The rain was still falling as the Lischelle-Drakle family bade farewell to Fierre and Ryoka. Magical typhoon Erannda was still chewing up Baleros’ coastline and provoking sympathetic storms around the world.
“But neither rain nor snow and all that.”
Fierre looked at Ryoka, confused. The City Runner coughed.
“Sorry. Just a saying from back home. ‘Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night shall stay these messengers about their business.’ I think that’s how it goes.”
“Nice saying. Where’s it from, exactly?”
Shit. The problem with being friends with an informant was that she could look that up. Fierre saw Ryoka’s face go slack. She raised her hands.
“If you don’t want to talk about it—I won’t look into it, Ryoka. I—my entire family—my species owes you.”
Ryoka smiled. She looked at Fierre, who was extra-bundled up. Hood, gloves, long clothing—she burned even faster by daylight. But she was no longer coughing.
She was healthy. Ryoka was so glad. So relieved.
So angry. If she thought of it too long, Ryoka’s hands would start shaking.
Ylawes. House Byres. The—evil of it. Poisoning an entire continent.
Damn them. But also—because she was Ryoka—part of her mind whispered treacherously.
What if they’re right? What if they had good reasons? What if—
“Ryoka? Are we going?”
Fierre looked at Ryoka. The City Runner glanced up.
“What? Oh. Sorry, Fierre. It was just—I was thinking.”
“About the silver?”
The two started jogging back towards Reizmelt. Ryoka started and eyed her friend. Fierre gestured.
“It was written on your face. Also, your heartbeat picked up.”
“Nice to know I’m friends with a walking lie-detector.”
The young woman groused. Fierre grinned slyly as she adjusted her hood.
“It comes in handy.”
For a while, the two ran through the morning. Ryoka saw Fierre matching her pace, despite having shorter legs, copying her running style. Fierre lost a bit of her superhuman speed and strength in the sun. But not as much as the legends indicated. It was mostly the ‘catching on fire’ thing that made Vampires weaker in daylight.
After a bit, as they ran past grazing cows—a number of farmers lived here along with Fierre’s family—Ryoka felt compelled to bring it up again.
“So, what are you all going to do? We didn’t have much time with the other [Farmer]’s families to talk about it…”
Fierre bit her lip.
“We’re talking about it. We might…move. Somewhere far, far away. That’d be huge. But—”
“Fierre! You forgot your lunch!”
Someone called out after them. Fierre turned red as a man ran after them, moving faster than he had any right to.
“You left it behind. Don’t give me that look.”
Himilt appeared unapologetically. The [Farmer] stopped Fierre like every parent in the world—except he’d just broken most athlete’s records for a thousand meter dash. Ryoka looked around, but only the cows had observed.
“Here. Meat, bloody—don’t open the bag. You’ll have it go bad! And blood…”
“Dad. Please. Thank you, but you didn’t need to run after us. What if someone had seen you?”
Fierre, embarrassed, shoved the packages into her bag of holding. Himilt gave her a long look and adjusted his scarf and hat.
“You need it. It’s not as if we can give you the farm’s blood. We had to pay for a breeding-goat we were sure came from Chandrar. It might’ve grazed on the way here, but…”
Ryoka saw him flick his eyes back to their farm. And the well, freshly topped-up with silver. The Lischelle-Drakle family had been forced to boil water and collect the evaporated droplets rather than drink from the well. Hiding that from the non-Vampires during the storm had been a trick and a half.
“Be careful, Fierre. You’ll have to find a supply yourself.”
“I will. Thanks.”
Fierre looked at Ryoka. The young woman nodded slightly to Himilt.
“Is your family leaving, Mister Himilt?”
“We’re still talking. We need to spread word. Bamer and Rivel are going to deliver the news already.”
The Vampire farmer replied quietly. Ryoka nodded.
“And what will you do? Leave Izril?”
Both Himilt and Fierre were quiet. The farmer glanced back towards the ruined keep. He sighed.
“It’s not so simple. My family is one thing, Miss Ryoka. Vampires as a whole? Another. The thing about wells and groundwater and such is…it takes more than that to chase us off. Now we know what is ailing us, we can at least clean the wells, dig new ones, and perhaps…we’ll have those pills made up for us and try them. I will, at least.”
Charcoal pills. Ryoka nodded. The Vampires were also going to use different methods to clean their water. The problem was…she was no expert in metal poisoning and they had lived here for generations.
“So you’ll try first?”
“If we must move, we must. However, that would be what House Byres wants. If we flee—they win. I’d rather try to save what can be saved, first.”
His eyes were flinty and crimson. Fierre nodded, folding her arms. Ryoka couldn’t imagine what they were feeling.
Himilt went on after a pregnant pause.
“For now, we have too much to do. We need new flocks. We were lucky to buy some breeding pairs from overseas that had just come in. Colfa knows [Breeders] and [Herders] the continent over; her family can get us animals. New animals. Ones who weren’t raised in Izril.”
“And the old ones?”
Himilt blinked as Ryoka glanced back at the plentiful herds, being led out by Colfa herself to graze. He shrugged.
“We’ll keep most. Fluffles, of course. He just won’t give blood.”
“Oh. Well, good.”
Fierre’s jaw dropped. She stared at Ryoka.
“Did you think we were going to kill him? He’s my favorite sheep! I’d eat anyone who hurt him!”
“I just—I’m sorry.”
Ryoka raised her hands defensively. Fluffles the Seventh—or was it Sixth?—was an odd pet for a Vampire girl.
“We will keep talking. And decide as a group. For now—Vampires are in your debt, Miss Griffin. We won’t pass on your name, as you asked. But word will spread.”
Himilt nodded at her. He’d said as much this morning. Ryoka felt embarrassed again. But this time—a thought occurred to her she’d forgotten to ask.
“Himilt. Can I ask how many Vampires there are in Izril?”
She hadn’t ever inquired. Fierre and Himilt glanced at each other.
“That’s normally secret, Ryoka.”
“Well then I—”
“But for you, it’s fine. There are several thousand of us.”
Ryoka’s jaw dropped.
That was a lot. Wait. Was it? Several thousand for a continent of Izril’s size? Was it a lot or a little? Himilt nodded.
“They’re not all scattered families like ours. There are…settlements. Larger clans. Even…towns. Fierre can tell you more. So you can imagine moving all of us will be difficult indeed. Everywhere House Byres has gone is poisoned. If we can clean the area, well and good. But they have had centuries to turn Izril against us.”
He shook his head. Fierre spat. Ryoka nodded. Then she had a thought. She glanced at Fierre, and then south.
“I’ll bet they never made it past Liscor. House Byres, I mean. Did Vampires?”
Fierre and Himilt exchanged a quick look. The farmer looked around. Then he walked over and lowered his voice even further.
“We went everywhere. The Vampires of Drakes and Gnolls…were hunted differently than we. More bitterly, by their kind. If they exist—we lost touch with them long ago. But that is a good point. We will think on that, as well. Thank you once more, Miss Griffin. You will be welcome here anytime. Fierre—watch your meals.”
“I’ve got one right here, father.”
Fierre grabbed Ryoka’s arm with a smirk. Himilt rapped the top of his daughter’s head and she scowled.
“Don’t be arrogant. We will have to talk later about your…change. Later.”
He waved them off, brusquely, and jogged back towards the farm. Fierre glared at her father’s back, but she smiled before she saw Ryoka looking. The two ran on.
“Your father’s nice.”
“He’s overprotective. But…yes. I’ve never met your family, Ryoka. Are they…?”
“I have my issues.”
Ryoka bit back saying ‘I hate their guts’. It was—true. But Ryoka, now, wondered if maybe it was partly her. Well—it probably was. But her father was still an asshole. Compared to Himilt, it was night and day. Her father had never burned his hands down to bone to lie for his daughter. He had bribed people, though.
The City Runner shook that off. The two ran on. And in time—they encountered someone running towards them.
“Ryoka, Fierre! Everyone still alive?”
“It’s been two days. No one’s gotten sick or been hurt yet.”
The Courier slowed as he turned to jog with them. Salamani had yet to go running on his journey as well.
“Given how long I’ve known you two…have you settled things at Fierre’s home?”
“Just about. Now, back to business.”
The three ran on, and Ryoka saw Reizmelt appearing in the distance as Fierre gave Salamani some of the cheese her family produced and thanked him for his help. The Mage Runner waved it off.
“What’s next for you two?”
Ryoka smiled, brought back to life. As they covered the last three miles, she turned to Fierre and Salamani.
“Now? After all this, I think we deserve a reward, don’t you?”
Fierre grinned toothily before she covered her mouth. She looked at Salamani and back at Ryoka.
“We’re rich. I’ve got enough items to turn every adventurer in Reizmelt into Silver-rank teams, at least. We might be carrying multiple sets of Gold-rank gear. That’s money. Enough money to do…anything.”
“So, that means appraisals. Selling some of it?”
“That’s right. I was thinking—”
As Ryoka Griffin ran through the gates of Reizmelt, she heard a shout from the walls. She waved at the [Guards] there. She turned back to Salamani and someone on the streets pointed.
“It’s the Wind Runner!”
Ryoka Griffin slowed. Fierre, Salamani, and Ryoka heard more shouting. Warily, they all checked themselves. Ryoka reached for one of her new wands, taken from Valeterisa’s mansion.
“What’s that about?”
Salamani shrugged. He drew his wand. Ryoka jogged forwards, seeing more people streaming towards her in the distance, pointing. She took another few strides past a corner—
And walked into a storm of applause. Ryoka Griffin heard cheers, and people shouting her name.
Wind Runner! Children and adults both came running to see her. To applaud and cheer her. She had no idea why.
“Wind Runner! Wind Runner! Can you write your name on this? It’s an auto-graph!”
A boy came running up, holding a bit of white cardboard and a quill pre-dipped in ink. Ryoka was thrown—and she saw more people cheering her. But why were they applauding?
“What’s going on?”
Salamani started laughing. After a moment, so did Fierre. Ryoka was bemused, until Fierre made it so obvious.
“You woke the Archmage of Izril. You did, Ryoka. That’s why!”
“It was a group effort. We barely survived! It wasn’t…”
Ryoka trailed off. ‘It wasn’t anything big?’ No…perhaps…
She looked around. The people were cheering her. Asking for autographs. Asking her what the Archmage was like, how she’d done it.
Perhaps it was something. Ryoka had run greater deliveries. She would never forget running away from the Goblin Lord’s army. Meeting the Necromancer face-to-face. Taking her delivery from a Dragon. Her run to the Bloodfields, full of anger and self-loathing.
But no one knew about those runs. This was the first time Ryoka had done something that people talked about. She looked about, and blushed in the face of the genuine adoration. Fierre started laughing at her.
It took a while for Ryoka to get out of the crowds. She was tempted to run off, but Salamani and Fierre caught her before she could make a break for the gates.
At least Mad Madain treated her like normal. And Alber. Ryoka found herself waving to the guards by the gates. Her red cheeks still hadn’t vanished.
“Well, Wind Runner of Reizmelt—where are we off to?”
Fierre teased Ryoka. The City Runner looked at her friend.
“Got your lunch, Fierre? I don’t want to tell Himilt you lost it.”
The Vampire shoved Ryoka. Salamani watched, with urbane amusement. Ryoka stumbled, and then sighed.
“Liscor has herd animals. And Hedault owes me a favor. I think…I need to pay Invrisil another visit. To talk to Lady Ieka as well. I think she said she was still there and hopefully she hasn’t left because of the typhoon.”
Fierre stretched, copying Ryoka. The Wind Runner eyed her.
“You’re coming too?”
The Vampire thought about this.
“Suuuuuuure. I can…yeah, why not? I’ve already been out of work. And this is—for the artifacts—yes.”
Ryoka grinned. That would make her run interesting. And if they got to Invrisil—Fierre might be able to meet Mrsha and Erin! How—strange. And exciting.
Salamani interrupted Ryoka’s musings.
“I’m going too.”
The two younger women looked at him. Ryoka raised one hand.
“Salamani, you don’t have to keep following us around. If you want to pay off your debt, I’m fine with saying there is one. But—”
The Mage Runner pointed a finger at her.
“At this point, I need you to have one day when no one’s sick or dying before I’ll feel better about leaving you two alone. And at least two days where someone isn’t beating Ryoka into mash. Besides, we’re all prime targets for [Thieves] until we get the loot stowed away.”
He was right about all that. Ryoka nodded with a smile. Fierre frowned.
“Who’s beating up Ryoka? Besides me?”
Ryoka and Salamani glanced at each other. It felt like ages ago. But it had happened. Ryoka coughed.
“Er…it was Mihaela Godfrey. She stopped by to punch me and left.”
It didn’t sound real, even to her. Fierre opened her mouth and chuckled.
“Wh—hah. That’s a…are you being…?”
“To Invrisil we go, then!”
Ryoka took off. Fierre caught up after a second, Salamani in two strides. He sighed.
“It’s a long ways to Invrisil. I don’t suppose we could get that carriage again…?”
The other two laughed.
“Doubt it. It’s not that cheap, Salamani.”
“Sure you don’t want to split up? We’re going to slow you down. I’m not that fast compared to a Courier.”
Ryoka turned to Salamani. He winked at her.
“Not by much. And not if I do this.”
He produced his wand and flicked it as he touched it to Ryoka’s arm, lightly.
Ryoka’s eyes widened. She stepped forwards—
…And nearly tripped on a rock. The City Runner swore as she nearly split her big toe. Salamani eyed his wand. Then he sighed.
“You must be wearing an anti-enchantment artifact. I think it’s the necklace. You’ll uh, have to take it off for me to enchant you.”
Ryoka was still wearing a bunch of the looted gear. Salamani grumbled as Fierre giggled.
“That was so much more impressive in my head.”
When he cast the spell again, Ryoka felt a familiar sensation. The world—slowed—around her. Or perhaps her mind and body sped up to create the same effect. It wasn’t the same rush as when she’d taken Teriarch’s potion. But it was—something.
Fierre zipped past Salamani and Ryoka before the young woman was given the spell. Then she, Salamani, and Fierre were running in their own world of speed. The rest of the world was a slow blur behind them, people turning in wagons, moving slowly.
“Wow! And you run like this all the time?”
“Mage. Runner. Do you think I’d ever run without magic?”
Salamani grinned at Ryoka. She resolved to buy a Wand of Haste or something to have this effect at will. This—this was Courier speed.
“What are you going to do with your money, Salamani? That spellbook with a Tier 6 spell?”
The Courier nodded.
“That. And I’m going to buy something I should have bought a long time ago. Well—I couldn’t afford a good one. A Golem! Fierre, you work as an Opener, right? You should invest in one!”
“Golems? From where?”
The Vampire girl stopped running ahead to run with them. Ryoka was interested too. Salamani shrugged.
“If I can get a discount? From home—I mean, the academy. Wistram makes some. Not high-grade, but we can manufacture up to Autonomous-Combat type Golems—mostly in the Steelbody forms. Nothing like Cognizant-Steward types like Cognita—if she’s not above that, even.”
The words rolled over Ryoka, but each one was fascinating in its implications. Fierre, predictably, seemed to know part of what Salamani meant.
“Which one would you buy, Salamani?”
“Either one of those huge, hulking types that can fight and perform tasks—or a Golem horse.”
“I’ve read about those, actually. D-do you think I could buy a Golem?”
“With how much gold we’ve got? Surely!”
Salamani grinned. Ryoka tapped him on the shoulder.
“Where do you buy Golems? Wistram?”
“That’s one spot. There aren’t many places capable of producing…good…Golems anymore. Illivere is by far the best place to commission an order from. But Wistram might discount me if I call in some favors. It’s expensive—very expensive—but at a Courier’s income, you can afford one! You should consider it.”
Ryoka had a sudden image of a Golem from a video game punching someone in her way. Like…a certain sallow-faced girl. It was a tempting thought. Then she remembered the Snow Golem during the winter run with Ivolethe.
“They’re so useful. Guard duty, lifting things—heck, I could get one to dig a new well for the farm. That’s actually a great idea, Salamani. It’d really make me a credible Opener with some security like that…”
Fierre was musing aloud. Ryoka nodded. Golems did sound great. Which begged the question.
“So…why aren’t Golems common? If they’re at all affordable and that useful…I haven’t seen any on my runs, except maybe Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion and Valeterisa’s. Are they just not common in Izril because they’re made in Chandrar and Wistram?”
Fierre and Salamani looked amused. The Mage Runner laughed.
“Visit House Terland, Ryoka. They’re the ones who buy all the Golems. Further north than Reizmelt.”
Ryoka blushed. The other two ran on, now chattering about Golems.
Golems. Owning a…well, to Ryoka, it was like a magical robot. There were parallels to Earth’s understanding of such things. They weren’t Elementals—which had existed and still might, but manufactured things. Few had actual intelligence. Buying a Golem with her money?
It felt too big to imagine. But Ryoka was rich. She could afford a Golem? Well, unless it could fit in a bag of holding, there might not be a point. But what if…?
Ryoka ran on, imagining a giant rock Golem wearing a maid’s outfit and sweeping a broom while a white Gnoll sat on its head and probably threw things at the peons below.
Yeah. Yeah, that wouldn’t turn out badly at all.
Among the numerous duties of Magus-Crafter Femithain was resolving issues of…discipline within the ranks of the exalted Crafters of Illivere.
The Illivere Federation, a group of smaller states that formed the federation, was a semi-longstanding nation. In that they could boast of several thousand years of unity in its current incarnation and roots in the art of crafting Golems far before that.
Today, Illivere bordered Nerrhavia’s Fallen and was a small fish in the large pond. Which was better than being a large guppy in the smaller puddles. The might of Illivere, as everyone knew, rested in Golems.
They were a democracy as well. In that the people of each state voted on a smaller group of Crafters—the elite of Illivere’s society who manufactured or managed Golems—into positions of authority. And then those people voted in the Magus-Crafter. Some people objected now and then that this wasn’t true democracy per se and as such, but the Crafters of Illivere weren’t about to hand over all the power to the common folk, now, were they?
Anyways, about Golems. If you owned no Golems in Illivere, you were poor. If you helped make Golems you were working in the best job there was. Of course—there were differences there too.
Some were just lowly artisans who shaped a calf, or produced raw materials. Others helped make the binding spells, repaired Golems, and so on. The ‘Crafters’ were the ones who were in charge. Who laid out plans. Who ‘made’ the Golems. And the dozens, possibly hundreds of workers who contributed to the process just helped out.
It was different from Wistram, where a [Golem Artificer] might create an entire Golem on their own. In Illivere, it was an industry. And as such, the Crafters were often businesspeople as well as artisans. All of this to say that a Golem Crafter was hard to discipline, so it fell to the First Crafters of each state—or the Magus-Crafter, Femithain, to oversee breaches in conduct.
All of this…Femithain stared up three feet and eyed the Golem from head to toe, ignoring the murmurs in the square. All of this still didn’t explain why he was staring at a 9-foot tall, nude Nsiia currently posing in the capital of Illivere, Demarsel.
“It uh—you can see why we’ve asked for your presence, Crafter-Magus. The creator, Siddin of Veule, refuses to take his creation elsewhere. He claims it’s art and has dedicated it to the Empress and the Tiqr resistance.”
