Volker was trying not to be depressed, and was mostly succeeding. Sort of. He didn't really have cause to despair... not yet, anyway. He kept telling himself that. Maybe at some point he'd actually start believing it. He'd only been skulking around the factories of Redhurst for four days, but in those four days he'd learned that Elias was right. They had no use for magic here. At best he was met with ambivalence, at worst hostility. Each passing day worsened his fears that there truly was no place for a mage guild here, no chance for a melding of magic and technology.
So here he was at the end of another day, standing on the street in front of a tavern who's sign proclaimed it to be "The Wicked Woman". He listened for a while to the sounds from within. There was a constant buzz of conversation, the occasional raised voice or drunken sing along, but no sign of raucous carousing. Satisfied that it sounded like the sort of place he liked to drink at he pushed through the door.
The interior of The Wicked Woman was about as well lit as any bar Volker had been to - enough to see where you were going, but dim enough to give a sense of privacy. A decent crowd of people sat at tables around the establishment, many in groups who's conversation provided a constant hum of background noise. He found an empty spot at the bar and waved to get the bartender's attention.
When she arrived in front of him the bartender gave him an appraising look. "You're new," she said. "What'll you have?"
"I don't suppose you have any tea?" Volker asked, though the way he asked it made it clear he didn't expect a yes.
"Tea, eh?" the bartender said.
"I know it's a long shot," the mage told her. "But I spent two hours getting lost trying to find a tea house. And then, when I finally found one, it was closed. Doesn't hurt to ask though, does it?"
"I suppose it doesn't," she replied. "What's your name, then?"
"Ann. Well, Volker, through luck or providence you're in the right place. I've got a lot of you fellows in here the past few days. Kept asking for tea after they stopped drinking beer, so I figured I'd stock up and keep the business they'd otherwise take somewhere else."
"Then you do have tea?" Volker asked, relieved. "Wait, what fellows did you say?"
"You know, the kind that gets all wound up over technology." She snorted a laugh, "Get it, eh? Wound up, 'cause of the clockwork...?" Volker laughed along just to be polite. "Anyway, you're on of them, aren't you?"
"Oh, ah..." Volker glanced down at himself. He'd done away with his usual robes in favor of something that didn't scream 'mage'. Pants, shirt and vest at least let him get close enough to people to start talking. Of course, once he got on the topic of magic the conversations always ended the same. "Yes," he told her. "That's me."
"I could tell," Ann told him. "You had that look about you."
"Actually, you're right about my being in the right spot. I've been looking for other inventors ever since I got here from Marsten. Are there many here now?"
"Take your pick," she gestured out at her customers in general. "Most of the people in here are who you're looking for. Nights like tonight used to be slow!" she scoffed. "I'll tell you one thing, whatever anybody else says about you gearheads you're good for business."
"Jackpot," he whispered, and then with a smile, "Thanks Ann. Oh! How about that cup of tea, since you've got it?"
"Have it for you straight away," she promised.
"It's not going to work."
"If we used some of that new coal, and that new boiler design we saw before we had to run from Marsten, we could make everything smaller."
"And lighter, sure... I'm not convinced it'll be light enough, though. And what about the fuel? Unless you want them to pull a cart behind there's no way they're going to keep the boiler going long enough to do anything useful."
"What about clockwork? If we use the steam to wind the springs, we could store some energy for when the fire dies out."
"Hmm, maybe. It's going to get damn hot in that thing, no matter how we do it."
Volker stat drinking tea, and listening curiously to the conversations around him. One in particular had peaked his interest. He listened for another minute or so, then took a breath and walked over.
"Excuse me gentlemen," Volker jumped on a pause in the conversation, "I couldn't help but overhear. What is it you're working on? It sounds fascinating!"
The two men turned to look at him, and for a moment he feared they would just tell him to go away. But after a moment one of them waved a hand towards the table Volker had just vacated.
"Grab a chair," he instructed. "I'm Jory, this is Heinrich."
