“What do you mean we need to make the hole bigger?!” Selina demanded. Her face tensed as though she wanted nothing more than to climb up on a stool to reach her brother’s throat so she could strangle him. “That means we’d have to re-draw all the armour-looking stuff around that part!”
“Listen, listen,” Alex said. “Trust me, it’s going to be better this way. Here, look at these numbers!”
He showed her two lines of mana output calculations, one using his original materials and one using his dungeon core remains. “Do you see how much bigger they are?!”
Selina blinked at the lines of calculations. “Alex…I don’t know what any of that stuff means.”
“It means boom!” He made a smashing motion in the air. “Wham! Wham! Smash! My golem-”
“Our golem,” she corrected.
“It’s my golem: it’ll only listen to me…but if you’re a good little sister, I’ll let you ride on one of its shoulders and build stuff for you.”
“I am good, you’re the bad one that keeps changing it all the time!” Selina gestured at the completed torso. “It looks really good, Alex!” She leaned in, pointing at some of the elegant filigree they’d sculpted. “We’re going to ruin all of that for a bigger hole!”
“But with the bigger hole, that means a more powerful golem core, which means more smash!”
She looked at him. “Alex…maybe it’s already got enough ‘smash’.”
Alex gasped and recoiled as though she’d literally thrown ice water on him. “Too much smash?” he said incredulously, looking at her as though she were foaming at the mouth rabid. “Have you lost your mind? There’s no such thing as too much smash. That’s like the first thing you learn in alchemy.”
Actually, the first thing he learned in alchemy was how to do things safely and by procedure, but Selina didn’t need to know that. For now. This sounded better.
“Alex, that sounds like one of the stupid things only you would say, like when you’re naming stuff…” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re going to let me name it, aren’t you?”
“Pffft, I can name my golem.”
“No you can’t! The name will be stupid!”
“Y-your name is stupid!” he said maturely.
The little girl rolled her green eyes so hard they looked like they’d roll out of her head. “No yourname is stupid!”
“No.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Your name is stupi-”
“By the sapphire sea, really?” Khalik’s deep voice came from the entrance to the room. “This is how you two argue when no one is around? And here I thought you were crafting wonders.”
Alex froze, slowly turning as though he were a gate on rusty hinges. Selina moved so quickly that she almost seemed to teleport and suddenly become deeply engrossed with sculpting the golem’s fourth arm.
Her cheeks were flaming red.
Khalik was leaning against the doorway with a bag in his hand, one that—judging from the wonderful smell coming from within—was lunch.
His head was cocked to one side and his eyebrow was raised.
“H-hey, Khalik,” Alex said, feeling embarrassment wash over him. “H-how long have you been there?”
“Around the moment you lied to your little sister. And told her that the first thing one learned in alchemy was that there’s never too much smash.” Khalik shut the door behind him and sauntered into the room.
Selina froze then slowly turned to look at her brother like he was the most offensive thing that had ever lived. “Alex,” she said dangerously, her eyes narrowing.
“Okay, okay, okay, to be fair. In my defence. To be my own advocate here,” he said with his hands held up as though in surrender. “The first thing they teach you in alchemy is a bunch of safety stuff that you’d find suuuuper boring so really, I just did you a favour by saying what I said.”
She glared at him.
“Oh come on, I’m entertaining you!”
She continued to glare at him in disgust, though he could see she was fighting a smile.
“Ah yes, that mix of disgust and amusement,” he said. “That fuels me, Selina.”
His sister groaned and turned back to the golem.
Khalik shook his head. “I know what it is like to have such an immature sibling.”
“Yeah, that’s right-” Alex began.
“So my condolences for having such an immature sibling, Selina,” Khalik said.
“Hey!” Alex protested.
Selina immediately beamed and began puffing out her chest. “Thank you, Khalik.”
“You are most welcome.”
“You’re both bullies!” Alex cried. “You’re both bullies and I’m the victim here!”
