The staff at the hospital had performed admirably in the preparations for Evran. For one thing, the Head Medician had not only found two patients perfect for Evran’s study — Qen, and the comatose man whose energies Evran would use — he had contacted the Tenner family to ensure that Evran would be receiving monetary recompense should his procedure meet with success. Part of Evran’s stipulations were that the Head Medician found someone whose family could compensate him. After all, Evran’s time and materials were not inexpensive.
They had also readied an operating room for Evran, and though it was not necessary, he did find it pleasant to have a dedicated space in which to work. At his home, he had a large workshop in which to create, animate, and enchant. He had not returned there in some time. Perhaps, if he was successful here, that would be the next step on his sojourn.
Gleam carried what would become Qen’s new body into the operating room. Evran had prepared the majority of it beforehand, leaving only the face to be carved. He often left his golems faceless, but for this one, he would make an exception. The wood from which had formed it, one solid slice of a thick tree trunk, had cost him an amount which even a rich man would not dismiss as insignificant.
Without conceit, he could say that the work he had done on this wood was perfect. Even in its lifeless, unanimated form, laying on one of the two operating tables, it looked as though it might spring up at any moment and walk around the room. The arms and legs were slightly spread, as were the fingers and toes, to ease the effort required of the animated energies to stretch and form the wood, since, like Gleam, the entire golem was jointless.
The genitals, though they had been carved into an awkward pose to allow them to be separate from the body once animated, would move and almost function in just as lifelike a manner as the rest of the body. Evran hoped Qen appreciated his efforts in that area, especially given the way Qen had caught his disease.
“You are doing a good thing,” Gleam said. He stood on the side of the room, arms folded as he and Evran waited for the doctors to deliver their patient.
Nearly everything was in place except for Qen and the comatose man. Evran worked now at shaping the rough detail of Qen’s face into the golem’s currently-blocky head. He would do what he could from memory, and then fill in the fine details once he had Qen in the room.
The soul document, which Evran had etched into a thin, flat sheet of titanium, lay across a square table set between the two operating tables. The entirety of it, a two-foot square, was covered in the complicated glyphs and diagrams necessary for what Evran intended to accomplish.
What he hadn’t told Qen was that he would need to slightly change Qen’s soul shape in order to be successful. Without performing some complicated analytic spells, which Evran had not studied as extensively as perhaps he should have, he couldn’t determine the current shape of Qen’s soul. He had to be sure that the excess vital energy from the comatose patient would go toward what Qen needed in order to use his body: movement, eyesight, touch, smell, and the ability to speak, none of which were provided by the wooden body itself.
“I do a lot of good things,” Evran said. He had not seen fit to mention to Gleam that he had already arranged a payment for his efforts.
“That’s highly questionable,” Gleam said.
“The things I do, I do very well,” Evran said.
“Yes,” Gleam acknowledged. “Some of them.”
Evran looked up from his work. “Gleam! Some of them? I excel at everything at which I make an effort.”
“You only really make an effort at what interests you,” Gleam said. “Namely artifice. Your interactions with other people could use some work.”
“I take offense to that,” Evran said. “There are a great many people who have been very pleased by my interactions with them.”
“I’m not talking about interactions people pay you for,” Gleam said.
“Well, what else really matters?” Evran said.
“I think most people would say that it’s interactions for which you’re not paid that matter the most, Master,” Gleam said.
“Nonsense,” Evran said. “Besides, you and I get along just fine, and you don’t pay me anything.”
“I’m fairly certain you’ve written it into my soul to be loyal to you,” Gleam said. “Just as you do with your lesser golems.”
“You have no proof of that,” Evran said, though he turned back to his carving so that Gleam couldn’t see his face. Gleam was, of course, correct.
Luckily, two men bearing the comatose man on a stretcher arrived just at that moment, forestalling further conversation. Evran directed them to the table on which he wished that man to be placed. They both looked extremely uncomfortable. Well, Evran might have expected that. He had a fake, anatomically correct wooden body on one table, a sheet of metal carved with arcane glyphs on another, and two soul knives set out, ready for use. It must have looked, to them, as though he was preparing a human sacrifice. In away, he supposed, he was.
