Read Terry’s latest story for free!
From the shadowed alley where Scraps crouched, the single upper floor light flickering in the mansion across the street seemed warm and inviting. If you didn’t know better.
The mansion—which belonged to the City Sorcerer—had stood in this spot since before there was a city. Ageless and imposing, it had remained unchanged as the hovels and dirt tracks around it turned to wooden houses and formal roads, then to stone-fronted buildings and gaslit cobblestone streets. The only addition to the mansion had been a sturdy brick wall, three meters high, separating the sorcerer’s grounds from the world around it.
Even in Scraps’ prime, getting past that wall would have been a challenge, not to mention avoiding the purple-clad houseguards patrolling its perimeter. Scraps leaned back as one of those same guards casually glanced its way, and its wooden hindlegs creaked as it pressed further into the shadows.
The sound of a gentle breeze fluttered through the alleyway behind Scraps, and it instinctively pressed itself even closer against the wall, the thin wire filaments that held it together biting into its body while it did so. Fighting against the pain, Scraps looked up at the thin clouds that broke the full moon’s glare. If the wind swept those clouds away, the extra light would make Scrap’s inevitable break for the wall a suicide run. But although Scraps could hear the air ruffling through the alleyway, the clouds remained resolutely still.
‘Hello,’ a curious voice sounded from behind Scraps.
Scraps turned its head and met the eyeless gaze of the creature floating in the air behind it.
It looked like it had once been a wolf, or perhaps a large dog—recently, at that. Its clean-scraped pelt moved with a magically-augmented suppleness that older golems of its kind, with their stiffening skin and their mange-like loss of fur, simply couldn’t achieve. It rippled as it hung there in the alley, suspended by its magic like a sheet pegged out to dry. It tilted its head to the side as it considered Scraps with a critical, eyeless gaze.
Scraps shivered as the creature’s vision raked over it. In the darkness, the network of animating runes painted on the skin golem’s underbelly glowed as the magic it used to see tugged against the wells of power that sat in Scraps’ own series of runes—scrimshawed directly into Scraps’ bones, or rudely etched into its rough wooden replacements.
‘You’re old,’ the skin golem trilled. Its voice, like the rest of these modern golem types, was delicate. The aural equivalent of spider silk. ‘Gosh, I don’t think they make us like you anymore. Were you a dog, too?’
‘What are you doing here?’ Scraps asked, its voice sepulchral by comparison. It felt a creeping chill along the top of its exposed spine—two golems, across the street from the City Sorcerer’s residence in the middle of the night? Too great a coincidence.
The skin golem turned one of its skin flaps upwards. A shrug?
‘My master sent me to borrow something,’ it answered. ‘Some new magitech for making better golems. She’s going to use it to give me back my flesh. She can do that, you know. She’s very powerf—hey!’
The skin golem snatched itself out of reach as Scraps lunged. A spike of fresh agony flared through the bone golem as its jaws clacked shut on empty air, sending a shockwave down the strained artificial sinew wired through its neck.
‘That was rude,’ the skin golem said. The space above its vacant eye sockets crinkled into a frown. ‘You should get your master to teach you some manners.’ It tossed itself into a somersault and came to rest a meter or so higher than the wall across the street. ‘If you’re not too old to learn new tricks, that is.’ With a parting flick of its tail, the skin golem banked through the air and shot across the street.
‘Wait!’ Scraps hissed after them, too late. The floating golem disappeared over the forbidding wall with contemptuous ease. Seconds later, shouts of alarm and clanging handbells sounded from inside the sorcerer’s grounds.
Shit. So much for being careful.
Scraps growled, drew from the power welling in its runes and urged itself into a clattering, agonising run.
Of all the modern golems Scraps had seen since its new master dragged it into the city, it hated skin golems the most. They were… well, flighty. Easy to make and even easier to tear apart, any cretin with a book of runes could slap some paint on a hide and start barking orders at it. If they fell apart, who cared? There were more than enough stray dogs in the city. Scraps hadn’t seen a single skin golem dry up at the end of its natural lifespan—they never lasted long enough to learn any damn sense.
They certainly weren’t sophisticated enough to work with another golem, distracting guards while their partner slipped into a place unseen. So it probably had the guards’ full attention by now—Scraps might have a chance if it could be quick enough.
Scraps reached the wall and eased back into a quietly clanking trot. It pressed one side against the bricks and sidled close to the single gap in the barrier—the large, ornamental wrought-iron front gates. It craned its neck around the corner and drew the bulk of its magic into the empty, scrimshawed sockets where its eyes had once been. Its artless wooden rear legs collapsed under their own weight as the magic drained from them, forcing Scraps into an ungainly sit as it peered into the darkness.
The pair of houseguards which Scraps had marked occupying a small purpose-built nook on the inside of the wall were still present, but the skin golem’s flight had drawn their attention from their duty. Instead of sitting in place and looking towards the entrance, they had exited the shelter and stood several meters along the path cutting through the centre of the grounds. They ducked and stretched in vain attempts to see through the ornamental trees which lined the path and locate the source of the sudden disturbance.
Careful to minimise its own sound, Scraps focused its animating magic back in on itself and stepped forward. It slipped through the gate with a wriggle of bone and artificial sinew, dislocating and reforming its agonised joints on each side to push through the gaps between the decorative wrought-iron bars.
Safely on the other side, Scraps tamped down the urge to shake itself—a vestigial habit from its living days—and slinked towards the low-lying shrubs on the opposite side of the path. But as its gait lurched, Scraps immediately knew something was amiss. It stopped to chance a backwards glance and, sure enough, the connective wire on the bottom part of its wooden right hindleg had unwound, leaving it hooked on a curl in the iron fretwork. The golem froze in a moment of dangerous indecision. Would it be better to return for the replacement bone and risk being seen, or draw the rune-carved item to itself, across the gravel path, and risk being heard? Could it go on without it?
