“So, you’ll be following my lead,” Lagor said as he and his three assistants drew their mana conductors. “I’ll go in first and use my mana to jump start the mana process. Carmen, I want you to power up the section that controls its movements and Minervus, you’ll empower the section that’ll connect with its master to receive instructions. Alex, you’ll work on the section responsible for connecting to the embedded magic items, in this case, the lightning rods. Once you have your tasks completed, then come join me in activating the golem’s power generation. Got it?”
Carmen, Alex, and Minervus acknowledged the crafter before climbing the small scaffold in back of the large golem.
Lagor reached over to a metal cup-like device connected to a long tube in the wall and spoke into it. “First floor! Workshop room three! Test golem activation beginning! Look alive!”
His voice boomed throughout the workshop.
They all took positions at equidistant spaces behind the golem’s back, and raised their mana conductors like they were drawing swords to fight a duel. As one, they slowly pressed their conductors to the hole in the golem’s upper back.
Alex closed his eyes and waited for Lagor to make the first move.
He stiffened, awe-struck.
In his interactions with the crafter, it was sometimes easy to think of Lagor as a broad-shouldered tradesman, or a quick-witted engineer, and not as what he really was: a wizard.
At this moment, the truth of who he actually was undeniable.
Lagor’s mana pool was enormous.
If Alex’s pool had grown from the equivalent of a shallow well to a deep forest pond, then Lagor’s was a massive lake. Alex’s own mana shuddered as the crafter’s surged close by, filling the golem core.
Even with the more advanced mana regeneration techniques he was learning from Val’Rok, it would’ve taken him days to build up enough mana to equal how much Lagor was putting out.
He was drawn out of his thoughts when he felt Minervus’ and Carmen’s mana follow Lagor’s into the golem core, and his followed shortly after.
Alex’s mana surged through the tiny pathways built into the golem core with an incredible familiarity. He activated The Mark and images appeared. First, he saw himself working with the cubes from Val’Rok's class; next, his work in potions labs, and finally, the time he pushed his mana into the dungeon core.
It was the images from the dungeon core that The Mark seemed most focused on showing him. It helped guide him through the pathways within the golem core until he reached the section responsible for connecting the core to the lightning rods built into the forearms.
He proceeded, slowly and steadily, letting The Mark show him what he was doing right, and gradually increasing his efficiency in his task. He felt the precise pathways to the lightning rods and explored them lightly at first, making sure he’d felt out each and every corner of the mana pathways.
Then Alex began to draw from his mana pool and poured his mana deep within his section of the golem core. He gritted his teeth as he felt the pathways begin to spark with energy.
He applied his mana regeneration technique at the same time, producing more energy while he continued to pour mana through the pathways. Even as he did so, he realized that he had a long way to go before he’d be able to generate enough energy to power a golem core like Lagor could. Still, what he was creating was enough for the task he’d been given, and the more his mana poured through the paths, the stronger the connection between the golem core and the magic circuits within the lighting rods was. Alex felt mana begin to flow back and forth between the core and the rods, strengthening the connection until finally-
The pathways began to direct the mana back and forth on their own. He quickly pulled away from his section and joined Lagor to also direct his mana into activating the golem core’s internal mana generation as they’d been instructed to do.
He was the first assistant there, and he gritted his teeth in focus. Lagor’s mana—masterfully directed—was enveloping all the inner mana-activators within the power generator, pouring power into them to jump start each reaction. Alex joined him, targeting some of the activators that the crafter wasn’t currently working on and took a deep breath as he felt his mana rapidly draining out of him.
It almost felt like a mana vampire was drawing mana from him: each activator required a lot of power to jump start, and he was barely able to provide enough. It wasn’t that he was having trouble with the technique, it was more a question of trying to fill a lake with a bucket of water.
Soon, Carmen and Minervus joined him and Lagor, adding their mana as well. Still, it was clear that neither of them made a huge difference in how quickly the process was proceeding: most of the power needed was coming from Lagor, who seemed inexhaustible.
If Lagor had that much mana, Alex shuddered to think how much his professors like Ram and Jules had. And Val’Rok—who specialized in mana manipulation—would likely have an even bigger reservoir of it.
He didn’t even want to think about what sort of bottomless sea of magic dwelled within Baelin.
Or The Ravener, considering all the dungeon cores it could produce. If it even used mana.
He brought his mind back to task. He was starting to feel sparks of power lighting up in the golem core. The core fed on their combined mana like a hungry infant, and Alex was feeling the beginnings of a new mana developing and surrounding his own: it was the golem core’s.
It was starting to gain enough mana for its internal reactors to hit that critical stage where they became self-sustaining. At first, the mana it was producing was a trickle. Then a stream.
Lagor concentrated, continuing to feed it.
“Ugh,” he grunted. “Gotta talk to Farro about his designs: this thing eats mana like a pig.”
He gave a strong push of his mana.