Evran approached the comatose man, who was covered only by a thin robe provided by the hospital. He looked miraculously well-off, if atrophied. Evran didn’t know the timeline of his ailment, but he must have degraded this far recently. Evran had read of his disorder, in which the spirit is improperly attached to the soul and body from birth and thus degrades and fades away with time, but he hadn’t actually met anyone thus afflicted.
Evran shrugged and opened the man’s robe. As he understood it, the man couldn’t feel anything, so there was no harm in what he was about to do. He’d come as far as he could with the carving of Qen’s new face. He didn’t know why the delivery was taking so long, but it did give him time to prepare.
He took one of the soul knives and began carving directly into the man’s chest. He didn’t carve a link directly to the soul document, which was already linked to the new, wooden body, since that would draw the man’s soul and what remained of his spirit into the mixture. Instead, his instructions bound his soul and spirit more tightly to his own body. When Evran killed him, the three components of his being would be destroyed simultaneously.
Evran briefly wondered if, administered at birth, a similar tactic might have allowed this man to live a full life. He filed that thought away for later. It was of no use to the man now.
The instructions Evran carved upon the man’s body would release his energies into the room, but prevent them from incorporating immediately into the ambient. They would instead hover about in what Evran pictured as a sort of clumpy cloud, which the soul document would seek out to transfer it into the new body.
Qen arrived, pushed in a wheelchair, as Evran carved the other man’s flesh. Evran looked up at him and smiled, waving with the bloody knife. “Qen! I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t come.”
“I almost didn’t.” Qen grimaced. “What are you doing to him?”
“Not much, yet,” Evran said. “I’m just putting the glyphs in place on his chest so that everything goes smoothly.”
“He’s bleeding,” Qen said. He looked up at the nurse who was pushing him, as though checking to see if she saw what was happening as well. “Like, a lot.”
“Yes, well, that does tend to happen when you cut someone,” Evran said. “I’ll have to do the same to you. Just so you know.”
“Will it hurt?” Qen asked.
“Yes, but I think you’ll find that it’s worth it.” Evran finished as he spoke, adding the last few lines to the complex, bloody mess of the man’s chest. He walked over to the wooden body. “Would you like to look at your new body?”
Qen closed his eyes. He looked as though he might vomit. “Yes.” He gestured to the nurse, who pushed him toward the table holding the body he would soon possess. He reached out a hand, then paused. “Can I…?”
“Yes, of course,” Evran said. “Touch it if you like. I would want to look it over, if someone was putting me into a new body.”
Qen ran his hand along the body’s leg. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Did you really carve this? It looks just like a person. It… It almost feels like a person. Just harder.”
“I am an excellent craftsman,” Evran stated. “I apologize for the face. I haven’t finished it yet. I thought perhaps you might want to look like yourself.”
Qen glanced at the face. “I… yes, I do. I honestly didn’t think there was a hope for that.”
“Well, in shape at least I can replicate your face,” Evran said. He set aside his soul knife. At his gesture, Gleam wheeled up the small table, normally for surgical implements, on which Evran had set his carving tools. “It will always look as though you’re made of wood, though.” He began to work. He paused. “Well, I suppose if you’re well-acquainted with a good makeup artist, you might give it a go at looking a bit more human.”
“I’ll be sure to find one,” Qen said.
“This is going to take me some time,” Evran said. “You may leave,” he said to the nurse.
“Ah, the Head Medician asked me to stay and observe,” she said quietly.
“If he’s so curious, he may come himself,” Evran said. “I have no issue with you being here, if you truly wish to stay, but I think you’ll be quite bored for the next hour or so.”
“That’s alright,” she said, shifting her shoulders. “If Mr. Tenner needs anything, I’ll be here to get it for him.”
