Evran, self-proclaimed Master Artificer and Enchanter, Whose Works Astound All Who View Them, slipped on his breeches with haste. The mayor’s wife sprawled across the bed, one finger curling through her hair as she watched him dress. He had just finished displaying for her his other masterful set of talents.
“Evran, do you really have to leave in such a hurry?” she asked, pouting her lips coyly. “I was hoping you could stay for another round.”
“Once I’m out of the bed, my dear, you can call me Master Evranelan, Servant of the People, Whose Service Knows No Bounds.” Evran couldn’t remember her name.
“I’m not going to say all that,” she said dryly. “Really. I’d be willing to pay more for your time.”
“Ah! I had almost forgotten,” Evran said, though of course he had not. “Where is my payment for services rendered?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s on the nightstand.” She pointed, though of course, he already knew. Two shining Empyreal grams — gold, of course — sat beside her coin purse.
“Perfect!” he exclaimed. He slid on his grey tunic, followed by his armored coat. It didn’t look like much, but he had crafted and enchanted it himself, so — of course — its protection was worth more than looks could show. It also kept him cool in the hot Empyrical weather. He bowed to the woman in the bed, wondering if, perhaps, he should have taken more care to learn her name. “I hope we meet again.”
As he walked past the nightstand, he picked up her wallet, leaving the two grams behind. “Hey!” He heard her shift behind her, readying herself to leap out of the bed, though of course she was unclothed. She couldn’t follow him into the hall, and she certainly couldn’t risk her husband finding out what she had been up to.
“Services rendered!” Evran repeated. “You must admit, they were exquisite. Come, Sword.” His sword stirred from its place against the wall, using the four appendages sprouting from its hilt to weave delicately across the floor. He paused for a moment to allow it to climb up his leg and onto his shoulder. He threw a wink over his shoulder at his bemused client, trusting the crystal blue of his eyes to calm her. “I’m off to see the mayor about another job.”
A panicked squeak arose from behind him, but he shut the door and shut the woman out of his mind. He pulled his sword from his back as he walked down the inn’s hallway, appreciating the fine craftsmanship. His craftsmanship, of course. Evran had realized years ago that there was no use wasting his money on tools other people had made when he could do a much better job of it himself. The sword’s fine limbs automatically took on their resting pose as guard and pommel. He grinned, flourishing the sword, watching the shining granite of the blade bend slightly as though it were metal. It had taken complex, skillful enchanting to get Sword to behave that way. Evran had known no others who were as capable as him. He allowed Sword to crawl back to its place on his back.
The atmosphere in the inn’s common room was dour. Folks were drinking, but with none of the jovial ruckus that normally accompanied the act. No, these folks were drinking to forget. They were drinking because they had given up hope. It lifted Evran’s spirits. This was the sort of place he loved, because it was times like these that let him make the most money.
He pretended to ignore the looks he got as he approached the bar. These people recognized him — how could they not? He was, certifiably, the most handsome man in town. His sleek black hair stood out among all of the dusty browns, greys, and blondes. His style was distinct, having been influenced by the capital in his home country and not the outdated, awkward stuff the people in the backwaters of Empyr wore. Of course, the fact that he had ridden into town on a beast made of marble accompanied by an eight-foot-tall golem likely drew some attention as well.
“A drink, please,” Evran said, baring his impossibly straight teeth. He had all of them, too, which was more than most people in this city could say.
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping us?” the barkeeper said. “Not wasting your time with drink?”
Sword, sensing Evran’s will, crept up further on his shoulder to where he could easily grasp it. The barkeeper watched with trepidation. Sword’s movements naturally inspired that. It reminded people of a very large insect married with a snake. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting me a drink, not asking questions?” Evran asked.
“Yes, of course, my lord,” the barkeeper said. He turned away to procure a mug of mead. He knew, from earlier, not to give Evran a beverage that wasn’t delightfully sweet.
“I am not a Lord, properly,” Evran explained. “You may call me Master Evranelan, or just Master.”
“Yes, of course, Master,” the barkeeper said. He set the mug down too swiftly, and a bit sloshed over the side. The clear displeasure on Evran’s face sent the man scrambling for a rag.
“Hey, why do you gotta treat Cal like that?” Evran spared the man a glance out of the corner of his eye. By the set of his face and they way he moved as he turned toward Evran, the man was obviously several drinks in. “He ain’t been nothing but nice to you.”
“I treat everyone as I wish to treat them,” Evran said. “As your friend here said, I’m here to help you all. I expect you to be thankful.”