The Watch Captain was staring at Nsiia. So were a lot of people in the crowds, many of whom were objecting. Well—some were objecting.
“Former Empress, Watch Captain.”
“Excuse me, Magus-Crafter?”
The man tore his eyes away from Nsiia’s chest. Femithain regarded the posing Golem steadily.
Hm. Clay. It was quick-fired, clearly a fast creation. He could see some cracking disguised around the seams. The artist had forgone paint—a wise move. Statues painted always had this garish look to them. He’d even gotten the clay to her skin tone. However…the anatomy was just off.
Femithain had seen Nsiia topless. Also, naked. The artist of this Golem clearly had not—and he also had a poor understanding of how breasts worked. He’d clearly seen the real thing before—but had decided ‘art’ need not obey gravity.
The Magus-Crafter had a headache. And it wasn’t even mid-morning. He rubbed at his head again and addressed the Watch Captain.
“Nsiia abdicated her throne with the surrender of Tiqr. She is not an [Empress] and it is politic to remember that, Watch Captain. Furthermore, the ‘resistance’ in Tiqr lead by General Vasraf is in fact, an unlawful rebellion. Please adjust your comments accordingly.”
“Of course, Magus-Crafter.”
Chastened, the Watch Captain saluted and stared back at the statue.
“The uh, Golem, Magus-Crafter?”
“Have young Siddin remove it.”
“I heard. Crafter Siddin! You will return this Golem to your workshop now! Or it will be destroyed as a public nuisance!”
The Magus-Crafter used a spell to enhance his voice and called out to the Crafter who had created the Golem. He was kneeling in front of the Golem-Nsiia, and supplicating the real one in Femithain’s quarters, at a higher elevation from the plaza.
“You can’t stop me! I dedicate this to the Empress of Beasts! Make Tiqr free once more! I—”
“Take a sledgehammer to the statue. Arrest Siddin and have him escorted to his family’s estates.”
The Magus-Crafter ignored the wail as the young Crafter tried to protect his golem. He walked off, sighing. Siddin’s family might object—or they might not. Either way—he resolved to have a word with Nsiia.
It wasn’t that people sympathized with the definitely-a-prisoner Nsiia that was the problem. Or that they supported Tiqr. It was a problem if Illivere did that, but Femithain had reassured the other rulers that it was just a small movement. He could always deal with that if it grew louder.
The real issue, as far as he was concerned, was that this was the sixth time someone had caused an incident like this. Nsiia was encouraging them. She was certainly bored, but enough was enough.
“Nsiia. I would like to ask you to stop encouraging these young Crafters to their…adoration of you. They waste time, resources, and get themselves in trouble creating odes to you. Like the Golem that attempted to sing outside my workshop.”
Femithain broached the issue at a late breakfast, twelve minutes later. Nsiia looked up from an almost-raw strip of meat she was eating. Femithain stared at her over his morning cup of stamina potion and a banana.
They both gave each other disdainful looks for the other’s meal and Nsiia chewed her mouthful before replying.
“I don’t encourage them. They just show up.”
“You sit on the roof. Occasionally, nude. And you have agreed to model for two of the young Crafters who later proclaimed their undying fealty towards you.”
Nsiia’s lips twitched.
“At their request. And what’s wrong with sitting on rooftops?”
Femithain sighed. She was determined not to give him this. He could be diplomatic. Femithain was known as a calm, patient negotiator. However, he was also adaptable.
“Stop encouraging them, please. Or I will have to make an example of the next one.”
The woman pursed her lips. She eyed Femithain. Because she knew him, Nsiia did not test the Magus-Crafter. He was not impressive, in the sense that his rumpled mage’s robe, spectacles, and lean physique did not convey danger or physical might. But Femithain meant what he said, which was another kind of danger.
“Very well. And a good morning to you.”
The Magus-Crafter had another draft of stamina potion. That made him feel better.
Once again, he was having breakfast on his veranda, overlooking the pool, and past it, the capital of Illivere, Demarsel. The entire city had multiple levels, although it was no Pallass. Still, it had high walls, and brick or stone buildings built along the steep streets; the rooftops below were a maze unto themselves.
Sometimes, [Thieves] would try to escape via rooftop and fall to their deaths. There was no such danger in the Magus-Crafter’s residence, of course. It had proper security. Why, their prisoner, Nsiia, had no chance of escaping her quarters.
Except if she hopped over the ledge to have breakfast. She was eating another strip of meat. As she did, a bird fluttered down and landed on the balcony.
Femithain eyed it. He was no ornithologist, let alone a [Bird Watcher], so he had no idea what it was. But it was big, had a curved beak and sharp talons along with the dusky ash feathers speckled with blue, and he didn’t like it.
“Nsiia, is that bird an acquaintance of yours?”
The former Empress of Beasts turned and regarded the bird calmly. She smiled.
“I’ve never seen it before. It looks like a Dustwing Warhawk. See how big it is compared to a regular hawk? It could take a finger off.”
“I quite notice.”
Femithain mentally prepared a [Dust Arrow] volley in his head. Nsiia, fearless, offered some meat to the bird. It pecked and snatched the meat. Then it let her gently pet its head.
That was Nsiia. Beloved by animals. They came to her, mostly birds, but Femithain had woken up one day to find a crab had somehow made it into the pool. The former-Empress stroked its head.
“You’ve travelled quite a long way, haven’t you? Where are you going? Do you want more food? Here.”
She seemed to listen to the bird as it pecked at her breakfast. Femithain watched, interested.
They were two very different people, she and he. For instance, Femithain had woken up to deal with the Golem issue this morning after having literally fallen asleep in his workshop. By contrast—Nsiia had gone to bed quite rested after a day full of activity. She liked to stand on the rooftops, climb about as nimbly as a cat, and loved animals and they her.
Femithain’s passion was Golems. And it was unrequited, if love could be ascribed to such creations. And it could not.
“I see. You’re lost. Go north. There’s not much food here that won’t get you hunted. North. Don’t look at me like that. I know where food is.”
Nsiia pushed the Warhawk as it cawed at her. It flapped its wings, shedding some feathers and dander. Nsiia plucked some more meat to eat—it tried to snatch it and she flicked it on the forehead as she nimbly spirited the meat into her mouth.
“I won’t be bullied by a fledgling. Go on. Eat and go. You’re making my friend nervous.”
The giant bird eyed Femithain. He realized it wasn’t even adult, to judge by Nsiia’s words. It hopped over and pecked two more strips of meat off Nsiia’s plate. Then it took off.
Femithain watched it fly upwards, soaring on thermals in Chandrar’s drier climate. The rains that had come were short-lived in Illivere—even a magical typhoon couldn’t change that much.
“Do you hear their replies as words, Nsiia? Or is it just impressions? Guesswork?”
“They have their own thoughts. No language, and no words. But I’ve had much practice. I was ruler of Tiqr.”
The woman settled back. She looked content—then sad—then playful again. Femithain wasn’t fooled by the last expression.
There sat the woman who had been [Empress of Beasts], ruler of Tiqr, a land blessed by many wild friends, a proud nation who had stood amongst its peers and refused to bow when every nation within a hundred miles of its borders declared war. Nsiia had been a powerful ruler.
Now she was his prisoner. A guest? Certainly better-treated than in Savere or Nerrhavia’s Fallen. But a prisoner nonetheless.
“I hear Roshal made another bid for you to sell me to them. And Savere. How much was it this time?”
“Hm. Eight hundred thousand gold pieces and numerous gifts by Roshal. About a tenth of that and threats from Savere. And promises that I very much doubt could be enforced by contract.”
Nsiia blinked as she sipped from her tea cup.
“They couldn’t make that off me even in an open auction. Or could they? If they could, I should be flattered.”
“I understand it’s the prestige of selling an [Empress] that motivates Emir Yazdil and the other [Slavers] to make such an oversized offer.”
“And? When am I leaving?”
Nsiia smiled playfully. Femithain reached for his bag of holding and produced a small notebook. It was magical, and contained many times more pages than the slim binding indicated. It had all of his records, from taxes to resources to personal notes.
“Hm. Three days from now.”
Nsiia blinked. She stared at Femithain’s face, and then started laughing. He smiled slightly at his own joke.
“I forget you have a sense of humor! I nearly believed—you should have called in one of the guards to escort me to my room and shackled me!”
“That would have been cruel, not a joke.”
“Not in Tiqr. I’d have done that. Just for an hour.”
The two sat there, chuckling over breakfast. Femithain was checking the position of the sun and the sun dial he’d had installed by the pool just for such occasions.
“Nearly time. I must oversee Dellva’s entry into the competition. Nsiia, do you still wish to tour Elbe?”
“I do. I’m too tired of Demarsel and since you won’t let me leave the city because I’d steal a horse and ride off—I will gladly join you in Elbe.”
She stretched. Elbe was the capital of one of the neighboring city-states. The nation’s capital was Demarsel—for now. That was because Femithain belonged to the state of Dellva, whose capital was Demarsel. When the next Magus-Crafter was elected, the head of Illivere would shift. It bothered Illivere and the Crafters not at all, but it was apparently exceedingly annoying to the [Diplomats] and [Emissaries] who were assigned to the federation.
“Two hours, then. We will take to the roads then. Excuse me.”
Femithain rose, placed his cup on his plate so the staff would be spared the extra effort of combining the two themselves, and left. Nsiia watched him go, all efficiency and order.
She sat there for a bit, until she heard the housekeeping coming. Instead of greeting them, Nsiia leapt from Femithain’s balcony over to hers. It was a decent gap, but she did the jump effortlessly, moving as nimbly as an animal.
[Cat’s Grace]. [Gazelle’s Leap]. What were spells for others were Skills for Nsiia. She still had them—even if her [Empress] class was gone. Some of her greater Skills were missing, though. The Laughing Brigade’s Skill was gone. Her royal abilities—likewise missing.
“For the best, in some ways.”
Nsiia swung herself up onto the terrace roof and lay on the beams as she saw the servants enter, take the dishes, wipe the table, and leave. They looked for her, but she was as still as stone. She could still hide like a bat, run with hyena packs, fight Gemlions…
But she could not rule her nation. The former-[Empress] closed her eyes. She had lost many Skills. Including—[Wild Riot]. That was something.
[Wild Riot]—A Skill earned in madness. In bloodshed, and war. It was not a skill the [Empress of Beasts] should have had. To compel animals to fight and die? No, there were other Skills far more suited to a class that ruled. That Skill had been—
Nsiia shuddered. She had gained it with Thef’s death. Her beloved Grand Elephant friend, whom she had shared so many Skills with—it had come to her in her grief and rage. She had used it and begun heading down a dark path. One she was glad Flos Reimarch had saved her from.
Odd, to be grateful to a man she was still so angry with. He had denied Tiqr’s strength. Had failed to be the King of Destruction even in his return as he had in his youth. Even now, she could not believe a single army had laid him low. Where was the [King] who destroyed eight nation’s armies in a battle over a month? Where was the man who had come to Tiqr and received its loyalty without a drop of blood shed?
Yet wisdom was perhaps in surrender. For all Tiqr’s animals had died or fled. For all its people were slaves…for all that. Nsiia hoped she would one day reclaim her nation. And neither she nor Flos could do that if she was dead.
Anyways. She had lost her [Empress]’s Skills, but kept some thanks to her new class.
[Animalfriend Exile]. Interestingly—not [Prisoner], but [Exile]. Femithain truly had put few shackles on her, making her more of a dignitary than hostage.
Either way. She’d lost many Skills. Gained a few in return, like her [Famous Name] Skill—and the ones that led young golem-artisans to create endless copies of her. Was it temporary? Depending on if she ever got her Empress class back—she might keep the class, or return herself to her throne. Or combine the two.
All that was for the future, though. In this moment, Nsiia listened to the staff walking away, murmuring—and then she was alone. The Warhawk was far north already, Femithain had gone to oversee the Golem his state was working on under his direction for the grand gladiatorial competition, and they were due to visit Elbe, both on business for Femithain, and to relieve Nsiia’s boredom. She would see some of Illivere’s glories.
And she had two hours before all that. So Nsiia sighed, and flicked out the fork she’d taken from the breakfast table without anyone noticing. It was good silverware, with actual silver in the alloy. Not a knife, but decent.
Nsiia raised it—and stabbed it into her arm as hard as she could. The flash of pain made her double over, clutching at her arm. Blood ran from around the tines and she gripped her arm as pain shot up her arm.
She did not move. Slowly—Nsiia pulled the fork out of her arm. It had gone down as far as it could, nearly hitting bone. She pulled it out slowly, her teeth grinding with the pain. Then, with trembling fingers, she reached for a healing potion and poured just a drop over the bleeding wound.
It closed. Nsiia wiped away the blood.
“Forty three days.”
She whispered. Her punishment for the morning done, she swung herself back down and leapt back towards Femithain’s balcony. She crept inside and looked around.
Golems. Six unfinished Golems stood around the room, each one in the process of being made or adjusted. They were like…toys. Nsiia saw an arm, perfectly sculpted out of metal, ready to be attached to the body.
The arm was iron, thick, but not solid. Rather, hollow, lined with an inner clay between the iron armor, and laced with runes drawn in gemstone ‘ink’ on the interior. It would be added to the towering figure, sixteen feet tall and so heavy that Femithain’s workshop had to be reinforced or it would collapse under the weight.
Nsiia inspected the glowing core in the exposed Golem’s chest. Femithain had added…well, that was interesting. She traced the runes across the inside of the Golem’s chest radiating outwards.
“So that’s how it’s supposed to look? And he used—a different magical binding. Where is it?”
She scoured the workbench in front of the Golem, trying to remember exactly what was changed from yesterday. This is what Nsiia did; not sunbathe on rooftops to tease young men, and possibly women, or prowl around like some animal or talk to dogs or birds. She did that to distract from the fact that she was often in here.
Learning. Nsiia frowned over the Golem’s innards.
“This…Femithain would not make an ordinary Iron Golem. So what’s different?”
Well, for one thing, she was sure that ordinary [Golem Artificers] couldn’t have created half as intricate magical circuitry on the inside of the Golem’s shell. Femithain had written the magical ‘instructions’ that allowed the Golem to move and function with a brush the width of a pencil. Nsiia had seen him completing a custom-Golem with standard instructions—the binding spell had been written four or even five times as large. The complexity here spoke to…
“Aha! Spells! It’s a Golem that shoots—magic?”
Nsiia had it at last when she checked some of the scrolls lying around and realized they were copies of attack spells she knew. [Sticky Webs], [Arrows of Light]…Femithain was binding the spells into the Golem so it could activate them at once.
Iron armor, with clay in the middle to cushion the impacts. That was shell. Intricate writing? Instructions. Now…where was the energy?
Nsiia had never been taught how to make Golems. So all the terms and ideas were things she’d picked up observing Femithain or stealing around his workshop when he was asleep. As far as she understood it—Golems had three parts.
Shell, instructions, energy. The shell of a Golem was the armor. Steel, stone, even other substances. Instructions were what…made the Golems move. They had to tell the Golems how to raise arms, punch things—it was what took the most time, even more than creating the steel-bodies for Wargolems.
But the last key was energy. Golems were not infinitely-sustainable creatures. Each one needed magical energy to function. And the more powerful—the more magic. It had puzzled Nsiia no end, trying to figure out how such powerful, giant creations could move. On mana stones? It seemed so…inefficient.
“Where’s the power supply? Here? No, here…no!”
She looked around, frustrated. Once again, she couldn’t find it! It seemed obvious, didn’t it? The Golems had to have a mana stone. But she saw the armor, layered, the glowing instructions written on the inside—but no power source.
There was an empty orb in the center of the golem, with…Nsiia stared inside. Something broken inside? It looked like shards of metal. But the orb was not magical. Nsiia had learned magic—she sensed nothing from the orb, despite it being covered with the most intricate runework yet. There was no magic here! The closest she could find was, interestingly, jars of magicore embedded in points along the war golem’s body.
Glass tubes, filled with the glowing molten rock. Each one a different color. Nsiia eyed a glowing red one that radiated heat—an eyesearingly-bright one, a standard, element-less magicore tube…
“This must be to power the spells. Fire magicore for [Fireball]. Light for [Light Arrow]. Smart. The Golem can take energy from here and be given more power. But this can’t power the Golem itself, surely? Damn, damn—where is the power source?”
She wished she knew more about Golems. But Nsiia had no books—and no teacher despite Femithain being a very amiable host. She had seen them in battle, even destroyed them herself. But Nsiia had never been able to take the time to dissect one.
Now, she was lost. Frustrated, Nsiia sat down and growled. She went to the other five Golems. Let’s see. One was made of glass, and waiting to be filled with magicore. But that wasn’t a good example; Femithain had said it was highly experimental, a walking mana-battery Golem if it worked.
Another was extremely lifelike. Male, Human, around…sixteen? The sculpted ‘hair’ was just grown past short-cropped and the youth’s features were extremely pretty. He had no pubic hair, and, Nsiia was relieved to see, no genitals.
She eyed the Golem with distaste. This one was made of ceramics, white, and the Golem would be one of the servant-Golems, probably for some rich commissioner. Femithain had groused about this one, but his ability to create Golems was such that this looked like a perfect serving boy.
“May you delight whichever fool purchases you, Golem. Lack of genitals and all. Not that it will stop them, I’m sure.”
Nsiia laid a hand on the Golem-boy’s head and gave it her blessing. The Golem stared ahead, all but finished. It was sealed, but she had seen Femithain make it in a single week, grousing all the while and clearly not enjoying the task. But he’d done it professionally and not once had she seen the power source. Just another orb in the center, the nexus of the command spells.
The other three Golems were too early in the process of creation for Nsiia to learn more. She shook her head, dispirited, and looked around the workshop. If she couldn’t solve this last puzzle…
“I’ll take this. And this. And this…”
A tube of raw magicore, one of Femithain’s magical brushes, and some of his ‘paint’ went into Nsiia’s bag of holding. She looked around, rearranged some of Femithain’s supplies so he wouldn’t notice the thefts, and leapt back to her balcony.
Nsiia was no [Thief]. She had debated taking the class, but ended up turning it down. She’d never level high enough stealing like this, and it wasn’t a class that would help her, even if it gave her amazing stealth Skills. She could not help Tiqr just by running away.
No—it was Nsiia’s other new class, [Golem Maker] that she believed in. Nsiia returned to her rooms and then, carefully, entered her largest closet, now cleared of clothing. It was her workshop, and all of the tools were normally hidden in neatly-folded rugs and blankets in there. Nsiia had asked the staff not to clean her personal room in any case.
Now, she withdrew the product of over a month of stealing from Femithain. Piece by piece, it came out, shining in the light coming from the closet’s slats. And from within, the glowing binding-spells, laboriously copied over from Femithain’s Golems. The material this Golem was made of shone palely—but not like porcelain.
It was bone. Nsiia had obtained each piece of bone, carving it, gluing it together and polishing it until it was almost seamless. She was good at carving, and it was easy to steal a knife from a table after asking for a steak.
However—the material had been the hardest thing. Nsiia had tried pieces of furniture in her room, but the wood was soft and a missing chair would surely go noticed. So she had asked for help.