Evran raised his eyebrows. Everything about what he was doing made most people uncomfortable. He could read the nurse’s discomfort in the way she shifted her eyes and her feet, and the way she refused to look at him or anything in the room. He respected her for not taking the chance to depart.
Qen broke the silence that followed after about twenty minutes. “Why does it look like I’m screaming?”
The face of Evran’s carving had its mouth wide open, tongue peeled away from the floor of the mouth. “Well, it’s just like the hands and the penis,” Evran said. “If I don’t leave space, it won’t animate naturally. If I carved you with your mouth closed, you’d never be able to open it. It would be like having your mouth glued shut for the rest of your life.”
“Oh,” Qen said. “That sounds unpleasant.”
“It does,” Evran said. “Though you’d still be able to talk. Even like this, though, I have to point out that you won’t be able to eat. No need, and no digestive system.”
“Alright. I get that,” Qen said. “I’ll miss it, but I get it.”
“Just think of it as an inconvenience you can now do without,” Evran said.
Qen fell silent once more, though this time he spoke up sooner. “The penis doesn’t really look like mine.”
Evran glanced at Qen’s crotch significantly. “I could have taken the time to observe it and make it more accurate, but I thought I’d save you the embarrassment.”
“My penis is detachable,” Gleam volunteered. “Maybe Master Evran could do that for you.”
“Why do you even…” Qen stopped himself, shaking his head. A blush ran over his cheeks, and his eyes flicked upward, as though he had suddenly remembered the presence of the female nurse. “Nevermind. It’s fine. It, ah, it looks very nice.”
“Oh it will be,” Evran said. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
Qen did not speak up again until Evran had finished his face. The nurse, in the midst of the silence, found a towel and covered the carving’s waist with it.
“How does this look?” Evran asked.
“It’s honestly amazing,” Qen said.
“It’s so perfect,” the nurse said, leaning over. “The eyes look almost like they could see. And the teeth. How did you learn how to do this?”
“It’s talent,” Evran said. “Natural talent.”
“I feel like you did it so quickly, too,” Qen said.
“This isn’t even the impressive part,” Evran said. He looked down at his work, and ran his hand over the smooth head. “That comes next. I only regret that I didn’t give you any hair. However, this will open upon your options further. If I carved hair for you, you’d be locked into one style for the rest of your life.” Evran shuddered at the thought.
“It’s fine,” Qen said. “Honestly.”
Evran allowed Qen another moment to appreciate his work before speaking. “Are you ready?”
Qen met Evran’s eyes. His face was full of fear. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I think I am.”
If Evran’s talents had been less obvious, he believed Qen might have refused. But, as always, the clear and readily apparent quality of Evran’s work had inspired confidence. Evran grinned. “Gleam, could you please help Mr. Tenner onto the operating table?”
“Yes, master,” Gleam said.
The nurse pushed Qen over to the table on which he would lay. She helped him up out of the chair, but it was Gleam who lifted him easily up onto the metal surface.
Without further fanfare, Evran picked up his second soul knife and approached Qen. “This will hurt, Mr. Tenner. I want you to be ready for that.”
“Would you like a topical analgesic?” the nurse asked. “We do have some.”
“Oh, excellent,” Evran said. “That sounds lovely. I’m not used to giving much regard to comfort.”
The nurse opened a door off of the side of the room, from which she emerged shortly with a glass jar filled with a milky white substance. “This won’t interfere with anything, will it?”
Evran tapped the blade of the soul knife against his lips. “I don’t believe so,” he said. “Best to spread it on and let the effect take hold, then wipe off the residue. Magic is all about the placement of lines, words, and objects, and sometimes if something causes it to fold around those in the wrong way, we get unexpected effects.”
The nurse nodded, then donned a pair of gloves, opened Qen’s robe, and began spreading the cream across his chest. Evran appreciated her. She worked in a businesslike manner, yet always with a part of her mind dedicated to her patient’s comfort. If he were to continue working with people whose opinions of him mattered, even slightly, she might be an asset.