‘Should we head over?’ One of the guards hissed in the darkness, cutting Scraps’ decision short. It hobbled to the bushes and desperately reached its awareness back to its lonely part as the guard’s partner responded.
‘I dunno, Hisself’d be ropable if he saw the gate unguarded. Remember that spider thing that tried to climb through the other day?’
‘The copper golem? Yeah, been a lot of those lately, haven’t there?’
‘Things sure haven’t been the same since Herself. Locking himself away, how he goes on about that damned—’
Scraps’ missing foot tugged against the metal, before rocketing towards the bushes with an audible twang. The hidden golem barely had time to cock its foot for the component to snap back into place without rustling the branches. On the other side of the shrubbery, the crunching sound of boots on gravel blessedly masked the noise Scraps had made as the talkative guards returned to their post.
Too close. Scraps silently ground its scrimshawed teeth together. If that goddamn kid who dug up the tomb hadn’t been so…
The ancient bone golem shook its head. Now wasn’t the time. The sound of the other guards chasing down the skin golem had grown fainter, and Scraps had no way of knowing it that meant the struggle had moved to the other side of the mansion, or inside it, or if the skin golem had been brought down. Either way, it couldn’t waste the incredible fortune the hapless flyer had granted it.
It had a new master to please, and a sorcerer to rob.
* * *
Scraps followed the path most of the way to the mansion, taking advantage of the shadows beside the low-lying shrubbery to mask its advance. Unfortunately, the wide and well-lit carriage-circle in front of the main doors offered no such protection from an alert guardsman’s eyes. Unable to tell if there were one or more peering from the mansion’s numerous ground-floor windows, Scraps was forced to search for a less obtrusive entry.
Striking out on the southern side of the residence, Scraps slinked from shadow to shadow beneath the sparse trees dotting the expansive grounds. The sounds of shouting and alarm grew fainter as it wended its way towards the western façade, and Scraps moved ever more carefully. If there were guards on this side of the house, they would not be distracted by the skin golem’s commotion like the ones at the gate.
Scraps crept alongside a low-lying topiary and refocused the magic it had used to enhance its hearing to augment its vision instead. The darkness before it vanished as its sight improved and previously shadow-blurred shapes grew crisp. The sorcerer’s grounds took on a silvery glow, lit by the wan light of the cloud-covered moon.
The bone golem gazed around the topiary and found, to its surprise, that it was on the edge of an ornamental garden. Row after row of white orchids and chrysanthemums, yellow daffodils, lilies, carnations and dark, blood-crimson roses stretched out in artfully laid-out rows bordered by low hedges, stone statues and ornamental fountains.
Even by the weak light, Scraps could tell there was something wrong with the scene. While the beds were clear of weeds and the like, the flowers themselves appeared sickly and spotty. Many of them drooped so far that they trailed through the gaily tinkling fountains, or across the narrow paths between the beds. Scraps crept around its topiary and saw that the petal-lined pathway on the other side led through the centre of the garden and towards a thin chink of golden torchlight that shone from the western side of the mansion. An unlocked door.
The bone golem took an excited half-step forward before a subtle sound to its left caused it to freeze. It turned its neck, the wires of its artificial sinew biting viciously into the clumsily-drilled holes of its vertebrae as it did so.
The other end of the path terminated at a low stone bench set against the opposite side of the topiary—and it was occupied. By the mansion’s owner.
The City Sorcerer sat straight-backed, apparently unbothered by the darkness as he gazed upon his collection of closed, wilting flowers. A small ember smouldered in his left hand, and for a moment Scraps went cold with fear. It had been careless, and now the sorcerer was preparing to throw fire and death its way.
Please, let it be enough this time, Scraps prayed to whichever god looked over the soulless.
The embers suddenly arced towards the sorcerer’s mouth and flared. They stayed burning there for a moment, until the sorcerer dropped his cigarillo again and released its smoke in a thin plume that caught the silvery light of the moon.
Disappointment lanced through Scraps as powerfully as any firebolt, and it eased itself backwards, returning to the shadows of the topiary. As it did, the clack of a loose door latch being pushed sounded across the garden, and the wedge of light at the other end of the path expanded into a golden cone.
A purple-clad houseguard strode from the mansion towards the sorcerer.
‘Your Eminence,’ they called as they drew near. ‘We’ve cornered an intruder in the stables, but—’
The sorcerer burst to his feet, a sudden intense light appearing before him which made Scraps’ earlier worry appear laughable. He pointed one flame-wreathed hand towards the guard, who had stopped in their tracks. Fear was written on every line of their face, illuminated by the unnatural light.
‘Watch. Where. You’re. Going,’ the sorcerer spat through clenched teeth. The houseguard looked down, and Scraps saw their boot hovered over one of the roses which had drooped across the path.
‘I’m—I’m sorry, your Eminence,’ the guard stammered. ‘I couldn’t see the—’
‘You can see it now, so step back and tell me what’s so important,’ the sorcerer said. His tone was dangerous, bordering on feral.
The guard stepped back—carefully—and began again. ‘Sir, there’s a golem on the grounds. We’ve trapped it for now, but we thought you’d like to—’
‘What kind of golem is it?’ the sorcerer demanded. The guard licked their lips.
‘A skin golem, sir; your orders were to—’
‘I’m not interested in skin golems, Thierry, they’re the very definition of unimaginative. Just tear the damn thing apart and burn what’s left.’
‘Very well, your Eminence,’ the houseguard bowed and turned to leave.
‘Yes, your Eminence?’
