Transcript – Sweat and Blood
[The Pensive Tower theme plays]
Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Six: Sweat and Blood
[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]
This is the memory of Cornak Arkandir. Orklin, aged eighteen, identified as male. Memory regards the events of his first year studying alkismos at the Etterean University, and was donated on the thirty-first of Trevall, in the year 726. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the seventh of Trevall, 729.
You’re dealing with a lot of prejudice coming from my kind of background. Folks see an orklin and they automatically think big, strong and stupid. Gods forbid an orklin get a job that needs thinking, we might strain our tiny brains. No, we belong in the army. Everyone knows orklins are real good at going where they’re told and fighting.
I’m sure you know all that already, it’s hardly a secret. But I wanted to get that down so you’d know what I was up against when I told people that I wanted to go to the Etterean University to study Alkismos.
There were the looks of surprise and questions like “are you sure that’s for you?”. Suffice to say I felt like I had a lot to prove, which wasn’t helped by the fact that my family isn’t exactly rich so we had to figure out a way to afford my tuition fees.
In the end, I applied for the Khorning Scolarship. It was a long shot. More than five hundred applicants with only twenty places being offered. Needless to say, the competition was fierce. I think I wrote more essays that month than I did during my entire time at High School. There were practical demonstrations too; we’d be told what we were expected to make and then the very next day we would come into the examination room and have to create a kismotic item from scratch.
Dream rings, scar jelly, all low level stuff, I know, but at that stage I don’t think any of us had done any practical alkismos yet. They only teach the basic theory in high schools. I don’t think I slept more than four hours a night during those days, I stayed up long into the night checking and re-checking ingredient lists and practicing techniques.
The night before the results were announced was quite possibly the longest of my life. I think I had convinced myself that there was no way they would give me the scholarship. There was so much competition and I’d seen so many others who seemed just as good as I was at the practical stuff.
Then the morning came and there was the knock on the door. The mail officer handed me that big thick envelope with a sombre expression on his face. I don’t think he expected me to pass any more than I did.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I opened the envelope and slid out the letter. It took me three or four read-throughs before I actually took in the information written there. But, I’d done it. I had been awarded the scholarship. I was going to the Etterean University!
I couldn’t believe it but there it was, written in black and white. I’m pretty sure I disassociated for about an hour, I have no idea what I did or said, I think we were celebrating?
The next few weeks passed by in a similar blur. Buying all the books and materials I would need to begin my course. That was a pricey thing all by itself but my parents insisted that if I was going to do this then I would do it properly.
The next thing I knew, it was my first day, Registration Day. My parents had rented a rickshaw to get us and all my stuff there. I would be given a locker on campus to keep everything in so I wouldn’t have to keep carting it back and forth across the city. They wished me luck and told me that they would see me at the weekend. And, then they were gone and I was alone.
No one gave me a second glance as I walked across the campus, I wasn’t the only orklin there, thankfully. Though, most of them were heading in the direction of the sports centre or the religious studies department. I suppose some stereotypes do exist for a reason.
By the time I reached the science buildings, the number of other orklins had dropped noticeably, and I noticed a few people glancing in my direction. When I entered the Zosimy Building, that’s where all the alkismos laboratories are, well that’s when the staring started. I was the only orklin there. And because of that, I was very easy to pick out in a crowd which just made the staring all the more noticeable.
Most of them, to their credit, turned away quickly, looking pretty ashamed of themselves, but there were a few who didn’t turn away. Some looked confused, like they were wondering if I was lost, but there were a fair few who were looking at me with open derision. It was clear that, in their opinion, I had no business being there.
And it did not get better over the next few days.
I don’t know if I’d just fooled myself into thinking that once I was in that would be the hard part over with, but it turned out to be the opposite.
Every day. Every single day, I was dealing with people who felt like I needed to justify my presence on that course. Other students, even some of the lecturers.
Glad to say I wasn’t facing it alone; I did make some friends.
Sehera Moran and Gallus Oricum, a couple of humans doing the same course as me, and Hteraga Ta’gorren – she’s a drakarian doing a joint degree in Alkismos and Political History. She prefers the research and book learning side of the subject more than the practical stuff, which is what me, Gallus and Sehera do best in.
I met them at a party that was thrown for the new undergraduates, so that they could meet outside the formality of the lecture hall. I nearly didn’t go. I had seen enough of the looks by then to know I was unlikely to make fast friends at something like that, what would be the point of going?
But in the end, I decided I might as well go. Even if I was proved right the alternative was going home and sitting alone in my bedroom.