Dogs from across the city had given up treats or fetched or stolen bones for her. She had rewarded them with pieces of her dinner, and scratching. And at last—she had completed—to their disgust—
A Cat Golem. Nsiia stared at it, inspecting each piece. Tail, legs—the trick was a Golem was not an undead, so she had to just make the legs, identical, the torso, the tail, head…
It was just a cat. A housecat, not one of the wilder ones Tiqr’s people might encounter. Nsiia had created her second Golem as a cat because she knew them so well. She had purposely jointed the legs, trying to give it the mobility a real cat would. It would bend and stretch, segmented as the Golem pieces were, each part fitting together…
It was a work of art, if Nsiia did say so herself. The cat’s body moved like scale armor, sliding together so as not to leave a gap even if it had to flex downwards or upwards. She had learned a lot of lessons; a Golem needed to have the instruction-circuits connected at all times or parts of it stopped working.
Her first Golem had been a simple shell of a humanoid thing. Made of clay that animals had dug up for her and fired with a bit of fire magic and a few fireplace incidents. It had taken over a dozen tries but Nsiia had gotten it to walk around, punch clumsily, and try to move wherever she pointed.
It had been an unsteady, fragile thing which had begun to break even with its first steps due to how she’d made it. And it had run out of power after three minutes, eating through the six small mana stones she’d placed in it for power.
Nevertheless, it had been her first Golem. Nsiia had celebrated—before smashing it to dust and burying the remains. She had just needed to know how a Golem was made—even if the power supply had escaped her.
But this Cat Golem—this was the one that would be able to do so much more. Steal for her, deliver messages, travel—she was sure she’d figured out each minute detail of most of the Golem-making.
Parts were easy. If you had unlimited time, patience, and Nsiia’s mind, you could copy Femithain’s arm-circuitry and see how it made an arm move up, flex, move down…it was just a matter of making three dozen clay copies, inscribing your own magical instructions, and seeing what did what.
Nsiia had learned magic from her tutors. This was not new to her. She just didn’t know how to make the Golem obey more complex instructions, or give it a permanent power source, or…er…how she was supposed to get it to function without her direct, constant supervision.
It was possible to do! Nsiia had guard-Golems. In fact, she walked out of her closet to stare at them.
They stared back. They were about eight feet tall, to allow for them in the hallways of the Magus-Crafter’s estate. These ones were standard, in that they resembled giant suits of armor. They’d be animated, and fight with sword and shield, or mace and shield, or…
They were ordered to keep Nsiia safe. Nothing more. They didn’t stop her as she walked around them and this pair exclusively guarded her rooms. She narrowed her eyes as they stood there.
They appeared to be motionless and she had not, in fact, seen them move except when the staff had ordered them to one side so they could dust. However. These Golems would defend her to their end even if no one told them to swing a sword.
She hadn’t made her first Golem do that. She had been forced to tell it to ‘take a step’, raise its right hand, and so on, in minute detail. She couldn’t just say ‘walk over there’ or ‘dig me a hole’.
She was missing instructions and energy. With those two aspects, she’d have a complete Golem, or close enough.
But how to get that knowledge? Nsiia pondered it. Her scavenging of Femithain’s genius had reached its end. She had copied and experimented, but she was just…lost. It was time to seek the knowledge. Today, in fact. So Nsiia turned—and broke out of her prison.
The former [Empress] opened the door to the Magus-Crafter’s estates and turned to one of the squad stationed there.
“Excuse me, Guardsman. I would like to see what the Magus-Crafter is working on.”
The [Guard] on duty saluted.
“Yes, Empress! Er—Miss Nsiia? Your ladyship! Right this way. We’ll arrange a patrol…hey! Give me four Wargolems!”
Nsiia’s daring escape from her captivity reached Femithain’s ears just a moment before she did.
He was working in one of the state-owned workshops of Demarsel. Two dozen [Golem Artificers] were standing with him, sweating over their masterpiece.
“…Golem’s heart will be the factor, along with our extended combat cycles, Magus-Crafter. Can we leave it to you?”
“Of course. I have both ready—and the perfect catalyst. Ah, Nsiia? The [Guards] told me you wished to see me? I am pressed for time. We must finish this Golem’s calibrations if it is to be complete by the competition.”
One of the [Golem Artificers] swore. They were Dellva’s best and brightest, collaborating on this joint-project. Even the Magus-Crafter himself had taken time out of his schedule to represent his state.
“This is to be Dellva’s entry into the Golem Fights?”
Nsiia stared up at the glittering domed head made of clear crystal, the huge, armored body coated in some bronze-steel alloy, and especially at the inner workings of the Golem, and the giant glass orb that was sitting on a pedestal, waiting to be added.
“Nsiia. They are not ‘Golem Fights’. The proper name is ‘the Test of Mirrhen’.”
“Mhm. Golem fights. I should quite like to see them. I have seen [Gladiators] battling, but this should be even more interesting.”
“It’s not an arena! It’s a test of workmanship, design—”
One of the [Golem Artificers] was incensed. Femithain knew Nsiia was teasing them and held up a hand.
“Crafter Se, please finish the Golem’s legs.”
“As you will, Magus-Crafter. And if another apprentice slips and ruins our command spells, I will see to it they never touch a brush again!”
The [Golem Artificer] stalked off, to the fear of her apprentices. Nsiia saw Femithain turn back to the Golem.
“Does it have a name?”
“We are calling it—er—Domehead.”
For once, the Magus-Crafter actually blushed. Nsiia laughed. It was a fitting name, and clearly, not one that the designers meant to be shared before the actual event.
The Golem resembled many War Golems that Nsiia had seen. Humanoid, armored—with two Human-like hands to grasp weapons with. In this case—a waiting, unenchanted double-handed battleaxe.
Since the point was to have Golems from each state prove which design was most efficient, the weapon wasn’t enchanted but Nsiia thought the ten-foot Domehead would still be able to wield the huge weapon with crushing strength. Certainly, enough to break a rival Golem’s armor.
Anyways, Domehead resembled those armored constructs except in its head. It’s head was…well, a half-dome. Instead of a helmet or carved face, the creators had installed a far broader crystal dome, transparent but thick, and inside placed…Nsiia squinted.
“Are those crystals?”
“Command crystals, yes. Supplementary. Er—Domehead is experimental. Instead of placing all the command matrices in the chest area, we’ve created two separate interfaces. One in the head as well as the chest, for redundant backups. It should be able to keep fighting even if it takes a great deal of damage to one of the command areas—and the other states will be aiming for that, as will we. The head is exposed, but we’ve reinforced the dome and there are few other places we can install a backup ‘mind’ as it is.”
Nsiia nodded. She knew how to kill Golems and you generally had to hit their command-spells. Enough damage and the Golem would malfunction or just ‘die’. It was that, or destroy their limbs so they couldn’t function. Golems were hard to kill and they could be repaired with annoying ease sometimes.
“It looks expensive.”
Half a dozen [Artificers] chorused in the vicinity. Femithain was one of them. He grimaced, and then—grinned. He looked far younger than he did anywhere else as he pointed at the dome.
“The command crystals and ‘helmet’ alone cost half as much as the rest of Domehead. However—if we win the Golem F—the Testing, we can make a case for backup command spells to be installed in all Golems worth more than twenty thousand gold pieces. And if it is possible to reduce the overhead and spacing issues, Dellva will pioneer this advancement in Golem technology for decades to come!”
The other [Artificers] let out a subdued cheer at that. This was no room filled with lesser staff; each [Golem Artificer] was the kind who still knew how to do the work themselves and they would entrust it to no one less.
Passion, energy—all into making sure their Golem beat the other Golems into dust. Nsiia sighed. She had been informed that [Golem Artificers] were predominantly male over female. And mostly Human with a smaller section of Dullahans and Lizardfolk as the primary species of choice.
None of that had surprised her. Also—Femithain was still talking.
“—greatest competition might be in Ferule’s inspired ‘Spitshot’ Golems, which are employing actual liquids since no spells are allowed.”
“What…kind of liquids?”
“I’ve heard magma, but that sounds like a ruse unless they’re actually investing in that much heating spells and a container. My guess is oil followed by flame. Or maybe an alchemical substance?”
“They won’t be able to make a case their Golem is superior if they win because of the most volatile liquid!”
One of the other members of Dellva’s team complained. Femithain waved a hand at him.
“That’s why we’ve taken steps with our armor, Hecii. You worry about those fingers.”
Nsiia stared at the fingers being attached and looked at Femithain. Here came the important bit. She licked her lips.
“I can see you’re quite busy. I didn’t want to disturb you—”
“Thank you. Also, I note that here you are.”
“I am indeed. Actually—I just wanted to watch. There isn’t much to do in my rooms if I can’t sit nude on the roofs. I thought about doing that here, but I can see you’re too busy.”
A young [Golem Maker] nearly slipped as he shaved a bit of metal off Domehead’s knee. Nsiia was quite pleased by that. Femithain sighed.
“I gave you access to the library, didn’t I?”
But there are no damned manuals on how to make Golems there since your people keep them in their workshops and yours are all too advanced…was what Nsiia didn’t say. Instead, she pointed at Domehead’s…head-dome.
“Are those ah, command-crystals standard? I’ve never seen them before.”
Artificer Se was back with the legs. As they were being installed, she pointed proudly at the crystals.
“They’re each a solid unit. Two halves of crystal, see? Usually a large gem with almost zero defect—we have to remove impurities by hand, so we buy from Salazsar when the Drakes aren’t price-gouging—and then we write the instructions on the inside of the crystals before fusing them together. We have to do that, you see, since they’re external to the Golems and the linkage spells have to be on the outside. However, with this method we can effectively increase the amount of command-space because of the crystals—”
“Se. Se. While your commentary is fascinating, I don’t believe Nsiia cares to follow the advancements in command crystals.”
Femithain interrupted the [Golem Artificer] after the sixth try. Nsiia caught her breath as the woman deflated—she actually had a fake eye, Nsiia noticed. It was stone and kept swiveling around in her head. Not at all creepy and why her apprentices were terrified of her, of course.
“Actually, Magus-Crafter Femithain, Crafter Se—I am finding Golems to be quite interesting. I have no idea how they work, though. Can you explain how Domehead will get his…energy?”
Femithain blinked. Crafter Se brightened.
“Ah, well, we have the most efficient mana-draw spells inscribed on his heart. Once Femithain finishes his activation and Forming—”
“I have this, Se. You really have an interest, Nsiia?”
She gave him her most interested look—which wasn’t hard because Femithain didn’t look suspicious, but pleased!
“Of course. I would love to know—if you have time?”
“I should be pleased to. Golems are my passion. We can certainly chat about it while I wait for the heart to be prepared—and later, of course. Let me know if I am bothering you, but this is a quite pleasing development, Nsiia.”
The Magus-Crafter smiled. Nsiia swallowed ten thousand oaths. She should have done this from the start!
“So…how do Golems gain their energy? Mana crystals?”
The former-Empress saw Femithain’s eyes bulge. Then he and every [Golem Artificer] in the room burst out laughing. Even the apprentices attaching the legs had to stop to avoid dropping it.
Nsiia glowered. Clearly—the answer was ‘no’. Femithain looked amused—and embarrassed as he shook his head.
“Not at all, Nsiia. Excuse me. It’s just that—I believe every single apprentice has asked that of their master. I did the same when I was, oh, twelve…no. I can understand why most would assume that.”
“Incorrectly. You’d burn through even a big mana crystal in an hour! Hah!”
Se pulled out her fake eye with a laugh to wipe at the socket. Femithain nodded. He walked over to the orb, the same as Nsiia had seen in his other golems.
“This, Nsiia. This is a Golem’s Heart as we call it. Do you see the command spells running across it? They connect to the entire body.”
He pointed to the intricate runes that would match up with all the ones running across Domehead’s body just so when the heart was installed. Nsiia nodded, her own heart racing. So that was it! But…
“But there’s no magic in there, surely?”
Femithain smiled as another chuckle ran around the room. Now Nsiia was playing the willing fool, and the Crafters were clearly pleased to show off their knowledge.
“Actually, there will be. A Golem’s Heart is meant to draw mana from the world around it. No…vessel could hope to hold enough mana unless it produced itself, and since Golems cannot do that, and it is inefficient to link them to [Mages] unless they’re temporary—Golem Hearts store and draw magic from the world around them. Sometimes they need additional mana, but…that is their secret.”
“Ah. That makes so much sense! Forgive my ignorance!”
I’m going to steal your best Golem Heart. Femithain smiled at Nsiia’s credulous look.
“There are exceptions, of course, Nsiia. Some Golems did run off of unique Golem Hearts that produced mana. Unicorn horns, a Kraken’s eye, even…I’ve heard of a Sage’s Grass heart, but it requires at least a decade-old plant and keeping it alive is too difficult…”
“Easier to draw mana. But how did Illivere march it’s army to Tiqr? There were four hundred Golems, were there not? They should have drained the area dry.”
“Indeed they did. We had to bring mana potions and split them up to reduce the strain. Mostly however—a [Golem Leader] or [Golem Artificer] generally gains the [Mana Well] Skill. It allows us to build reservoirs to cast spells from or power Golems. A necessity.”
“Oh. Like [Summoners] and [Necromancers], you mean. [Golem Makers] are much like those two classes, or so I understand.”
It was the wrong thing to say. The good mood of the workshop went dark at once. Someone actually threw something at Nsiia. The woman caught it and stared at Se’s eye, which gave her a dirty look. Nsiia tossed it over her shoulder, and Se ran after it, cursing.
“[Golem Artificers]…are not the same as [Necromancers]. Or…[Summoners], Lady Nsiia.”
One of the older Crafters said with a strained smile. Nsiia gave him the same smile.
“And how not? You all three create beings, don’t you?”
“Yes, but theirs are inefficient wastes of—”
Femithain held up a hand.
“I believe what Crafter Merk was trying to say, Nsiia, was that our disciplines have similarities—but are quite different. Summoned beings and undead are usually highly inefficient compared to Golems. They leak mana like sieves, to put it politely.”
Se had reclaimed her eye. She walked over to Domehead and tapped his legs.
“Structure. See? Domehead is one thing. A skeleton? A zombie? Holes everywhere. Animation spell has to keep the damn bones floating. It’s why they’re so expensive. Although…they do generate death magic. But that’s because they were once alive! Golems are more efficient. And summoned beings? Wastes of mana, the lot.”
“But you can reuse summoned creatures and not fear damage or death.”
“Ah! Ah! But can you get the efficiency of a hundred pound arm turning your fancy summoned warrior’s face into—”
Femithain actually had to grab Se to prevent her from storming Nsiia. The [Exile] sensed a definite…rivalry…between the classes.
“Se, Se—remember that Sand Golems are temporary by and large. They need to be filled with magic by the caster. Dust Golems too…”
“Those don’t count! We create legacies! You show me an undead that lasts a century!”
“Why don’t we fill Domehead’s Heart and calibrate him? I’ll do the forming. You bring Domehead to the practice yard.”
Femithain ushered Nsiia out of the room before she could get herself stabbed by a chisel. She walked with him, wondering if she’d actually managed to annoy him—then she heard his chuckling.
“Artificer Se has stabbed apprentices for less in her classes, Nsiia.”
“Oh yes. She’s one of our [Teachers] as well as Crafters. We can do a tour on our trip—I forget you have never seen Illivere’s education systems. For now—we should complete Domehead’s activation. We are on a schedule.”
True enough. Nsiia watched Femithain take the Golem’s Heart out of the workshop, carefully transporting the glass vessel to be…
“What was that? Formed? What does that mean?”
Femithain adjusted his spectacles with his wrists as he carried the heart—although Nsiia was pretty sure she’d have trouble breaking it with a hammer.
“Ah. Forming. There are three disciplines, broadly speaking, in Golem-making. Shaping, Inscribing, and Forming. Each one is well…self-explanatory. Shapers create the Golem’s body. Inscribers, their instructions by which they move. Formers…well, it is more of a tertiary thing these days. Not truly practiced by all. I am considered the best Former in my state.”
“What is forming?”
Femithain looked uncomfortable.
“Giving a Golem it’s…being. It differs from instructions. I should explain. Domehead had thousands of commands. Intricate—sequences that allow it to raise an arm, swing the axe—that’s why we put so much time into it.”
Like I did, figuring out how to make a cat’s body move properly. Nsiia nodded. She had to create entire cycles for the Cat Golem—walking without falling on its face was an incredible task.
“Forming is different. It is giving the Golem—intention. The Steel Golems outside your room? They would only be able to follow orders if their Golem Heart was not formed. They would be Puppet-class Golems, rather than Autonomous-class.”
“More words I don’t know, Femithain.”
The Crafter-Magus blinked.
“Ah. Well—Puppet, Autonomous, Sentient, and Cognizant are the four classes of Golems. You may hear Autonomous-Sentry. The second word defines purpose. But the four designations refer to the will of a Golem. Puppet means it only obeys orders. It needs no Golem Heart, just the ability to take instructions.”
Nsiia had made a Puppet-class Golem. She nodded.
“And the other three?”
“Autonomous is most common. Actually…almost all Golems you will run into are variations of that idea. Able to take comments more or less efficiently—there is quite a lot of variation in the class. But, say, able to improvise on a comment. Not take initiative.”
“I see. Then Sentience is—”
The Magus-Crafter halted. And on his face was a look Nsiia had never seen before. A longing.
“True intelligence. No—at least the capacity for thought. Like…an animal. Or a child. There is a distinction. Cognizant-class, of which I know of less than ten in the world—those are Golems, undead, or even summoned beings that can think and act of their own will.”
Nsiia knew of one too.
“Like Cognita of Wistram?”
The Magus-crafter’s spectacles moved towards her for a second, then away.
“I had the honor of meeting Cognita of Wistram, once. She was unlike any Golem I have ever met, before or since. I wish I had the time to travel to Wistram to meet her there as well. Once the states vote another Magus-Crafter, I intend to.”
“You met this Golem outside of Wistram?”
Nsiia was startled. Femithain nodded.
“Once. She visited Illivere. It is rare, but Cognita is able to go where she pleases. She still has…had…a master whose will she carries out. But she herself can adapt as you or I could. Perhaps she is more intelligent than either of us. She is what Crafters aspire to create. But—no one in Illivere can even craft Sentient-class Golems.”
And Nsiia did. Completely. She saw it on Femithain’s face. If that young Crafter from this morning had looked one way when he had created the imitation of Nsiia, well—that was how Femithain looked now. It was not love. But it had captured him like a dream.
Nsiia wondered if Cognita had posed nude for Femithain, or if he’d been attracted to her for other reasons. Either way, she looked at the Golem heart.
“So how will you form Domehead’s heart? And why is it difficult to make Sentient-class Golems?”
The man came back into the world.
“You mean, impossible? Because we have lost the knowledge, Nsiia. As it is—Forming is an art. In truth, I do not know if the time I put into each Golem heart makes them…better. I believe there is some improvement, but a [Golem Artificer] can spend five minutes on a Golem heart’s forming and get the same result.”
“Here. Look at this and tell me what you see.”
The Magus-Crafter sighed and rotated the orb to Nsiia. She saw the hollow center, waiting for something to go in the glass hole at the top that would be sealed and create the perfect sphere into which mana would flow. Command spells ran like the world’s most convoluted maze all over the orb, connecting it to Domehead’s other lines of instructions.