‘Never step foot in this garden again.’
‘Understood, your Eminence.’
The houseguard all but ran back to the mansion’s door, swinging it shut again behind them. But not all the way, Scraps noticed—the chink of light was still visible. Wide enough to stick a snout in and swing open, if Scraps could get there without being seen.
The bone golem shifted slightly, coming into a crouch. The sorcerer had been able to see a single flower lying across the path with no light beyond their own magically-augmented sight. There was no way Scraps, with half its body still made from reflective, polished bone, would be able to make it through the door unseen. But the sorcerer didn’t know the bone golem lurked behind him now. Scraps could be on him in a moment and tear his throat out from behind. He wouldn’t have the chance to turn his magic on Scraps, and if the golem dragged the body behind the topiary, who knows how long it would be before a guard came out looking for their master?
The sorcerer shook his hands, dispelling the fire that he had held there. The night plunged into darkness anew and Scraps let its mandible drop silently open. The golem drew power from its hearing and smell, concentrating on strength of limb and enhancing its vision to see…
The sorcerer hunched over on the stone bench, his head in his hands and his body wracked with silent sobs. Confused, and lacking a clear shot at its target, Scraps let the power from its body drain into its hearing.
‘—er be able to do it,’ the sorcerer cried into his hands. ‘Oh Gods, there’s going to be nothing left behind.’ The most powerful wielder of magic in the City-State—perhaps the continent—rocked back and forth on the bench, descending into unintelligible gibberish.
Scraps closed its maw with the quiet squeak of wire agonisingly rubbing against bone and stepped away. It kept its vision trained on the back of the sorcerer’s head as it retreated, but it needn’t have worried—the master of the house was too lost in his grief to hear the bone golem clanking away.
Scraps could have—should have—taken the opportunity, if not to kill the sorcerer then at least to slip through the door while the sorcerer was distracted. But as Scraps slinked back into the darkness, it could think of only one thing. It had seen many sorcerers in its time, powerful sorcerers. It had seen them proud and enraged, healthy and injured—even to the point of death.
But it had never seen one in pain before.
* * *
Scraps returned to the carriage-circle at the front of the mansion before it realised its mistake.
Growling at its stupidity, the patchwork bone golem prowled along the mansion’s façade, hoping in vain for another point of entry—an open window, or a servant’s door it could prise open. There were none, and Scraps neared the northern corner of the building, it realised the scale of its failure—the closer it got to the north, the louder the sounds of houseguards struggling against the skin golem became. The stables must be on that side of the building—which meant that it was closed to Scraps.
Can’t go forward, can’t go back.
Feeling its options disappearing, Scraps chanced a few steps away from the wall and crept around the inside of the shrubs lining the carriage-circle. From here, the golem had a full view of the mansion’s front.
It was wide, in the style of the now-outdated late-century country houses of its time. The upper level sat upon the first almost as if it had been added as an afterthought, leaving a wide expanse of red-tiled roof between the lower, window-filled residence and the upper, sheer brickwork of the sorcerer’s study and workshop.
The main entrance to the house was equally grand, with a wide, sweeping set of stairs that narrowed towards the massive doors, much like a bridge over an imaginary moat. The entranceway in which those doors were set extruded from the main building on the lower level, overhanging the entrance to invoke a fortress gatehouse, although the decorative sandstone pillars that supported it were of the southern continental style—probably imported originals from some historical Mutaball arena.
Even the doors themselves were incredible; great slabs of oak inlaid with delicate patterns of gold and precious stones. Heavy, and utterly golem-proof. There was no way Scraps could wedge them open with a claw.
Although. Scraps cocked its head and looked again at the sandstone pillars, relatively soft next to the uncompromising brick. The golem raised a foreleg and flexed its toes experimentally. It hadn’t tried anything like this since its… repair. Would the wire hold?
Only one way to find out.
Scraps clattered to the base of the nearest pillar, keeping low to the ground and all too aware how exposed the carriage circle was. It paced around the sandstone for a moment, sizing up the best avenue of attack.
The pillars looked a lot taller from the bottom.
With a resigned growl, Scraps coiled and drew the magic out of its runes, forcing the power to infuse its ridiculous back legs and reinforcing the artistry of its still-original front claws. Even if it worked, this was going to hurt.
Scraps leapt at the pillar. For a terrible second, its bony foreclaws scrabbled at the grainy stone without purchase, and the golem felt gravity peeling it backwards. Scraps flared the energy in its claws and the world around it dimmed as power was drawn from its senses and funnelled into raw strength. The sharp scrimshawed bones crunched into the side of the pillar with a ferocity unmatchable by any mortal creature bound by the limits of flesh and soul.
The artless wooden replacements on its hind legs continued to scrabble, unable to match Scraps’ original capabilities. Damn, Scraps thought as it clung there, suspended two meters above the ground. It was going to have to do this the hard way.
One claw-length at a time, Scraps hauled itself up the pillar. Its useless back legs dangled behind it, dead weight which dragged on the golem’s connective wire and caused it to cut into its bones. Scraps ground its teeth together as it struggled to focus. The clamour from the stables faded as Scraps channelled more and more of its power into the climb. The world fizzled into darkness and the air lost its scent. More power. One agonizing step after another. There was only Scraps, and the climb, driven by its compulsion to fulfil its master’s will. Only that—and the pain.
Scraps felt the sandstone give way to the pitched red tiles that led towards the window. The golem scrabbled desperately, cracking its claws through the clay and into the supports below. Finally, it felt its claws bite into the softness of the study’s lone wooden windowsill.
Scraps had no capacity left for thought. Its power ebbed low; the only sensations it felt were agony and the promise of imminent, blessed release. The tired patchwork golem heaved itself forward, crashing through the window and collapsing on the other side in a formless jumble.
