I suppose this will be more than two parts after all.
Evran requested Nyle’s aid not because he needed the help — Gleam and Spider could have accomplished everything Evran might have needed from another human — nor because he wished to do the boy any sort of real favor. True, working under Evran, even briefly, might teach Nyle things that Colomb could or would never have taught him. It would be an education for Nyle, which meant that Evran could pass it off to Gleam as something he had done out of benevolence.
No, Evran asked Nyle to help him as a way to further spite Colomb through showing one of his students how a truly skilled artificer worked. Colomb was not a terrible craftsman, but he lacked Evran’s impeccable talent and creativity. His students were given little in the way of the sort of freedom required to breed true innovation. Watching Evran work would show Nyle how important it was to learn to improvise and iterate using the knowledge one had gained, and hopefully, it would also reveal just how lackluster his teacher had been.
Also, with any luck, Evran would have Nyle fawning over him, and that thought amused him to no end. He loved being appreciated for his talents, and coming from an attractive young person such as Nyle, that appreciation felt even better. Evran appreciated Nyle’s appearance, but Nyle was his junior by fourteen passings. He had no desire for Nyle — he tended to find that younger people were too often inexperienced — but he did derive a certain joy from tempting younger people to be attracted to him. It helped to reinforce his own belief that he remained eminently attractive as he aged.
The task he had set before himself was not simple, but now that he’d claimed he would be able to do it, he had to do two things: accomplish it, and make it look easy. To that end, he maintained a light smile and a cheerful disposition throughout the proceedings.
“You want me to do what?” Nyle asked. His gaze had fixated upon the raccoon in Spider’s grasp, and he hadn’t pulled it away since Spider had returned from its hunt.
“You’ll push the soul knife into the raccoon, when it’s time,” Evran repeated. “It’s quite simple. You can’t tell me you’ve never done it before.”
“We don’t…” Nyle shook his head. “We don’t kill things here. Teacher says that’s how old artificers got a bad rap.”
“Teacher is stuck in his ways,” Evran said. He pointed at the raccoon, which wriggled ineffectually against Spider’s stony grip. “He likes to use plant souls, so that he feels kinder when he’s creating his golems, but they’re just not as good. We need quality.”
“Hush, now.” Evran patted Nyle’s head as though he were a young child. “How do you think I made Gleam? From the souls of trees?”
“I didn’t really want to think about it.” Nyle shifted uncomfortably, leaning away from Evran, though he didn’t move his feet.
“Plants are beings, and they do have souls, though their spirits are generally much weaker than ours,” Evran said. “You do realize that using a plant to create a golem kills the plant, right? It’s not like you’re preventing death by avoiding a being that’s more useful to your ends.”
“It just doesn’t feel the same,” Nyle insisted.
“You can make arbitrary distinctions about which life is more important all you like,” Evran said. “I’m going to use the tools set before me which are the most efficient.”
“Why can’t we just not kill anything?” Nyle asked. “Why can we make some things without sacrifice, but we can’t make golems without it?”
“Surely your teacher has gone over the distinctions between enchanting simple objects and animating a golem,” Evran said.
“I mean, yes,” Nyle said. “It just feels sometimes like if we had the right words or lines to use to enchant, we wouldn’t need a soul at all. Or like, if we could somehow forge a soul, or trick the ambient into making one for us, nothing would have to die.”
“I like the way you think,” Evran said. “I’ve contemplated that problem a few times over the years myself. I’m sure I’ll come back to it someday. I’ve never been able to animate a golem without a soul. If we have a soul and a body, the ambient will fall into place and create a new spirit. With most golems, that spirit is far weaker and less functional than that of a natural being. Gleam is an obvious exception. However, I’ve yet to discover a way to make a spirit without a soul, and I’ve yet to find a way to make a soul myself. I only know how to reshape a soul I’ve taken from a natural being.”
“But couldn’t we write words to make a body animate without a soul?” Nyle says. “I don’t know all of the words, yet, but I know there are ones that help golems with movement and flexibility.” He gestured to Gleam. “Your golems move without joints, which shouldn’t be possible.”
“They do, but that’s only partially due to the enchanting. It’s mostly a result of the shaping I’ve done to the souls I used to animated them. I used the soul document to ensure their soul had a particular shape to it, so that the vital energy that falls around it would give them that mobility.”
