Autumn, in the Netherhill Province. Smallest in all of Sunwell.
Amelia Bluewood laid in the back of a slow-moving truck, comfortable on top of a bushel of hay, hands behind her head. A satchel of silver coins from a long day’s work. The breeze drying the sweat on her body. A frown that refused to leave her mouth.
It should never have been like this, she thought. Spending her life deep in the countryside doing labor just to keep her purse full and mind free from wandering into subject she wanted to avoid. No progress, no pain, no power. Unpleasantly peaceful.
Above her, the trees sent the year their goodbyes, their leaves flaring into reds and yellows and oranges for these final weeks before the snow began to plummet. The world’s slowest-moving fireworks festival, Ed always used to say.
One brown, crinkled leaf fell from the canopy and landed on Amelia’s nose.
She brushed it away. Sighed.
Netherhill was a nice little place. A few scattered towns. Farms. Abandoned shrines. Too many mines. Nothing out of the ordinary. The people here suffered as tenants on their own land. Barely kept their pantries stocked, hardly gave their kids five years of school. All the profits went to the capital.
The old man driving this truck, a sun elf by the name of Gyorien, was nicer than he should have been. Could hardly speak a word of Common, but did his best until he heard her use Imduin. Paid even for Amelia’s lunch hour. Gave her food, too, even though she did not eat it. Now, just to save an extra coin or two, he drove slow as a trotting mule, conserving the truck’s mana battery so it could last one more day without a charge.
No one chose to live in a place like Netherhill; they were born here, raised here, worked here, died here, just like Gyorien likely would. But it was exactly the sort of place, exactly the sort of people Amelia was supposed to be fighting for.
So, even in this most peaceful of days, this beautiful autumn afternoon, Amelia could not bring herself to relax, to let herself be calm. She never did anymore.
It had been over a year since her home was destroyed. A year spent wandering Sunwell, searching for a way forward. Searching for her.
Amelia activated her Heads-Up Display—her HUD. Menus and icons that showed her mana consumption. Her health. Her system status. Even the weather. All in three-dimensional space, exclusive to her.
But this afternoon, she turned to her memory banks, which held that photograph she took long ago. She pulled it up and expanded it into her field of view. It had been so long since she let herself look at it.
The freckled cheek of a light-skinned girl, so close up her dull gray eye was barely in view. A raised ear that paired with an unseen smile. Scarlet hair that flickered at the edge of the snapshot, just hinting at the beauty to come if one were to pull back for a full view.
If Amelia could see Ed one more time, it would be enough, she thought. Wherever she was.
And yet, now she lived a different life. She was a wanderer, a laborer in a land where no one cared if she was human or elf or gnome or even the world’s only half-golem. The only place where she—
Faint whirring. In the distance, but approaching quickly.
The telltale sound.
Amelia hopped to her feet and jumped off the back of the truck—
Just as the projectile collided with the engine—
And the whole thing exploded.
She landed on the dirt and rolled back onto her feet. So close to the flames her overalls were singed.
On either side of her, there were two hulking, stone-covered beasts. War golems.
They showed not a second’s hesitation before raising their hands and firing off pieces of their bodies—fast-moving rocks that cracked violently into the ground on impact. They literally did not know how to control themselves.
She activated her Boost Module. Jumped as high as she could go, climbed up onto a study enough tree branch. The golems circled around and backed up to get a better shot. Bought her just enough time to scope out the scene.
These woods had just become a battlefield, but she did not yet know her opponent. It was only when she looked past the burning wreckage of the truck, deep into the trees on the other side of the dirt road, that she saw him—
A mage enforcer. A bounty hunter from the North Sunwell Company, and a golemancer at that. A human so young he barely fit into his robes, sporting a patchy thin beard to cover up his age. He looked up at her with eager eyes and an awful smile.
“Finally found you!” he shouted from below. His golems began another round of projectile rocks and she had to jump to another branch halfway down to avoid them. This one shook. Definitely would not hold out for long.
