin turned and descended the stairs, followed close by his cloud of robotic familiars. Nicholas returned to sweeping with half hearted stabs, making a show of working without actually doing so. A moment later, a flicker passed through the air as the tower wards reset, confirming that Master Orlin. Zephyr, by staggering coincidence, chose that moment to reappear.
“That was your fault!” Nicholas snapped.
“I didn’t hit him with a broom.”
“Not the point!”
Shooing the little sprite away, Nicholas returned to his therapeutic stalling. He wasn’t mad at Zephyr, no more than he always was to some degree or another. More Nicholas was upset with himself for letting the little sprite get under his skin like that. And at Master Orlin for using him as an unpaid janitor just because he couldn’t be bothered to pick up after himself. Or even just summon up another familiar to do that for him. Nicholas hadn’t just been grumbling, Master Orlin really could have done all this himself with a fraction of the effort. But again, he was master, Nicholas was apprentice. One opinion overrode the other, no matter how unfair it was.
Sighing again, Nicholas took up his broom and headed for the stairs, Zephyr following close behind. He moved with all the haste of a comatose slug, dragging his feet up the steps, in no rush to arrive at the top. But physics were inevitable and eventually the next landing slid into view. Nicholas slapped unenthusiastically at the nearby wall panel, eventually convincing the door the slide open before him.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me…”
At the sight of the room beyond, Nicholas lost what little will to continue he had left. The best explanation he could conjure for what lay beyond involved a tornado picking up an electronics warehouse and a junkyard, repeatedly smashing them together and depositing the result within the tower. And then the whole thing had blown. Repeatably.
Piles, literal piles of stuff filled the room. Old machines, tools, scrap metal and computer parts thrown together in bulging, haphazard masses. Freestanding shelves had been erected to try and instill some semblance of organization, but they had long since overflowed, buried under the very burden they had been meant to contain.
Dust had firmly conquered the space, sitting thickly over everything like a shroud, so heavy Nicholas could practically smell it. Some of it was so old that it appeared to have soaked into the walls, permanently staining large sections well beyond the ken of even the most determined scrubbing.
“Bit messy huh?” Zephyr offered.
Nicholas didn’t even bother snapping at him, instead kicking a nearby computer tower in utter frustration. The action produced the expected bang but was soon followed by a curious groaning sound. It quickly grew louder and was joined by the sounds of metal and plastic striking against one another in a clatter of noise and motion.
Before he knew what was happening, Nicholas watched a section of the pile fall over, crumbling like a poorly made house of cards. This somehow pushed up against a shelf, which turned out to not be bolted to the floor and tipped over. A domino effect ensured with several other shelves, each of them spilling their contents to join the madness. A storm of noise and motion and chaos ensued, lasting only seconds before coming to an end with a single, thunderous crash.
In the eerie silence that followed, Nicholas could only stand stunned, looking over the carnage. What he could see of it through the blinding dust cloud anyway.
“That was fun!” Zephyr said.
“…sure, why not?” Nicholas said, too tired to even be angry anymore.
This just wasn’t fair. Never mind a dent, he’d be lucky to so much as clear a path across the room by tomorrow. And he’d sneeze his lungs inside out doing it. What was he supposed to be learning something from this? Because the only lesson he could see was how to destroy his back with the greatest efficiency.
“Where the hells am I even supposed to start?”
No answer came, not for the room nor from Zephyr, the latter too absorbed by drawing spirals in the dust.
Sighing for the third time in as many minutes, Nicholas waded into the thick of it. He poked around with foot and broom in search of the least horrible place to start. None presented itself as everywhere he looked involved some combination of objects that were heavy, awkward, or sharp. Usually all three because that was just the kind of day Nicholas was having.
It was while digging that something interesting caught his eye. Carefully clearing away a box of old saw blades, which were here for some reason, Nicholas discovered the angular form of a robot chassis. Its smooth metal construction reminded him of Zephyr’s body, albeit a much less advanced design and shaped like an elongated cube rather than a sphere. Twin ranks of insect-like legs ran up both sides, giving it the appearance of a scorpion, complete with its own articulated tail. Opposite that sat a single camera lens, staring unblinking out into the world.
“Whatcha find?” Zephyr asked, hovering with curiosity.
“I think it’s an old Kaori bot,” Nicholas said. “Wonder what it’s doing here?”
“Orry probably just forgot about it,” Zephyr said, sounding bored. “He’s not very good at keeping track of his things. That’s why he keeps us around.”
“I doubt that’s why he keeps you around.”
Zephyr bobbed before zipping off in search of something more entertaining. Nicholas let him go without comment, more interested with the bot in his hands. Despite having had an entire shelf tipped over on it, the casing appeared intact, the only obvious damage being scratches and a few bent legs. It would probably still work, given a suitable power source.
More interesting was the serial number stamped on the underside. Nicholas didn’t recognize the exact make, but he was able to pick out the signifiers that indicated a swarm bot. On a hunch, he glanced around at the surrounding area and discovered several more, identical bots sticking out from the mess. A few casualties but most of them looked salvageable.
That gave Nicholas an idea.
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