At first it went more or less as I expected. Nobody was openly rude or hostile. In fact, any time I went and introduced myself to someone, there were plenty of welcoming smiles and kind words, but I would quickly find myself ignored and one by one the group would make their excuses to leave, to get a drink or speak to someone else, and I soon found myself standing alone.
It was Hteraga who approached me. I hadn’t noticed her to that point, which was odd since, as a drakarian, she was one of the few people in that bar who matched me for height. I had never had chance to speak to a drakarian before, there hadn’t been any at my old school, but my father had always told me and my brothers and sisters that, if we ever did meet one, we were to treat them with the utmost respect.
“The orklins owe a great debt to the drakarians,” that’s what he said, but he could never say exactly what this debt was. But, even so, I was sure to mind my manners when she asked me if I wanted to join her and her friends at a table, which was hard as I was feeling really fed up by that point.
I was a bit wary when I first met Gallus and Sehera. I’d never really had a positive experience with a human. But they were… nice. They didn’t talk down to me or just expect me to know less about the subject than them.
They asked me what I was thinking of focussing on. I’d had this question a couple of times over the evening, and everyone was always so surprised when my answer wasn’t kismotic weaponry; ‘cos I’m an orklin, I must love weapons, right? Despite the fact that anyone who’s picked up a book on the subject could tell you kismotic weaponry is a dead-end subject so why bother?
But with those three, when I said I wanted to focus on medicinal alkismos, they smiled. Gallus asked what drew me to that, Sehera said she was considering enhancement alkismos which has quite a lot of cross over with the medicinal field and Hteraga told us a funny story about some old alkismotist from years ago.
And, pretty much since that day, we were always together. We weren’t in all the same lectures but we would often go together to seminars and, in the evenings, we would meet up for drinks.
And, thanks to them, I was able to ignore the patronising looks and the occasional snide remarks. They never really stopped, though they did get fewer and further between as the first semester went on and it became clear that I did know what I was doing and I wasn’t just there as part of some diversity program.
As we moved into the second half of the year, the head of department, Professor Torrick, told us that the end of year examinations would consist of one written essay, to be done under test conditions, and a piece of coursework that would need to be turned in by the end of the semester. A kismotic item of our choosing. Professor Torrick would meet with each of us to discuss our choices and provide any advice that we might need.
I knew, as soon as I heard this, what I wanted to do for my coursework. It’s a rare item in medicinal alkismos, it’s called a bloodstone.
I know it sounds ominous, but it’s really not what it sounds like. There’s a lot of rumour about bloodstones, that they can control the blood in a person’s body and, in the right hands this can be used to help identify bad blood and heal a person, but in more nefarious hands they can be used to cause clots and heart failure. That’s a lot of nonsense.
All a bloodstone really does is help guide a physician to the source of a patient’s ailment. A lot of people don’t realise how difficult diagnosis can be sometimes. Imagine how less complex things get when you have an item that can essentially guide a doctor to where in the body the source of the problem is. No more trying to figure out symptoms or observing overnight to see what happens, you just use the bloodstone and, just like that, you know what the problem is.
Now, you might be wondering, if these things are so effective, why aren’t all hospitals using them? Well, there’s the old fireside tales about them that I already mentioned, some patients don’t want doctors using them and, unfortunately, unless it’s a life or death situation, doctors have to respect that wish. But there’s also the fact that bloodstones are incredibly complicated and difficult to make. And they don’t last forever. You only get a certain number of uses out of a bloodstone before they crumble to dust.
All of this can make them prohibitively expensive. I wanted to figure out a way to fix that problem, maybe find a way to make them so that anyone could afford them. But first, I had to know how to make one to begin with and this coursework was my chance.
I spoke with Professor Torrick. She was hesitant to allow me to take on such a project, though I do believe she would have been that way with any student. She pointed out that this coursework would account for a good percentage of that year’s grade and it might be more prudent to choose an item that was more easily achievable for my first individual attempt.
But I was adamant. I wanted to solve this problem and I wanted to solve it right away. I wouldn’t back down. Maybe I am as pig-headed as some people say. Maybe if I hadn’t… Well, it’s too late now.
Finally, Professor Torrick was convinced and gave me the go ahead, on the condition that I checked in with her at the very least once every two weeks.
My friends couldn’t believe it. Any of it. That I’d chosen that as my coursework or that Professor Torrick had allowed it. Gallus made a joke about him thinking he’d chosen the hardest subject. He’d decided to look into glass candles which, in fairness, is a very interesting and complex area. But bloodstones are more complex even than those things.