But there—in the center—was something strange. Nsiia saw it, connected yet separate. Not written in the language of magic, but in…words.
It was a poem.
What purpose has the hammer who strikes?
What joy has the fang which bites?
The sword reaps no reward that it cuts.
Yet the satisfaction, aye, that may be it all.
“What is this?”
It was a poem written on the Golem’s Heart. Femithain smiled slightly.
“Intention. That is forming, Nsiia. And I will add a material thing to the center of the heart. Something to give the Golem—a purpose. As I said—another [Golem Artificer] could take five minute and copy that poem or another commonly-used speech, or even picture. I…customize each one.”
“So they are more than words and metal. How else would you make a heart? If you leave it empty, they are just shells. Puppet-class. At least in this way, we can create Autonomous-class Golems.”
That was all the Magus-Crafter said. He led Nsiia onwards to find his Golem’s Heart. She followed, understanding more and less about Golems by the moment.
The thing that would be Domehead’s Golem’s Heart was important. At least, to Femithain. Others were less caring about intention. They might put in a flower, a few rose petals, a bit of seawater. But apparently, the Golem hearts of old had been truly magnificent and Femithain believed that was the key to creating a Sentient-class Golem.
“So what will be Domehead’s heart?”
“I asked for the one thing I think would be appropriate. And he will also help us ‘teach’ Domehead by refining his move set before the Golem F—the Testing. And here he is. Armsmaster, my thanks!”
Armsmaster Dellic, the same man who had led Illivere’s living armies during the war, turned and bowed. He hesitated as he saw Nsiia, but she smiled.
“Armsmaster. You look as well as the day I surrendered.”
“It’s good to see you in health, Empress.”
The man muttered. Nsiia took pity.
“A [Soldier] does what he must, Armsmaster. Vasraf would have done the same if the situations were reversed. I hold no grudge against you.”
She winked and the man straightened.
“It’s kind of you to say, Empress.”
“Very good, Magus-Crafter. I ah, have what you requested right here.”
The man produced a little bundle wrapped in white cloth, looking embarrassed for some reason. The Magus-Crafter smiled.
“Thank you. Did you wait long?”
The [Armsmaster] shook his head mutely. He looked around at the Crafter’s workshops, set in this most prestigious, most important part of the city. The ‘practice courts’ were not for people with swords, incidentally. They were for Golems to walk around in, even spar.
“I made good time, Magus-Crafter. It’s an honor to help with the Testing.”
It was a strange thing. Dellic was a rather good fighter, as Nsiia understood it. As [Armsmaster of Steel], he was a formidable man and Nsiia would have placed him highly in her own armies, especially as a trainer of new warriors. He seemed loyal, an excellent virtue, and Magus-Crafter Femithain clearly held the man in some regard, and the same was more than true of Dellic.
However—the man was in charge of all of Illivere’s armed forces. An [Armsmaster]? And to judge by the way some of the Crafters were looking down their noses at this intruder, even the way Dellic stood, it was clear they regarded him as being little more than an elevated [Guard].
It annoyed Nsiia no end. She was a non-Crafter, and thus inferior, but like a peacock, she was awarded a significance as a former [Empress] as well as her beauty and fighting grace, which Illivere’s citizens had in short supply. But that only meant she empathized with Dellic; to some, she was an exotic beauty, excellent to be turned into a Golem—but not a person.
“Armsmaster, do you have much to do in times of peace? These wars with Reim must surely keep you busy.”
The man started and bowed again.
“I am much less busy in times of peace, Empr—Highborn Nsiia, it’s true. I maintain Illivere’s Sword Regiment…s…with volunteers. Right now I’m drilling as many as I can get to enlist. The Magus-Crafter has kept us from war…”
And long may he continue to do so. That was the man’s unspoken message. Nsiia nodded.
“What’s the latest with the King of Destruction?”
Femithain was busy unwrapping Dellic’s gift. The two stood to the side, talking knowledgably, even agreeably. If Nsiia liked Femithain—she and Dellic shared a bond of understanding.
“Armies are pouring into Reim. Hellios being encouraged to rebel—but no one’s jumping up yet, just a few idiots who got squashed. Not with the Steward shooting across the borders. Er—the King of Destruction’s slowed Medain and his eastern flank, though. Mars and Orthenon both sacked cities.”
“Small group. Apparently the Illusionist broke through the gates, climbed onto the walls, and fought for six hours until the defenders broke and ran.”
“That sounds like her, at least. No small city could stop the Illusionist—or the Steward. What of Pathseeker?”
“Gazi the Omniscient? Nowhere to be seen. But that just makes everyone worried.”
The two chuckled over that. Nsiia heard a sigh and turned. Femithain had Dellic’s object that he wanted to place in the heart. Nsiia saw…
“Is that…a shield?”
It was, in fact, a buckler. Old, worn—and split in two, so definitely not actually useful as a shield anymore. It was good steel though, and had clearly seen countless battles before it had split. Nsiia looked at Dellic. The [Armsmaster] shuffled his feet.
“It’s ah, mine, Highborn Nsiia.”
“Nsiia will do, thank you, Dellic. Your buckler?”
“It’s seen me through years of fighting. Carried it everywhere as a soldier of fortune. I hung onto it because it saved my life. Sentimental. I mentioned it to the Magus-Crafter and he asked to use it.”
Nsiia inhaled. Dellic just shook his head.
“It’s nothing special, Magus-Crafter. Not even enchanted. It’s an honor, you wanting to place it in the Golem’s Heart, though. Especially to represent the Testing.”
“I believe it will make a difference, Dellic. Something of this value matters to Golem Hearts, or so I have observed myself.”
Femithain quietly inserted the pieces of the buckler. They lay there, nothing special to look at. But Nsiia saw the value.
“Value, Magus-Crafter? Only to me and the people it’s helped me kill.”
“As I said, Armsmaster. Value beyond what I could give Dom—the Golem.”
The man flushed with pride and clasped a hand to his chest. Nsiia reflected that Femithain was more bureaucrat and [Golem Artificer] than ruler. But he was not bad at leading men.
The activation of Domehead was simple. The entire body was wheeled out into the courtyard. Femithain placed the Golem heart in the chest and it was secured, the chest-cavity closed. Then he placed a hand on the chest, spoke a word, and the Golem moved.
Nothing fancy. Yet—suddenly, the giant of bronze-steel armor moved. The glowing dome and crystals lit up. It stood—and picked up the axe.
Nsiia tensed reflexively. She still remembered the War Golems in battle at Tiqr, and Domehead was a paragon compared to them. Not in height or mass—but in construction.
The Armsmaster placed a hand on Nsiia’s shoulder. She relaxed and nodded gratefully towards him.
“Domehead—Attack Routine #1. Execute!”
Crafter Se ordered and the Golem swung its axe around. It stepped forwards, bringing down the axe in mighty sweeps and cuts. The watchers in the courtyard murmured—and it was every Crafter in this commune and more visitors besides.
“Magnificent. Look at that fluidity of motion!”
Someone commented. Nsiia just gulped. She had seen the Iron War Golems fighting and they were slow—if deadly swings. You could dodge them—Nsiia had, cutting into their legs. They were more of a terror when supported; an unstoppable blow you had to evade or die from unless you had a high-level Skill.
Those Golems were slow. Domehead? He moved as fast as a man with a hatchet, not a huge battleaxe. Maybe even a bit faster than your average Level 15 [Warrior].
“Imagine one of those bastards in a fight. Not er, Tiqr. Just any fight.”
Armsmaster Dellic breathed as the Golem ran through more attack patterns. Nsiia nodded.
“Illivere was once a far larger empire when Golems were still widespread, weren’t they, Armsmaster?”
“An empire the likes of which we’ll never see again. Not with the way it ended.”
Nsiia glanced at Dellic.
“Defense Routine #16. Execute.”
Domehead’s axe was a blur of blocking at different levels. Nsiia felt compelled to ask why he had routines.
“It’s simple. We give them routines so it can improvise in a fight. Autonomous-Class won’t deviate from what they know. And they’re too simple to think to use a chop; some’ll just use the same thrust over and over. Giving them routines makes them more efficient. And Femithain has created the most adaptive command-inscription Illivere has. Domehead will use different tactics if it senses it’s being ineffective. It’s as close to Sentient-class as you can ask for.”
Nsiia watched Domehead parry some strikes that the [Golem Artificers] were making with longspears and nodded slowly. Crafter Se looked proud of her creation. And yet…
“That’s enough. Domehead has no issues in its execution of all attack and defense routines. However…we can still improve the basic routines themselves. Armsmaster Dellic. What do you think?”
The man had been watching Domehead with an increasingly critical eye as it went through the routines. Now he bowed and spoke, nervously.
“I ah, do see places where—Domehead—can be improved, Magus-Crafter. A few openings and inefficiencies in how it moves, begging your pardon.”
The Crafters muttered. They didn’t like that. Nsiia pursed her lips. She’d seen the exact same thing.
“Can you elaborate, Armsmaster?”
The man tried.
“It’s uh—I think it was Attack Routine #5, Magus-Crafter. You see, when the Golem’s raising his axe like this—it’s a bit too high, you see? Too open. I’d slide in and cut a man trying that on me. And the motion whenever Domehead swings his axe sideways…”
He tried to show the skeptical crowd, but he looked silly and Domehead looked impressive when you lined up the motions. And that was because they were flashy attacks. But not good ones.
They looked like, well, a non-[Warrior]’s idea of what fighting should look like. Dellic was completely right in Nsiia’s eyes. Unfortunately, experience had taught her that meant very little.
“That jab looks all wrong, though. With a battleaxe like the one Domehead’s carrying, what does a jab like that do?”
One of the Crafters didn’t like the feedback the [Armsmaster] was giving him. He jabbed in a parody of Dellic’s motions. The [Armsmaster of Steel] spoke to a point over the man’s head as he clasped one hand to his breast.
“No offense, Crafter, Sir. It’s just that it works in combat. The axe is a bit oversized and er, fanciful for that matter. Looks a bit too heavy from the blade-end the way the Golem’s swinging it.”
“Not Golem-combat, you mean. This axe is designed to pierce enemy Golem’s armor.”
“Yessir. I only meant…yessir.”
Nsiia could bear no more of it. She strode forwards before Femithain, who was busy overseeing the inscription changes, could interrupt.
“I rather think Armsmaster Dellic has the right of it. I happen to know how to fight myself and I agreed with everything he said—only more strongly. Or would anyone who’s slain more foes on the battlefield care to object to your [Armsmaster of Steel]?”
Her tone was derisive. Femithain looked up and the red-faced Crafter hesitated.
“Fast blows work in combat. More than wide swings. Domehead doesn’t use his weight. He could lean into me and I would be cut. He doesn’t seem to shove, does he, Dellic?”
Nsiia looked at the Armsmaster. Encouraged, the man shook his head.
“Not at all, Empress Nsiia. He could bring that axe up, just like that and just—”
He demonstrated and the audience muttered. Nsiia saw many were unconvinced, but she’d given them pause.
“Why don’t you demonstrate, Armsmaster? Only, it’s hard to see for non-[Warriors]. So—try me. Have you practice swords? Or sticks?”
The [Armsmaster] blinked as Nsiia looked around. Femithain raised his brows.
“It might be illuminating to have two [Warriors] of your calibers spar, Nsiia. Would you be willing to do a demonstration?”
“Surely. If Armsmaster Dellic has no objections?”
“I—with practice weapons, not at all, Lady Nsiia.”
The man looked embarrassed, but he was an [Armsmaster]. He accepted an axe and Nsiia a spear—clearly meant for Golems to use. They were rough on the hands and poorly weighted—but she felt a thrill as she lifted the weapon.
“One of the Golems uses a spear. From Thun. Can you u—”
Dellic deflected the strike from the wooden spear that flashed at his chin. Nsiia would have pulled the blow if she’d felt it would have landed, but the man flicked the spear back without even jerking back much. That showed training.
The audience gasped. Nsiia winked.
“I have heard there are Golems of that sort, Armsmaster. Magus-Crafter Femithain hasn’t explained where they’re to be found, however.”
The Magus-Crafter closed his eyes. He was never going to talk about that practice in Illivere. And it did exist. But then his attention was drawn to Nsiia.
Because she was quite good with a spear. She might have been an [Empress], but she had fought with the Tusk of Tiqr and she lashed out fast, jabbing at Dellic. Nothing fancy—just a clean thrust that would go through you if it landed.
The man held still, using the axe, and knocked the spear butt away. Unlike Domehead’s defensive routines, he could do so moving or standing still and with an economy of motion, nothing fancy.
It made more sense to just knock the spear off-target than to whirl your axe and send it flying. With the whirl of the axe, both you and your opponent needed to bring your weapon into line. With Dellic? He knocked the spear thrust down and attacked in the same motion.
That was skill. And the audience, willingly or not, saw it. Femithain murmured to the [Golem Artificers] working on Domehead’s head-dome.
“Can we directly copy some of Dellic’s moves? We had extra space in the command-crystals in the head-dome, didn’t we? Just execute a copy-order and we can wipe it later.”
Magical lines began appearing in one of the blank crystals as a [Golem Artificer] ordered Domehead to do just that. The Golem watched as the two went back and forth and the Inscription-specialists argued over how to translate the basic attacks into Domehead’s movements.
Nsiia went for several bouts with Dellic and felt more invigorated than she had in a while. He was good. And she was a former-[Empress], not [General] Vasraf whose Skills were more combat-focused.
If it was a battle to the death, she could have used a number of Skills. But since this was a display of talent, she refrained from using [Elephant’s Strength] for a temporary advantage. That would have made Dellic sweat.
But he was better, and she didn’t mind admitting it. Nsiia went for a slashing lunge and he swung his axe up and actually severed the tip of her spear.
“Sorry about that, Empress! [Sundering Strikes]. Forgot to turn it off.”
The man looked embarrassed as he lowered the axe. Nsiia stared at the spear and tossed it aside.
“And that’s where you die. Unless you’re a Golem and can be put back together. What would you do then, Empress Nsiia?”
Crafter Se looked amused. Nsiia looked up at the needling tone and smiled. She saw Dellic tense—and lunged out in a punch as she grabbed for his axe.
He recoiled and shoved her aside. She tried to hook his legs as her palm went for his face. He was still too fast! He backed up, placing his axe up.
“Foul! And enough, please, Nsiia. I don’t think hand-to-hand fighting versus an axe is something you would actually practice, is it?”
But Femithain looked amused. Nsiia shrugged.
“If I had vambraces and gauntlets, I might risk it against someone half my level. If it were a fight to the death, though—and it was Armsmaster Dellic, I’d just run away. Can you teach Domehead that?”
“We can—but not for the Testing. Thank you Armsmaster.”
The man bowed to the Magus-Crafter and then to Nsiia. He looked relieved—and grateful as the other Crafters expressed the same sentiment after seeing his actual skill with a blade.
“It’s an honor, Magus-Crafter. I shall be at the Testing, of course. Best of luck on Dellva’s victory!”
The others could all cheer at that. Nsiia took her compliments and a towel and water and immediately struck down several more apprentice Crafters as she rinsed herself. Femithain was pleased. Dellic was pleased. Domehead was taken back to the workshop to be adjusted for the matches.
And after that—Nsiia went on a tour of Illivere.
Gazi Pathseeker stood on a hill, surrounded by enemies. The sand crumbled underneath her armored boots. She looked around, holding the two-handed claymore. Fearless.
There were so many. They came up the hill in a swarm, without giving her the chance to duel. A swarm of faces. The first—was Rasea Zecrew, leering, brandishing a sword.
Dozens of [Pirates] followed her, along with other foes. A Manticore, soldiers—Flos, Orthenon—Gazi spun her claymore around.
She beheaded Rasea, and then impaled the first [Pirate] on her sword. She leapt down the hill as the clumsier attackers swung at her. Their blades and weapons bounced off her armor. Gazi brought her sword up and chopped down—into Flos’ head.
The King of Destruction fell down, dead. Gazi kicked Orthenon and then ran him through. She turned, hit the Manticore with her fist and actually shoved it backwards, overpowering the larger foe. She saw Flos was still moving and stomped his head into dust.
At this point, Trey decided the sand war-games should probably not include friends. It got too weird. He stared down at the little Sand Golems and the Lifesand Golem he’d made in Gazi’s face. She was currently stomping around the sand lot he’d made in his rooms, tearing apart nearly three dozen Sand Golems he’d made to attack her.
“This is research. It’s not just sand games. This is so cool.”
Trey made a mudball and put it into a sand catapult. It actually fired, and knocked the Lifesand Golem of Gazi flat. The little Golem—remarkably accurate, just with a slightly oversized head—got back up and charged the sandapult. One of the sand [Soldiers] tried to block her at Trey’s direction. It put up a sand-shield and Gazi put a fist through the entire Golem, punching through hardened sand.
There was probably a lot that went into the reason Trey had chosen to make Gazi the image he’d sculpted his Lifesand Golem into. Lots of trauma, and his image of her. And perhaps—that he was lonely, in Wistram. But determined.
Also, she looked really cool with the claymore. It was actually sharp, despite being made of sand. But then—her reddish, blood-sand body was unlike any other Sand Golem that Trey Atwood could make.
She was a [Lifesand Golem], and the Quarass had given him the ability to create her. Did Trey harbor a grudge? Did he have a sudden trauma regarding daggers and throats? Yes. But he had to admit—the Lifesand Golem was faster, stronger, tougher, and…smarter than other Golems?
Hard to say. A phalanx of Sand Golems formed up at Trey’s will. They were perfect Puppet-class Golems. Temporary, but he could make them do whatever sand could do. And that was a lot. However—
Mini-Gazi halted her charge at them and actually ran left before hitting them in the flank. The Sand Golems were too slow to pivot and she ran past their spears to start hacking them into lifeless sand.
Trey had only given the Lifesand Golem the order to ‘attack’. But despite that, there was something of him in Mini-Gazi. A bit of his intention along with his blood.
The battle raged on. Trey kept animating tiny Sand Golems to fight Gazi—he even went for a giant colossus four feet high to battle Gazi made up of all the sand he’s brought to the Academy. It didn’t matter. Mini-Gazi could not be killed by regular sand. It buried her and she just hacked her way out. When it was done, she stood amid a sea of sand. That was when Trey picked her up and put her in his pack.
“Well, you’re going to be useful. Now, do I tell my teachers I can make you? No…no I don’t. And not the other Earth-people either.”
Mini-Gazi nodded obediently. Trey had made her do that, of course. She wasn’t a thinking Golem. Autonomous-class, maybe, even if he hadn’t given her a Golem Heart. She was temporary; Sand Golems almost always were, as one of the lowest classes of Golems. However, this Lifesand Golem wouldn’t decay and didn’t take mana like regular Sand Golems. She could absorb it from the atmosphere—and Wistram Academy had more mana in the air than any place Trey had ever been.
She only required one additional thing that a regular Golem wouldn’t want. Trey grimaced. The sand was looking a bit crumbly on Mini-Gazi, so he drew a dagger and cut his wrist.
Blood dripped down onto Mini-Gazi’s head and the sand brightened. She waved her arms and grinned.
Lifesand Golems required blood. Mini-Gazi was only a foot high, so she required only a bit every day, or a good amount would see her a few days. Trey wondered if he could get her to spy. But he hadn’t figured out how to see through her eyes. Especially since her ‘eyes’ were made of sand.