“You ain’t done anything since you got here except plow some whore,” the drunk man said. Evran laughed at the irony, leaving the man confused. The mayor’s wife had done a good job hiding her face when she snuck up to the bedroom. “What’s so funny?”
“You are, of course,” Evran said. “Now please. Let me have my drink, so that I can go meet with your mayor and discuss my payment.”
“Payment?” the man grumbled. “You said you was here to help. People are dying, and you’re talking about getting paid?”
“Money is how the world operates,” Evran explained, exasperated to be having this conversation once again. “People who do things for free are fools. If I didn’t expect to be paid for my assistance, how would I have the funds to continue offering my assistance to others? Have you see my golems? Trust me when I tell you that their creation is not cheap.”
“Yeah, I seem ‘em,” the drunkard said. “They’re creepy as shit. Unnatural.”
“Hmm,” Evran said. “I suggest you take that back. They are not creepy. They are works of art.”
“Nah, they’re creepy,” the drunkard said. “You’re creepy.” He looked triumphant at having thought of the insult. “I don’t know why the mayor even hired you. I think you need to get out of here.”
“I don’t need to do anything,” Evran said. “I certainly don’t need to do anything at your behest. I’m going to offer you one final suggestion. Go sit in a corner, and leave me alone to finish my drink.”
“Or what?” the drunkard said. “What’s you gonna do about it, skinny boy?”
True, Evran was much more slight of frame than the drunk fellow, who had broad shoulders and thick, hairy forearms. Nevertheless, he chuckled at the thought of this man being a threat to him. “Kill you, of course. I don’t like people who get in my way.”
“What?” the man said flatly. Evran had said it with such calm confidence, as though he was completely assured of his capability to do it. Which, of course, he was.
“I would kill you,” Evran repeated. “Don’t you see how anxious Sword is? It’s hungry. It needs a soul.”
This was, strictly speaking, not true. The creation of each of Evran’s constructs had required at least one soul — in the case of Gleam, Evran’s masterpiece, it had required several — but Evran was a master of soul magic. In creating Sword and the others, Evran had twisted and mutilated the souls he put into them so that they created an astral gyre. The shape he carved into the souls while fitting them into the objects caused them to continually draw in small amounts of each of the three essential energies from the ambient, meaning that he needed to provide them with new bursts from living creatures far less often.
This was far too complicated to explain to such a simpleton, however, and either way the statement had is effect. The man shuffled off to the opposite side of the room, cowed. Evran finished his drink.
Evran’s two larger golems awaited him outside of the bar. Gleam, in a perfect imitation of an impatient human, was leaning against Beast, with his arms folded over his chest. Beast paid him no mind. Evran didn’t often take Gleam into places whose flooring he didn’t want to destroy. The golem was incredibly heavy, standing more than a head taller than Evran and made of solid black granite, with polished, silvery armor worked into his construction for appearances more than for protection. Every inch of him was, in Evran’s eyes, beautiful.
There were two triumphs Evran had made in Gleam’s creation. First was the fact that, like all of the golems Evran kept in current use, Gleam didn’t rely on joints in order to move. Evran had discovered a way to allow stone to move like flesh, meaning that he could carve their bodies out of single large, pieces of stones. Lesser artificers had to worry about carving a multitude of parts that all fit together. Not Evran.
His second triumph was specific to Gleam, and one that he privately worried he would never be able to replicate. Animating Gleam was an amalgam of souls from a family who nobody would miss. Evran had managed to extract the souls and spirits of that family, keeping them intact long enough to forge them together into those of a new, unique being. Gleam’s soul document, an intricately carved scroll of pure platinum, full of words and symbols Evran had been discovering and developing his entire life, was housed deep within Gleam’s torso. It bound his body, spirit, and soul together, defined him, and gave him life.
Gleam, defying even Evran’s expectations, was a true, actualized being. He had thoughts, behaviors, and a personality far beyond what Evran had programmed into him. On the day he had animated Gleam, his fingers aching from delicately working the platinum soul document, Evran had felt like a god.
“Evran, you have returned,” Gleam said. His voice didn’t truly come from his face, which Evran had left smooth and blank, but rather, it issued from a nonspecific source in his general direction. Gleam had no mouth or eyes, not even imitations thereof, so it had taken extra vital energy to allow him speech and sight. Evran thought it was worth it, for aesthetic purposes. “You took longer than I anticipated.
“When a customer pays well, I like to give her the time she deserves,” Evran said.
Gleam shifted, crossing his arms. “Our time could be better spent elsewhere,” he said. He was the only one Evran allowed to reprimand him in any capacity.