“But aren’t there words granting stone flexibility, that can be used with base enchanting? Without soul magic?”
Nyle seemed to have latched onto something that he wanted to know. His curiosity amused Evran. It reminded him, in his days studying under Colomb, though of course Evran’s questions had been about why he wasn’t allowed to use animals, rather than plants, when some of the books he’d snuck out of Colomb’s library had prescribed it.
“Well, I can — and have — enchanted granite to bend and flow like cloth.” Evran opened his jacket, revealing his vest. “This vest has a layer of steel, enchanted to be lighter and more supple than steel has any right to be, while maintaining its integrity. However, it doesn’t matter what words I use to enchant, because enchanting alone can’t give objects autonomy. It can only grant them miraculous effects. That’s just the way of magical energy. It’s vital energy and mental energy that allow beings to think and animate.”
“Couldn’t you just lay out the steps for the magic, and sort of fake animating something that way?” Nyle asked. “Magic can make things move. I know it can.”
“Well, sort of,” Evran said. “You can write out a set of instructions for an enchanted object to follow under certain circumstances. It just will only be able to do those things. I could enchant a door to always open when I stroked it a certain way, for example, or I could enchant a crystal to glow whenever someone entered the room. That’s fairly similar to what you’re suggesting, but it’s a long way from autonomy and improvisation.”
“Alright,” Nyle said. He sounded frustrated, but not entirely dissuaded.
“You’re welcome to try, someday,” Evran said. “In fact, I encourage it. It’s only by stretching the bounds of what others tell you is possible that you can accomplish anything that has real meaning.”
“That’s very inspirational, Master,” Gleam said.
“I’m a living inspiration, Gleam. You should expect nothing less from me.”
They stood in the school’s workshop. For whatever reason, it had been built as a basement, with thin windows around the top of the room that allowed a narrow view of the outside world. Bars of enchanted crystal had been set into the ceiling. Once evening came and the light of day faded from the air, they would begin to glow. Evran remembered nights spent practicing his enchanting here, when the magic in the air wasn’t invested in the light of day, and enchantments took hold more easily and more powerfully.
Colomb had his own collection of tools, for himself and his students, but they were mundane and unenchanted. Knowing that, from his memories of his time here, Evran had brought his own. He could work with unenchanted tools, of course, yet he saw no point in troubling himself when a more convenient solution was unavailable. His tools cut straighter and more easily, allowing him to work without worry that his artistic talents would be suppressed by the limitations of his tools.
Evran could, perhaps, have avoided making a golem for this particular task. He avoided admitting that to Nyle. He wanted something to wish he could issue commands, not something that would respond only to a simple stimulus. Everything he needed it to do, it could perhaps have done without a soul or spirit. Evran believed it would perform better with them to aid it, however.
For speed and simplicity, Evran had shaped the golem’s body out of clay, which he had taken from among Colomb’s materials. He wouldn’t be firing it. This golem was mostly an experiment, after all, and he doubted it would see much use after Evran succeeded in transferring Colomb’s spirit into a new body. Its usefulness would vanish after it had accomplished its task.
As befit Evran’s whim, it resembled a lizard in basic form. He hadn’t given it a head, nor a tail; it didn’t need them. It was simply an oblong torso with four legs ending in fine hands. He had almost completed its soul document, scribed using his color-changing pen upon a sheet of vellum, when Spider had returned bearing the racoon.
Some of the other students had wished to watch Evran work, so he had allowed them to sit at the top of the stairs. At first. After only half an hour, their incessant whispering had driven Evran to banish them from the workshop, leaving only himself, Gleam, and Nyle. Nyle had watched with fascination as Evran had drafted the soul document in his notebook and then begun drawing it out, freehand, on the vellum.
Evran returned to the soul document, leaving the raccoon to struggle. Its panicked squeaks were bothersome, but he needed it alive and present quite soon, so he would have to bear the annoyance for now. It didn’t matter how much it writhed. It wouldn’t escape Spider’s grasp.
“You make this all look and sound so easy.” Nyle spoke quietly, and hesitantly, as though he didn’t want to be speaking at all.
“Well, it’s certainly not simple,” Evran said, “but I won’t lie and say I ever found it challenging beyond my talents.”