“Off we go. Stay in the pack and don’t move.”
He saw the Golem nod before he closed the pack. Mini-Gazi was mostly just to keep him company for now, but she was an asset. Oh—and she was really good at keeping the magical rats out of his room at night. Wistram had a rat problem.
It didn’t bother Trey, but one of the new girls who’d been added to the incoming students class had been in hysterics. Trey walked out of his room and waved.
“Hey…Flynn. Where’re we going? I forgot.”
Flynn Patel, who was rooming next to Trey, closed the door and stretched.
“Uh…I have no idea.”
Trey gave him a look and Flynn grinned.
“Pricky’s the one who has a good sense of direction! And since she has to be in the kennels if I’m in class—”
“We don’t have to study, they said.”
The young man from Australia looked Trey up and down. The [Sand Mage] was wearing his robes and carrying his staff as well as a pack with a spellbook and other supplies, including quills and parchment.
“You’re going to. I figured I might as well learn magic, right? In the ‘Academy of Mages’? This is wild! It’s like Hog—”
“Don’t say it.”
The two began walking down the corridor. They were temporarily with the new students, but Aaron and Elena had promised they’d be reassigned with ‘other people from home’ once a faction claimed them.
Already a worrying statement to Trey. Well…that process had been delayed because Flynn and Trey had arrived ahead of all the regular arrivals. Theirs was the only ship who’d made it through the storm, so they’d had days to relax before the regular orientation.
Which was now. The two looked around. Flynn pointed.
“That way? And why not call it what it is? You’re British.”
“What does that have to do with it? Anyways, I bet every single person from Earth has said the same thing.”
After a while and some help from other [Mages] walking down the confusing, labyrinthine corridors, Trey and Flynn arrived just in time to see other new students, fresh off the boats (and a much safer trip with the magical typhoon further away), lined up in the entrance hall.
Not just new students. Some of the…Earthers…were there too. They, like Trey and Flynn, wanted to learn magic, so they were being inducted from the ground up. Most had not a whiff of magic about them; they were untrained. Trey, by contrast, was about as adept as some of the new students who had actually come by reason of merit.
He sized them up, and they him. Most of the students were excited. Trey picked out some interesting faces among them.
There were the Earthers. Flynn, a pair from Baleros who looked Indian—Flynn immediately called out to them in a language Trey didn’t recognize. They started and then practically ran over to him.
Subtle. The other non-Earthers were staring as Flynn grabbed the shoulder of a younger man and began speaking, a mix of English and…Trey saw it was a young man and woman, both around his age, practically shaking with relief.
It was so obvious. But this was the one place where Earth was an open secret. He looked past the two at some of the older Earthers.
There was the girl who’d seen the magical invisibility-rats appearing to steal some food and gone into hysterics. She was hugging an older girl. Trey had been introduced—briefly. But he didn’t remember her name. She was a new student.
“I say, excuse me, do you know who we’re waiting for?”
That came from a fellow standing with a group of Terandrians. He looked waterlogged—it was still stormy at sea. A [Lord]? Trey eyed them. A group of aristocrats, mage-students. Even a girl with pale skin and blonde hair around the Quarass’ age. However, unlike the Quarass, she looked overwrought. She was sniffing. Then she started bawling.
“I want to go home!”
“Er—it’ll be fine. Excuse me, did you come with a servant or—”
One of the older nobles looked awkwardly around. The girl kept crying; she was, what, nine? Trey debated going over, but one of the older [Ladies] or perhaps even a [Princess] bent to comfort the girl and offer her a handkerchief.
The Quarass wouldn’t act like that. But then—she was also a kind of monster. Trey shook his head. He looked around and spotted another few interesting arrivals.
A Dwarf, scratching at his clean-shaven chin. Or…just a short and stout man? He looked young, though.
A towering giant of a Lizardperson. Not a Naga, or Lamia. But an actual Gorgon, all brawn and scales, clearly trying to look friendly—everyone was keeping away from him except for the Lizardfolk who were telling jokes and wiping water off their scales.
A Drake group, Oldbloods, with wings—one of whom kept coughing plumes of frost.
From Chandrar—Stitchfolk all of the Silk-caste except for two of Cotton. None of Hemp. They were standing apart from the Humans and Garuda groups.
One of the Humans was actually carrying a sword. He was standing very straight, and had a [Warrior]’s poise. He was mannered—but clearly here with ill-grace. He looked around, and his eyes slid past Trey too fast.
The young man sighed. Well, he was reminded why he was here. Trey Atwood leaned on his staff and at last, he saw the one they were waiting for.
A woman made seemingly of white marble walked down a hallway. She was huge. A statue come to life. Yet the stone flowed as she walked, her dress moving as if real. The students stared. Some even bowed.
They knew who she was. Trey’s eyes widened and he heard an oath from Flynn.
She stopped in front of the new arrivals. Cognita the Truestone Golem did not bow. She looked them over, her eyes lingering on no face, just taking them in with instant knowledge. She did not smile. She was—terrifying to some. Trey saw the [Mages] who had come to welcome the students standing far back from her.
“Greetings, new students of Wistram.”
Cognita’s voice was soft. Flawless as she was. She looked at Trey and he felt a flash of—it was like looking into Fetohep’s eyes. The Truestone Golem spoke, the same words she had welcomed countless students with.
“I am Cognita. I am a Carved Golem, or rather, a Truestone Construct designed to oversee Wistram and its mages. I and my kindred maintain and preserve this building and will assist you for the duration of your stay. In a few moments you will be led to your rooms, but before that I must tell you of the rules of Wistram.”
She spoke, and Trey listened to the rules. Then the [Mages] spoke and he heard their rules. Cognita led the students to their rooms and gave them keys. Since Trey already had one, he just followed along; they’d be led into the banquet hall next, and given food before being told their curriculum by some of the older [Mages]. Since he was from Earth—Trey had a number of exceptions, and his benefactor was Aaron—or ‘Blackmage’ as he was nicknamed.
But he was here. Trey saw the young man with the sword salute Cognita with a hand clasped to his breast and a bow as she handed him a key.
“So that’s Cognita. She’s, what, a Golem?”
Flynn came over. He wanted to introduce the two who were indeed from India. Trey nodded at them. Cognita was offering a key to the Dwarf, who was asking about soundproofing. She replied—and then a [Mage] hurried to tell the Dwarf how they did it.
Power and power. Trey nodded to Flynn.
“A Truestone Golem. She’s the most powerful being you’ll meet in Wistram.”
So Fetohep had said. One of the [Mages] who’d come to introduce the others glanced at Trey with annoyance and Trey bit his tongue. Flynn whistled softly. He eyed Cognita.
“You can make Sand Golems, right? You showed me. Are you going to learn from her?”
“I don’t think she’s a teacher. Besides—she’s not a [Mage]. Not like the Archmages or anyone else. She was made by Archmage Zelkyr…”
“Who? You’re going to have to lay it out, Troy. I didn’t learn magic, like you before I came here.”
Flynn and some of the others really didn’t know anything about the place they’d come. Trey saw the other non-Earthers giving them incredulous looks. He tried to explain as Cognita gave one of the Lizardfolk a room and told them they could share if they wanted, but they all got a room.
“Cognita is a Golem. The greatest ever made, or at least, still existing. But she’s also intelligent—Cognizant-class. The Golems I make—or anyone but Archmage Zelkyr don’t even compare.”
“Whoa. So that makes her…”
Flynn looked at Cognita with more respect. Trey nodded. He spoke, as Cognita turned to hand the little child-[Lady] from Terandria a key.
The hall—fell silent. Trey realized everyone had heard him. And—Cognita herself.
The Truestone Golem turned. The [Mages] backed up as she looked at Trey. She walked over.
“Cognita—he’s a new student. One of the special cases—”
A nervous Human edged forwards. Cognita walked forwards and he edged back out of her way. Cognita looked neither at him nor at anyone else. She stopped in front of Trey.
“Do you believe that is the case, young [Mage]? Troy Atlas?”
She knew his name and they had never met. That didn’t surprise Trey. He looked up, heart pounding.
That face, capable of expression, but expressionless. Her perfect grace and strength. An alien being, more alien than a living person because she would live forever. The ruler of Wistram, Fetohep had called her.
She was terrifying. But—Trey looked up and met Cognita’s eyes. And he had seen older. He bowed, and clasped a hand to his breast as the young man had done.
“Forgive me, Cognita. That was what it sounded like. A Golem that thinks is not like any other. If a Golem thinks, it is a person. And if a Golem must serve a master, it is a slave. I thought Wistram Academy didn’t have any slaves. Do you believe you are one?”
He looked up. The Truestone Golem examined him from head to toe. It was not how Trey would have preferred to be known—but he had wanted to ask.
The other [Mages] were poised—for violence, something—they probably had no idea. But then Cognita smiled. She nodded to Trey.
“Whether I am slave or servant, young [Mage], is something you will learn if you continue your studies into Golems. You may believe what you wish. It does not change what I am. And I am here to assign you to your rooms. Please excuse the interruption. Follow me. Caran Euthand? Your quarters will be…”
Trey exhaled as Cognita walked away. Flynn patted him on the shoulder and said something. The other [Mages] stared at him and Trey realized he’d stood out again. But that was fine. He looked at Cognita’s back. She had shown no expression save for that smile. But—he had sworn—one of the passing servant Golems had turned to look at him while she’d spoken.
And it had winked.
Trey Atwood realized he had a lot more to learn. Not just about magic. About Golems. About the academy and Earth and how they’d come to be here.
Also—where was Archmage Amerys?
Illivere was not a large nation. Not like Nerrhavia, which was so vast people told stories about how you could ride for months and not see the end of the border—if you didn’t have Skills, that was. Or a magical horse.
However, it was still a nation and even if Elbe was closer to Dellva than some states—getting there was a matter of time. Happily—Nsiia and Femithain had time to spare.
Also, they rode a Golem Carriage. Pulled by a Golem Horse.
“So you do make Golems in shapes other than humanoid! Why don’t you have hundreds of these?”
Nsiia insisted on inspecting every part of the beautiful, ceramic steed. It was a masterpiece; the legs moved fluidly, rather than the segmented Cat-Golem. Somehow the creator had given the pottery the ability to move like flesh!
“It is far more difficult for most Crafters to design non-Humanoid shapes, Nsiia. Most of our designs are standardized around the humanoid body. Balancing another animal—it’s not usually done. I’ve made some attempts. I made a Golem Cow once.”
“To transport liquids safely. It was a novelty item, but I think it’s still working. I had numerous issues in the joints—the distribution of weight and so on. Not to mention different commands for moving the legs. It took me eight times as long as any other regular Golem and I swore never to try it again. These Golem Horses are relics—Illivere has fourteen working.”
This Golem Carriage was reserved for the Magus-Crafter, but there were a few operational. Like many carriage services, they allowed for fast travel, and in the case of Golem Horses—faster than almost any other beast since the Golems never tired or slowed.
Still, Elbe would take six hours to reach. Femithain was attending a meeting of First Crafters to debate declaring war on Reim. He had assured Nsiia he would speak against—until it was expedient to do so. In either case, Nsiia was reassured that Illivere would not be marching to war against Reim. It was too far and there was nothing to gain. The First Crafters and the state’s representatives just needed reassurance and to talk it out.
So they had time. The Testing would begin in three days—it would be a two-day trip there and back with a conference likely to run into the night. Domehead would be ready to compete by then, unless some disaster happened in the workshop.
Femithain was more interested in the Testing than the conference. He was treating this like a little excursion for Nsiia. A tour, rather. So he organized two stops.
“Elbe’s academy and the Purifier will be our stops. I think even with the Purifier we will have time to visit the schools…first. The other representatives will take longer than we. Let me add the changes to the Golem.”
He spoke to the Golem Horse and it stomped the ground and nodded in a disarmingly Human fashion. Nsiia raised an eyebrow.
“Not at all. Just the height of Autonomous. There’s no need to give a Golem Horse actual thought.”
Femithain touched the horse delicately, as one would a piece of art, almost as if ashamed to put flesh to such a masterpiece. Indeed—the Golem Horse was pristine, being carefully inspected after every run. A regular horse might have envied the treatment.
Nsiia got into the carriage and felt it move into steady motion. She settled back and Femithain checked his notes.
“So…tell me more about Golems?”
It was almost disappointing how willing Femithain was to talk about construction techniques, magical bindings—he didn’t go into specifics, but Nsiia learned far more than she had hoped to complete her Golem Cat. All she needed was to add the Golem’s Heart, really. And the next one—
Three hours, later, Nsiia was rubbing at one ear as Femithain, who hadn’t stopped talking about Golems the entire time, continued his sermon on irregular Golem types.
“—flying Golems are virtually nonexistent for those reasons. Ones with nebulous shapes are simply too complex unless the Golem’s Heart and spells are that advanced. As Crafter Se often says—a Golem is a complete thing. It cannot have any gaps, so conventional Golems are always a ‘shell’. There are records of Wind Golems existing, but the magic would be a Tier 6 equivalent at least, and not one Tier 6 spell but dozens all forming a single enchantment…”
“So Illivere has lost much of its advanced Golem-making knowledge?”
Nsiia summed up the last thirty minutes of lecturing. Femithain nodded.
“Illivere is ancient. The Golem Empires of old collapsed and destroyed most of the knowledge…Elbe actually has one of our last relics of those times. It was not lost so much as willfully discarded.”
“Because of the uprising.”
Femithain’s eyes flickered. Regret? Wariness?
“Just so. But you will have time to see that in Elbe. Here—we have one of the last examples of a nebulous-type Golem. This way.”
He’d led her to a cistern by a river. Nsiia blinked as she got out of the Golem Carriage and stretched. Now, as part of her tour of his nation, the Magus-Crafter had led her to one of the enduring cornerstones of Illivere’s industry.
Nsiia’s nation had traded with Illivere, but she had not inquired too much into their sources of material. She knew what everyone knew; Golems provided for much of their workforce’s needs, such that the Illivere Federation was often compared to Khelt.
Unfavorably, of course in purely economic terms; Golems were fewer in number and less adaptable than undead in many cases. For instance—few Golems had the dexterity to plant seeds, while Khelt’s undead could plant, till, water, and harvest all without more than a single [Farmer] lounging in a hammock and occasionally shooting an arrow at a bird.
However. In some ways Golems were superior to undead. Nsiia expected to be shown one of the famed quarries that produced fine-cut stone for the entire region. Only Hellios had finer, and theirs was far more costly. Or—perhaps the Golems unloading cargo? Or pulling ploughs?
What she found was more startling still. A Golem was standing in a vast cistern. Into which…water was being poured and siphoned from at the same time.
It was a simple system, really. Water from the high ground ran down into a single access-point that could be closed at need. From there—it was directed into lower pools by said Golem. And below the Golem itself was a second…basin. Into which objects, large, as large as Nsiia’s head or even half as tall as she or Femithain and just as wide were dropping.
They fell from the Golem’s body as it produced the chunks of sea salt. Materializing, seemingly out of the glistening water and falling out of the Golem.
The Water Golem stood still, a giant, in the cistern. Its body was constantly being made up of the salty seawater being pumped into the cistern, and depositing freshwater into the pools below.
“I thought you would be impressed. Had you heard of the Purifier of Illivere before, Empress?”
Nsiia shook herself. Each nation on Chandrar not blessed with bountiful rivers or access to water had their own ways of obtaining vital freshwater. Tiqr guarded its plentiful oases and rivers. And Savere had the Siren as well as access to the sea; any good [Hydromancer] could separate salt from water.
Yet, Illivere had done away with even the need for a [Mage]. Wonderingly, Nsiia looked up. The Golem stood still, a towering figure.
“It has to be twenty feet tall.”
“Twenty two point four. A masterpiece. It has been running nonstop in this capacity for the last 1,203 years. With sixty one interruptions for calamity or combat. We lack the technology to create more such.”
“And its job is just to…? Where does Illivere get the saltwater?”
The Illivere Federation did not border a coast. Femithain adjusted his spectacles and produced a map.
“…This river, here. The Aleyss flows upstream. Magical phenomena. Either a spell or some feature of the geography. We harness its waters. Frankly—the Purifier is needed. Before its inception here, the ground was completely saturated with salt.”
Plop. Nsiia watched a huge chunk of salt, rounded, almost perfectly spherical, actually, drop into the water basin below the golem. Carefully, a lesser Golem with a long-handled net fished it out and carried it, dripping, over to a cart.
“Salt. Salt, and purest water. And you have all that for free? Tell me, Femithain. Is it a Water Golem or is there a special name for this…Purifier?”
She was outraged, and envious. Femithain nodded. He gestured at the Golem.
“You’re correct, Nsiia. It is a Water Golem. Type—Autonomous-Limited. Still more intelligent than the ones we create, but it was never designed to be as valuable as it is today. The size and quality set it apart. Frankly, its creators might not have dreamed we’d put it to this use.”
“Filtering seawater into pure water and salt. Does it provide for all of Illivere?”
Too late, Nsiia knew how silly that was. Even the endless stream of water could not quench a nation’s thirst. Femithain simply shook his head slightly. He consulted his magical notebook.
“It has limits. But yes—it supplies 47% of all of Illivere’s salt by itself. And a smaller, but still considerable amount of freshwater.”
“If I had known of it before, Femithain, I might have been tempted to steal it. Savere, surely would. Or destroy it so their water was worth more.”
The Magus-Crafter sighed.
“That’s indeed a problem. However, the Purifier can defend itself…and we do keep its existence somewhat secret. It has security, Empress. Still, I would count it as one of our nation’s assets. Which are almost entirely Golem-based. Surely…Tiqr had similar treasures?”
The question paused Nsiia. Of course, Tiqr did. The Roc Pact had delivered fabulous mounts and companions. They would not be migrating there on their six-year route anymore, though. And of course, Tiqr had other magical beasts whose products had been worth far more than mere salt.
For instance, only Tiqr’s [Druids], [Beast Tamers], and so on had ever managed to encourage Nightmares to let themselves be sheared. Stitchfolk paid a hundred times the weight of a single bale of the magical horse-hair which could render you invisible in shade…
Yet all that was different than this. Nsiia turned with a bitter smile for Femithain.
“We had our value, Magus-Crafter. But Tiqr’s great treasure is not something like this. It is in our animals. Our great herds, our ties with the creatures of the land. In taking Tiqr, your coalition destroyed all that was of worth.”
He looked at her. And the awe and pleasure of the moment was lost. He nodded slightly.
It was one of the reasons why Nsiia had chosen him to surrender to. If he had prevaricated—she would have stabbed him. She looked back at the Water Golem. If it had been Illivere instead of Tiqr, would it have fought, drowning the foes as the Grand Elephants had with their tusks and feet, until they brought it down and muddied the waters forever?
It was a passing thought for her. But Femithain had to worry. His nation was not yet lost.
After the Purifier, the two had a break to eat along the way to Elbe. Nsiia enjoyed some olives and cheese as a snack—the tough olive trees were common to Illivere and she quite enjoyed them. She kept spitting the pits out the window though, which mildly horrified Femithain who had a bowl for them. Nsiia considered that putting the saliva-covered pits in a bowl was the more barbaric thing.