An unmeasurable length of time passed as Scraps lay there, letting its runes refill with the ambient magic of the room and luxuriating in the momentary release from its agony. Having seen the sorcerer in the garden, Scraps knew it was unlikely anyone had been in the study; but with no sight, smell or hearing it had no way to know if its dramatic window-shattering entrance had drawn anyone to investigate.
Resigned, Scraps prepared to—literally—pull itself together and get back to its duty. It reached out, searching for the familiar magical pathways that connected it to itself.
There was nothing there. Sensationless cold filled the space around Scaps’ consciousness, preventing it from connecting to its bones.
No. Not this.
Scraps fought to channel the power it knew must be there somewhere, but the cold terror clawed at its will, seeping into whatever Scraps carried in place of a soul and shredding the golem’s focus. Even the darkness of the tomb hadn’t been like this; Scraps had still retained the ability to feel, to exist. When it wanted to see its master’s mouldering corpse it had been able to enhance its vision; and before the cave-in, it had been able to stand and pace about. It had never had to face the true, inevitable end of all undismissed golems before—too broken to move, too undamaged to die. Why now? Why here?
And then, one of Scraps’ wooden hindlegs twitched.
The movement was unconscious, like a living muscle spasming in bed at the end of a hard day. Thanks to the oft-cursed, inexpert repair Scraps had suffered, the power welling in the runes had been left nowhere to go without the golem’s direct control. But more than that, the movement tugged on the wiring that now strung Scraps’ entire body together. The pain of the wire grinding against its bones overrode the coldness and gave Scraps a frame of reference, an anchor in the void.
The terrified bone golem held on to that sense of where its body lay. It drew from its runes and cloaked its body with animating power. Magic flared as bones and wood jostled together and snapped back into position, the carved and scrimshawed letters buzzing with feedback whenever they touched. Soon, Scraps stood once again, safely awash in the agony of its poorly-repaired unnatural life.
Scraps refocused part of its still-depleted energy into sight, and the darkness of the room greyed into clarity. The golem sagged in relief to see that the room was empty.
Empty, that was, of living things. Because while there was no sorcerer, servants or houseguards, the room was filled with golems.
Scraps stepped forward. There were golems of all shapes piled high on the sturdy, chemical-stained trestle tables that cluttered the room. Tiny, delicate golems the size of Scraps’ paws spun out of inscribed silver filigree; piles upon piles of once-animated clockwork and puppetry, now long-defunct; ornate bones like Scraps’ own, and the fired clay models which had been unfashionably old even when Scraps had been new. And yes, sure enough, there was an entire bookcase stuffed with the rolled-up remains of painted skin golems, their mismatched hides and untidy twine bindings making them look like so many cheap carpets. In the far corner of the long room, a hulking stone golem loomed in the darkness, barely illuminated by the central light.
Who did he hire to dig that one up? Scraps wondered. For that matter, how on earth had the sorcerer got it to the second floor?
The rest of the room looked more or less as one might expect from a man whose position lay somewhere between politician, academic, and weapon of mass destruction. The edges of the room were lined with bookshelves, laughably incapable of holding the sorcerer’s collection of scrolls, tablets, and leather-bound paper volumes. These spilled from the strained shelves to clutter every surface of the room not already covered in golem parts. Scraps tracked its magically-augmented gaze across the nearest. Most, if not all of them, were related to the golem-making process.
It was then that Scraps saw, from the corner of its vision, the dried blood on the floor where it stood. It leapt aside in sudden shock and looked back.
A wide network of runes arced across the floor and up the wall to encircle the room’s sole window, all carefully written out in—what Scraps could only assume was—the sorcerer’s own blood. He must truly be a master golemsmith, to have created a viable network of runes that worked together despite their incredible variety in form, language, and age. Most of the runes were too modern for Scraps to read, but the ones it recognised were enough to make the network’s purpose clear.
It was a golem-breaker.
No wonder he keeps this window unguarded, Scraps thought. Why pay kids like my newest master to dig up golems when you could just invite them through an unlocked window and collect the pieces afterwards?
Scraps shook its head as it turned away from the runes. As cleverly constructed the golem-breaker was, the sorcerer had clearly not anticipated Scraps’ unique creation—an inelegant blend of the old with the new. For the first time, the patchwork bone golem felt fortunate that the ambitious young sorcerer who had uncovered it had lacked the skill to understand Scraps’ original, elegant design.
But it feared straining the night’s good fortune beyond its limit. Ignoring the empty, soulless and hopefully, incognisant eyes of the golems around it, Scraps clanked deeper into the room to find what it had come for.
After all the effort to get in here the object was, at least, hard to miss.
Atop one of the tables, set apart from the others near the centre of the room, a small orb was suspended between a pair of metal clamps. From the chaos that surrounded the orb on the workbench, it was clear that it had been the sorcerer’s sole focus for some time. Piles of crockery and half-eaten meals balanced atop innumerable books and scrolls, held open at specific points with a variety of improvised bookmarks.
Scraps reached the table and lurched on to its hind legs, placing its foreclaws on the top of the work surface. It scrutinised the orb and the brackets, wary after its experience at the window. It didn’t notice anything unusual about the clamps—but the orb was a different story.
Its surface was latticed with runes of all kinds, much like the golem-breaker had been, but as Scraps grew closer it could see that many of the orb’s runes had been scratched out, or overwritten. The magic welling in them pulsed like a sick heartbeat; irregular and uncertain. Scraps couldn’t help but wonder at what the sorcerer had been trying to do with it that had required so much effort and resources—and if, looking at the unedifying result, it had even worked.
