The mood in Generasi City was a strange one: excited, sombre and tense all at once.
The excitement came from the upcoming Festival of Ghosts. Now that it was only a few days away, the entire city seemed to have transformed in preparation for it. In addition to the wreaths, the buildings were now brimming with various decorations.
Ones that were kind of spooky, in Alex’s opinion.
Fake cobwebs—crafted from simple spells—draped between houses and shops like macabre clotheslines. Hanging from them were illusions of giant, black spiders with images of white skulls designed on their chests. Skeletons carved from wood—some of which looked decidedly real—were perched on porches of houses and businesses, and some buildings even had summoned-imps flitting about the tops of the buildings and making spooky noises at passersby.
The bakery across the street from Shale’s didn’t have any decorations on it, but was getting so rundown that it looked like a haunted house anyway.
It seemed that there was a mask merchant on nearly every street corner with large packs on carts filled with frightening life-like masks. The vendors even wore masks themselves which were enchanted to move as their expressions changed or as they spoke.
But while there was a festive atmosphere—similar to that in Alric during Sigmus time—there was also a sombre undercurrent. Some people didn’t take part in hanging spooky decorations or enjoying the cheer, instead, they were solemn, wearing clothing of all black or all white and moving like attendees of a funeral.
Beneath even that was an air of tension.
The mana vampire attacks had not stopped in the city and—between that and the demonic attack on campus—the city guard was on high alert. While every street corner had a mask merchant hawking their wares, every block had a patrol of hard-eyed guards with weapons close at hand. Despite the persistent attacks, there were no leads on the mana vampire and with its shapeshifting ability; everyone was a suspect.
While people still conducted business and went on with daily life, there was a suspiciousness in their eyes; people tended to stay together in groups in open spaces, and hurried home when the sun began to get low.
“Excuse me!” Alex called as he walked up to one of the mask merchants. The crowd in the street was thinning, and the merchant looked just about ready to pack things up for the day. “Got time for one more customer? Or are you closing?”
The woman paused, and her mask—looking like a grinning demon’s face—shifted to one of open welcome. “Not at all, not at all, young man! Please, come look at my wares!”
Alex paused in front of the wagon: hooks had been hammered into all of its sides, and from each hung a different mask. It made the wagon seem like a beast with a hundred faces, but Alex was looking for a particular face.
“What sizes do you have?” Alex asked.
“I can adjust the size on the spot for children, adults, or even a giant if you’re making a gift to one of the large folk,” the mask seller said, while glancing at the position of the sun and continuing to pack her cart. “So you can choose any you’d like and I’ll be sure it fits. Will you be buying for yourself, sir?”
“Yea, and for two others,” he said, running his finger along the grotesque masks of leather and smooth, spell-treated wood. He was also getting one for himself and one for Theresa…though to be fair, Theresa didn’t know he was getting her one. “One for a child and a couple of adult ones.”
His finger paused on one particular mask and he stifled a gasp. It was a leather jester’s head, complete with grinning face and bulging eyes, reminding him uncomfortably of the statue of The Fool in Alric.
‘Nooooope,’ Alex thought. ‘Toooo close for comfort.’
He quickly moved on, his finger pausing on a mask of a long-snouted dragon. Alex smiled and tapped it. It had to be this one: who didn’t dream of being a dragon at least once?
Now, for Theresa…
He paused on a few different masks, but eventually settled on the image of a snarling wolf: she and Brutus would match, which he could point out to her and have his fun at the same time. A row down he found a leather troll mask: green-scaled and with a grinning mouth filled with fangs behind two massive tusks.
“I’ll take these three.” He pointed to the dragon, the wolf and the troll. His finger tapped the last one. “Can I get this re-sized for a young child?”
“Right away, sir,” said the mask merchant. “May these masks keep dark spirits away as you honour your ancestors.”
After carefully putting the masks in his bag so that they wouldn’t get ruined, he left the merchant to go put on a different mask: the protective mask at Shale’s to start his evening shift.
“Welcome, Alex,” Lagor said as Alex stepped into the golem core workshop room. The orc crafter was bent over a table, looking at an ingredients list and construction plans. His mask had been temporarily painted to look like a snarling, long-beaked monster in honour of the festival. “Hope you’re ready to work: Carmen’s sick, so I had to send her home. So it’ll just be you and Minervus.”
‘Oh good,’ Alex thought sarcastically.
“Oh, good,” Alex said with false sincerity. “At least we aren’t down to one.” He stepped up beside the crafter. “So…we’re finally starting one.”
“Yep,” Lagor said. “Last minute order. Wants the core built before the festival too: paying double for the rush job.”
Lagor shook his head. “Dunno where people get that kind of money: sometimes I wonder if I went into the wrong field.”
Alex blinked behind his lenses. He’d heard Professor Jules talk about what a golem crafter’s wages usually were, and to Alex, they were more than enough for almost any purpose.
A senior crafter like Lagor might’ve been able to pay for Alex’s entire tuition, room and board for Generasi without breaking a sweat.
“For what it’s worth, I think you made the right choice,” Alex said seriously. “So what kind of golem core will we be making?”
Alex had to suppress his excitement.
This would be the first time he’d be helping Lagor start the process to make a golem core: he had assisted with different steps along the way, but now, he could watch and help with the entire process from the beginning.
That experience would be worth its weight in gold when it came time to build his own.
“It’s a clay golem today, plain and simple. Body’s a big one though: sixteen-footer, so we’ll need to make sure it's got extra mana capacity to handle a burden that big.
“Okay, so what can I do?”