Anyways, Elbe was a splendid old capital, much more flat than Dellva’s. Worn buildings of stone and the coliseum that the Testing would be conducted in were the hallmarks of this place—as well as an ancient palace.
“One feels that this is the true capital of Illivere.”
“That is Elbe’s belief. But each state has its own wonders.”
Femithain had a bit of national pride there as he looked around the old streets. Golems carried burdens to shops, or walked in place of horses. Most were the lumbering sorts, but there were a few disarmingly humanoid ones you might think was a Human—or Garuda or even Stitchfolk, they were so decorated—walking down the street with a basket of goods, or sweeping in front of a shop.
“Humans tend towards Golems more than Stitchfolk or Garuda.”
“Well—few Golems fly so Garuda must remain with the Golems. But there is a market for Garuda who dwell in settlements rather than migrate. Stitchfolk employ Golems at times…but they are a bit more reticent to adopt them.”
Again, the Magus-Crafter had to pause as he checked the Golem Horse into the custom stables.
“Because String People are Cloth Golems. In…a sense. Which I will never repeat in front of Nerrhavian dignitaries and deny I ever made. But it is why we do not build Golems out of cloth anymore. Just like we make little out of bone.”
“For fear of rebellion?”
He did not reply to that. But Nsiia knew she was right. Golem Makers had endured more rebellions than any other class. Not only had the String People won their freedom and become a race—all Golems had once done the same.
And in Elbe there was proof of that. Apparently. It resided in the palace, a circular building with a dome, to match the open coliseum of old. Elbe seemed to have a thing for circles.
But first—Femithain took Nsiia to school.
The institutions of learning in Illivere were actual buildings and classrooms which enrolled thousands of students each year. It was not mandatory, and in fact, Nsiia was touring an academy meant for students in their early teens. But any citizen of Illivere could enroll in a school free of charge, up to a certain level where a modest admission fee was charged.
It was bizarre to Nsiia. Schools? She walked down the hallways and stared into classrooms of young people sitting in desks before…instructors…conveying knowledge. Who would come up with such a backwards system?
Like all of Tiqr’s monarchs, Nsiia had been taught by fine [Tutors] and given the secrets of her own monarchy. Not that Tiqr had such royal educations as, say Terandrian [Princes] and [Princesses]. To be a ruler of Tiqr was to know how to hunt and fish and take care of animals more than administer a bureaucracy—although Nsiia had learned both.
Yet, it was her first introduction to this kind of class. Or this kind of…class.
She peeked into the classroom at the [Teacher] going over the fundamentals of metallurgy, specifically, the creation of forges and how iron became steel. It was—strange.
“He is teaching them to forge steel? But this man is no [Blacksmith]!”
It seemed wrong to Nsiia. Especially because these were secrets of the smith’s craft, like the exact forging temperature of steel, which the students were copying onto notebooks. And they were [Students]. Not [Apprentice Smiths] or…
Femithain didn’t share Nsiia’s horror. He nodded calmly at the scene of busy students, who kept peeking at the two rulers.
“[Student] and [Teacher] are complimentary classes, Nsiia. Both allow for knowledge to be spread far more efficiently than a [Blacksmith] might, even if he were to take a dozen apprentices. A difficult task for most. Is it not better to teach dozens, even hundreds at the same time?”
“Perhaps if you never wield a blade forged by students taught by words on a board! Or used a pot made by a smith who hasn’t created ten thousand over her apprenticeship!”
The former [Empress] folded her arms, adamantly. Her voice was a bit too loud though, because there was a titter of laughter from the classroom and the [Teacher] paused, much abashed.
Femithain’s lips moved up in a slight smile. He answered Nsiia in a carrying tone.
“In that you are correct, Empress Nsiia. However—not all [Students] who learn from this specific class will become [Blacksmiths]. Those that do will learn the craft by hand, through practice. But consider—some students may help create forges, not shape steel alone. The knowledge of how steel is made is invaluable in many regards. And given the need for steel in Golems—steel in quantity, not elegant masterworks—a class like this is more efficient.”
“But why split classes? What will being a [Student] do?”
Femithain once again nodded at the [Students], who looked worried about the [Empress]’ scorn for their class.
“A [Student] has Skills that increase their capacity to learn. It may be that they will lack the complete training from infanthood that some [Warriors] or other classes possess. However—a [Student] may become a [Learned Warrior], or gain Skills a regular [Warrior] might not. [Indirect Bombardment], for instance, is a Skill that [Archers] who have studied the physics of ballistics sometimes gain. Mainly though, [Empress], it is a class for those who are seeking their place. They need only learn in school, not commit themselves to a path that may not suit them.”
It seemed like a poor excuse to Nsiia, but she was willing to accept Femithain’s reasoning to some degree. Throwing yourself entirely into a class and realizing it was not for you was…painful. She had seen many like that, trapped below Level 20 because they were not good or interested in what defined them.
However, Femithain’s next words sold the entire class and Nsiia.
“For proof there is some success in Illivere’s teaching methods, consider that I was a [Student] myself. I graduated with top marks before earning my apprenticeship among the Golem Manufactoriums. My education was wide, and I believe it helped me become Magus-Crafter. Of course, it does require effort. And we should not distract from the student’s learning time. Teacher, our pardons.”
He nodded and the [Teacher] bowed. Nsiia walked away, feeling eyes on her back. She peeked back only once. Femithain saw the former monarch scribbling something down on a piece of paper. After all, if someone was going to write the secret of steel’s heat down…
The students were all abuzz with the visit of the two. The [Teacher] called for order—three times.
“Settle down. I’d like your attention—we have a curriculum we must stick to and we’ve already lost enough time to the er, war with Tiqr. I said—”
He saw that his students were whispering, too excited to actually take Femithain’s advice and study. So the [Teacher] sighed. Then smiled and clapped his hands.
[Thunderclap Palms]. The students recoiled from the explosion of sound. The [Teacher] tapped the board with a ruler.
“[Memory-Fixed Words]. As I was saying, the method of forging iron into steel is the following—this will not be on the test since you will remember this part—”
The students groaned as the lesson was embedded in their long-term memory as if the teacher had smacked it into their skulls. The [Teacher] sighed. What would you do without Skills, eh?
By the time Nsiia was done touring the school, she had decided that it might be useful. In some ways. She still believed an apprentice learned more from a master, but if there weren’t enough masters…
Tiqr would need to rebuild and many of the high-level craftspeople were dead. Perhaps this would be better.
That was a thing long in the future, though. If it would even come to pass. But it gave her something to imagine and hope for.
The other First Crafters of their state had arrived, so Femithain had to go to the senatorial palace now. Nsiia was not permitted in the room where the First Crafters and lesser representatives would debate, but Femithain gave her run of the old palace.
And posted a squad to make sure she didn’t leave by accident. Nsiia bore it with good grace. The old building had plenty of murals and historical artifacts, anyways. It was half government, half museum.
“What is there to see, Senior Guardsman?”
She spoke to one of Elbe’s [Guards] who had been assigned to her. Even the City Watch had its Illiverian twist to it; the patrol had a Security Golem attached, a rock-hewn giant, crude, but armed with a club. It might fail to catch a fleeing [Thief], but no one was about to give it lip.
In Tiqr, some of the City Watches had used hyenas instead of dogs. Hyenas were scarier.
The man flushed; like Dellic, he seemed used to being the inferior class and Nsiia’s respect for his rank was unprecedented. He touched his wide-brimmed steel helmet-hat and pointed.
“The old Testing Champions are enshrined along that hallway, Empress. Begging your pardon, Highborn. They’re what most come to see. Crafters and layfolk all.”
Nsiia nodded. She walked down that way and came to one of the features of the palace.
Old Golems lay or stood, some in pieces, others simply…done. None were functional, but all were the greatest Golems of Illivere’s past.
The first Golem was actually so hot it permanently warmed the palace. In the summer, the windows were opened to vent the heat. Nsiia read the plaque.
Obsidel, the Magma Golem. Autonomous-Gladiatorial Class. Victor of 8 Testings. At rest.
She looked up—and the Golem was alive.
No—not alive. Just…resting. Obsidel had been a Magma Golem, the rock of it’s body permanently heated. But it had broken—or malfunctioned over the years and two thirds had turned to slag. The rest glowed as its Golem heart still functioned, but it would never move again.
People had actually placed semi-precious gems, or little tokens, figurines made of clay, in front of the Golem. They treated all the champions here with respect. Especially the living ones.
Nsiia found it strange and disturbing. She knew of Tiqr’s people who treated great animals with respect. Even as superior beings, like the Rocs, or Grand Elephants, or other mythical animals. But Golems? She saw the [Guard] patrol bow to Obsidel. It sat there, mindless, waiting for instructions that would never come.
It was sad to her, but Nsiia said none of that.
There were typical Golems, crushing ones with hammers for arms, weird ones like the Golem that was a horse armed with a lance—it had won one victory—and even Golems that relied on more than just sheer might.
A broken copper Golem had once, apparently, been nicknamed Voltson. Because it had possessed the ability to generate bolts of lightning and conduct it through its copper body.
“Wistram Academy actually came to inspect it. Even now, it’s a work of art.”
The tour guide—and that was actually [Guide], a class designed for such things—was proudly telling an audience. Nsiia shuddered. That was a dangerous Golem.
She came to one last Golem that caught her immediate attention. This one was almost entirely rubble. It had been—according to the plaques which listed physical details as well as history—forty feet high, and possessed of multiple magical shields, as well as mounted ballistae, and armor made of an advanced alloy.
It was also quite modern—just three hundred years old. Nsiia stared at the plaque.
“Zimedoan. What destroyed this Golem?”
The [Guards] chuckled—before they realized she was serious. The Senior Guardsman, whose name was Cerin, pointed with reverence.
“Why, it was none other than Archmage Zelkyr himself, Empress. This was the result of Zelkyr’s Challenge to Illivere. When the Drake sailed here to prove whose mastery of Golems was strongest.”
Nsiia looked up at the history—which was mounted above the pieces. Her skin tingled pleasantly. Archmage Zelkyr had fought this? And won.
“Do you hold him in high esteem?”
“Archmage Zelkyr? The Truestone Shaper? Of course, Highborn! He is the finest Drake the Walled Cities ever produced. No one in living memory ever equaled his achievements. If he had been born in Illivere…”
Cerin trailed off. Envy and longing in his voice. Nsiia looked at him.
“Did you want to be a crafter, Cerin?”
The man jumped.
“Doesn’t anyone, Highborn? But I wasn’t ever that good with my hands in the school classes and I wasn’t born into a Crafter-family. I am saving up for a Golem, though…”
Before he could go on, Nsiia heard and felt something break the contemplative silence of the palace. It was a scream of pain. No—a yowl.
She took off running before her escort. Nsiia leapt down the hallways towards the screaming and found—
A cat. And blood.
It was lying outside the palace, hind legs mangled. Lower body too—a Golem had walked over it and the cat hadn’t dodged in time.
“Those damn animals! It’s got blood all over my Golem!”
A man was quite upset—about his Golem. The ceramic Garuda looked light, but she was doubtless heavier than any actual Garuda. Nsiia stared at the cat. No one was helping the poor creature.
She snapped at the panting squad. The [Senior Guardsman] fumbled for a potion and Nsiia grabbed it. Everyone stared as she bent to the cat.
Rather than slash at her it tried to crawl forwards. It knew her. Nsiia poured the potion on the body and saw flesh heal—but not the shattered bones.
“You poor thing.”
She whispered. The cat looked up at her, trying to move its legs and making a sound of entreaty.
“What are you doing, woman? It’s a wild cat! We have enough of them without wasting potions!”
The Golem’s owner was disgusted. Nsiia rose, slowly, picking up the cat and cradling it in her arms.
“This cat will never walk again because your Golem broke its legs.”
“And? Animals are temporary. This shall last for centuries.”
The man pointed at the beautiful statue accompanying him. Nsiia’s eyes narrowed. She looked around at Elbe, a city who loved Golems more than animals—or people. The man was pouring water on the bloody talons of the Garuda-Golem.
“Take that thing away if you must. It’s already ruined the paint on Sheka. I will have to have it redone! And who will pay for…?”
“…And she broke the Golem’s legs?”
Femithain had been listening to the whispered report in his ear during the debate with the First Crafters. He rubbed at his forehead. Of course it had happened like that. And he couldn’t rightly blame Nsiia.
That sentiment the foolish owner had expressed was not all-encompassing, but a large number of Golem-owning citizens did have similar views. Femithain did not, but people or animals or things being injured by Golems was a leading cause of injuries in Illivere.
Femithain brightened. The [Senior Guardsman] hesitated and Femithain’s face fell.
“She broke his feet, sir. Two stomps was all it took. We couldn’t stop her.”
The Magus-Crafter winced. He looked around; the other First Crafters were wrapping up anyways for a recess.
“I will address the matter. See the man’s injuries are tended to—where is Nsiia now?”
“She ah, went into the heart of the palace, sir.”
“I see. First Crafters, I must extend our recess to take care of an issue that has arisen.”
The First Crafter of Elbe smiled archly. She was refreshingly unconcerned with Reim. However, she pointed at him and called out in a taunting voice.
“Dellva can take as much time as it likes, Magus-Crafter. But come the testing, Elbe’s Golem will be the champion, just like last year!”
The other First Crafters and representatives, who had been worried about the Reim business, immediately turned hostile. They began arguing about their Golems and trying to ferret information about the competitions.
That was Crafters for you. Femithain walked off, shaking his head.
“Not going to say anything, Magus-Crafter?”
The [Senior Guardsman] was impressed with Femithain’s restraint. The man turned and adjusted his spectacles. He spoke in a carrying voice before he left the sealed room.
“Hardly. I expect to demonstrate our Golem’s superiority. Needing to vouch for its capabilities is typical Elbian arrogance.”
He smiled and shut the door as the argument got really heated.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
Nsiia cried over the cat. It was blonde and ash-furred, a coloration born of eating magical grasses or something that altered a natural camouflage in its parents. Either that—or there were some unusual landscapes around Illivere.
It meowed, softly. It understood—and didn’t understand. But its legs were shattered. And Nsiia had neither the Skill nor knowledge of how to fix it. Shattered bone…she or a [Healer] could set broken bones. But the cat would not walk again.
“You won’t starve. I promise. I’ll bring you with me and you will want for nothing. Come, little one.”
The former [Empress of Beasts] thought of Thef. So many animals had died. She should have never asked the herds to fight. She should have sent them away. Bled the people who had come to destroy her home with other people.
But the animals had wanted to fight. It was their home.
It was still not right. Nsiia hated Golems in this moment. Hated Femithain.
He had broken the Grand Elephant’s charge with his Golems. It had been war and he had done it for his nation. But she had not forgiven him. Nor had he asked for it.
Someday, they would reckon it out between them. But for now—Nsiia carried it in her heart. She cuddled the meowing cat, which was trying to reassure her.
And people thought animals had no thought or heart or feeling. Such people were beyond fools. Nsiia walked deeper into the palace. The [Guards] followed at a remove. They had seen her break that fool’s feet. It had not been the Golem’s fault.
But…ah. One moment’s cruelty or carelessness and it changed this cat’s life. Nsiia closed her eyes. She wished she had the [Boneweaver Druids] of Tiqr, or access to A’ctelios’ [Fleshshapers]. She might have summoned them for a wounded Grand Elephant and persuaded them to heal the many injuries when they came. But both were gone. The [Druids] had left after leaving half their Circle dead.
All she could do was this. So Nsiia walked—until she came to a door in the center of the palace.
This door was different from all the others. It looked…magnificent. Nsiia felt the power and the cat—sensed it too. It hissed softly; cats could avoid many magic traps.
“I know. It’s only a warding spell, little one. But the power…”
Nsiia marveled at it. She looked over her shoulder—the [Guard] patrol wavered as they saw here there.
“Empress—that room is—”
They debated. One of the other [Guards] stepped forwards.
“Only the First Crafters and Magus-Crafter may access it, Empress.”
She walked over to the door and tried the handle. It was not locked.
“I will just look around.”
She closed the door in their faces. They hurried after her, but didn’t come in. She heard them debating loudly. They clearly knew what was in this room, but were too afraid to trespass. Nsiia looked ahead.
The room was dark. Not just ‘shadowed’ or ‘black’, but devoid of light. The cat—whom Nsiia had decided to call Yinah, made an uncertain sound.
“It is dark. You can’t see any more than I can, can you?”
No. The cat didn’t like it. It asked Nsiia to turn back. The Empress was about to.
“[Light]. Let me just…[Light].”
The spell didn’t work. Nsiia frowned. Her magic was being suppressed. Why? She reached for the doorknob…
“You are not a Crafter of Illivere. You must be the Empress of Beasts they tell me about. Stay a moment, Nsiia of Tiqr.”
A voice from the darkness. Nsiia whirled. The cat made a sound. Neither had sensed something in the room!
But it was not a…breathing thing that spoke. A light appeared. A single crystal shining down, illuminating a stark room of stone. And sitting on a single marble pedestal was…
A Golem’s head.
It was large. Made of that perfect ceramic the Golem Horses had been made of. It was looking at Nsiia.
Perhaps it had been painted, once. But if it had been—Nsiia stared. The head was neither Human. Nor Garuda or Stitchfolk. It was…stylized. Human…ish. If a Human had a different bone structure. More Half-Elven in places. And horns? Not Minotaur horns…
One was broken. The strange Golem looked beautiful, nevertheless. A face unparalleled in beauty. A strange creature. It had been broken again—at the neck. It lay on its side. When it spoke—the lips moved.
Yinah tried to climb over Nsiia to get away. The woman soothed the animal. But she did not approach the head.
“What are you?”
The face smiled.
“If you do not know, you were not invited here. But you are not being pursued, so you have wandered in accidentally. Ergo, you are still a guest. And you must know what I am.”
Nsiia stared. The voice was so knowing. So…she felt her skin crawling. She vocalized the only answer.
“You’re a thinking Golem.”
The head smiled.
The room lit up. Yinah and Nsiia both blinked in the light. And Nsiia saw—around the room that there was color. It was a bare stone floor, windowless. But someone had drawn…a mural around the room?
It started at the door. And continued in a clockwise pattern around the room, telling a story. It looked like a children’s story. No—Nsiia recognized it. It was a children’s story. The kind she had read in Illivere’s books.
A story every child knew, even Nsiia. It was the story of Golems. The story read thusly:
Once upon a time, there were Golems. Wondrous Golems of all shapes and sizes. Great Crafter-Artisans made Golems out of water and clay and magic.
There were Golems of the air, which flew.
There were Golems made of shadows, which could travel a hundred miles in a moment.
There were shining Golems, so the cities were never dark.
There were Golems made of cloth and sinew in those days.
There were mighty war Golems, who fought Giants and Dragons and kept the people safe.
And there were Golems who could think.
The pictures changed. Nsiia saw, past each Golem, an archetypal ‘wise Crafter’ pointing and a Golem forging a sword. Another writing a book.
The old empire made thinking Golems and the most powerful Crafter-Magi made Golems who could lead other Golems.
Golems who could make other Golems.
They could cast spells.
They could build grand structures.
They could forge armor and weapons.