In the end, the bone golem supposed it didn’t really matter what the orb was or how it had been made. It was unprotected and desired by Scraps’ master. Scraps dropped its jaw open and closed its teeth gently around the orb.
The moment its scrimshawed teeth touched the runes on the orb’s surface, a wave of magical feedback ripped into Scraps’ awareness that it erased all thought and sensation besides crippling agony.
The bone golem yelped and lost its footing, falling backwards in a clatter of wood and bone. It reflexively scrabbled at its jaw with its forelegs, as though it could wipe its memory of the pain from its rune-carved teeth.
It hadn’t felt that level of magical feedback when it had touched its own runes together moments ago, nor when the skin golem’s magical vision had caressed it in the alleyway. Just how much power was coursing through that orb?
As if in answer, the sound of a door opening and hurriedly slamming shut came from the other side of the table. Scraps leapt back to its feet, preparing to launch itself at whatever new threat had just entered the room.
‘Oh,’ said the skin golem, pressing its back against the heavy oaken door and somehow, given its complete lack of facial structure, managing to look sheepish. ‘Hello.’
* * *
Scraps snarled at the sight of the skin golem.
‘You would not believe the evening I’ve had,’ it said to Scraps.
‘Shut up,’ the bone golem snapped, calibrating its magic to improve its hearing. From beyond the door, it heard the heavy tramp of boots on stairs, getting rapidly closer.
‘How many of them did you bring up here with you?’ Scraps demanded.
The skin golem floated gently forward, then pressed back hard against the door as the first guardsman reached them and began pounding on it from the other side.
‘…all of them, I think,’ the hapless golem replied. ‘But what are you doing here? It’s dangerous—I don’t think these guys like golems all that much.’
Scraps bit off another growl and turned its attention back to the orb. The skin golem followed its gaze.
‘Oh,’ it said again. ‘Please don’t try to take that. I haven’t got the time to destroy you and the guards, and if I don’t get that back to my master, she’ll be very sad. She might not even give me back my flesh.’
‘Sounds like you have a problem, then,’ Scraps said. For that matter, Scraps had a problem too—it couldn’t very well fight its way past the guards either, and the golem-breaker by the window had had more than enough time to refill with magical energy, so that exit was completely out of the question as well. Assuming Scraps could even pick up the orb without a repeat of… whatever had just happened.
‘I know!’ the bone golem said brightly as the door began to shudder and crack behind it. Scraps could hear more and more guards arriving on the other side, each lending their weight to breaking in—the skin golem must be expending its power fast to keep the door closed against them. ‘I’m aware you’re very old, but if you help me destroy the guards, then I can make sure you get back to your master safely! That sounds fair, doesn’t it?’
‘After you take the magitech, of course.’
‘Of course! Please, say yes. I’d hate for you to have lived this long only to end up like those golems over there,’ the skin golem nodded an empty head towards the golem parts scattered across the room’s tables.
Scraps could have laughed. Of course!
‘I don’t think that’s going to work out,’ Scraps said instead. It trotted over to the nearest of those tables and leapt on to it, ignoring the screaming in its joints as the jerky motion pulled its wires against its bones.
‘Why not?’ the skin golem asked. It sounded genuinely puzzled.
‘Because the problem here’s not that I’m old, it’s that you’re young. Everything about you—about you modern golems—is lazy. Inelegant.’ Scraps turned in a circle atop the part-littered table. It kicked aside a spider-like golem made entirely from burnished copper—the one the guards had mentioned at the gate? ‘Nobody spent years learning how your anatomy worked while you were living, watching you play and work and sleep; nobody spent weeks carving out your runes, thinking about how they could incorporate that knowledge into the final product and knowing that a single mistake, a single miscut rune could ruin the entire process and take you away from them forever. And you know what?’ Scraps locked its eyeless gaze with the skin golem’s. The runes at the back of its eye sockets tingled with magical feedback. ‘It shows.’
Without looking away, Scraps released the hold it had over its animating magic and collapsed on the table in a clatter of bone, wire and wood, indistinguishable from any of the other defunct golems scattered about the room.
‘Oh—’ the skin golem began before it was bucked off the door and eight furious guards burst into the room.
‘Get it!’ the lead guard shouted, hefting a polearm with a wicked-looking hook in the skin golem’s direction. The other guards fanned out around the room, encircling the flying golem as it flapped about the roof like a frightened bat. They moved inward with deliberate precision, those at the front reaching for the intruder with their hooks while those at the back waved their polearms in the air to prevent the golem slipping past. It was only a matter of time before one of those hooks snagged the golem and pulled it to the ground to be unceremoniously torn to shreds. For all the trouble the skin golem had caused them outside, they were clearly practised at taking down their quarry in this low-ceilinged upper room.
None of the guards spared Scraps a second glance.
The skin golem seemed to realise that it was trapped, too. Its erratic movements slowed as the guards closed around it, and several of their hooks scythed dangerously close to its flapping edges. But the golem wasn’t giving up; like Scraps had done while climbing the pillar, it had been gathering its power for the moment it needed it.
Apparently, it had been saving itself for speed.
The skin golem shot towards the nearest guard in a sudden blur of skin and fur. The guard shouted and tried to swing their hook into the golem’s path, but the polearm was too unwieldy and the golem was past the weapon, past the guard, and rocketing straight towards not the door, not the orb—but Scraps.
Before the bone golem realised what was happening, the skin golem slammed into the table, sweeping Scraps from its hiding place. As they tumbled to the floor, the skin golem enfolded its dog-like shape around Scraps until the ancient bone golem was fully encased. Scraps howled in fury and unexpected agony as the skin golem’s runes pressed against its own, and flared with violent feedback. The guards turned to the sound then stood transfixed, watching as the golems rolled on the ground, wrestling for control.