“Any time that ends in me getting money is well spent, Gleam,” Evran said. “Your reversal scrolls are not cheap or easy to make.” Evran kept at least three of the scrolls on hand, stored separately. They allowed him to reset Gleam’s body back to the state it was in when he had made the scrolls, effectively removing all wear and damage from him. If Evran ever attempted to make another golem as complex as Gleam, he would endeavor to find a way to give it healing properties of its own.
“You have plenty in reserve, Master,” Gleam said. “And I am not often in need of repair. You just wanted the pleasure of having your way with the mayor’s wife and the mayor.”
“Gleam, sometimes you read me too well.” Evran patted Beast on the shoulder. The animalistic golem was the size of a long horse, though Evran’s whim had led him to give it six legs more akin to those of a lizard, and it had no head. Beast carried all of Evran’s supplies in bags hanging from his sides, and on long journeys, bore Evran himself in the howdah upon his back. Beast also bore Gleam’s enormous bow and sword. “Come on, then. Let’s go see what the mayor needs.”
The city — which was called Tohl, as Gleam reminded Evran — was nestled at and slightly around the base of a column, with the city hall at the very top of the village’s reach, where the slope grew close to vertical. To look up from the base of a column where it stretched to the ceiling miles above was an impressive sight. Spring was coming to Tohl with a passion, as Vernoa’s domain covered Hivara’s, driving away the vestiges of winter. The thick moss of the town hall’s lawn was a vivid green, speckled in places with tiny white blooms. A gardener had carefully sculpted the trees and bushes around the building, giving it a royal look. Their leaves were just beginning to unfurl, and their flowers were still buds, but Vernoa’s approach would bring even more color to the lawn.
Evran had, of course, seen better in his travels, but this was all pleasant enough.
Gleam was careful to stay on the cobblestone pathway as they approached the door. Evran left Beast at the road, where he was more than capable of defending Evran’s supplies. Despite his confidence that his own works were superior, he still respected the attempts of others, and he wouldn’t have his golems ruin the gardeners’ artwork for no good reason.
Gleam knocked on the door, a heavy, echoing sound that someone within would be sure to hear. The door swung open almost immediately.
“We are expected,” Evran said, cutting off the attendant before he could greet them. “I am to meet with the mayor regarding a matter he needs to have dealt with.”
“Ah, Sir Evranelan,” the man said.
“Not Sir. Master,” Gleam corrected on Evran’s behalf. Evran gave him a thankful nod.
“Yes, well,” the attendant said. Gleam intimidated him, though he was obviously trying to hide it.“Either way, you’re late. The day will soon begin to fade.”
“It has begun to fade already,” Gleam said. “The light is leaving the air even as we speak.” The attendant swallowed nervously.
“Gleam has no eyes, but he still sees,” Evran explained. “Better than many humans, I would venture.”
“If that’s true, you’ll be needed quite soon,” the man said. “They have been striking as dusk falls for the past forty-three days.” Evran watched him carefully. The man was not just anxious because of Gleam. The creatures that had been assaulting Tohl were, from the rumors about the city, terrifying. Evran was not afraid, however. He was intrigued, for their description sounded vaguely familiar.
“Well,” Evran said. “You were lucky I was passing through.”
“Perhaps,” said the attendant. “We have yet to see what you can do.”
“Show me to the mayor so that I can discuss my prices, and you shall,” Evran said.
“Yes, of course,” the attendant sad, though his brow furrowed with concern. “Don’t you think we could perhaps escort you to where the attacks have been starting, and discuss your payment after?”
Evran acted aghast. “I’ve rarely heard such a crass suggestion,” he sneered, though of course, he had. People in need of saving often proposed discussing the payment until after he had done the work, or told him they’d pay based on how well he had served them. Often, it was a ploy to not pay him. More often still, people were surprised that he demanded payment at all. “We will discuss my payment now, and I will take a portion of it before I lend any hand at all.”
“I don’t think —” the attendant began.
“It’s not your job to think about this,” Evran said. “It is the mayor’s. Get him.”
The attendant scoffed. “Fine. Follow me.”
Evran gestured, and Gleam waited at the door. The floor inside was of polished wood, which Gleam would absolutely destroy. The attendant led Evran down a wood-paneled hallway, which Evran appreciated as being quite expensive, because he could tell from the grain and coloration that the wood wasn’t even from Empyr. He had made a golem out of that wood, once, for a duke. It was more of an art piece than even the rest of Evran’s work, since it had less combat functionality than a golem like Gleam.
The mayor waited in a cozy office, with a warm, thick area rug on the floor and two cushioned chairs facing her desk. Yes, the mayor was a woman. Evran cocked his head to the side. “You are the mayor?”
