Sometimes, life was generous with its coincidences.
Alex had thought that before: there were times where he’d go through months of everything proceeding as normal and uneventful.
Then, for a period of time, there would be instance upon instance of coincidences.
He remembered a particular week in his life when he was sixteen and it had seemed like everything had become interconnected. He had been wondering about a historical event one morning, only to find that it was the subject being talked about at school. The Lu family had mentioned missing their relatives in the Rhinean Empire and then received a letter from them the very next morning. Individuals who he hadn’t thought about or seen for a long time would appear at the bakery. He remembered wondering what the new Thameland gold coins would look like then finding one on the ground on his way through town. And there were lots of other incidents.
Those occurrences had been so unusual, that he’d spent a lot of time half-convinced that Uldar was trying to tell him something through his ‘mysterious ways’. Of course, Uldar would eventually reach for him—in a much less desirable way—while the earlier coincidences were just that:
Which was why he was surprised, but not completely freaked out when the sky-gondolier he and Theresa had gotten had turned out to be none other than Lucia.
“Welcome to Generasi Sky-Gondolas, I’m Lucia, your gondolier,” she said as they froze in surprise to see her. “Please show me your booking tokens and place them in the box at the end of the sky-pier.”
He showed her three wooden tokens—for him, Theresa and Brutus—and slipped them into the wooden box.
“Enter the gondola one at a time, please remain seated and don’t push on the wind-and-rain shield.” She gave them a glance as she rested against the sky-gondola’s pole. “Where’re you headed?”
“To Shale’s Golem Workshop,” Alex said, double checking the city map.
“We, um, we meet again.” Theresa said as she climbed into the floating boat and coaxed Brutus in.
“We do?” Lucia seemed to be fighting a yawn. “I’ve got a lot of customers. Wait, cerberus. I remember you now. Welcome back to Generasi Sky-Gondolas.” Her voice had a deadened quality to it as though she had repeated the greeting more times than Alex could count.
Likely, she probably had.
She tapped her pole against the side of the gondola and set them off through the city. Silence descended on the gondola as it left the campus. Lucia did not look back once.
“Hey,” Alex cleared his throat. “I, uh, am kind of glad that we got you for our sky-gondolier again.”
“Please note that it is against Generasi Sky-Gondola policy to engage in fraternization with or attempt to start personal relationships with sky-gondoliers while you are using our service,” she rattled off the policy as easily as if she were telling someone her own name.
“What? No! No!” Alex waved his hand. “No, I just wanted to apologize!”
“There’s no need. Generasi Sky-Gondolas puts the client’s comfort first in all situations that do not involve destruction of Generasi Sky-Gondolas’ property, or direct verbal of physical assault of its workers.”
“No, I mean…look, I don’t know if you remember, but you told us that you used to be a student at the university and uh…” He scratched the back of his head. “I was kind of rude about that and your decision…” He struggled for words.
“To drop out?” she raised an eyebrow. “I remember this now.”
“No, uh, I was going to say ummm, ‘decided to leave’?”
“Why? I dropped out. That’s what I did and that’s what people call it: playing with words won’t change that.”
“Uh, right…” he coughed, looking at Theresa for help.
For some reason, the brave young huntress seemed to have become absolutely fascinated with the few clouds drifting through the blue, sunny sky. She wasn’t even paying attention to the pair of flying ships that were above them.
He was on his own.
“Well, my words were pretty harsh, from the way I look at it. You made a decision that affected your life based on your own experiences: it wasn’t right to judge that and throw words at you while you’re just trying to do your job. It wasn’t my business. So I just wanted to apologize for that.”
The sky-gondolier looked past him. “We’re almost there. Look.”
He turned and saw a squat building spreading half a block in width. It looked like a fortress, with heavy stone walls and a roof made of slate. It bristled with chimneys like a hedgehog, which belched lines of smoke into the air. He could smell hot iron, fire upon stone and what smelled like burning soil.
They were all acrid scents that hit all the way to the back of the throat.
Brutus whined and sneezed at the odors, and Theresa pet one of his heads while Alex idly reached to pet one of his other ones. The head turned to look at him for a long moment, but didn’t pull away or growl when his hand stroked its fur.
Even if things had been rocky at some points, Brutus and he had gotten a lot closer since their trials in the Cave of the Traveller.