She needed to get back down. Needed to split those golems up so their fire was less focused. Easier to beat down when they were apart.
“I bet you thought you could slip away and let the heat die down a thousand miles away,” the golemancer said. “I bet you thought they’d forgive and forget. But now the oven’s turning back up.” He raised his palms up and summoned a fire spell that doused the base of the tree in flames.
Amelia jumped from one tree to the next—
But the branch she grabbed was just a bit too thin and her hand snapped it—
She plummeted two stories to the ground and landed on her shoulder. Luckily, it was the one made of stone. Hurt like hell, but she shook it off as soon as she got back up.
She sprinted away from the golems and the human, deeper into the woods to give herself more cover. One minute’s run, a minute and a half—
Suddenly, her body slowed, the pain set back in, and her feet slid through the dirt to a skidding stop. She hid behind a tree and checked the message prompt on her HUD:
Boost Module unresponsive.
Running diagnostics, but it will take some time.
Stay safe out there, Amelia.
No, no, no... Not now. Not another malfunction. Please...
She heard the golems advance with each heavy thud of a step. It was impossible to keep one of those things stealthy, and that may have been their biggest flaw. From the distance, she could guess they would find her in about thirty seconds. But they were splitting up to cover more ground. Falling into exactly the pattern she wanted.
Okay, she no longer needed the Boost Module. Probably. She could destroy them with craft alone.
Combat Module on. [Slice] skill activated. Her right arm morphed from a hand into a large, thin blade. Made of rock, so not too sharp. But it would get the job done in a pinch.
She ran from one tree to another, just slow enough to attract one golem’s attention. It turned and followed her. When it got close enough, she swung her blade into the tree. Whack, whack, whack—
The golem was crushed before it even realized what was coming.
But a sound that big attracted the other one, too, firing off projectiles with wild speed and absolute abandon. She was hit in the arm—the left one made of flesh and bone—and it left a bloody gash she would have to bandage later.
She heard a pitchy laughter from behind the fallen tree. “You can’t just run away again,” the human said. “There’s ten enforcers on your contract now. I just got lucky to be first. That’s what happens when you help criminals and murder innocent protectors. We find you.”
The criminals he referred to were the debt slaves sent to a labor camp down in East Headstow. The innocents he referred to were North Sunwell Company employees, the brutal overseers whose callous disregard for life caused hundreds of deaths a year. She freed the prisoners. Killed the overseers. And now she was paying the price, just a few days later.
“Ready to surrender?” the human asked.
“I don’t know why you’re talking,” Amelia said to the golemancer. “You’re already dead.”
He hopped over the tree and swept through the ground for the remains of the crushed golem. The other one’s constant firing prevented her from making an easy charge and gutting him with her blade arm, but she watched for every opportunity.
“You know what? I think you just got cocky. Maybe that labor camp in East Headstow, you could have gotten away with. No one knew who you were. But then the break-in at the governor’s mansion in Sadfield? That big fight on the sky islands that got in the papers? You went and made yourself a pattern. And I found you.”
Too many rescues. Too many times playing hero without checking behind her back. She had killed the first wave of mage enforcers that pursued her, every single one them. She thought it was over, that the North Sunwell Company had not been able to connect the dots, but she was very wrong.
The golemancer, this young man probably fresh out of college, wanted to whet his teeth as an enforcer, her golem body the grindstone. It had come to this—a near-child seeking her out.
For the past year, all Amelia had done was run. She ran from the ruins of her home. Ran from the mages that stayed steady on her trail. Ran from the promises she and Ed had made together.
Now, because of her, that old elf in the truck had died in the crossfire. A real innocent, dead because she was not willing to stop and stand.
That was over now.
“Why don’t you just stay still and let me take that head off real quick?”
“Little kids don’t scare me.”
His arrogance turned into anger. “Let’s see how much you beg to die in a few minutes, then.” The golemancer found what he was looking for—the fallen golem’s soul gem, still miraculously intact. He plunged his fist straight into the trunk of a small tree beside him and planted the soul gem inside.