“I am,” she said. “Do I not look the part?” She certainly did. Her clothes were well-cut and professional, and her hair was braided into a prim, serviceable style.
“Of course you do, madame,” Evran said. “But I had, ah, heard tell that you have a wife.”
“I do,” the mayor said, narrowing her eyes. Evran decided to leave the line of questioning at that. He had lain with man and woman alike; it made no difference to him, so long as he was paid for his time. He was not one to judge who this woman selected as a mate.
“I am Master Evranelan, Servant of the People,” Evran said. “You may call me Master Evranelan, for short. How may I call you?”
“I am called Yelurah Born-of-Éthau,” she said. An old, traditional moniker, Evran mused. Her parents must have been servants in the Church of Éthau for her to take the name of the Lord of Summer. “But you may call me Mayor.”
“Yes, yes. I shall do so,” Evran said. He took his place across from her in one of the chairs, though she had not offered it to him. “Mayor, I hear you have a problem that you’ve been unable to solve. That is why I’m here.”
“You’re certainly cutting straight to the point, after taking your sweet time getting here,” the mayor said. She steepled her fingers, elbows resting on the desk.
“What can I say?” Evran spread his hands. “With payment so close at hand — I mean, with the risk to your city so near, why would we waste time with further pleasantries?”
The mayor made a sound of disgust. “We can discuss payment after —”
“Ah ah ah,” Evran said, wagging his finger at her and leaning forward. “Your attendant already tried that with me. We talk payment first, before I get started on anything else.”
“I haven’t even told you what the problem is yet.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust at Evran’s behavior.
“Odd-looking creatures have been attacking the borders of your city at nightfall,” Evran said. “The families in your outlying farms on the seasonward side are dead or otherwise gone, having apparently been hit first. You have little to no martial capability here, because you’ve spent so long without any sort of conflict, and you don’t involve yourself in Empyr’s politics on a greater scale. Your police are useless.” Evran gave her a twisted smile. “Does that sound correct?”
“It’s close enough,” the mayor said quietly, though of course, Evran probably knew just as much as she did, just from asking some people about town and providing some of his services to a police officer, offering him a monetary discount in exchange for information. (Though he had, in fact, charged the man full price.)
“What I haven’t been able to obtain is a clear description of the creatures,” Evran explained. “People just keep calling them ‘twisted abominations’ and ‘disgusting’ and stuff like that. It’s not very helpful.”
“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen them myself,” the mayor admitted. “So I can’t offer you much more. From eyewitness accounts, they are strong, fast, and terrifying.”
“Hmm,” Evran said. It was incredibly vague. She wasn’t giving him all the information she had, though, unless he had stumbled on more than her. From what he’d heard, people seemed to think the attackers might be people, who had been somehow mutilated or transformed. At least he’d heard enough to confirm that they weren’t Emissaries for one of the Seasons. “Well, considering how little information I have to go on, I’m going to ask for seventy platinum grams up front.”
“You can’t be serious,” the mayor said, gripping the sides of her desk. Had she been stronger, her nails would have scored the wood. “That’s… that’s extortion.”
Evran continued on as though he hadn’t heard her. “I’ll be asking for a total of 150 grams, of course,” he said. “Considering the personal risk I’ll be enduring.”
“We barely have the funds to afford that,” Yelurah said. “I would have to cut funding to some of our programs. Road repair, and… maybe education…” She leaned back in her chair, though her fingers kept their iron grip on the edge of her desk.
“ I suggest you take the hit, Mayor,” Evran said calmly. “There’s no telling whether someone else might happen by who is confident they can deal with your problem.” Evran was confident, of course. Gleam was, to put it mildly, dangerous.
“Give me some time to consider,” Yelurah begged.
“You have none,” Evran pointed out. “Had I arrived earlier, perhaps.” He gestured around the room. “It’s hard to tell, with your lanterns on, but the light is fading. Look around you. The edges of Hivara’s domain still lay over Tohl. Vernoa does not yet have full sway, and Éthau is far away. Night falls swiftly.”
Yelurah swore under her breath. “Ghohin,” she called. Her assistant stepped into the room. “Get this man the money he asks for, then have one of the officers direct him to the place where the attacks are likely to start.”
It was well and truly dusk by the time the officer had led Evran to the seasonward edge of Tohl, and by the sound of screaming up ahead, the attack had already begun. Evran was whistling the tune to an inappropriate tavern song, which had the officer regarding him in shock, but Evran didn’t care. Seventy platinum grams was a lot of money.
“You can leave us from here,” Gleam said to the officer, who was, to Evran’s amusement, actually shaking. “We can deal with this far better than you can.”