Alex felt a shock as suddenly all four of them were nearly pushed completely out. It was like the sun had come into being with the core: a sun made of mana. An enormous surge of power poured through the core, connecting with all the other activated sections and glowing through the golem.
There was a surge in the air itself as the construct came ‘alive’.
Alex watched with wide eyes as the golem core shone with a burning power.
“Alright, everyone back!” Lagor barked, reaching over to a hook to retrieve a thick mana vacuumand connecting it to the core. A massive waste container sat in the corner of the room. They clambered off the scaffold and stood facing the golem.
Lagor and his three assistants stepped back and watched their creation. Alex gaped in awe.
He’d been working at Shale’s long enough to be present for the first activation of other golems in the workshop, but this time was different. By connecting with this one so deeply, he could actually feel the power coming off of it, bringing it to ‘life’.
“Remarkable,” Alex muttered.
“You get used to it,” Carmen glanced over at him. “First time, though, everyone reacts like that.”
Minervus was watching it intently, but remained silent.
“Hm,” Lagor noted. “It's giving off a little more waste mana than it should. Might need to give the core a little reconfiguration before we send it off. Right then, I’ll connect to it by myself for now.”
Alex felt a wrenching sensation as Lagor—whose connection with the golem was strongest—shunted out his assistants. As soon as there was only one wizard connected to the construct, it shuddered as the connection solidified and Lagor’s mental presence contacted it.
Alex called his Wizard’s Hands, carrying a clipboard and paper pad that had a checklist on it.
“Right, step test first,” Lagor said. “Golem, take three paces forward.”
There was a grinding sound at first.
An earthshaking one as the golem core prepared to move the body for the first time. Soon, the golem’s movements quieted as it took its first giant step forward.
The ground seemed to shake from its weight.
Alex noted down the length of its step as measured by a series of notches on the floor beneath it. Minervus recorded how long it took to make that step, and Carmen recorded general observations about its balance. As the examination continued, Lagor’s verbal commands became less and less detailed so that he could observe how capable the golem was at responding to subtleties in commands. This was to test how well it responded to intent, since he was no longer breaking down every single step of what he wanted it to do.
Finally, he fell silent for a while, giving it commands through sheer will alone, transmitted through mana manipulation.
Lagor continued through the process: having the golem raise its arms, rotate them, swing them from side to side and balance on one foot. He then told it to proceed to the side of the workroom and begin lifting a series of weights that had been placed against the wall, each of increasing mass.
All the while, the assistants continued recording various observations about its movements while Lagor noted the feel of the mana coursing through it, and how well it responded to commands.
At last, it was time for the final test.
“Right, then, time for a little light show,” the orc-crafter said. “Golem. I want you to use the lightning in your arms to blast that target in the back.”
He pointed to a copper target that was grounded into a stone in the floor, and the towering construct turned toward it and raised its arms.
Two blasts of lightning shot from its hands and struck the target. The magic briefly crackled in the air before it finally disappeared.
“Hohoho!” Lagor laughed beneath his mask. “Now I see why Farro made it draw so much mana: that’s a lot of power! This thing’ll make one heck of a-”
He paused, his humour fading.
Alex watched him for a moment then froze as well.
Something was off.
Although the lightning had finished striking the target, Alex could still feel a charge in the air.
Minervus had gone very still.
Carmen’s body went stiff-
‘Wait, forget her body, is her hair standing on end?!’ Alex thought, his fear rising.
Swearing, Lagor threw a switch.
The mana vacuum hummed to life and mana began to pour from the core and into the waste container.
The charge started to recede from the air.
Alex breathed a sigh of relief, then noticed that Lagor still looked highly alert.
“Grrrrrrrrrrrm,” a grinding, earthy growl echoed from somewhere deep within the golem’s body.
Its form flashed as bright as a thunderbolt.
“Get down!” Lagor shouted, diving to the ground. “Now!”
Alex leapt to the stones, with Minervus and Carmen ducking down as one.
Lightning blasted out in all directions from the golem, nearly blinding Alex.
Electricity coursed through some of the metal in the room and blew the mana vacuum off the golem core. No longer restrained, the golem began to turn, and Alex felt its mana surge as a deep, terrible growl echoed from within it.
Lagor was on his feet in an instant, running to grab the cup and hose he’d spoken into earlier. “Code white! Code white! Berserk golem in workshop room three!”
He looked at his apprentices. “Everybody out! Now!”
Before they could move, the golem acted. Electricity crackled along its body as it surged toward Lagor with sparking fists clenched. Lagor ducked a sweeping blow as it plowed past him.
Its fist crashed through a piece of equipment and cracked a stone in the wall. Lightning crackled around the split. The golem turned quickly, stomping toward the assistants; they lay between it and the door.
Alex yelped and rolled out of its path as a massive clay foot came down, shaking the ground beneath him. It surged for the doorway.
Minervus looked up at it, his face a mask of concentration.
The door burst inward.