Khalik chuckled as he set the food down on a nearby table. “So this is what all my clay summoning is amounting to,” he said, passing his fingers through his beard. “Quite incredible progress: I swear the both of you were far worse at sculpting when you began some months ago. You’re prodigies.”
“Well, she’s the prodigy, “I’m using...different ways.”
Alex said, as he gestured meaningfully toward his shoulder.
“Ah, so that is why you improved so quickly,” Khalik nodded. “Well done.”
“Really?” Selina turned to look at him in shock. “You’ve been-”
“Shhhh!” Alex said, glancing at the door.
She quickly clasped her hands over her own mouth. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” he said gently.
“Still, that’s cheating. You’re cheating.”
“I’m helping both of us get better, so I’m doing both of us a favour. It’s not cheating, it’s teaching.”
“And speaking of teaching,” Khalik said. “How goes your progress, my young temari?” he said, using his mother tongue’s word for student.”
Alex smiled, falling into himself and casting a spell.
It was the latest one he’d learned, so he made sure to go slowly and carefully as he constructed the spell-array. Oddly enough, he found that—despite this spell having very little to do with any other spell he’d learned—it was one of the easiest for him to cast so far.
The magic circuit formed, and he felt the magic reach to somewhere very far off. He could feel the magic circuit’s every contour and the rush of something approaching quickly.
A weight dropped into his hand: a fist-sized stone from the elemental plane of earth. He grinned and held it up toward Khalik. Summon Stone had been the very last spell he’d planned to learn on his own when he got to Generasi.
Lesser Heat was the one he thought he’d learn first, but it had actually been harder to cast than Summon Stone.
Khalik nodded, drawing himself up and speaking like Baelin. “Very good Mr. Roth. You are becoming very proficient and much faster, and the stone is larger too. You are indeed progressing like a proper young wizard.” He glanced at Alex’s shoulder. “And how goes your…other project?”
“Well, very well,” Alex said.
He glanced at the notebook laying beside his bag. His findings on the dungeon core remains were recorded in it, organized into a fairly extensive report.
After his last lab, he’d gone over his reference books and examined the results of the dungeon core’s composition, comparing it with the list of known substances he’d worked with in first year potions and the far more extensive list he’d worked with while aiding Professor Jules.
The results were revelatory. A large amount of its composition was remarkably similar to chaos essence, and several other compounds matched many magic-rich minerals that assisted in alchemy that created life. There were also substances that acted as mana catalysts and even a few that were used in the branch of alchemy that aided Life Enforcement: elixirs and pills that advanced one’s progress in cultivation.
There was nothing in the material itself that he could detect to explain the dungeon core’s ability to convert fear to mana or any other emotional connection to magic. Likely the aspect of the dungeon core that was responsible for converting mortal fear to mana, was tied to its ‘life-force’ or consciousness, much like how a demon’s chaotic nature was tied into its soul.
From there he was able to create some hypotheses to how dungeon cores worked.
The spirit or ‘life-force’ of the thing would convert fear into mana. That mana would then be run through the dungeon core and catalyzed so that it was far more energized and could do much more powerful work. From there, it would then be able to create life using the material within itself that was responsible for life creation, and make those living things more powerful through the part of itself responsible for life enforcement. Then it could craft those creatures into any shape it wished using the mutagenic part of itself similar to chaos essence.
He shook his head.
If he was right—and he could very well be wrong—then the Ravener’s dungeon cores were unbelievably advanced pieces of magic. There were spells and alchemy—very high-tier spells and alchemical processes—that created what were called homunculi.
These homunculi were forms of life forged entirely by magic, but they were very crude, and the processes to create them very long and costly. The poor creatures were also soulless, as no wizardry or alchemy could craft a soul.
Perhaps far in the future, somebody would make that blasphemous discovery.
Yet, the dungeon cores not only created varied, advanced forms of life, but did so automatically while also warping terrain around them. Powerful stuff.
What he would give to be able to examine a living one.