“I do, sometimes,” Nyle admitted. “Sometimes I have a hard time getting certain lines for the words right, or I can’t figure out the right word to use at all…”
“That’s what references are for,” Evran said. He pointed at a shelf full of books, settled in the corner of the workshop. “There’s no shame in using them.”
“But you did all of this without any references at all,” Nyle said. “Even Master Colomb needs to use the reference books. And you should see his face while he works! It’s so tense. You seem so relaxed.”
“Master Evran is not a tense person,” Gleam said. “It’s just not in his nature.”
“True,” Evran said. There were moments in his life when he’d experienced tension, of course, but for the most part he saw no point in it. It didn’t help any situation. If anything, it actively made things worse. “I also have an impressive memory.”
“I would say that your memory is hyper-focused,” Gleam said. “You tend to remember certain things very easily, such as the symbols related to enchanting, and to forget things that you don’t find useful or convenient.
“That could also be true,” Evran said. He winked. “I can’t quite recall.”
“What’s my name?” Nyle asked.
“It’s Lyle, of course.”
“Master Evran, we all know you’re doing this on purpose,” Gleam said.
“You certainly know how to be insufferable, Master,” Gleam said.
“Did you design him to talk to you that way?” Nyle asked.
“I most certainly did not.” Evran sighed. “That’s what I get for making a golem with his own sense of self. I let him get away with reprimanding me for too long, and now there’s no going back. He’s learned I’m not going to punish him for it.”
“I’m too special,” Gleam said.
Evran muttered wordlessly under his breath, glaring at Gleam. “Alright. As relaxed as I feel, regardless of the circumstances, I still can’t concentrate on finishing the soul document if everyone keeps gabbing on.”
“Apologies, Master,” Gleam said. Evran glared at him anew. He had no mouth to make expressions, but the smile was evident in his voice.
“Apologies,” Nyle said, biting his lip to keep his smile from growing too wide. Gleam was already rubbing off on him. The golem was a terrible influence.
Nyle inched closer to Evran as Evran’s pen danced across the vellum. Conveniently, this brought Nyle further away from the struggling raccoon. Spider, despite its name, had ten sets of limb: two long, curved appendages, with tips sharper than the dealiest needle; two sets of long limbs ending in fine hands; and two sets, slightly thicker, on which it now balanced. It braced itself against the raccoon’s struggles with its last two limbs, and held tight to its flesh with its small, yet strong, hands.
“I feel like I haven’t even seen all of those symbols before,” Nyle said.
Evran picked up his pen pointedly. “You probably haven’t. Some of them wouldn’t even be in your reference books. Now. May I?”
“Yes,” Nyle said. “Sorry. I’ll just watch.”
Evran continued his work. The entire document existed already in his head. All he had to do was transfer that image to the paper. Line after line went down perfectly, with symbols travelling along them and connecting them. Crafting soul documents should have been stressful, for the tiniest mistake would render the entire thing a useless sheet of vellum.
As Evran lifted his pen from the paper, to transfer it to the other side of the document, Nyle leaned in, jabbing a finger toward one set of symbols. “What do those do? I’ve never seen anything like them.”
Evran cracked his knuckles, attempting to suppress his irritation. This is why he had never been inspired to become a teacher. He liked to explain things. He reveled in explaining things that were beyond other people’s understanding, because he liked how it made him feel. He did not like being interrupted while he worked.
“You would be at least passingly familiar with most of this,” Evran said. He remembered, belatedly, to keep a light smile on his face. He shifted his mind set and attempted to pretend that Nyle was a client he was trying to please. “This section, over hear, directs how this golem will animate. Here, by the curving lines, is the language that will allow the golem to move and bend like as Gleam does. This part, which surrounds the section you’re asking about, will allow it to project sound despite its lack of a mouth.”
“Okay. You’ve used a few symbols there I don’t know, but now I guess I see how they’re similar to what Teacher has showed us.”
“Right. Well, your teacher has taught you only some of the most basic parts of the language we use,” Evran said. “The part you asked about is the most important part, because it’s going to let the golem perform the function that we need.”
“And what’s that?” Nyle said.
Evran raised an eyebrow. “Communicate with your teacher, of course. It will let the golem hear him when his wraith speaks.”