“Start prepping the materials while I warm up the cauldron. Make sure you take freshly treated quartz: since this is going to be a rush job, we’re going to need the reaction to take fast.”
“Got it,” Alex said, already heading for the storeroom.
When he came back—having gotten the materials ready and bringing them using his two hands and his Wizard Hand spells—Minervus had arrived and was helping Lagor prep his tools and heat up the cauldron.
“Ah, you got the one with the red grip, good,” Lagor said to the pale-faced young man—whose mask was painted to look like a grinning gargoyle.
Alex and Minervus nodded at each other, without exchanging a word. Minervus hadn’t really done anything problematic in the last few weeks at work. Alex was still ready for him to do something though, like cause some kind of accident and try to blame it on one of the other assistants, or take credit for something that he didn’t do, or pull some other nefarious scheme.
But Minervus, the entire time, had been a quiet and cooperative coworker. He knew his stuff. He did his job. He kept quiet, unless it came time to talk to Lagor about something.
Alex kept waiting for the proverbial knife in the back, but so far, it hadn’t come. Still, whenever Minervus looked at him, he would be civil, but there would be a chilly unfriendliness in his eyes.
If Lagor noticed, though, he didn’t say.
Or he didn’t care as long as the work was done well.
Together, the three of them started on the beginning of the golem core’s construction: several of the ingredients were heated in the cauldron and bathed with mana to liquify them. Once that mixture was good and hot, Lagor had Alex add a binding agent to prep it for the rest of the ingredients and then Minervus added the quartz as a mana conductor.
Together, all three stirred the solution, carefully adding mana at different points in the process to facilitate the correct reaction.
While they were doing so, Lagor asked: “So, either of you doing anything special for the Festival?”
Minervus shrugged. “Same thing I do every year. First I’ll go to the sea and honour my grandmother, and then my friends and I will head to the city centre for the parade.”
He wasn’t sure what surprised him most: the fact that Minervus sounded sincere, the fact that there was a note of sadness in his voice when he spoke of honouring his grandmother, or the fact that he somehow had friends.
Alex shook his head. Then again, there were all kinds of people in the world: he found Carey London absolutely exhausting but it was rare to see her apart from her entourage of friends and club members…and probably a few admirers now that he thought about it.
It took all kinds, really.
“And what about you?” Lagor asked Alex.
“Well, as soon as I’m done this shift, I’m going home to start cooking.”
He explained a little about honouring his parents and the care he needed to take with his father’s stew.
“Hah, that sounds like my grandpappy’s fermented shark.”
“What now?” Alex asked.
“A dish he found out about back when he was travelling,” Lagor said. “You gut a certain kind of shark, prep it, then bury it in the sand with rocks on top. Leave it for six to twelve weeks and you got yourself a unique dish.”
“Oh wow,” Alex said, trying not to gag at the thought. “How does it taste?”
“When I first had it? Terrible. It smells like ammonia.”
Alex made a face: they used ammonia to clean and treat certain golem core ingredients before setting them in the storeroom: the smell wasn’t what he would call ‘appetizing’.”
“But, it’s an acquired taste,” Lagor said. “Now, I’d kill to have some of it again. Too bad the old man took the recipe to his grave.”
“Hmmmm.” Minervus frowned. “It sounds like kæstur hákarl from the northwestern island of Olfusand. They prepare that sort of dish there.”
Lagor froze. “It’s similar, but the recipe’s not quite the same. I think he modified it a little…but how’d you know that?”
“Yeah.” Alex jumped in, his dislike for Minervus overcome by his interest in food. “Where did you find that out from?”
“My parents are what you could call culinary buffs,” Minervus said. “Fine food is the vice of my family, and we make it our business to know where interesting dishes come from. I’m terrible in the kitchen myself, but I do enjoy different foods when I find them.”
“Huh,” Alex said, not really knowing much of what else to say. He’d learned a little more about the other young man. In a way, he was like the rest of the city during the Festival of Ghosts: someone who wore many masks.
Alex still didn’t like or trust him, but he felt like he knew him a bit better. Though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully, except for all the learning Alex managed to squeeze in during that shift. It was one thing to hear how a golem core was put together from grad students, or work on partially completed cores, or sculpt the bodies. It was an entirely different thing to be involved from the very beginning of the process.
Alex kept his ears open and constantly used The Mark throughout the night, slowly adjusting how he used his mana conductor to guide the alchemical processes in the core. At the start, he was already pretty good at the process due to all of his Mark-enhanced practice at alchemy, but by the end, he’d become quite proficient at it.
Lagor even glanced at him and asked. “You sure you haven’t done this before?”
At the end of his shift, Alex rushed to a new notebook—which had a drawing of a large, smashy-looking figure on the front—that was titled ‘golem plans’.
He flipped through to the first few pages, and found what he was looking for: the beginning schematics for his own golem. He wrote in a few new notes and drew lines to the diagram of the golem core beside the golem itself.
Alex swallowed, looking at his plans.
If he wanted to construct a golem from scratch right now, he could probably do it. It wouldn’t be very good—he still needed to work through more of the process—but he could do it.
But, if he was going to go through the effort of building his creation, he would build the best version he could manage.
He glanced at a side note that he’d circled multiple times: it was a design feature that he wasn’t quite sure he’d build into his golem. On the one hand, it might be impractical. On the other, he couldn’t access the materials necessary to build one of the more powerful stone or iron golems.
But the one ingredient necessary for what he was considering, he might be able to get from Jules’ lab.
Nodding to himself, he circled the word again.
The word was ‘Evolution’.