And if it came to that—trying to take control of one again—then he was far better equipped to do so. Not only was he far better at mana manipulation, but examining the dungeon core’s remains had given him insight into how they worked and how to guide his mana through its pathways.
He doubted he’d be able to take control of one at full strength, but he was at the stage where he’d be able to try, and if it became too much for him, he knew how to disengage.
The only thing left now was to repeat some of the analysis. Good data collection involved repetition to ensure that the data was reliable and valid. Data that was only gathered from one experiment or one session of analysis could have problems: there could have been any number of confounding variables that messed with read-outs or reactions.
He would need to be sure of his research to the best of his ability before he went to Baelin. Part of him though, just wanted to tell the chancellor everything now and get it over with. Over time Alex had come to trust him quite a bit, not as much as his cabal members, but enough so that he could feel fairly confident that he wouldn’t react negatively to his situation.
But another part of him wanted to make sure he’d done as much work on his own as he could before going to Baelin. Nothing about the substance indicated it’d be useful for demon summoning—which might have put him under suspicion—and he wanted to present as much of his own evidence as possible.
In the end, he’d become attached to his secret project and rather than go to the chancellor like a child seeking help, he wanted to go to him as a Proper Wizard, one who’d used his own wits and adaptation to solve as much of a problem as he could before going to an authority figure for help.
It would be like Comb-1000: Baelin would be his safety net, but only after he’d tried his best with the problem beforehand.
He took a deep breath.
It wouldn’t be much longer, though.
At the very least, he’d tell Baelin before he brought the dungeon core remains anywhere near any golem he was going to make. He hoped that wouldn’t result in Baelin confiscating the substance, but—while he hadn’t found anything to indicate it would be dangerous when used in a golem—he definitely would like an older and wiser pair of eyes to check over his work first.
“Well, then, it looks like things are going well,” Khalik said, glancing at the golem. “And when do you think you will finish your monstrosity?”
“Whenever Alex stops changing things every time he blinks,” Selina said sourly.
“I’m better now,” Alex insisted. “I don’t think I’m going to come across much more that’ll make me change the design again. I’m pretty sure Lord Smasho the First is coming into his final shape.”
“No!” Selina shouted. “No, not that name!”
“Alex, I swear on my mother and father’s honour,” Khalik warned him. “If you name your war golem ‘Lord Smasho the First’, I will pick you up and toss you into the sea myself, then blindfold Grimloch and tell him there’s a wounded seal for him to eat in the waters.”
“Alright, alright! Jeez! I was joking!” Alex said, laughing. “Come on, guys, it's just a joke! Even I wouldn’t name a golem something stupid like ‘Lord Smasho the First’!”
Selina and Khalik exchanged glances.
Later that evening, Alex Roth opened his golem-building notebook, flipped to the page that had his list of potential names and crossed out ‘Lord Smasho the First’.
“What the hell?” Alex paused on the darkening street.
Instead of the usual crowd of workers heading to workshops for evening shifts or leaving work to pour into restaurants or hurry home, the street looked like a minor encampment of mercenaries and monster hunters.
Alex glanced around, watching as they entered weapon shops, restaurants, and other venues that provided arms and equipment.
“Well, it looks like hunt mania is spreading,” a familiar voice said behind him.
Alex turned around to find Minervus; three of his golems were by the young man’s side, watching the crowd with their strangely doll-like eyes.
“Hunt-mania?” Alex blinked.
“I see you weren’t in town this morning,” Minervus said. “The bounty on the mana vampire has risen again: the monster attacked a country noble’s son near the docks. The family has added their own reward for the monster’s destruction to the city’s bounty.”
Minervus shook his head. “Fools. Still, I suppose it is tempting. Think you’ll go for it?” his voice had a detached tone to it, a cold neutrality.
“Pffft, no,” Alex said. “I value my life. How much even is it?”
“With all the contributing funds?” Minervus paused. “One thousand and five hundred gold coins.”
“One thousand what now?”