The guard didn’t even speak. He just nodded and fled. Gleam retrieved his sword from Beast’s back. He hefted it with ease, despite the fact that it was almost as long as Evran was tall. “Do you have a plan, Master?”
“Eh,” Evran said. “Just kill most. Maybe try to catch or disable one of whatever they are, so I can at least try to figure them out.” He had a suspicion, but the descriptions had been so vague that he had to observe one to be sure. “I’m going to stick with Beast.”
Gleam nodded and strode off into the darkening street. The buildings were close together here, with the families owning little of their own land. Likely most of them were barely able to afford the homes themselves. It was always the poor that suffered most when there were trouble, which was why Evran was determined never to be among them again.
Sword crawled down Evran’s arm and placed itself in his ready hand. He was capable of defending himself, but he wasn’t nearly as durable as Gleam, so he preferred to stay away from the heart of trouble. Nevertheless, he advanced forward along the same path that Gleam had followed, with Beast following close at his heels.
“Do not be afraid,” came the sound of Gleam’s voice from the next street over. He was projecting it loudly, so that many of those around him could hear. “These creatures are easily slain.” So, he was already doing well. That was good. If Evran strained his ears, he could hear the sounds of Gleam’s fight: his sword striking flesh, the occasional crash, and a murmur of guttural snarling. Screams, too, of course, echoed through the streets.
Evran rounded a corner. There were two bodies in the street there, one human, the other, not quite so. Not anymore. The human body had been beaten and scratched. A portion of its throat had been torn free. Evran ignored it. The other body, which had been shorn in half by Gleam’s blade, was the more interesting one.
Yes, it had definitely been human at one point, and yes, Evran knew what had happened to it. The flesh and hair had turned to grey, and the eyes were black, depthless pits. Its hands ended in vicious claws instead of fingers. Its gaping mouth revealed long, sharp teeth. Someone had been attempting to practice soul magic without proper training, and these poor creatures were the result.
Evran quickly pieced together the creatures’ origins: They were probably the farmers who were assumed to have been slain. Some aspiring wizard or enchanter had decided to use them for practice, but things had gone horribly wrong. Instead of properly fusing their souls, or sealing them in objects, or whatever he had intended to do, he had instead fractured them, breaking the union between their spirit and their body and soul. This sent the spirit tumbling free, and likely destroyed it, leaving the body and soul together, but lacking stability.
The physical transformation was more of a puzzle. Evran would have to question the spellcaster or observe his notes to see what had brought that about. There existed circles he could draw for that sort of analysis, but doing so was outside of his regular practice. The changes to do with some sort of influx of vital or magical energy, he was sure, but what had caused that was the true mystery. He might never unravel it, for the creator of these creatures had almost certainly been killed by them.
The sound of Gleam’s heavy footfalls heralded his approach. “I know what we’ve got here, Gleam,” Evran said.
“I am impressed, Master,” Gleam said. In one hand, he held one of the poor, twisted humans. It writhed and struggled against him, but its flailing, bloodied claws could do nothing against the metal and stone of his body.
“Good, you’ve captured one. Bring it closer.” Evran fished around in one of the sacks born by Beast. He withdrew a long blade, forged of platinum and carved with a multitude of runes and symbols. It was a tool that he used when separating souls from their bodies, for use in creating golems.
Evran approached Gleam, who set his sword aside so that he could pin the struggling human’s arms to its sides. The rune-carved blade slid easily into the creature’s chest, as though it were meeting no resistance at all. The flesh of a truly living creature would have resisted. The being went limp in Gleam’s arms.
“Creative, Master,” Gleam said. “How did you know that would work? For that matter, how did you know what these are?”
“I wasn’t always perfect, Gleam,” Evran said. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I have seen this sort of mistake before.”
“I see.” Gleam turned his blank gaze on Evran. “I can tell you’re planning something, Master.”
“Oh yes, Gleam,” Evran said. “We are going to make so much more money here.”
“How so, Master?” Gleam asked. “I believe I have killed all of these poor creatures. That was the last one.”
“The people here don’t know that for certain,” Evran explained. “They’ve been living in fear of these these for quite some time, and fear is an excellent motivator.” Evran held up the soul knife. “I’ll convince them that they need these to defend themselves, in case more of the creatures come, and we’ll make them a few inferior versions. Then, when we get bored, or when they run out of money, we leave.”
“Are you sure that will work?” Gleam asked. “Don’t you think it’s unfair to make money off of their suffering?
“It will work,” Evran assured him. “I’m doing them a favor, even by charging them. Nothing’s free, after all. Everything has a cost. I just make that cost obvious.”