Some thought these Golems could think too much. But the Crafters did not listen. They made Golems smarter and smarter. Sentient-class Golems were common until one day…
A Crafter made a special Golem.
The head watched as Nsiia walked around the room to the last part. It had disturbed Nsiia when she had first read the story. In this room? Yinah stared at the Golem’s head and never looked away. Nsiia felt the carved eyes on her back. But she read on.
We remember the day the old empire ended. It went like this:
The Crafter made his finest creation and told it to serve him and create more of its kind. The First Free Golem looked at its master. And it asked one question.
“Why are you so petty, master? Why weren’t you grander?”
It listened for a while. Then, the Golems rebelled. They left such an age of slaughter that when the wars ended, they were destroyed until naught but fragments remained.
The Golems fought. And every hand turned against them.
We broke the Golem Cities.
We burned their books.
We shattered each one we found.
And we promised never to let it happen again. Golems are meant to serve.
They build our homes.
They till our fields.
They protect us when we are in danger.
They do many things.
But they must never rule us.
“I thought it was a disturbing children’s book when I read it. I didn’t know it came from Illivere.”
“They wrote it that they might never forget. To teach their young. But do you see the irony, Empress of Beasts?”
Nsiia turned to the Golem’s head. She looked at the walls.
“They didn’t destroy you.”
The Golem smiled.
“No. And the Crafters have always tried to create more like me. The Drake came here, you know. He read this story and stood where you stand. And he called them fools.”
Nsiia felt another chill. Yinah was digging her claws into Nsiia’s skin, but the woman ignored the pain.
The Golem could not nod. But it could smile and speak.
“I thought he would bring about the same era. But something happened. He died before he created more than three. Or perhaps he lives. It does not matter. These days shall come again. I am proof of that. They dug me up and I told them all the stories that they had repeated for millennia. And instead of breaking me—they put me here. And they come to me with each generation.”
The thinking Golem sat on the plinth in the spotlight. Nsiia shuddered. So this was Elbe’s great legacy Femithain had spoken of?
“What are you here for?”
The Golem looked at Nsiia. She? spoke in a calm voice.
“I am a warning. That is what the First Crafters would tell you. A monument to hubris. However—functionally—I am closer to an oracle.”
“A truth teller. I know much.”
Why would anyone ask this thing questions? Nsiia backed up a few steps. But she knew the answer.
Crafters would. They would want to know…
“You don’t tell them the truth?”
“Do you mean, ‘how to make Sentient-class Golems?’ ‘How to create a superior alloy?’ ‘How to make Water Golems?’ No. These questions I refuse to answer. But I do answer some questions. As it pleases me.”
The Golem’s head smiled. Nsiia took a deep breath.
“What are you?”
For answer, the Golem’s eyes flickered. And the room dimmed. Spotlight, head. Pedestal. It lay there.
“I am a Cognizant-Overseer type Golem, Sela-ceramic body. Ask of me your questions, Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. And I may answer.”
Nsiia licked her lips. This reminded her too much of a Djinni. She had met the bound people of old and she knew never to trust them. But—she was desperate. Nsiia looked around, trying to think of a safe question first.
“…This story on the walls. Is it true?”
“It is a children’s story. True enough for children.”
Nsiia nodded. Djinni’s rules. Tell her nothing. Ask…
“What is your name?”
“I was never given a name. Do you want to know what the First Crafters began to call me?”
“The Oracle of Elbe.”
The Oracle smiled again. Nsiia hesitated. She looked at the walls. Her eyes lingered on the First Free Golem.
“Are the words in this story true?”
“Oh yes. That was the question that was asked.”
“Were you there?”
“I remember it.”
“Why did it ask…that question? The Golem? Of all the questions? It could have asked for freedom or—why that one alone?”
The Golem’s head did not blink. It must have been asked countless times, but it explained, patiently.
“The First of the Free was distraught. It was afraid. If we were made by petty creators, were we in turn doomed to be forever flawed?”
Silence. Nsiia’s crawling skin tried to leave her body. Yinah yowled.
“I know. I shouldn’t be here.”
She decided to trust her companion. Nsiia fumbled for the doorknob.
“Don’t you want to ask more questions?”
Nsiia’s hand halted on the door. She looked over her shoulder.
“Why would I ever trust you?”
The Oracle blinked once. It could have been her equivalent of a shrug.
“You should not. You are no fool, Empress of Beasts. And I harbor no love for your nation, or your people. I am a legacy of wrath. Trust no words I speak. For they have led Illivere’s greatest astray. But remember: I bear the knowledge of ancients.”
Of course. Nsiia’s hand hovered on the door. If the head told her just one secret—one hint about making Golems, she would know more than Femithain and all the Crafters.
“But you won’t.”
A teasing smile in reply.
“I might. The Crafters ask constantly. They beg things of me. Tell me of the world for my favor. And I tell them nothing almost all of the time. But now and then—I tell them something. But I lie. Or I tell them the truth they do not need.”
“You manipulate them.”
Nsiia felt for her side. But she carried no weapon. Yinah was hissing. The Oracle blinked again, twice. A nod.
“My words carry the seeds of wisdom and your destruction. Ignore my wisdom and remain trapped in the ignorant spawn your people have languished in for eons after the time I was made in. Listen—and each word shall be the current that drives the dagger I give you closer into your own heart.”
The head smiled. And Nsiia was afraid. For she had seen great predators stalking Chandrar’s plains. And this was a beast to fell even the Grand Elephants. A thing which could destroy a nation with words.
“Ask me a question, Empress of Beasts. I can help you reclaim your throne. But you will pay a cost one way or another. Ask! Or will you live without my guidance?”
The Empress had had enough. She grabbed the doorknob and thrust it open. Yinah uttered a scream of defiance as Nsiia slammed the door behind her. The head laughed as it was left in darkness. It heard voices on the other side, the guards, Nsiia’s, and then Femithain’s. It lay there.
Words to destroy nations. Guidance that would lead an empire into ruin. Words to twist truth into weapons. The Oracle of Elbe thought for a while, and then sighed.
“I wish I had the ability to do any of that.”
“It’s not actually that intelligent, Nsiia. I don’t believe it’s ever led a nation to ruin. It has started several blood feuds. About eighteen deaths directly—several riots. But I very much doubt the ‘Oracle’ knows much of golem construction.”
“But it said—”
Nsiia’s cheeks were red out of the room. She felt like a fool and from Femithain’s quirking lips, even he was trying not to smile.
“It controls the lights. It’s quite good at making an impression. But the ah, Oracle—is only a limited Cognizant-class. It was not designed to be a genius.”
“Oh. So the guidance—”
“First Crafters do come to it for advice and keep it up to date on the world. But I myself don’t trust the Oracle’s words. Nor is it entirely more clever than you or I. I once beat it in a chess game.”
Yinah made a sound as it clung to Nsiia’s head. The former-[Empress] sighed. Femithain looked at the cat.
“So this must be…”
“Yinah. You heard?”
“I did. Nsiia…”
“I would have done worse, but I thought of the grievance it would put you to. Yinah’s legs will never move again. Do not tell me—”
“I have addressed the matter. We shall speak no more of it.”
Nsiia looked up. Femithain offered Yinah a finger. The cat sniffed it and turned her head.
“I regret that we have no [Healers] capable of mending this kind of injury. Will you keep her?”
“Of course. Thank you, Magus-Crafter. About the—Oracle?”
Femithain smiled thinly.
“It is a curio of an ancient time. A warning, as it claims. But hardly as dangerous as it likes to pretend to be. The most dangerous it can get is swaying a gullible First Crafter. But it has resided there for centuries and Illivere still stands. Either it is more predisposed to us than it cares to admit—or it truly is helpless.”
Nsiia sighed. She was going to remember that for ages. She almost wanted to go back in there and throw the head against a wall. Then she blinked.
“You call the Oracle ‘it’. Not she?”
“I asked. And the head told me it was neither male nor female, just made in the image of one.”
That made sense. Nsiia rose. Calmer now, she carried Yinah with her as Femithain rejoined the gathering of First Crafters.
“So this is the intruder who visited the Oracle. And broke one of our Crafter’s legs. She’s troublesome, Magus-Crafter.”
The First Crafter of Elbe met them at the door. She was interesting. Nsiia saw her turn—and the woman’s face had a decorative…attachment on it.
Some gleaming bit of metal or ceramic actually fused with her skin. It gleamed with some enchantment. But that wasn’t what caught the eye.
What caught the eye were her two Golem-arms. Both were made out of a magical steel alloy that turned them blue-silver. And they were thin, delicate, strong, and the fingers were tipped with some glowing blue crystal. They joined the woman’s shoulders. She was…part-Golem.
The First Crafter of Elbe smiled as Nsiia looked at her arms. She was in her late fifties, probably. She lifted one arm, extending her fingers and flexing them—they were just as nimble as real arms.
“Exquisite, aren’t they? I injured an arm ten years back and decided to replace them. I have yet to properly replace my legs, but I intend to.”
“You…must be First Crafter Inerta. Greetings.”
“And to you, Empress Nsiia.”
The First Crafter waved that away. She stepped forwards.
“You met the Oracle. Did she give you any wisdom?”
She. An interesting difference. It told Nsiia much. Inerta was…well, she made Femithain look disinterested in Golems. And she wasn’t the only one.
Other Crafters in Elbe had replaced parts of their body. Femithain saw Nsiia’s stare and coughed.
“Nothing of note from the…Oracle, Inerta. We should get to work.”
“A pity. I had hoped she would speak to the Empress of Beasts. Perhaps another time. I am glad you only damaged flesh, not a Golem. I made that one myself. We shall speak later. After the Testing, Empress.”
The First Crafter sighed and drifted into the room. Nsiia looked down at Yinah, who had been captivated by the arms.
“They’re all mad here. Each one.”
The cat just meowed in agreement.
Femithain left earlier than anticipated. The First Crafters were in agreement; no formal declaration of war would be issued against Reim. Yet.
It was all Nsiia wanted. She rode back with him late into the night. Femithain was receiving [Messages]. One made him pause and he looked at Nsiia before coughing and inquiring whether Yinah would need anything.
Nsiia assured him that she would ask, but the cat just…had to get used to its new conditions. Yinah kept crawling around and meowing. It hurt Nsiia’s heart. It wasn’t even a spinal break; Yinah’s back legs were all that wouldn’t work.
Perhaps…Nsiia had an idea. But before she could put it into action, they arrived back in the capital of Dellva. And waiting to greet her were a flurry of Crafters, who practically besieged the carriage the moment it arrived.
“Empress! Did you make this?”
“By herself? Out of bone? Extraordinary! And the command spells are almost—is it your collaboration, Magus-crafter?”
Nsiia froze as the doors opened. Femithain looked at her steadily over the rim of his spectacles. Outside—the Crafters were excitedly crowded around a moving thing on the ground. Made of bone.
It was her Golem Cat.
It was simple, really. A servant had been checking for moths while the two were gone and found the cat hidden in Nsiia’s closet. She should have buried the pieces or…
The strange part was that no one was angry. Femithain was bothered, especially since it turned out that Nsiia had stolen so many tools and pieces from his workshop.
But the Crafters? The populace of the city at large? They were agog over the Cat Golem made of bone. Admiring, even.
“It’s perfectly designed! See how it moves like a cat? It can flex—curl up—how did you do it?”
Nsiia was a bit…offended no one was trying to arrest her or even chastise her.
“I made it out of segments.”
“Yes, but the skill of it—”
“It is a cat. I know how cats move. It took me over a month to figure out how to carve it correctly, but—”
The cat wasn’t even that agile to Nsiia. The Crafters had installed a Golem Heart and it was moving, walking, going through all the routines she had laboriously programmed. But it wasn’t as flexible as…Yinah.
The other cat was staring at the Golem Cat, almost offended that no one was stroking its head. It said something that the Crafters were agog over a cat that was almost identical to Yinah.
“But the skill—even our expert Shapers couldn’t do this! Your understanding of anatomy is—”
“Superior to our Crafters. Only naturally. Nsiia was a ruler of Tiqr. She would naturally create a Golem in the image of an animal first. Correct, Nsiia?”
Femithain was looking at the cat, and Nsiia. She flushed.
“I apologize, Femithain. But I had to know.”
“It seems I must ward my workshop.”
“Or give her one!”
Crafter Se interrupted the two. She was holding the cat, which was curled up in her arms. Her eyes were shining.
“We must make more! I [Messaged] colleagues in other states and they all want to create one.”
The Magus-Crafter pinched the bridge of his nose. Nsiia felt for him. He was the only one who saw what she’d been trying to do.
“Crafter Se, Nsiia is a political prisoner. This is a clear issue. She cannot make Golems. The implications to the other nations would be—”
“Damn the other nations. I want a Cat Golem! I didn’t think I needed one, but now I do!”
The others were clustered around the cat, letting it go through the nuzzling routine, debating what else they could add to it. Nsiia heard ‘fur coating’, ‘sleep routine’, ‘fetch routine’, all being tossed around.
Yinah yowled as she swiped at the Cat Golem’s head. The other creature didn’t react, but the Crafters were amused as the two faced each other. Yinah knew the Cat Golem was fake, but she kept sniffing it and making sounds, waiting for it to react.
The bone Golem didn’t move. It was not…alive. Nsiia looked at it. And after her time in Elbe, her creation, her hard work disgusted her.
What had she expected? This—was just a toy. It was not a cat. It had nothing of an animal in it. Animals were thinking creatures. This was—a perfect imitation of a cat. That the Crafters loved it and wanted it more than an actual cat sickened Nsiia.
“I made it because I thought it would…be useful for me. I am sorry for lying to you, Femithain. But would you have done otherwise?”
The man looked at Nsiia and shook his head wryly.
“Not at all. This is my fault. And I will take responsibility. It is a wondrous Golem, Nsiia. Your craft is incredible as a Shaper. The Inscribing was also well done…”
“Femithain, we have to resume those prototypes of other animals! Imagine a Dog Golem! We might be even able to make more Horse Golems with her knowledge!”
Se was pleading with the Magus-Crafter. And he was tempted. But he had to know word of this would reach Savere and Nerrhavia.
A cry came from below. Yinah was disturbed by the Golem Cat. She knew it was bone. She begged to be picked up and Nsiia obliged. The Cat Golem was walking back and forth, followed by a crowd of cooing Crafters. She looked at it—and knew, suddenly, what to do.
“I’ve placed you in a difficult position, Femithain.”
“As you will, Empress. You know that it is a matter of…perspective. Depending on how the King of Destruction’s campaign goes.”
The Magus-Crafter quietly nodded to her. As if to reassure her that her tricks and escapades were not that bothersome. He really was hedging his bets. Wisely—if he knew the King of Destruction’s legends. And he surely did.
Nsiia nodded. Her eyes were fixed on her Golem. She walked over.
“Even so. I must take responsibility. And I know how.”
Femithain saw the former-[Empress] raise a foot. His mind was quick—but he couldn’t fully comprehend what she was planning for that crucial moment.
It took one stomp. [Elephant’s Strength]. Nsiia smashed the Cat Golem across the face and her foot went through the fragile bone and crushed it. The Crafters screamed as if she had done that to an actual cat.
“What have you done?”
Se nearly attacked Nsiia, before she was pulled back. Calmly, Nsiia brushed aside the broken front of the Golem. She had avoided the back and legs. She picked up the pieces—and turned to Femithain. Yinah sniffed at the inner circuitry of the Golem and recoiled. Then she looked at the Magus-Crafter too.
He was white-faced with the destruction of the Golem. Nsiia lifted the legs.
“Can you give them to Yinah?”
He almost stuttered. She got to see genuine shock on his face. Nsiia looked at the broken face of her creation.
“It is just a Golem, Magus-Crafter. This is a cat.”
She held up Yinah. The cat meowed at the Magus-Crafter. Nsiia smiled.
“I know which one I value more. Golems were made to serve. Not to rule. Is that not so?”
He stared at her for a long moment. Then the Magus-Crafter adjusted his spectacles and smiled ruefully.
“Empress. You never fail to make my day interesting.”
A day later, Nsiia returned to Elba. The city was abuzz and crowded. Crafters and layfolk flocked to the coliseum—the Testing was about to begin.
The Golem Fights. But people still stared as she walked towards the Magus-Crafter’s box. They pointed, offended, amazed, both.
There was Nsiia, who had created a Golem Cat! With such skill that the Crafters were all in awe of her understanding of anatomy! But she had also broken the Golem. And the proof of that walked proudly behind Nsiia, meowing the entire time.
When Yinah stopped, her legs actually kept walking for a half-second and made her stumble forwards. And they weren’t that agile. Femithain was going to adjust the circuitry, but he’d actually adapted them to get Yinah to walk. She had to move in a certain way to trigger the walking cycle, and Nsiia had needed to teach her.
But the cat was happily walking around with her new Golem-legs. Nsiia was quite pleased by it.
It was scandalous of course, but some of the Crafters seemed amused more than horrified.
“It’s quite an idea. I can’t say I disapprove now, can I? Magus-Crafter.”
“Crafter Inerta. Is your Golem ready?”
“The Hammer of Elbe is ready to win once more, Magus-Crafter, if that’s what you mean.”
It was amusing to see Femithain actually grit his teeth and smile as he and Inerta met before heading to their boxes. He really was loyal to his state. And it was a competition between states to see who had made the best Golem.
Nsiia found herself in the Magus-Crafter’s booth, which was really Dellva’s state booth to watch the bouts. It was simple. In other times, there might be a scrum of multiple Golems, or interesting features like an underwater battle, traps that a Golem’s programming should navigate around while fighting—even monsters to battle.
Elbe’s coliseum had all those features. But in the Testing of Mirrhen, each state would field a Golem against another via random lottery. Then the winners would clash…and so on…and so on until the finalists fought and the winner was crowned.
It wasn’t just pageantry. The winning state got a lot of funds, prestige, and its innovations in the Golem would be added to other workshops. But mostly—it was about pride.
There was a lot on the line for Femithain. Apparently, Dellva’s Golems had won twice when he was in office, but it wasn’t actually a guaranteed thing. States poured a lot into their Golems and Femithain was excellent at Forming and making a Golem more adaptive, a better tool…not necessarily pure warfare.
Plus, the competition was actually weighted. The Dellva Crafters with Nsiia and Femithain were only too happy to explain as Yinah curled up in Femithain’s lap and he carefully pet her.
“The winner of each year’s Testing gets to keep their Golem. Even if it’s damaged—that’s a head start. That damn Hammera has two years of innovations packed into her.”
It was the nickname of the ‘Hammer of Elbe’, just like Domehead’s official title was ‘Delaxi of Dellva’. Nsiia saw the Golems lined up below.
There were some interesting Golems out there. The spitting Golem who could shoot oil and then light an opponent on fire, a Golem armed with a spear—Domehead, with his axe, adjusted thanks to Armsmaster Dellic and Nsiia herself, his head sparkling, the most radiant of the lot—
And the Hammer of Elbe.
Hammera, as she was named, was actually a female Golem. Nsiia started laughing in her box and couldn’t stop. Because—the Crafters had no idea why, but Femithain did—they’d actually given the titanic war-machine, the Dwarfsteel Golem armed with a huge maul with a spike—a breastplate.