So, when the second semester officially started, I basically threw myself into the campus library. Alkismos isn’t exactly a simple thing by itself. You can’t just throw stuff together and see what happens. The measurements of each ingredient in the process are very precise and being off by a fraction can produce insane outcomes. Not to mention, the temperament of the particular alkismotist can play a huge role in an object’s creation which means sometimes following the instructions from a book can be nearly just as bad as making it up as you go along. You have to calculate your mood in relation to the emotions of the original creator, factoring in all the various environmental factors that might play a role. In short, there’s a lot of calculations you have to do before you even think of picking up the tools.
And I still had lectures and other bits of coursework to do, so it took nearly a month before I’d finished getting through all the reading I knew I needed to do to stand half a chance of creating a bloodstone.
And that was when the real work started.
My first attempt was… Well, it was tragic to be honest. Even now I have no idea where I went so wrong. I went back over my notes three times and I could not figure it out. You see what I mean about the process being delicate? All I know is that the mash had no sooner formed in the forge bowl then it dried out and crumbled to dust.
I spent a week checking and rechecking my figures and ingredients before I tried again. Some of what goes into a bloodstone isn’t exactly cheap. The department had some ingredients in stock that were free for the students to use but anything more exotic was on us to get ourselves.
Balewood Sap is a particularly tricky one. That had to be taken fresh, used within a day of being tapped from its tree. And the nearest Balewood trees anyone could tell me of were a good hour’s journey out of Elalton, so that was half a day just to get that one ingredient.
The second attempt was more successful, the stone at least lasted a couple of hours and only crumbled after I used it to locate a lesion on a rabbit’s hind quarters.
That might have been enough. Hteraga certainly seemed to think so. She said that bloodstones were usually only created by fully qualified alkismotists that had specialised in medical alkismos for at least a year. She hadn’t been happy about Professor Torrick allowing me to go ahead with my plan, seemed to think I was being set up for failure.
There had certainly been a few raised eyebrows from the others on the course when they heard about my choice. Most seemed to think I was trying to run before I could walk, so to speak, or that I was getting above myself, trying to do something so advanced. If anything, all that just made me more determined to prove them wrong, that I could do this.
So, I didn’t settle for my second attempt. I went back to formula and tried again. Twice more I tried in the space of a month and half and neither were much of an improvement on the second bloodstone. I grew more and more frustrated. I knew there was something I was missing but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I was tempted to ask my friends for help, but they were busy with their own coursework. Gallus was having real difficulty with his candle. He was trying to make one of blue glass, but it kept coming out violet and then exploding in his face. Quite literally, he’d been to hospital twice already.
So, I started spending longer and longer in the library, trying to figure out how to improve my work, trying to find that thing that would bring me to the next level and show everyone that I did deserve my place there.
I didn’t have any luck until about halfway into the semester. It was a late night, midway through the week. Hteraga had been keeping me company, doing some reading for her Creations of Vivvok module. I was poring over yet another huge and useless book I’d found on medicinal alkismos when she suddenly made this excited, squeaking noise. I asked what was wrong and she showed me this passage from the diary of some old alkismotist from southern Senteria from way back before Unification.
This entry was talking about bloodstones, about how this alkismotist had been employed in this army that was fighting in Zephria. Unlike Hteraga, I don’t know much about history so I couldn’t tell you why or anything about this war but anyway, this alkismotist was talking about needing bloodstones for helping wounded soldiers but there were no Balewood trees anywhere on the island. So, he’d had to find a substitute.
He’d tried a few things but nothing worked until he’d hit upon the idea of using his own blood in the mixture. Not something I’d have done, but I suppose desperate times do call for desperate measures.
Anyway, according to his diary, it actually worked. More than that, it worked better than a normal bloodstone. The stone he created with his own blood lasted for nearly three days of near constant use. You might not realise it but that is incredible.
Me and Hteraga shared a look then. I knew we were both thinking the same thing. She didn’t try to stop me or warn me that it was too dangerous. I think she was as intrigued as I was about whether or not this would actually work. So, we both went, right then and there, to the alkismos laboratories.
It was late in the day so there weren’t many people around. I still had my most recent calculations on me and had gathered most of the ingredients I needed. I had been planning to travel to the forest the following day to get the sap but obviously I wouldn’t be needing that for what we were about to try.
I began experimenting, with Hteraga’s help, trying out different measurements of my own blood. I know it sounds ghoulish but it’s not like we were doing some kind of weird ritual with candles and long knives, throwing blood over stone idols or anything like that, though I dare say there are some from my course who would say we were pretty much doing the same thing.
But this was scientific. We used a properly sterilized syringe to extract my blood. The diary had said to use only slightly more blood than sap to account for the difference in density, and that was all we took. So, again, it’s not like we kidnapped some poor innocent and drained them dry to fuel our hideous experiments. We were the only ones involved.