Now, Alex kept patience in mind, just as Theresa had suggested.
The sky-gondola pulled into a nearby sky-pier down the street from the golem workshop. Luckily, the district was near enough to the university that there was a very low chance of priests lurking around the surrounding area.
Despite what Carey London would have preferred.
“I’ll take my fee now.” Lucia held out her hand. “And about your apology. If saying that makes you feel better, then good for you. I hope your experience there is better than mine. For what it’s worth, thanks, I guess.”
Alex, Theresa and Brutus watched the sky-gondola rise above the roofs, bearing a new load of passengers.
“That was so awkward that I just wanted to jump out of the boat,” Theresa muttered as she watched it go. “But, I think it was the right thing that you did. What made you do it?”
“I dunno,” he admitted. “After Baelin’s test, what happened at The Cells and what you said happened at Life Enforcement, it kinda hit me that…this isn’t for everyone, as excited as I am for it. Plus like, I’m the last person that should be trying to tell someone else how to live their lives.”
“Well, good for you,” Theresa smiled. “Though I think she’s the kind of person that’d probably prefer good tips to good words.”
He sighed. “That’ll be after one of us finds some work. Or both.”
“Yeah.” She frowned in frustration. “I keep looking around but…there’s not a lot of need on campus for hunters that kind of know how running an inn works. Especially in this place: the benches move, the ships fly…I wouldn’t be surprised if the inns wander.”
“Hah,” he chuckled. “That’d be a neat job: ‘inn driver’.”
“I’m pretty sure that would be Selina’s dream life…” she paused in thought. “And, heck, even I might be more interested in taking over the family business if our inn could move.”
“I think your brothers would have something to say about that. Pretty sure you’re far down the list for ‘inheriting the inn’.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I could duel them for it.”
“I don’t think that’d work under Thameland’s legal system.”
“Probably a good thing too, now that I think about it.” She glanced toward the sign hanging in front of the golem workshop: a symbol of a hammer above some sort of glowing pyramid-shaped object. The paint used for the object actually shed a low degree of light, and surrounding both it and the hammer, were four figures: one grey like stone, one grey and shiny like metal, one brown like clay, and one covered in stitch designs. “So a…golem is like that big clay man-figure we saw when we first came to the city? And they’re built here?”
“Yeah, from what I’ve read, they make custom golems for people with a lot of coin—and I do mean a lot of coin—and they also rent out space and supplies for wizards to make their own. Apparently, they don’t only do tours for small groups like ours, they also do them for school groups, tourists, pretty much anybody who’s interested in learning about them.”
“it’s too bad Selina’s class had that outing today.” Theresa said. “She’d love it.”
“Hey, they went to tour the countryside on one of those flying ships, so—if anything—I’m jealous of her. Besides, it’s not like this is ‘The Wandering Workshop’. It’ll be here for her another time.”
The interior of the workshop was hot.
The front desk and waiting area were situated on the corner of the building and farthest away from the working areas, but it was stillfilled with an insane amount of heat. Unlike the rest of the building, this space had a lot of windows on an outer wall, and the breeze they provided was welcome relief.
It didn’t seem quite as hot as the Barrens had been.
“What can I do you fo-” a young, shaven-headed man looked up from the front counter, where he was using a strange pen-like device to etch symbols into a clay tablet. “Hey, is that beast house-trained?”
Brutus gave him a hard look with all six eyes.
“He is,” Theresa said almost in the same dead tone as Lucia.
‘She should start charging for every time someone asked her that,’ Alex thought. ‘She might end up with a tidy sum of coin.’
It was a good thing that familiars and tamed beasts were so common in the city, or poor Brutus might have been less than welcome in many places he’d been allowed into.
“Good, then welcome to Shale’s, what can I do ya for?”
“I heard there were tours?” Alex asked. “Held around lunch?”
“You heard right. The dog will have to stay in the waiting room here. It’s five copper coins for each adult. No food or drinks allowed, and you’ll both need to wear a mask.”
“Mask?” Theresa asked.
“Fumes from stone, steel, flesh-warping and clay just to name some of the materials,” he said. “Not good for the lungs. Trust me, you’ll be better off with a mask, even if it does get hot.”