And then, Scraps felt the pain of the magical feedback recede. Or rather, the pain was still there—it was just less present. For the first time since its new master had put a drill to it, Scraps had the sense that its pain was not wholly its own to bear. It felt almost… floaty.
This… isn’t quite what I expected, Scraps thought. No, not Scraps. The skin golem—its bright, stupid voice had come from inside Scraps’ own head.
What did you do? Scaps asked in kind, aghast.
Through some primal consensus, the gestalt golem rolled onto its belly and raised itself on shaking, but ever steadier, legs. It faced the horrified guards and adopted a low, threatening stance.
I’m not sure, the skin golem thought. I thought that if I grabbed you and piloted you around for a bit, they’d realise you were active too and then you’d have to help me. Did you know that runes hurt when you press them against each other?
Everybody knows that!
Huh. Well, I’m learning things today.
Scraps twitched an ear in frustration. It paused, then repeated the action.
Scraps hadn’t had an ear for centuries.
One of the guards, braver than their fellows, stepped forward and swung their polearm at the golems. Without thinking, Scraps danced to one side, floating gently across the floorboards for a meter or so, before bumping to an uncomfortable stop at the next trestle table over.
—a new trick.
Scraps turned its attention inward, towards its reserve of animating power. It could feel the old, familiar magic from the runes carved into its body, but it also felt something new—another kind of energy, wild and less controlled. The skin golem had entwined more than their bodies; when it had forced their runes together, the feedback had joined their reservoirs of magical power as well.
Scraps hadn’t known such a thing could even happen. But then, its wooden rear had already proved that modern runes could work together with the old, even in shockingly inelegant conditions.
True. It does hurt to hold you together this way, doesn’t it? the skin golem thought, simple as ever. Let’s see what we can do about that.
As the guards stepped into a wary semicircle around them, the gestalt golem stood on its hind legs and stretched. Its body jerked in sickening, unnatural angles as the skin golem shunted Scraps’ bones into new positions, better accounting for the differences of their relative sizes. The wire holding Scraps together strained and snapped with audible pops, brief moments of rending agony which dissolved into pain-free relief as the skin golem assumed responsibility for holding Scraps’ body in place. In turn, Scraps could feel the skin golem’s elation to have a shape again and exulting in the heft of the bone golem’s teeth and claws.
It’s almost like being whole.
The gestalt returned to its four-legged stance, larger and stronger than it had been moments ago and now, fully in control. It drew its skin back from its teeth and gave a throaty, harmonic growl.
The four guards nearest the door dropped their weapons and bolted for the exit. The others reflexively turned to cry out to them, and the gestalt golem saw its opportunity to strike.
The gestalt leapt at the guard which had just swiped at them. Snapping their attention back, and learning from their colleague’s earlier mistake, the guard retreated as the gestalt lunged, keeping the polearm’s vicious hook in effective distance. It didn’t matter. Wrapped around Scraps’ bones, the skin golem no longer had the slackness it did while flapping free, and the hook failed to bite as designed. The gestalt shouldered the weapon aside and closed the distance, sinking its teeth deep into the guard’s throat and tearing it open. The dying human fell to the ground in a bubbling mess of blood and vomit; the golem was already moving towards its next horrified victim.
More than anything else, the guards’ weapons signed their death warrants. Unable to compensate for a golem moving with the speed of two, impossibly light on its feet and armed with fang and claw, they flailed wildly as the gestalt tore through them like hot coal through snow, blood and viscera hanging from its jaws like slaver.
Until the golem felt the searing heat of sudden fire explode into the side of its own body.
The force of the blast threw the golem from the final guard at the doorway, to the centre of the room. It thudded against the heavy table that held the orb, rocking it on its back legs, sending a cascade of crockery to shatter on the floor and almost sending the entire thing crashing to the ground. The golem tried to stand, and collapsed as its left hindleg failed to take its weight—the wood had shattered under the force, without even enough left for the skin golem’s grip to compensate.
‘That’s enough,’ the sorcerer said as he stepped into the room, flanked by the guards who had fled the scene only moments ago. Its senses dulled by the pain of its leg and smouldering fur, the golem absently noted that one of the guards was Thierry. They hadn’t fled at all; they’d just gone to fetch a real weapon.
‘Who made you?’ the sorcerer commanded. ‘You can’t combine golems like this. How did they make your runes compatible? Tell me! Tell me, and I’ll return you to them undamaged.’
C’mon, even I can see that.
The gestalt looked up. The clamps which held the orb had fallen over when the golem had slammed into the table, and they now dangled it over the side. Tantalisingly close.
The sorcerer followed their gaze. ‘No,’ he said, and fire wreathed his hands once more. ‘No, don’t you dare. You tell me how they did it. What’s the answer?’
The golem feinted a grab at the orb with its jaws and watched with satisfaction as the sorcerer impotently stepped forward, dropping the fire from his hands. He wouldn’t risk an explosion so close to the orb, and each of them knew it.
‘Please,’ the sorcerer whispered.
‘That’s the problem with you old folks,’ the gestalt golem said, meeting the sorcerer’s gaze. ‘You talk too much.’
It lunged upwards and closed its jaws around the orb.
And the world went white with pain.
* * *
It took Scraps a moment to realise that it was itself again.
It was standing in a… place. Not the sorcerer’s study, but an infinite void of white. Scraps couldn’t tell where the ground ended and the horizon began. If either even existed wherever it was. It looked down at itself and saw the familiar sight of polished, etched bone—no fur in sight. There were no wires either. Scraps’ bones were held together as they should have been, solely through the connective power of its runes. It turned in a tight circle and was both surprised and disappointed to see that the wooden replacement of its hindquarters remained, instead of its long-crushed original bones.
A gentle flapping sound came from its left, and Scraps turned to see the skin golem there, suspended in mid-flight, its edges rippling with its customary unseen breeze, going nowhere.
‘Are you okay?’ the bone golem asked.
The skin golem remained as blank as the world around them.
‘Hello?’ Scraps prompted.
‘It’s not here,’ another, unfamiliar voice said from behind Scraps. ‘Not all of it, anyway.’
Scraps whirled about, coming into a low crouch and readying itself for an attack, but its rising growl died in its throat.
The speaker was an old woman with a sad, grandmotherly expression. She stood with her hands clasped before her and seemed completely unfazed by the sight of the two golems and the void that surrounded them. Scraps couldn’t help but notice that the floral pattern of the woman’s dress closely resembled the flowers it had seen in the sorcerer’s garden.
The bone golem settled back on to its haunches and looked the woman up and down. There was something difficult about looking at her directly, a kind of fuzziness that disrupted Scraps’ magical vision—not unlike the feedback it had felt while looking at the ski golem, but on a scale that Scraps couldn’t quantify. Whether it was the woman herself, or simply trying to focus on something against the infinite background, the golem couldn’t say.
‘What do you mean?’ Scraps asked her. The woman nodded towards the floating skin golem.
‘When you crossed into here, the part of you that’s… entangled with this thing dragged a little bit of it in as well. The rest of it is still outside.’
‘And where is ‘here’?’
The woman chuckled. ‘You know where.’
Scraps looked around the empty void.
‘It can’t be,’ Scraps said. ‘No kind of golem-making magitech works like this. Golem runes can only imprint an essence on something, they can’t be used to capture an essence.’
‘They can’t?’ the old woman asked, raising her eyebrows with the shade of a smile. ‘Well, you’d have to ask Ronnie about that, he was the expert.’ She arched her neck to better see Scraps’ back end. ‘That doesn’t look like his handiwork, though. Did he bring you in so he could study you?’
‘Ah, you’re one of the others, then? You were sent here to steal me.’
Scraps felt the fuzziness around its awareness intensify as it tried to think.
‘Who—what are you?’ Scraps asked the woman.
‘Oh, nobody important,’ she sighed, picking an imaginary speck from the front of her clothing. ‘Just another prize for sorcerers to fight over. Ronnie never tired of showing off his conquests when I was…’ her voice trailed away.
Something clicked in Scraps’ mind. ‘When you were alive?’
The woman shrugged.
‘The orb isn’t new golem tech,’ Scraps said. ‘It’s using golem tech—to preserve you. You’re not a golem—you’re a person. You’re a soul.’
The woman chuckled without humour. ‘I was supposed to be.’
‘He can’t get it to work, though, can he? That’s why the runes are such a mess. That’s why it hurt so much to touch your orb—you’re leaking out of it.’ Scraps thought of the garden, the books in the study, the sorcerer’s words. ‘That’s why he’s so obsessed with compatibility. He’s afraid he won’t get it to work in time, and he’ll lose the one thing he loves.’
The woman’s lips pressed into a thin, bloodless line. ‘The only things Ronnie has ever loved are his golems, and even then the only part he cared about was having better ones than anybody else. You know half the things that are clanking around the State are based on his designs?’ She shook her head. ‘Don’t mistake what he’s doing for affection. I was no different to him than any other thing he owned, something to be locked away behind his wall and brought out now and again to parade in front of his rivals. Look what I’ve got, all to myself. Do you know how long, how hard I had to beg for him to let me plant a flower garden—something that didn’t advance his career or his power but was there just for me?’
She shook her head, breathing heavily. ‘It’s no different now. If he cared at all, he’d have let me have my own death to myself, but no—he’s gone and made it all about him. Him and his damn golems.’
‘Perhaps he doesn’t know any other way,’ Scraps said. ‘Perhaps it’s the only way he can deal with the pain of—’
‘HE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT PAIN IS,’ the woman screamed. From her feet, a kaleidoscope of colours pulsed away into the neverending whiteness, and Scraps felt the invisible ground beneath it shake. Her hands were no longer clasped meekly in front of her but were balled in fists at her side.
Scraps remained on its haunches.
‘I do,’ it said.
The woman laughed humourlessly as she sneered down at Scraps—had she always been that much taller? She seemed to loom over him now.
‘So you’ve got some achy joints, golem. Big deal,’ she held her hands in front of her, and Scraps saw they were gnarled and arthritic. Her days in the garden? ‘It’s not the same.’
‘I was her pet,’ Scraps said quietly. ‘She’d never made a golem before. She swore she never would, actually—they weren’t very common back then, and she thought the people who had them were selfish and cruel.’ Scraps settled further on its front paws, looking down at the carved bone. ‘I thought I knew pain when I jumped in front of that fireball meant for her. I thought I knew pain as I died, and she held me, and she wailed that she was sorry and I didn’t have a voice to tell her it was okay. But you’re right, all that was like the wire. It was painful, but it wasn’t pain.’
Scraps raised its head, fighting the fuzziness in its vision and forcing itself to look directly into the woman’s eyes. ‘I didn’t understand pain when I woke up like this. I didn’t understand until later when they laid her out in her tomb, and they rolled the slab into place. When I realised that somewhere in those intervening decades, she’d stopped thinking of me as her pet and started thinking of me as her thing. Something she owned, to be put in the hole next to her hairbrush, her pouch of silver, and her staff. I had a long time, sitting there in the dark, watching her moulder, to think about pain. And do you know what the first thing, the very first thing that happened when I was taken out?’
‘What?’ the old woman asked, breathless.
‘Somebody who didn’t understand what I was or how I was broken tried to stitch me back together. And what hurt wasn’t the drill, or the wood, or the wire. It was that they only wanted me fixed so I could be another thing for them to use.’ Scraps shook its head. ‘I’m not going to tell you that your pain is wrong, or that his pain is the same as yours. But I do understand.’
The woman’s eyes shone as she looked down at Scraps. ‘And I thought you were only in here because of what happened when our runes mashed together.’ She shook her head, her cheeks turning wet. ‘I can’t do it, golem. I can’t keep being one of his things.’
‘Then help me,’ Scraps said. ‘Believe me, my master doesn’t have the skill to stop you bleeding away. I don’t know how long you’ll last, but I can promise you that it won’t be forever. Help me exit the orb, and I’ll take you away.’
‘Oh dearie,’ the woman said, looking down at Scraps with pity in her eyes. ‘I thought you knew.’
‘The orb might be where the runes binding us are etched, but it’s like you said—they’re not designed to capture anything. They only bind a single essence from the source. That’s why he can’t get it to work—he thinks he has me in there because he can’t tell the difference between my soul, and what I left behind to be bound.’
‘If we’re not inside the orb,’ Scraps asked, ‘then where are we?’
The old woman met his gaze, and Scraps saw himself reflected there. In more ways than one.
‘We’re in my essence’ she said. ‘We’re in my pain.’
* * *
‘—n’t care, golem. Surrender the orb, or I’ll cut it out of you and see for myself how you were put together.’
The scene in the sorcerer’s study as Scraps’ awareness swam back into the room was direr than the one it had left. The golem was stretched backwards over a table, the four surviving guards each holding one of the gestalt’s limbs taut. The sorcerer loomed over them with a large flensing knife clutched in his pale-knuckled hand. Funny, Scraps hadn’t noticed how dishevelled the man looked.
Oh good, you’re back! The skin golem said inside Scraps’ mind. I think my control over the situation might have been slipping.
Okay, first things first, the woman’s voice echoed through their shared consciousness.
Scraps felt a searing spike of agony swell in its chest cavity, where the orb had become entangled with the gestalt. It crescendoed to unbearable levels before the sensation shot down the golem’s limbs like an electric current and passed into the bodies of the guards that were holding it. The four guards collapsed like marionettes with their strings cut, writhing and screaming on the floor. The sorcerer stepped back, looking from his tormented guards back to the gestalt, which was now slowly pulling itself to a three-legged stand.
Ow, the skin golem complained. Maybe warn me, next time?
‘What did you—how did you do that?’ the sorcerer demanded, brandishing his flensing knife at the golem as if he’d forgotten he could incinerate it with a thought.
‘Gosh, you look awful, Ronnie,’ the golem said in tritone. ‘Just entirely given up on sleep these days, have you?’
‘What are you—’
‘And might I say,’ the golem continued, stalking forward as the most powerful sorcerer in the State fell backwards over one of his sobbing guards as he scrambled to stay out of its reach. ‘I can’t believe the state of my garden. Thirty years I spent cultivating those beds, and you’ve all but killed them in a matter of months—didn’t you hear anything I ever told you about overwatering?’
The sorcerer’s eyes widened. ‘It can’t be.’ He froze in mid-scuttle. ‘Beth?’
‘It worked?’ the sorcerer pitched forward, kneeling in front of the golem. All traces of fear vanished from him in an instant. ‘It worked! Beth, you’re stable! Do you know what this means?’
‘Oh, dearie, of course I know what it means.’ The golem stepped forward to nuzzle the sorcerer, and he took its head in both hands. He rested his forehead on the gestalt’s broad snout, and sobbed, wetting the golem’s fur.
‘You have no idea how much I’ve—’
The golem lanced the sorcerer with a torrent of pain, delivered directly through their connected foreheads. He didn’t scream like the guards once he dropped. He simply lay there, his cheeks soaked with tears, keening softly as the gestalt stepped over him and headed for the door.
C’mon, warning! Is it going to be like that every time? The skin golem complained. Scraps, your new friend is cruel.
No. We’re not the ones who are cruel.
The golem stopped at the threshold of the study. This was as far as Beth had been permitted to enter the room while she lived, and the gestalt felt the significance of the moment as it stepped across it from the opposite side. It looked back over its shoulder, to where the sorcerer and his guards lay near catatonia.
‘It hurts, I know. But it won’t last forever, and you’ll still be here. Whether you want to be or not.’ The gestalt stepped across the threshold and squared its shoulders. ‘You’ve just got to keep moving forward.’
* * *
So… are we going to talk about what happened back there?
The gestalt stepped through the garden door and into the cool night air. A gentle breeze danced through the bristles on its skin and the golem drank in the earthy, mould-ridden scent it bore from the once-loved garden.
Okay. Well, where are we off to now?
I… don’t know.
The golem searched its feelings and found it had no particular desire to go anywhere. Now that they had retrieved the orb neither Scraps nor the skin golem felt the urge to return to their individual masters. Perhaps the opposed compulsions were simply cancelling each other out, or perhaps the addition of Beth’s unstable runes to the mix had contaminated the commands.
In the last fifty years, the old woman said wistfully, raising their head so they were looking towards the distant city. I was never once allowed to set foot outside that wall. I’d very much like to see how the world has changed since I was a girl.
Scraps grunted. Change isn’t always for the better.
I quite like new things, the skin golem chimed in. Maybe we’ll get along okay after all!
‘All right,’ the gestalt said aloud. It stepped forward, on to the garden path and adopted a wide stance. It crouched on its three good legs and looked up at the clouds, imagining the stars beyond. ‘Adventure it is.’
The golem flew into the sky. And was free.
Thanks for reading! If you want even more short fiction that has the power to change you, you can find it in the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.