The Black Heart Chapter 1: The Eye of the Storm

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The tinker rubbed the sand out of his eyes as he gazed out at the vast horizon. He watched the plodding figures approach his dune- the tallest dune for miles around. They were hazy, barely visible- mere shadows upon a beige backdrop. He was atop The Mound as it was colloquially known- a dune that shifted its location every week or two- a result of some mysterious magical phenomenon. But the tinker cared little for magic and mages. He was a man of science.

A scorching breeze had picked up, the precursor to a dust storm. For countless miles around, there was nothing- nothing at all. He watched the desert wind pick up, slowly obscuring the horizon. Soon the sun's harsh glare would be but a dull glow through the thickness of the sand.

The party picked up their pace, walking faster. He smacked his dusty lips in anticipation. What would he earn from this encounter? Perhaps they might care to purchase a little machinery. Repairs maybe? He could always do repairs, they were nothing. A little coin from that, maybe providing a new ride, or perhaps just a few supplies would do.

He patted the large machine next to him, its bulk shuddering at his touches. Powered by mana crystals, the contraption was a Desert Trawler. Rusted, dented, scratched and burnt; the steel gazed back at him. It was a device of his own design, hours spent reading texts had translated to this rust-bucket. It had stuck with him over the years. Its hull showed signs of wear, and with countless modifications, there was little in the machine that was a remnant of its former glory. If you could call it glory that was.

He remembered the first time he had seen it in all its magnificence. Fresh gleaming metal. Beautiful engravings upon its shell, a frame of the purest steel that human hands could make, a clunky yet charming engine, and an eccentric sputter that drove it forward. It was a machine for nobles- a work of art. But as was with art, it went unappreciated, and now he had re-purposed it as a desert trawler. It had had its fair share of battles. It had grown with him. Perhaps someday it might become his Opus- a work that posterity would remember.

But those were days and dreams gone by. He chuckled nostalgically at the signature he had still not erased. It was still inscribed upon the original steel. He hadn't the heart to remove it, though it weakened the frame, to be sure. On his lap was his latest project. A simple machine. Who knows, it may even find itself an interesting use someday.

Its core was of black-stone. Black and gleaming, the crystal pulsed with mana. Unlike what those mages said, mana was but another force to him. Something to be manipulated by human hands. The mages harped upon its every eccentricity, every anomaly that science couldn't describe was testament to the mystical nature of magic. "Magic my ass," he grumbled. They had yet to see the light. As his teacher had often said, there were only two types of things in this world- 'Things that had been explained, and things that were yet to be explained'. The statement was clear to him. There was room for science, philosophy, and art or whatnot in this world, none for magic or mysticality.

The travelers had slowly made their way closer to his dune. He could see them with some more clarity now. They were no longer shadows underneath the sun- they gleamed with clarity now, though that made them no less difficult to observe. The gleam of metal told him they had a few Crawlers of their own. It clearly was some sort of civilian outing. Mercenaries refused to use the telltale glowing steel that their crawlers were made of. It was too simple for a noble to own. And the holy grail- a Kamel. A damned Kamel.

The travelers had brought a Kamel.

He choked with laughter. Did they think they were in the Flame ages? Did they even know what threats the desert posed?

A fucking Kamel. Imagine that. A Kamel in the desert. What next, did they want a guided tour of The Black Heart? He couldn't even imagine the audacity their guide had to lead a troupe into the desert with a Kamel.

Still chuckling, he studied the group further. They were far smaller than he'd expected. Sales would be low. And seeing that they had a Kamel it was doubtful whether they would even need very many repairs. The Crawlers were likely the guide's, perfect for a quick getaway. A dirty business to be sure, but profitable, and terribly lucrative.

A smirk crossed the tinker's face. He liked this man. He was bold- death be damned. He was bold for sure. A perfect partner in crime. He needed somebody like this. Even the fucking lowlifes of the desert; the slavers and the rapists, the fucking anarchists themselves never used a Kamel. And here it was in front of him- a Kamel.

The storm winds were picking up now. The dust was casting a shadow upon the sands. It wouldn't be long before the desert would plunge into darkness. His initial estimate had been that they would've made it to The Mound in less than an hour. But with a Kamel? He doubted they'd make it here before the storm overtook them.

Too bad for them. Maybe their guide wasn't so smart after all. Perhaps he was merely an idiot.

Ah well- a pity.

He himself didn't care much about the storm; after all, who in their right mind wouldn't care about the sandstorm?

The tinker went back to his work. He lifted his gauntlet and slowly welded seamless hunks of metal onto the core. Carefully measured wires and seals formed a tight cluster around it as the basic form of a large blunderbuss took shape in front of him. The work was not tedious at all- entertaining if anything. He slowly grinned as the gun finally had its last panel put in place. It was heavy; though with his armored gauntlet he doubted lifting it would be a problem. Perhaps for others, it might feel a little uncomfortable to wield.

He finished up his project just as the light faded. The sand had risen to form a cyclonic column- some 2 dunes high, and thirty dunes across- but rapidly contracting. The Tinker, of course, did not give two and a half shits about any of that. He was at the middle of everything. The eye of the storm. A quick glance at the darkening horizon showed no signs of the silhouettes of the travelers anymore. Perhaps they'd died. A shame really. He could've offered them a lift, but then again, what was the point? They had a Kamel.

The storm howled furiously, a piercing shrieking sound. But the Tinker was used to it. He'd lived in the desert far before any of these fortune hunters had started searching for The Black Heart. He knew it far better than anyone else. The sound was annoying, certainly, but he had long grown oblivious to it. Legs crossed, the Tinker began to gather his thoughts. The light didn't allow for any delicate work to be done. But he could still think, and as long as he had his wits about him, he could do enough by thinking.

With a piercing gaze, he refined his image of the blunderbuss. It was to be a beautiful weapon. Perhaps an elephant gun might do- the sort the Tropic Wizards liked to use. Them and their elephant shooting passions. A tusk upon the flanks and the barrel itself might be a trunk. A smaller elephant pup might adorn the stock. No, maybe that was too much of an elephant gun. Ah, but the art was superfluous. What really mattered was the innards. It was a poor habit of his, to want to focus a little too much on the outer shells of whatever he made.

The black-stone crystal could've been a little smaller, though he needed to test it first. Better more powerful than sorry- what if it couldn't break through some paltry armor? And the wiring needed a little more refinement, reorganization too. It didn't matter too much for him, but it could lighten the load.

He began to re-imagine his schema, to fit his perfect vision. Oblivious to all else, he began to rework everything. Black-stone was a stupid idea, and conductors? Bah, the fewer moving parts in a weapon, the fewer chances of jamming. Simplicity was indeed a rare thing these days. Perhaps the seals ought to be...

And then he heard a dull thud. It wasn't the muted thud of metal on metal or metal on earth. It was the muted thud of a body hitting the ground. The tinker opened his eyes and gazed upon the sole figure that had collapsed in front of him. He glanced at the crawlers he was towing. So the goddamn fool had actually made it out before the storm. Barely if.

And then he saw it. The damned madman. He made it out before the storm while towing three Crawlers and a fucking Kamel. If this wasn't the guy, he didn't know who else it could be.

"Water..." a hoarse voice cried out.

"What's your name?" The tinker asked.

"Water..." The tinker looked at the dying man and smiled.

"And my name's Durn."
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