After a few minutes, the nurse wiped the cream from Qen’s chest, then gave him a hard flick. “Did you feel that, Mr. Tenner?”
“Not really,” he said. “I felt the vibration of it, and I heard it, though.”
“That’s about as good as we’re going to get,” the nurse said.
“Alright,” Evran said. “Try to focus on something other than what I’m doing, Mr. Tenner.” Evran pressed the sharp tip of the blade into Qen’s flesh.
“Can I asked you some questions?” Qen said, his eyes closed.
“You may,” Evran said.
“Will this hurt?”
“Does it hurt now?” Evran asked.
“No. I mean, I can feel that you’re doing it, but it doesn’t hurt,” Qen answered. “But that’s not what I mean. I meant the transfer.”
“I don’t think so,” Evran said. “I have to stab this blade into you, so maybe that will hurt. I’m not sure. I’ve never done it to myself. I can’t imagine the transfer itself will be painful, though. You’ll have to tell me when it’s done.”
“Alright,” Qen said. “You said I might be different, once this is done.”
“There’s a small chance of that,” Evran said. “However, I’ve reviewed the soul document many times. I’m sure there are no mistakes.”
“Will I still be me?”
“That depends on how you define yourself,” Evran said. “Let’s look at Gleam. When I made him, I took multiple souls, and multiple spirits, and I tore them apart and put them together again as one — that made Gleam. But is Gleam himself, or is he just a fusion of those other beings I put together to make him?”
“Umm… Himself?” Qen said. “I’m not sure.”
“I think he’s himself,” Evran said.
“So do I,” said Gleam. “I am a true being. Master Evran made me so.”
“If Gleam is himself, and not those from which he came, that’s one thing,” Evran said. “But your case is slightly different. I’m not taking apart any souls or spirits. I do have to change your soul slightly, in order to allow your body to function like you’re used to, but I’m not touching your spirit. I’m leaving the way your soul connects to your spirit untouched.”
“So, the other guy,” Qen said. He had barely looked at or acknowledged the comatose man since he’d entered the room, but now it was clear he had been in Qen’s thoughts. “I’m not going to, like, fuse with him? Or something?”
“His spirit and his soul are not part of the transaction,” Evran assured. “I’ve explicitly roped them out of it. You’re only taking his energies.”
“And the energies don’t define a person?”
“No,” Evran said. “The energies just allow your body, soul, and spirit to function. We draw them from the ambient when we are born, naturally, but you’re not being born, and it’s very hard to trick the ambient into thinking someone is being born when they’re not.”
“Okay,” Qen said shakily. “Will I be able to… see and feel, and such?”
“Yes,” Evran said. “Gleam can see, and feel, and hear, and smell. You will be able to do so as well.”
“But Gleam has no eyes,” Qen said. “Or ears or…”
“Or sensory organs of any kind,” Evran said. “That’s why the soul document has to make some minor edits to your soul. It will allow the excess vital energy, which we’re gaining from the other guy, to grant you those talents, as well as allowing your body to move fluidly despite an intrinsic capacity to do so.”
Evran felt that he was restating himself, but at least it kept Qen’s mind off of the large wound he was creating in the man’s chest. The blood blurred the picture, but a complex network of symbols and instructions now covered Qen’s flesh.
“I’m finished,” Evran said.
“Alright,” Qen said, his voice barely above a whisper. It could have been fear, or simply the intense fatigue that was the hallmark of his disease.
“Gleam,” Evran said. “Please take the other soul knife. I’ll need you to insert it when I instruct you to do so.”
“Yes, Master,” Gleam said. He rarely got to participate in Evran’s acts of creation, but the timing would be easier with a second pair of hands.
Evran made a mental note to make himself a second pair of hands.
Gleam moved to stand over the body of the comatose man. The tip of the soul knife, which looked pathetically small in Gleam’s large hands, pressed against the man’s flesh at the center of the pattern Evran had cut into him.
“Do I need to do anything?” the nurse asked. “Wipe the blood away, or…?”