His flesh golems—heeding his call—rushed into the room and took one look at the rampaging monstrosity. It was more than two feet taller than they were and must have outweighed them by half a ton or more, but they charged it without hesitation, slamming into the giant construct with full impact. The force of their charge sent the gigantic golem stumbling back, but lightning blasted through Minervus’ golems and their bodies instantly went into spasms where they stood. Electricity coursed through the pair, their mana-animated muscles contracting from the shock. They fell away from the larger construct.
Lagor shouted an incantation; large glowing metal chains shot out of the earth and wrapped around the creature, quickly tightening. The golem struggled against its bonds while Lagor shouted the same spell over and over, enwrapping it in a web of chains.
Another growl emerged and another wave of lightning blasted from it, but it was channeled into the metal chains and grounded into the stone floor at its feet. One of the chain’s links popped as the golem threw all of its strength against its restraints.
“Get those security golems in here!” Lagor shouted toward the shattered doorway.
Pieces of clay cracked off as the massive construct tore one of its arms free of its chains. It scooped a bulky piece of equipment off the floor and lifted it up to toss at Lagor.
“No!” Alex ordered one of his Wizard’s Hands to distract its attention while the other grabbed the mana vacuum.
Carmen jumped to her feet and shouted an incantation.
She began to transform. Her body narrowed, lengthened and flowed until her human form was gone: replaced by the giant, sinewy form of a serpent at least thirty feet long.
Her scales looked to be made of stone.
She shot forward with shocking speed, coiling around the golem and trying to pull one of its arms back toward its body. It still held onto the piece of equipment.
The serpent shuddered as lightning coursed over her scales. “Can’t…hold it…forever!” she hissed, and Alex barely recognized Carmen’s voice through the creature’s hissing tones.
“Dammit!” He swore, diving behind the golem while a Wizard’s Hand brought the mana vacuum around its back with him. He was aiming to plug the vacuum back into the core, but the creature was thrashing so wildly that it was making his plan impossible.
Lightning blasted through the air again as it thrashed harder.
More chain links burst apart. Carmen hissed while fighting to hold its arm.
“Dammit all, there’s no helping it! Destroy the body!” Lagor roared as he fired thin green rays of magic that turned sections of the construct to dust.
The golem fought to free itself as Alex considered the best way to get it plugged in: maybe between his own effort and using both Wizard’s Hands he could manage to get the vacuum reconnected to the core.
Then Minervus was beside him. “My golems will hold it!” he shouted. “We’ll work together so you can re-attach the mana vacuum!”
The narrow faced young man looked at his smoking golems: they shook off the electricity coursing through them and jumped back on the berserk golem, joining Lagor’s chains and the transformed Carmen to try and hold it still.
There was a sickening scent as their flesh began to sear.
The clay golem’s thrashing finally slowed from their interference.
Its core became possible to reach.
Alex shot a Wizard’s Hand forward.
It reattached the mana vacuum to the core.
The golem’s roar grew louder as its mana began to drain.
It strained against Carmen’s serpentine coils, and shifted its aim, still holding the large piece of equipment.
It had struggled to turn toward the mana waste container. He didn't know if it had enough awareness to come up with a strategy to throw the equipment, or if feeling its mana being drained was making it respond to the threat, but either way, that container rupturing could cause an explosion which—considering how much mana was already flooding it—could easily kill them all.
The ground shook harder.
The sound of metal on stone echoed from the doorway, and Alex whirled toward the noise.
Two more golems entered the door: made of solid iron. The personal security golems of Toraka Shale.
The earth-shaking constructs closed in on the clay golem with ponderous footsteps. The first one grabbed it by the shoulders, holding the towering clay construct still as though it were a child. Then the second reached out and tore the golem core from its setting.
Instantly, there was a whoosh of mana from the air as the energy left the clay body. For a few heartbeats the lightning rods continued to spark in the golem’s forearms, until finally, they flickered and sparked out.
Carmen’s serpentine form slipped off of the golem, flopped to the floor, and transformed back into her humanoid shape. She lay panting against the stone while Alex fought to get his pounding heart under control.
Minervus shook his head while Lagor swore under his breath.
More pounding footsteps entered the room.
“No!” A man was the first to enter the room, and Alex recognized the skinny form of Farro, the crafter who’d made the core. “What happened? Look at all of this damage!”
“Your bloody core was defective!” Lagor shouted. “That’s what happened, and it nearly took all of our lives!”
He stomped toward the other crafter, as though ready to lay him out with a single punch.
Then Minervus whirled on Alex. “You!” he cried, his eyes alight. “You were responsible for activating the part of the core that connected with the lightning rods, and it was after it used the lightning rods that it went berserk! What did you do?”
Alex froze as everyone in the workshop turned toward him.
His eyes narrowed.
‘Carmen might have turned into a serpent, but you’re the real snake, Minervus,’ he thought. ‘And you finally made your move.’