With a wave of his hands, a pale red aura surrounded the tree. He—still a newcomer, still as green as they came—quietly mouthed the sacred words, the directives that all golemancers gave to bring their creations to life.
After only a second, the tree uprooted itself. Began to float directly towards Amelia. Scattered wood chips, loose branches, and plant matter nearby lifted from the ground and joined with the tree trunk, twisting its form until it had a relatively human shape, but one that stood ten feet in height.
The golemancer darted away. Out of a small purse he dug up five more soul gems on him and began to repeat the process with other nearby trees.
Amelia had seconds to spare before she was overwhelmed by several towering golems with directives solely to murder her. So she charged out of place. She activated [Mana Burst] and let high-powered sparks of energy surge out from her body and plaster the tree golem. It ignited, but did not fall.
Now, instead of a large golem headed her way, a large, burning golem was headed her way. And the stone golem still pelted rocks at her every few seconds. She rolled to the side to dodge the tree golem, and it collided with another behind it, setting it, too, ablaze.
Amelia was responsible for one innocent’s life today. She realized in this moment that she would soon be responsible for a forest fire as well.
With ultimate speed she darted behind the stone golem, blocking the tree golem’s path to her and the projectiles too. She held it firmly in place, preventing it from turning around, and activated a very risky new skill—[Overload].
Warning! The [Overload] skill has not been tested in combat.
Ed did not approve it.
Please consult with her before use.
“Well, that’s tough. I haven’t seen her in a year.”
She converted her right arm back into its normal shape and held her palm against the golem’s back, just where its soul gem should have been.
Then, with a powerful ray of mana energy, she blasted through its stone and straight into its core.
[Overload] did not destroy in a direct sense. It literally fed mana directly into its target, giving it more and more power.
But a soul gem was limited in size and capacity. The longer she held the attack, the more and more mana it absorbed, until it reached full strength—and beyond. Too far beyond.
The golem began to move its limbs wildly. She let go of her fierce grip and sped away as quickly as she could before—
A mighty gust of wind blew her to the forest floor. The shockwave of the blast was by itself so powerful it eradicated the fire on the trees—and the tree golem. It ripped apart bark and branches in the entire radius, as well.
The tree golem’s gem, too close to the blast radius, was shattered. But her attack was just barely too late—the golemancer’s brand-new soul gems came trampling towards her. Five in number, and each about the size of the one that had just died.
Her spirit dwindled. She felt the sweat pour over her body. With each breath, a small, sharp pain. But the golemancer, standing behind his creations, said the only words that would save Amelia’s life:
“You know, I realized something. I recognize you. You’re not some shape shifter or mage... You’re that human golem thing, aren’t you? The one Ed Winback made back in Newpool. I was still a trainee. ‘You’ll be a hero,’ she always told everyone. ‘You’ll save Sunwell and change the world.’ A big old failure, turns out. Humiliated that arrogant bitch so bad she quit after they terminated you. We held a party when she left, did you know?”
He glared at her with fiery, knowing eyes. The glare of a hungry predator. “And that’s got me pretty curious,” he continued. “Because Winback’s back in Fleettwixt, and you’re out here, still alive somehow. What’s your deal, golem?” Then, with a grin, “And what’s hers? I think want to find out.”
A flip switched inside of her.
The whole battle changed.
Until this moment, Amelia was fighting for survival. She wanted to live another day, wanted to make it through to rest and recuperate and prepare for more. But this human shot his mouth off. He spoke freely like the newbie he was, and he let slip a mighty fact: Ed was still alive, still active, now living in Fleettwixt, the capital city.
This man just threatened the life of the only woman she had ever loved, and expected to come out of it with his life.
He must have known. Must have suspected something close to reality. Otherwise he would not be taunting her so flagrantly. He wanted to rub salt in a wound that did not yet exist.
But now that he had spoken, he had forfeited his life.