"Volker," the mage introduced himself as he pulled a chair up to the table.
"Nice to meet you," Heinrich said.
"Are you familiar with Asmova's exoskeleton?" Jory asked.
"That was on display at the fair, wasn't it?" Volker asked after a moment of thought. "Yes, I remember seeing that."
"The Watch has us looking at ways of fighting the demons," Heinrich explained. "We thought, if we could make the exoskeleton into a massive suit of armor..."
"Only the problem is it has to stay connected to a huge boiler just so it can move," Jory told Volker.
"You strap on a bunch of armor it makes the whole thing really heavy," Heinrich jumped in. "Which isn't such a problem... Asmova designed the thing to move heavy loads. The problem is the boiler. You can't take it with you."
"Unless you can mount it to the exoskeleton somehow," Jory said. "But that makes the whole thing too heavy to move. And then you have to think about the coal..." he shook his head.
"Sounds dangerous, too," Volker commented. "Carrying around a raging fire like that? I think I'd take my chances against the demons without it, thanks."
"We can separate it from the person in the exo-frame," Heinrich said. "With some insulation it won't be so bad, but that just adds more weight."
"I think I have a way to help," Volker told them.
"We've already thought of clockwork," Jory cautioned him. "We can incorporate it into the design and it'll probably help, but not enough."
"No, not that," Volker took a breath to steady his nerves. "You could get rid of the weight of the fuel entirely and remove all the extra space for the fire. No smoke stack, nothing. Just the water tank, and... all the assorted steamworks."
The two inventors looked at him as if he'd just sprouted a second head.
"Be serious, man," Jory told him, looking annoyed.
"How are you going to power it without fuel or a fire?" Heinrich asked, "Magic?"
"Um, yes, actually. Magic."
"If you're not going to contribute anything meaningful you can-" Jory started, but Heinrich held out a hand to silence him.
"Wait, wait. You're serious?" he asked Volker, eyes scrutinizing the mage's face.
"Quite serious," Volker promised. "A magical fire doesn't need fuel. It doesn't even need air! And it burns hotter than a normal flame."
"Gods, his is serious, isn't he?" Jory said incredulously.
"That's all well and good," Heinrich said slowly, "But to do that you need a mage. And mages don't exactly... get on... with people like us."
"Not to mention there hasn't been a mage in this town for decades," Jory added.
"Yes, well, you're in luck then." Volker said with a smile. "Because I happen to be a mage, and we seem to be getting on just fine."
"Pull the other one," Jory told him. "It's got bells." Despite his tone, he watched Volker carefully.
"Show us," Heinrich told him. Volker nodded. With a cautious look around he held out a hand. He muttered under his breath and a blue flame sputtered to life in his palm.
"I'll be!" Heinrich exclaimed.
"Ye gods," Jory drew in a sharp breath.
Volker closed his hand, extinguishing the flame. All three of them looked nervously around the room to see if anybody had noticed. Ann was giving them an odd look, but nobody else seemed to be paying attention. Volker gave the bartender a wave and a smile. She smiled back, shook her head, and went back to doing other things.
"So," the mage turned back to the two inventors. "What can you do with that?"
"Oh, all manner of things, I'd wager," Heinrich said thoughtfully.
"Come here first thing in the morning," Jory said, hastily scribbling an address on a scrap piece of paper. "Noman's going to want to know all about this."
"Noman?" Volker asked in surprise.
"Yeah, he's the Watch' right hand man here in Redhurst," Jory said. "He's overseeing our work."
"Why, do you know him?" Heinrich inquired.
"Not... not exactly, no," Volker told them. "I've heard of him, though. I didn't think he was the sort to do this kind of work."
"It is what it is," Heinrich told the mage with a shrug. "You'll come, though?"
"Definitely," Volker promised.
"Great!" Jory exclaimed. "How about a drink, then? If this works out I think we'll have plenty to celebrate."
"You have no idea," Volker agreed. Suddenly, things didn't seem so bad.