The masks were black, full-face coverings with a long beaked nose and two raised eye holes made of metal and glass. They had a strap that wrapped around the back of the head to keep them in place, and they made the wearer look like a strange, leather-beaked raven. Within each mask, a spell had been cast that continually provided freshly cleaned air.
After Alex and Theresa slipped the odd-looking masks on and burst out laughing when they looked at each other, Theresa coaxed Brutus to ‘lie down and stay’ in a designated area of the waiting room. Alex began making cawing sounds behind her as they made their way to the opposite end of the waiting area and through a set of iron-shod doors. He only stopped when they met up with another group of tourists.
Their guide was a short, grey-skinned man whose mask had been painted to look like a long-snouted dragon’s face.
“Welcome to Shale’s Guided Tour,” he said with a surprisingly deep voice for one so slight. “I’m Sim Shale, son of Toraka Shale—my mother—who owns the shop. Some of you might be coming here to peek out of curiosity, and some of you might be looking forward to starting a business relationship with the shop. Doesn’t matter who you are, everyone’s welcome, and at any time you can ask any question you’d like: there’s no such thing as a stupid question in Shale’s, unless it’s: ‘do you work for free?’.”
Some of the crowd chuckled.
“Alright, touring folks, if you’ll please follow me up the stairs in the hall, we’ll take the catwalk above the main work area.”
They followed Sim into a catwalk above an area full of marvels. At this point, even the Barrens’ heat seemed calm by comparison and—to Alex—it felt like he’d just walked into a blacksmith’s shop during preparations for a rush order.
The area below the catwalk was filled with ovens, vats and kilns all of enormous size. Materials of varying types were fed in like each of them was a hungry, fire-belching giant.
Shimmering black buckets full of molten metal, lava or other materials were being removed from the oven by way of immense, high-powered forcedisk spells, and then transported to smaller, closed workshops that were built along one of the walls. While much of the work floor was dominated by this fiery process, there was a section where clay was being transported by the barrel-load to other workshops.
“Here on the floor, you can see all the raw matter being made for golem bodies,” Sim boomed over the loud ruckus from work and workers below. “They’ll be taken into the back workshops, where they’ll be shaped through a mix of spellcraft, good hard elbow grease, and old-fashioned skill.”
“How many are you currently working on?” an older man near the front asked.
“All this?” Sim gestured below “That’s just ten of them, and each one will be shipped throughout the world. We’ve got some for distant wizards, princesses, overlords and even a king. Especially the ones that use higher end materials: they’re worth more than most folks’ll see in a lifetime.”
“And what of the cores? Are the cores made here in the workshop?” a woman asked.
“Oh no no no, they’re not suited for heat like hell, clay dust, and iron fumes,” Sim said. “That work’s a lot more delicate, and it’s where we’ll be going next.”
The sweating tour swept through the catwalk and made their way to an upper floor of the complex. Within a hall—that was sweltering, though marginally less than the main floor—were three reinforced doors. Sim glanced at each before knocking on the middle one.
A slot at eye level cracked open and a quick conversation passed between the guide and the room’s occupant. Then Sim turned back to the group, his ‘dragon mask’ bobbing.
“So we ain’t completely lucky: one of the cores is close to completion and I thought we miiight be in time for the final stage, but at least you’ll be able to see the shaping process. Only two of you at a time now, the room’s not the biggest.
He stood aside.
Two by two the tour group entered the workshop and—as Alex and Theresa’s turn drew closer, his excitement grew like a child’s on Sigmus Eve. At last, it was time for them to enter.
The workshop was large, and filled with multiple devices—many of which Alex did not recognize. Some he did, though: what was clearly a waste mana container stood at the side of a work table, connected to a large symbol encrusted cauldron by a mana vacuum.
The artisan over the cauldron stirred the mixture using a mana conductor, and the raw liquid glowed with a soothing teal light.
It was beautiful. Alex couldn’t tear his eyes away from the glowing liquid that would soon become a golem core. He watched its light, he felt…its…
Still in its raw state, the liquid leaked much of its mana into the air, and he could feel it permeating the space around him. It felt…familiar. It didn't emit a squirming feeling.
It didn’t feel antagonistic, and it felt alive in a way that he’d encountered already.
He’d felt such a mana before.
When his mana had come in contact with the dungeon core.