I poured the blood into the forge bowl and then used a pestle to grind the sickle-moss and the charcoal into it. I then, gradually, began adding the other ingredients, being careful to time each one correctly and keep my emotions under control. Hteraga stood well back. Even the slightest emotional fluctuation within range of the forge bowl could taint the creation.
Once the mixture is done, it has to be left for an hour to congeal into the mash. I normally would have put it into a lockbox to keep it isolated but I was determined not to let this attempt out of my sight. Hteraga had a late seminar to get to so I was left alone.
The seconds and then the minutes ticked by but I barely noticed. I was so focussed on the bowl and the dark red haze rising up from it.
Finally, the timer I’d set pinged its alert. It was time. I picked up the forgebowl and carefully carried it to the mould. I knew I had about twenty seconds before the mix would solidify. I poured the mash into the mould, closed the cap and waited.
While an hour had passed by unnoticed, those twenty seconds felt like forever. But, when I reached the count of twenty, I cracked open the mould and there it was. A perfectly spherical, blood-red stone. I picked it up, feeling the warmth of it in my fingers. It seemed strangely shinier than the others I’d made.
I knew I had to test it. Immediately. I glanced around for the cages. I was sure we still had that rabbit. But then, someone came bursting in through the door. It was Gallus, he looked panicked, wide eyed and sweating. He said Hteraga had collapsed halfway through the seminar. The campus doctor had been called.
I followed him out. We ran all the way to the history department. It was clear that we weren’t the only ones aware of what had happened. A small crowd had formed outside the conference room where the seminar was being held. Gallus on his own might have had difficulty getting through but, fortunately, this was one of those times when being an orklin had its definite advantages.
I bellowed at the crowd to get out of our way, not breaking my stride. Those at the back turned to see me coming. I think a couple of them even screamed. They quickly made a path and I moved through, Gallus right behind me.
I saw Hteraga lying there on the ground. One of the other students had made a pillow for her out of coats and they were gathered around her trying to revive her.
I… I acted on instinct. I still had the bloodstone clutched in my hand. Maybe it was a stupid idea but it was the only thing I could think of that might be useful. I knew the doctor would be there soon and I knew the best thing I could do to be helpful would be to tell them what the problem was.
So I moved to her side and activated the bloodstone. It was immediately drawn to her head. I rested the stone on her forehead, keeping my palm pressed against it. I knew immediately then what was wrong. She’d had an aneurysm.
The doctor arrived, said she had called an ambulance and it was on its way. I told her what had happened to Hteraga, showing her the bloodstone so she would know I wasn’t making things up or guessing. She looked at the stone for a second and then just nodded.
The ambulance came and took Hteraga away, leaving us to wait and pray.
By the grace of the Chained, we’d gotten there just in time. Hteraga suffers a little from short-term memory loss since then but otherwise she’s alright.
And that brings me onto the reason I came to donate all of this to you. See, I checked my pocket the next day and found that the bloodstone had crumbled. Now, normally a bloodstone crumbles when it’s been used up, right after its final use, but I promise you it was still solid after I used it on Hteraga. And I saw it the following morning too, still fine. I put it in my pocket. It was only after I knew Hteraga was going to be alright that I found it had turned to powder.
I’m not normally superstitious or anything, but… I can’t help but feel like there was a trade made. That it was either the stone or Hteraga’s life. I know that sounds crazy but, I think I’ll be shifting my focus from bloodstones for the time being.
Final Notes. Alkismos is a fascinating subject. I sometimes wonder whether I’d have made a good alkismotist. Still, I suppose I can’t say I regret the path my life took.
This memory is fairly easy to corroborate. Szelia has a friend in the Dean’s office at the Etterean University who gave her access to the student records. Mr. Arkandir did indeed attend the university on the Khorning Scholarship. He graduated earlier this year with a First in Practical Alkismos, alongside Ms. Ta’gorren who seems to have made an almost full recovery following the aneurysm she suffered in her first year.
Mr. Arkandir went on to work in the Newall Hospital as a consultant in Medical Alkismos. We contacted him about maybe giving a follow up interview; he stated that he has nothing to add to the memory he donated but stands by what he said.
With regards to the theory he posited, I doubt that can be confirmed or denied. There is no known evidence of, I suppose… sacrifices ever playing a part in the creation of a kismotic item and I’d personally chalk Ms. Ta’gorren’s aneurysm coinciding with Mr. Arkandir’s creation as just a very unfortunate coincidence. Though I suppose one should never presume to know all there is to know on any subject. If it is true, then all we can say is that both Mr. Arkandir and Ms. Ta’gorren had a very lucky escape.
[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]
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