“But… how?” Nyle asked. “Do we even know the words for that?”
“Yes and no,” Evran said. “That’s why this part is so dense and complicated. It’s a bit like what you were asking before, about animating a golem without a soul, with only magic. I told you it would be incredibly complicated to get it to perform only simple tasks, since you would have to lay out explicitly everything you want it to do. In this case, I didn’t have the exact words for some of the things I want the golem to do, so I had to sort of use rough synonyms.”
“There aren’t really synonyms, though,” Nyle said. “Everything only has its own, exact meaning. That’s what all the books say.”
“True, but you can describe a door without a synonym, right? Otherwise how else would say what the word meant, to someone who didn’t know it? You can say ‘hole in the wall, to one side of which, by hinges, is attached a flat plank of wood which can be held in place by a mechanism.’ That’s oversimplified, but that’s what I’ve done here.”
“But you’re not describing a door,” Nyle said. He shook his head, looking thoroughly bemused. “You’re… the concept you’re trying to get across is so much deeper than that.”
“That’s why it took so many words,” Evran said.
“You found synonyms to say ‘this golem can listen to spirits?’”
“Well, it can listen to a wraith, in the specific way a wraith relays what it wants known,” Evran said. “I looked over what Colomb wrote. I understand what he was trying to accomplish. He added clauses to attempt to give himself a way to communicate. He just didn’t get it quite right. He can project words, and he can perceive us, but we don’t have a way to perceive him. This golem will give that to us.”
“I am so lost,” Nyle said.
“That’s okay,” Evran said, patting him on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. This goes far beyond your current level of education.”
“I’ve almost finished my apprenticeship with Teacher, though,” Nyle said.
“Colomb’s teachings are very basic, even through the end of your time with him,” Evran said. “That’s why I left. There’s much more to know and discover than what he will, or can, teach you.”
Nyle went silent. Evran took the opportunity to continue his work. Nyle didn’t interrupt him further. He crossed his arms in front of him, a troubled look upon his face. That was good. It meant he was beginning to doubt Colomb. The seeds had to have been planted by Colomb’s own actions. After all, his students had been forced to call Evran to help him out of the situation he’d made for himself. That had to be a mark, in his student’s eyes, against the man’s skill.
“I’m done,” Evran declared. He set his pen upon the table and gave himself a brief round of applause. “The document is complete.”
“You don’t need to check it for errors?” Nyle asked.
“What good will that do?” Evran said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll just send spider for another racoon, and I’ll check it over to see what I could have done differently.”
“You’ll have wasted the raccoon’s life for nothing,” Nyle said.
“Nonsense,” Evran said. “His life will have saved my time, which is infinitely more valuable.”
Nyle shook his head. He looked sick. Still, he picked up the soul knife Evran had set out for him. His hand shook. He did not look like a happy fellow. Evran, of course, smiled.
Using his enchanted pen meant there was no ink to dry, so Evran passed the document to Gleam, who began to fold. In two minute’s time, he had pressed it small and tight enough that it could fit into the cavity Evran had made in the small clay golem’s belly.
“Spider, bring it here,” Evran said.
Spider made its way down onto the floor and then back up the leg of the table on which the fresh golem awaited its soul. Nyle shied away from it. Evran watched as his grip tightened on the blade, his arm trembling.
“It’s time,” Evran said. “Pierce the racoon’s chest. You will feel some resistance.”
Evran expected Nyle to question this moment again. He expected him to resist, and ask that they find a suitable plant as an alternative. Nyle, however, set his mouth into a straight line, furrowed his brow, and in one swift motion, plunged the soul knife into the raccoon like a man taking vengeance on a unfaithful lover.
Evran clapped again, this time for Nyle. “Well done, son!”
Nyle pulled his hands away as though the soul knife had burned him. Spider still held the raccoon, which now hung limply in its grasp. The handle of the knife jutted from the animal’s chest. No blood leaked out around it, which meant it had worked as intended.
On the table, the clay golem stirred, pushing itself upward and then crouching, as though stretching.
“Hello, little one,” Evran said, a grin on his face and in his voice. “Repeat after me: ‘Greetings to the world. I am Listener.’”
“Greetings to the world,” the golem said, in a perfect imitation of Evran’s voice. “I am Listener.”