“No,” Evran said. “Just step to the side. Are you ready, Qen?”
Qen’s lips moved, but Evran did not hear his reply. Fatigue, and fear, each exacerbating the other. Evran pressed with the soul knife. Yes, Qen still lived, or his flesh would not resist the blade so thoroughly. Evran nodded.
Gleam pressed the knife into the sacrificial man’s chest. With Gleam’s superior strength, it slid in easily, cutting not the flesh itself, now, but the things that lay beyond it, undetectable: the soul, and what remained of the man’s spirit, and the man’s connections to his essential energies. Nothing perceptible happened, but Evran knew it had worked.
With those essential energies released into the air, Evran plunged his soul knife into Qen’s chest. Or rather, he tried to do so, one-handed and dramatically, to impress the nurse. The dagger stopped. Evran sighed, the placed both hands on the dagger and leaned his body weight into it. The dagger moved slowly inward. Then, with a snap, it sunk the rest of the way.
Evran released the dagger, leaving it buried in Qen’s chest. He grabbed a towel and wiped off his hands.
“Is that… is that it?” the nurse asked. “I expected something flashier. Did it work?”
“It might be flashy to eyes that can perceive the essential energies,” Evran said. “However, in most circumstances, they’re invisible to us.” Evran walked away from Qen’s body, which was now only that: a body, devoid of soul, spirit, and essential energies.
On the third operating table, the wooden body shifted. The toes relaxed, coming closer together, closing from their unnatural spread. The fingers did the same, though they shifted and flexed as they did so, curling into fists and then stretching back out. The mouth, previously open in a bizarre, emotionless scream, closed.
“Qen,” Evran said. “Qen, can you hear me?”
The wooden figure nodded. Qen nodded.
“Good,” Evran said. “And you recognize your name as Qen, then?”
Qen nodded once more. His mouth worked, but no sound came out.
Evran brushed his hand along Qen’s arm. “Can you feel that, Qen?” Qen lifted his head to look downward. His eyes tracked Evran’s hand. “I see that you can see me. Can you feel my hand?”
“Y… Yes,” Qen managed to say.
“Excellent,” Evran said. “It might take you some time to relearn how to speak. I built as much as I could into the soul document, but there were more pressing things to include. Your method of speech is now entirely different from what it was before.”
Qen nodded. “Yes,” he said, though it was more of a grunt that a true articulation of the word.
“There’s going to be one more bit of discomfort, Qen,” Evran said. “I would like to store the soul document inside your body for safekeeping.”
Qen’s brow furrowed. He opened his mouth, questioningly.
“No no. You have no esophagus,” Evran said. “Gleam, if you could roll up the soul document, please. Tightly. Fold it once in half, first. Qen, you’ll need to turn over. It will give you practice with your new body.”
A question crossed Qen’s face, but he seemed unable to articulate it. Nevertheless, he did turn. He moved easily, which made Evran even more proud of the work he had done.
“All the way, Qen. I normally make a sort of drawer in my golems, in which to store the soul document. However, I wanted to keep your body as natural as possible, so instead I bored a tube in a fairly anatomical place.”
Off to the side, he heard the nurse suppress a laugh. Qen groaned.
“It’s fine. This won’t hurt at all, not like it would a human body, shoving something this far up in there.” Evran placed the rolled soul document at the edge of the hole he had created. “I made sure of that when planning everything out.”
The soul document slid into its holding place with relative ease. With a rod taken from among his carving supplies, Evran pushed it farther up inside, so that there was no chance that it might slip out unbidden. Given Evran’s measurements, the document now had a place inside Qen’s chest.
“Qen,” Evran said. “You are now complete.”
Qen sat up on the table. He brought his hands before his face, flexing them as he had done when he first awakened. He looked down at his toes, rolled his ankles around, and flexed his knees. He smiled, wooden lips stretching like flesh over wooden teeth, and pushed himself from the table, drawing Evran into an embrace.
“See, Gleam?” Evran said, point at the golem behind Qen’s back. “I do good.”