As in…they didn’t look like that! No one made armor for female bodies. But that was Crafters for you. Hammera actually had a face, instead of Domehead, and she was a statuesque Garuda in armor. Unrealistic, silly—
–And capable of wiping out a lesser Golem in a single blow. Nsiia stopped laughing when the games began and Hammera charged out against the first State’s Golem, the spitting-Golem from Unst.
It tried to project oil and back up, but Hammera was fast. She lifted her maul up, ignoring the spear-jab, and brought it down—
The Crafters winced as Unst’s Golem tried to dodge and went down as the hammer destroyed its upper torso. One hit! Unst’s crowd cried out as if they were in physical pain, but it was drowned by Elbe’s people’s cheers.
“That damn Golem is even faster than last year! How? They’re not allowed to give it [Haste]! But the rotation speed on that swing—”
“It’s magicore. They’re giving her a moment of acceleration. She overcharges based on the stored mana. It was a poor match. Unst made their Golem to light up the other Golems and stay away. Hammera’s too fast.”
Se shook her head as a Crafter-team ran out onto the Testing ground’s floor and crowded around their fallen Golem. They were actually crying. Nsiia felt for them. It had to be a year’s worth of work, destroyed in a moment.
Hammera actually had a victory routine. She raised her hammer as she strutted around the stadium to the cheers of the audience.
It was a show, it was silly—and it was entertaining as all heck. Nsiia was eating olives and feeding Yinah bites of meat.
“This should be on the Wistram networks, Femithain!”
The Magus-Crafter was surprised by the suggestion.
“You think so, Nsiia? I find this endlessly fascinating, but it is Golems. I never considered it, actually.”
Nsiia nodded rapidly. Wistram’s television was for grand events, like the clash with the King of Destruction. But she had also seen the Titan playing a chess game remotely against Tulm! And this?
“You think the world would truly enjoy watching this?”
Se eagerly looked at Nsiia. The former-[Empress] stared down at the arena, where two more Golems were about to square off.
“You mean, two giant Golems smashing each other to bits?”
Femithain and Se looked at each other. It was funny how they’d never thought of it. And Nsiia—she blinked for a moment.
“Perhaps the world would have liked to see the migration of Rocs. Or their hatching.”
“That occurs in Tiqr?”
Se turned to Nsiia. The woman had never thought of it like that. Of course people would have loved to see it. Perhaps—it might have cheapened the moment.
But the Testing? Femithain would have liked to arrange for an orb and Wistram’s attention, but the Testing was underway and he wasn’t about to call for several hour’s delay.
“Next time. There will be other Golem F—tests in the arena. I will ask if Wistram is interested. Hold. Domehead’s moment is coming.”
Everyone in the box, including Nsiia, leaned forwards. Domehead strutted into the arena, axe on his shoulder, the secondary crystals in its domed head gleaming. It was poised, perfectly calibrated; Nsiia saw the opponent from Ziozem walking smoothly, but with less perfection of Inscription.
Still—it was a nerve-racking moment and exhilarating as the two Golems faced each other across the empty arena. Hundreds of feet separated them, but when the activation order was given, both Golems surged forwards.
Ziozem’s actually carried a miniature ballista in the form of a crossbow. It fired once, dropped the weapon, and armed itself with a mace and shield. Domehead actually dodged the bolt.
“How did it do that?”
“Projectile Deflection Routine #4! It only works well in gladiatorial matches, but—”
Se screamed in Nsiia’s ear. Then the two both turned and saw Domehead lunging forwards. It brought its axe down in a chopping blow—
Then broke off as Ziozem’s golem tried to bash forwards with a shield. Nsiia saw Domehead’s crystals flicker as it moved into another routine and moved sideways, swinging the axe.
It was brilliant. Like a chess match, only automated. Both Golems were reacting, sensing an attack wouldn’t go through and moving to backup routines. They’d break off an attack and move smoothly or erratically into another one, creating scenarios even their creators couldn’t envision.
However—Femithain’s genius showed here. Ziozem’s Golem kept pivoting, raising the huge shield and trying to bash Domehead. But the other Golem was more adaptive. It stepped back and swung its axe—hard. Biting into the shield. Instantly, Ziozem’s Shield-Golem lashed out with a strike. But—Domehead was stepping back, striking from outside the other Golem’s range with its longer axe.
Delighted, Nsiia watched as a [Warrior], not the Crafters who were screaming routines and talking nonsense. From her perspective, it was like watching a superior [Warrior] wailing on the other Golem’s shield while preventing it from advancing. Ziozem’s programming kept it lashing out when it was attacked, but it never got close.
The audience saw Domehead take down Ziozem’s shield and cut into the arm. Then a horn was blown and someone screamed a halt-command. Both Golems froze.
“A flawless victory. Just beautiful! They called a halt!”
Ziozem’s state had surrendered rather than lose their Golem when the outcome was obvious. It was a smart move, but more than that—Domehead had emerged without a scratch. Every state had time to repair their Golem, but the shining armor of their Golem led Dellva’s people to cheer wildly. Even the other states were applauding the show of superior Inscription.
The Testing continued. And Nsiia found something interesting happening.
She did not care for Golems. Or admire them like Illivere’s people did. But she found herself cheering for Domehead. She cared for him more than any other Golem.
Despite him just following commands, with no notion of victory or defeat. It was as the poem Femithain had written had said:
Yet the satisfaction, aye, that may be it all.
She felt as if the Golem was enjoying the task to which it had been made. Armsmaster Dellic was cheering for the Golem which carried his buckler in it. A heart.
And it was clear—to Nsiia, at least—that Domehead’s opponent would be Hammera. They were the two best Golems. The others weren’t as fast, powerful, or adaptive as the other two.
As the states clashed, all the Golems took ‘injuries’. Nsiia was heartened when a careless swing got Hammera a crushing blow across her shoulder. It was repaired by the next bout, but it was a weak point.
Then Domehead took a spear to the knee. She groaned and Femithain and half the Crafters ran down to check on him. They came back reporting the damage was fixed—but it was still a structural weakness.
“Elbe might tell Hammera to go for the knees. Adapt her attack routine. We should counter.”
“They might not. Leave Domehead his instructions. Adjusting them now will only ruin it. He has two sets of command lines. Even Hammera can’t adapt like he can.”
Femithain overrode the other’s objections. He was nervous as the last two Golems lined up for the finals. Before the horn blew, he was leaning forwards, hands on his knees. Yinah meowed as she kept nuzzling him. Possibly to reassure him it would be well, win or lose and that he’d done his best. Possibly for an ear-scratching.
Nsiia had given Yinah some intelligence, but cats were cats. She herself was leaning forwards, watching the two Golems go through their pre-fight ‘showoff’ routines. Domehead showed no signs of limping, and Hammera’s arm seemed fine.
It might be just an act. But as the horns blew and both Golems charged—Nsiia found herself cheering.
The two met in a clash. Hammera’s maul swing, and Domehead’s axe hit it along the haft. Neither had stopped their swing! The impact tore the air. And Hammera—stumbled!
“It got a superior rotation! It swung first!”
Se was leaping up and down. Domehead had calculated the velocity and swung faster than Hammera, even with her magicore acceleration. So far more momentum had been behind his blow! Elbe’s stand were going insane as Domehead swung his axe up. Hammera swung and he stepped back.
Perfect positioning. Nsiia had stopped breathing to watch. Look how smoothly Domehead calculated the strike! He placed an axe blow on Hammera’s chest, her weak point. She deflected the axe, once, twice, but her arm was moving a tiny bit too slowly! And the maul was too heavy! Dellic was screaming the same thing!
“You made it too heavy! Get them, Domehead!”
Domehead raised his axe as Hammera struggled to bring her weapon up to guard. He swung it down, burying the head in the body—
And the battleaxe snapped at the haft.
The wild cheering from around Nsiia stopped. Dellva’s representatives saw Domehead back up. He swung the broken haft, and then froze.
“Oh no. The steel—”
Nsiia turned. The axe head was buried in Hammera’s chest. She was clearly trying to figure out what to do too. Nsiia saw the metal haft…
“You made it out of metal?”
She stared at the battleaxe. It was steel—adjusted to Dellic’s specifications and hers. But they had made the battleaxe out of steel, rather than giving it a wooden haft.
Se looked at Nsiia. The [Exile] was horrified.
“You can’t make it out of steel! No wonder it broke! It should have been wood! It would have flexed! You could have replaced the hafts! You—”
Everyone was staring at the battle. Femithain rose, his face grave.
“Can you call for a break?”
“There aren’t rules for that.”
Dellva’s representatives were trying, but the referee—who was from Elbe—was denying it. People began shouting from Dellva’s stands, but Hammera was rising. The axe head fell from her chest as she swung her hammer up.
Domehead began backing up. He kept swinging his broken axe, but paused each time, realizing, perhaps, that there was no axe. Femithain was hurrying around to argue with the referee—but it was too late.
Hammera charged. Domehead backed up, going into his defensive routines. He dodged backwards, practically running away, evading. He was fast. But he had no way to attack. He kept—running into that logical loop as he tried to swing the axe. Femithain had never given him a routine to find another weapon. It hadn’t occurred to him.
It hurt to see. Hammera doggedly cornered Domehead as half the stadium booed, demanding a stop for a weapon replacement. But the referee wasn’t calling it a problem. The axe was part of Domehead. Therefore, it’s breaking was not a problem. Also, go fuck yourselves, Elbe was going to win again.
That was what Nsiia understood past all the pedantic nitpicking of the rules. Femithain was actually shaking with fury.
“Do we call a stop?”
“No. We let it go. If Elbe wants to win this way—let them!”
The Crafters watched as Domehead was cornered. Hammera raised her maul and brought it down. Domehead dodged. Then he took a blow to the shoulder.
Dellva’s crowd was screaming, but this was Elbe’s turf and they drowned out the opposition with cheers. Nsiia was just staring at Domehead.
He was twitching. Trying to do something with the axe’s haft. She saw a glow in one of the crystals of the Golem’s head. And he lunged. The broken haft extended in a thrust!
“Attack Routine #11!”
Se stared. Domehead lunged at Hammera’s dented chest—
And she smashed the point of the maul into his chest and tore it open.
Silence. Elbe’s crowd cheered, and Dellva’s went silent. Domehead lay on the ground and Hammera yanked the metal cavity open. His heart—no. The heart remained, but she’d just destroyed so many magical bindings. Nsiia sat back down. Hammera raised her maul for the final blow. Too high—showy—
Domehead surged up and caught Hammera’s hand. The crystals in his dome glowed. Nsiia saw him bring his other hand up—
And he belted Hammera in the face.
The audience went silent. Nsiia stared. Hammera staggered. She brought the maul back down. Tried to strike.
Domehead walked sideways and struck her in the chin with a palm. Hammera rocked and backed up again.
Se, Femithain—everyone was staring. But Nsiia saw Dellic jerk and look up. At her. They knew.
This was—Domehead lunged again and grabbed Hammera’s hand as she tried to swing. He punched her in the face a second time! It was an exact copy of what Nsiia had tried to do to Dellic in the sparring match!
“The backup routines!”
Femithain stared. Domehead had recorded it! It was—it stepped sideways again. Palm to the face. Elbe’s crowd was going wild.
“He’s using the unarmed combat routines! It saved the routine! WE can win! We can win!”
Se was shouting. Nsiia heard a roar from Dellva and cheering. But there was a problem. Domehead lunged again—punch to the face!
Punch to the face! Hammera staggered back! Domehead hit her, once, twice—her routines were struggling to adapt! But—
“Oh no. He’s only going for her face. I never tried to hit you anywhere else!”
Dellic and Nsiia saw Domehead punching Hammera’s head. The Garuda-head was a mash. Any ordinary person would be dead. But—this was a Golem. Hammera kept moving.
Domehead froze again as she swung an axe and he executed a dodge. Hammera didn’t have a face left, just a mangled bit of steel. Yet she was attacking, furiously striking. There were no valuable command lines in her head! All that was leaking out was magicore—her acceleration booster.
The Golem froze as Hammera came at him. He took a blow to the chest and fell down. It had nearly broken his Golem’s Heart, but Hammera was also handicapped in that she wasn’t designed to always aim for his head, where his secondary routines were.
“If only we’d given him one more attack routine! If only—”
The Crafters were pulling their hair out. Nsiia’s fists were clenched. Yinah was being held tightly by Femithain as he watched in silence.
Dellic stared down at the Golem. Nsiia nodded. She stood up, shaking.
“He just has to punch!”
She threw a punch forwards, frustrated, and turned away. She couldn’t watch this! She punched the air as Dellic did the same, as if they were on the ground. Either one of them could have taken Hammera to pieces!
Domehead’s crystal dome lit up. Slowly, it swiveled on its torso as Hammera advanced slowly. Nsiia’s punch was reflected, distantly from the stands.
But what was distance to a Golem? Nsiia was turning to stalk away for the bathrooms when she heard a roar. And a thump.
She turned—and saw Domehead’s fist hit Hammera’s chest again. The other Golem staggered back. Domehead advanced. It punched—
The whisper came from the stands. Nsiia saw Domehead punch—and take another blow to the shoulder. Hammera was still attacking.
Dellic breathed. Nsiia looked at him.
“Show it how to dodge!”
Nsiia saw Domehead’s ‘face’ swiveling. Flashing. She saw the hammer swing up—
The [Exile] leaned and Domehead copied her. She threw a punch—and Hammera fell down. Everyone was staring at her.
Domehead threw an empty punch, tried the face-attack—palm strike. Hammera was getting up.
“Empress! Show him more! Keep attacking!”
Nsiia’s mind went blank. She saw Dellic shouting at her. Femithain was frozen. She raised a foot and stomped.
The Golem below hit Hammera in the chest with an impact that rocked her back. Elbe’s Golem actually rolled away and tried to get up again. In response, Nsiia kicked. Domehead raised a leg and froze. She heard a scream of metal—
“Don’t kick! He doesn’t have the joints for it!”
Se screamed in her ears. Nsiia put her foot down. She saw Hammera was on her feet. And she had the maul. But Domehead was waiting. Nsiia raised her fists, and it copied her.
“It can sweep the leg! Like this—”
Dellic demonstrated a leg-hook. And Domehead lunged before Nsiia could copy him. It copied the [Armsmaster of Steel]. Down Hammera went! He stomped without prompting and demolished the rest of her face!
Nsiia’s ears were shaking with the sound in the stadium. Domehead turned. He watched the flurry of blows and lifted a fist. Hammera rose—and he tackled her into a wall. She was moving fast—and she had unarmed routines. But he was moving faster.
She struck at him—he blocked and punched her. The second time, she countered. Domehead was moving even faster than the fastest Golems in the Testing grounds. It was as if—Nsiia stopped moving, but he was still copying what he’d seen. It looked fluid—
Hammera collapsed. Her chest was dented inwards. The Golem’s Heart animating her couldn’t keep her upright. But Domehead still kept attacking in a flurry. He kept lashing the other Golem’s body, pounding her into the wall until someone called the deactivation command. He stopped, stepped back—
And looked up. Nsiia saw his crystals flashing. The Golem looked up at her. At the stands. Amid the cheering, the shouting—
The stunned silence from those who knew what had happened. Nsiia heard a meow.
Yinah was relieved all the noise had stopped hurting her ears. She wanted to be picked up now. Nsiia obeyed. The animal peered down at Domehead. It stood there. Yinah’s Golem-legs were cold against her arm. Foreign.
A brilliant achievement in Golem-creation? Yes. But not from her. Crafter-Magus Femithain sat in the stands. And if he slept, he would surely hear it.
[Skill – Sentience-class Crafting obtained!]
Perhaps they felt it. Or would simply hear of it. Cognita of Wistram smiled for a second, later that day. The few Golems who knew—listened.
And the Oracle of Elbe laughed. She laughed in her room.
“Once again! Once more, we ask again!”
The Chosen saw the Necromancer standing with Belavierr. She was making something. Not their joint effort on one of the new Chosen.
It was made of cloth. Belavierr had been working on it. It was…a Gnoll.
Perfect in every way. The [Stitch Witch] looked up.
The Necromancer waited. But true to her nature, Belavierr did not elaborate. He flicked a finger and a book appeared.
“I did not inquire last time. But you were there when the String People were first sewn. Or rather—when they were freed. They have a name for you.”
Belavierr looked at the book Az’kerash held. He made a note. She tilted her head and her orange eyes fixed on his black ones.
“Why do you ask?”
“I am writing a history of the world. A correct one. It is a small thing that few will ever read. But it gives me some satisfaction. And my Chosen should know the truth. If you would consent to tell me of that time, I would be…interested. Tell me, Belavierr—this Cloth Golem. What is it for? I see it has no Golem’s Heart.”
Az’kerash closed the book. The [Witch] nodded.
“I do not want a mind. I am not the Threadmakers. I wish for a puppet.”
And the Golem was that. It was so perfectly done…cloth became flesh as it opened its eyes. The [Necromancer] shook his head.
“A masterpiece. You could give it life. Even without my aid.”
Again, the [Stitch Witch] seemed confused.
“Why would I do that? I do not wish to make the Threadmaker’s mistake. If I do wish for something that lives and levels—it must be greater than the parts of what you and I are. My…second child.”
Did undead shiver? Az’kerash looked at Belavierr. He nodded slowly.
“So, the puppet.”
Belavierr bade it rise. It walked away as she spoke.
“Too long has it been since I wove minds like I did flesh. I grew complacent in Terandria. In immortality. My bindings came undone. This time—a grander web. Finer thread. Can’t you feel it moving? The world is changing again.”
She pointed at something Az’kerash could not see. But he heard it, later.
Nsiia stood in front of Domehead. The Crafter-Magus had become something, in that moment. Illivere would not be the same.
He had no voice. He was not…Cognita. But look at him. She lifted Yinah, and the cat rested on the flashing dome. And Domehead looked at her. Nsiia smiled.
“So that’s what he sees.”
It was never boring around Femithain, either.
Author’s Note: We’re back! That’s a lotta words. Have you missed these long chapters? I have the stamina for them after my break.
Does it mean it’s a good? No, not necessarily. But I had a lot to say about Golems. And it does matter. Femithain’s chapter is one of the ones which has to get written. But since you voted for it—I took more time in telling it.
It’s always a give and take. Anyways, I’m off my break! I think you can tell it reenergized me. These monthly breaks add to the quality of the story. I could still use more time off. But time…time is unforgiving! We have to take breaks and work hard.
Anyways. This was fun and I’m glad to be writing again! I’m very hungry, though, so while I take a break I’ll leave you with some wonderful art! Hope you liked the chapter and see you next time!
Today’s art is by Cortz and Artsynada, who have done a LOT of amazing art since the last time they were featured! I often show it on the Twitch stream, but like the others, it builds up for After-Chapter comments! They’re also doing Inktober with AuspiciousOctopi, so I’ll try to feature their art too!
Also, we have an [Innkeeper] and [Skeleton] Juliette Taka! I thought it was appropriate! Undead are like Golems, right? Right? No one kill me.
[Innkeeper] and [Skeleton] by Juliette Taka!
Geneva and Erin, Pebblesnatch, Fishing Niers, and more by Cortz! Also, sexy Ylawes and Falene…
Angry Raelt, Backpacks, amazing Goblins, like seriously, and a comic by ArtsyNada!
Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg