The stone lizard towered above my beautiful world, sweeping trees aside with the thrash of its tail. Its skin was a cracked mass of stones, joined together into a rough mosaic, its tusks long curves of razor-sharp flint. Its mouth unhinged along three lines, splitting open.
I had made some horrors in my time. I was full of pride in Aurum, in Argent, in Adamant. But that—
That was a goddamned monster. Its roars shook the world.
I had no choice. I had to flee, even if every facet of my body screamed in pain at the thought of returning to a higher level.
Argent didn’t need to be told twice. She ran for the stairs, my Core clutched in her jaws. A hound leapt to stop us, but the Arachne smashed it aside, rippings it flanks open with a nacre-claw. Behind us, the golems engaged in a furious fight to hold back the stone-hounds.
We made it up the steps and they were still fighting, surrounded now, the hounds slipping around them and preventing them from retreating. Adamant swept out with his fists but they were on to him now, waiting out his transformation to steel and lunging when he was weak. The faun alone had the agility to escape but stood behind his brothers. The lion was wounded, limping, but fighting hard.
The stone lizard moved faster than I would have thought possible. It simply stepped over the gaps in the island, its trifold mouth parting in anticipation. A yellow steam escaped.
Argent was afraid, not for herself but for her brothers. I felt the panic in her chest but couldn’t reach out to help her. I couldn’t do anything.
I was a creature of Mana, and the Mana at a lower floor was a magnitude more dense and concentrated than the floor above. The deep earth seemed to breathe the stuff, the world’s exhalation. Rising now, back to a lower density, was akin to starving myself, to depriving lungs of oxygen, veins of blood.
It hurt hurt hurt hurt hurt
HURT HURT HURT
I only realized what I was doing when Argent dropped me from her jaws, cringing back. I was unleashing my pain through my connection to my minions, spreading infectious agony into their minds. I sealed the link between us. My world darkened of the bright, vivid senses of my creations, leaving only the dispassionate eye of the Dungeon.
And I saw we weren’t going to make it.
Not all of us.
The faun had pierced a hole in the enemy’s encirclement and the lion was retreating through, but it was Adamant who held the hounds back for them to escape. They tore into him and he retaliated with tireless strength.
But the shadow of the stone lizard, that awful draconic thing, loomed over him. It smashed him to the earth with a single swipe of its claw.
He began to reform, and infuriated, the giant elemental craned its head down, mouth yawning open like a flower of stone to let smoking yellow mist pour over the earth.
Adamant had just rebuilt himself when the stone lizard struck the spark with his flint tusks.
And fire bloomed. He was lost in a burning sea, but I saw. I saw everything. I was half-crazed with pain and I was trapped in watching that moment. It happened very fast and felt very slow.
I watched as his shadow warped and distorted, a black man-shaped blot in the furious red of the fire. I watched it shrink, eroding away at the edges. And I watched it break into a hundred pieces that turned to ash in the fiery wind.
He had come back before. We had rebuilt him before.
But I saw the gem that was his heart shatter in the flames.
On the day the little golem was forged, its creator - its greater self - made it a coracle-boat of bark, and communicated that it should not return. There were few things a golem was meant to do. Obey, serve, follow. But not question. Never question.
Adamant was a golem who questioned. It made him less a golem, and more… something else.
It bent him out of the shape his Maker had chosen for him, and that was bad.
So he took his un-golem thoughts and cut them away from the whole, molded them into a shape that could contain them. There were two then. One who could serve without question, and one who could question without purpose.
One who would remain and one who would go.
As the little golem set out on its little boat, paddling across the dark water, it was already full of questions. It had a naive view that saw the beauty of the world. Everything gleamed with the promise of mystery, every pattern was tantalizing and meaningful. Even the bronze scales shining under the green water as the reelfish surfaced to capsize his little ship were beautiful and terrible.
He fell to the riverbottom and trekked through the mud. Thin black strands of algae like angel's hair wavered in the currents.
When he at last climbed out of the lake, he was among humans, and humanity was not beautiful. So much noise, so many sights barraged the little golem that he hid in an overturned barrel and waited for night, when things became calmer.
When he ventured out again, he found a small child - although a giant to him - prodding at beetles with a stick. The boy looked at the little man of clay, eyes going wide, and then lunged forward. Beetles were trampled as the child chased after him, clapping his hands together to try and catch the mysterious living toy between them.
The little golem fled back to his nest.
He sheltered there as rain pattered down overhead through the day, threatening to turn his clay flesh soft again so he left pieces of himself behind as he walked. He sat hugging his knees while cold fat raindrops exploded like artillery shells against the muddy earth outside.
The next time he explored beyond his den, he met a shabby, scarred tomcat. The next hour was him trying frantically to escape as the cat battered him from one paw to the next, letting him almost flee before swatting him down and dragging him back.
When he was finally allowed to stagger away, one of his arms was missing.
He spent the night shaping earth to replace it, drawing on his tiny reserve of Mana, barely a spark, to twist and bend the mud into a new arm.
The next day, the men in shining armor arrived. The sun danced on their breastplates and helmets as they rode through the camp on huge, snorting warhorses covered by banded armor, polished up as bright as gold.
The little golem was star-struck.
He leapt aboard and clung to a stirrup as the men rode on, turning back towards the city whose houses loomed like a cluster of smoking, ominous mountains.
Streets, people, sights and sounds whipped past too fast to see. The horse kicked and bounced and the world went up and down until the little golem, clinging on, began to feel dizzy.
When they finally stopped it was in a stable. The little golem dropped into a deep pile of hay and buried itself as the human rider dismounted, and other humans rushed forward to tend to the horse. It stayed hidden for a long time until the stable was dark, quiet, the only movement that of the horses stomping in their stalls.
And then the golem heard a wonderful noise.
His oldest 'memory' was of the song of hammers ringing against metal. Now, he had found that song again.
Letting it guide him, he crept to the edge of the stable door and peeked out, seeing the warmth of a roaring red fire pouring from a nearby building. Avoiding the open doors, through which heat poured and made the air sear and wriggle in mirages, he scaled up a drainpipe to a high window, wiggling his body through the slats to step out onto a rafter beam. Rats scuttled in the dark, and squawking pigeons raised their wings to cast fearsome shadows.
The little golem ignored them.
From the rafters he watched as they stoked the furnaces higher and higher, before lifting out an earthenware cup with long-handled tongs. They poured out a blazing froth of white-scummed molten metal into a clay mold, and it slowly filled out into the shape of a blade. Hissing smoke rose all the way to the rafters and poured past the little golem in swirling corkscrew trails.
They let the blade smolder down to an orange ember before lifting it out, carefully, carefully, laying the glowing half-formed blade atop an anvil. Blow after blow rained against the soft metal, sparks billowing up under each ringing fall of the hammer as the sword was beaten into sharpness.
The golem couldn't have been more entranced. It understood, instinctively knew, the reason behind every movement. The world had proven to be a confusing and terrifying place, but this much the golem understood.
They forged for hours, sweat dripping from their faces. There were three, an old dwarf and two young humans who fetched things and watched over his shoulders.
And when they left, he crept down from the rafters to examine their tools. They were sized for hands far larger than the little golem. The forge itself could have been a house for the tiny man of clay. This would be difficult.
But he was determined.