The Sleepless Stones
In the volcanic half-light of Mount Lethe, the stones began to move. A few, glowing with the light of campfire embers, trembled and clattered across the floor. Then, larger pieces began to stir, twisting and swirling upwards like leaves in an autumn zephyr. The blackened pieces of basalt slowly assumed a shape – a purpose.
* * *
“Golem!” a female voice called, from down the corridor.
The shifting stones, grinding themselves into a vaguely humanoid shape, pounded down the magma tube, throwing their deep red ember-light on the walls, and on two small figures bathed in sweat and soot. “Hendac!” the woman called, hurling a smoky gray nabut to her companion. It trailed crystalline frost as it sailed through the scorching heat, frost that quickly puddled and sizzled into steam on the charred rocks. The man, Hendac the Watcher, caught the weapon handily, spinning it into a classic Aluvian quarterstaff guard position.
The golem did not understand the woman's noises, nor did it care. Drawing back a fist of churning black gravel, it hurled itself at her. She sidestepped and flinched away from its broiling mass. The near-miss bathed her in bloody light. Her companion swept in behind the golem's hulking rubble-form, his frosting nabut striking again and again, to little effect.
Frantically, the man snapped his fingers, then hand-signed to his companion, Jenavere. She nodded, and they both sprinted back up the magma tube. The golem thundered down the corridor behind them, gouts of flame erupting from between its component stones as it moved.
They led it to one of the swinging rope bridges erected by Lord Cambarth when he had attempted to mine the mountain. There, Hendac spun and faced down the beast, striking it ineffectually as Jena circled around behind it. The golem, angered, moved to the edge of the bridge to smash him.
Hendac ducked, and swung at the rocks that passed for legs. Jena charged and shoved it from behind, yelping in pain as her hands struck its semi-molten form. A long stream of stones and gravel tumbled over the low hemp railing, hitting the bubbling magma below with a series of thick plops.
“Dumb as a pile of rocks,” Jenavere panted, wincing as Hendac wrapped her blistered hands in a clean strip of cloth. “Thanks be to the Poet.” The golem stared up at them, flame belching from its dead eyes and mouth, and roared an impotent challenge. As the echoes faded, a deeper rumble quivered through the walls and corridors. “There!” Jena cried. She seized his arm and pointed towards the lava pool below, placid but for the thrashings of the golem. “You see? All the earthquakes since the Spires rose – they cannot be natural. Here we stand in the bowels of the earth, yet the mountain slumbers as the land shivers.”
She pushed sweaty strands of dust-red hair back from her eyes. “These quakes are not natural, Hendac. Something is being done to Dereth. Something magical. Evil.”
He nodded, using the end of the frost nabut to write on the charred floor, “Magic disruption during quakes.”
Jena's sloe eyes went wide. “Are you sure? What Mistress Najmima said about the Spires-”
He nodded again, more firmly, writing, “Currents being pulled to them.”
“What does it mean?” she asked, moving to lean on the rope railing of the little bridge. She hissed in pain and snatched her hands back as the bandages were pressed into her seared flesh.
Hendac shrugged, ice-blue eyes tight with frustration. It was a puzzle she knew he had grappled with for days. He motioned for her to follow him, and walked into the cavern at the far end of the bridge, away from the suffocating heat wafting up from the magma pools below them. She followed, taking a last, thoughtful look at the golem splashing in the lava.
He sat in the center of the cavern, and shrugged out of his backpack. She sat across from him, looking at the cloth covering her hands and wondering if she really wanted to see what the flesh looked like beneath them. She caught the delicate, sweet scent of roasted meat. Chilled, she placed her hands, palms up, on her knees.
He pulled a small wand and a few reagents out of the pack, digging through them in search of some obscure combination. “What are you doing?” she asked. He glanced up, and gestured with the wand at her blistered hands. “Ah.” He had taken up the study of life magic lately, and seemed to be intending a healing spell. Truthfully, they didn't seem to hurt all that much, but she'd heard that a lack of pain could merely imply a much more serious injury.
As he puttered, she looked back at the bridge, which swayed gently in the hot air rising from the magma. “Hendac?” she asked. “What do you know about golems?”
He looked up with a smile. She returned it, having come to recognize the subtle gleam in his eye; this was one of the many topics he had been collecting stories about. He set aside the wand and dug into his pack again, pulling out a battered journal. He flipped though pages for a moment, then laid it open across her lap. The pages were filled with notes, in elegantly scripted Roulean.
“Have you studied calligraphy?” she asked, impressed by the beauty of the letters. They flowed across the rough parchment like swans gliding through still waters. He shook his head, and she lifted one bandaged hand to trace the sinuous arabesques of a capital S. “You know, in our lands, there are men and women who devote their entire lives to making their words into things of beauty to the eye as well as the ear. Some work for decades to produce a single manuscript of the Alamakhaida.” Hendac shrugged noncommittally.
“I only say,” she continued, “because you have the skill of one of them.” At that, his soot-smudged cheeks showed a blush. His finger traced in the dirt, “Do a lot of writing.”
She laughed fondly at his discomfort, and let him think it was at his flimsy joke. She began to scan the pages.
Golems are magically animated “clumps” of material. They are found in greater variety than any other creature in Dereth. Examples have been reported made of mud, water, wood, limestone, sandstone, copper, granite, iron, obsidian, and, of course, magma.
* * *
Celcynd of Rithwic claims to have seen one further. He told me once that he had he managed to swim through the strong sea-currents to reach the island off the coast of Eastham. He found a large castle there, of the same High Empyrean design as Neydisa near Mount Esper, which is commonly held to date from the Age of Lore. The gates to this island castle were guarded by golems made of clear gemstone. The light caught within their bodies refracted into rainbows – quite lovely, he said. Then they promptly sent him back to the Lifestone.
Of course, he was inebriated when he slurred this tale, and also claimed to have seen a family of Tremendous Monougas living under the Obsidian Span, demanding a toll from all who would cross over. This is perhaps merely another drunken exaggeration. No one else has managed to swim to this island, and the so-called “Diamond Golem” has never been reported by any reliable source.
The sages have had many heated discussions about the Empyrean use of golems. While it is unlikely that anything short of an explanation from Asheron himself will settle the issue, one theory seems to have gained grudging acceptance by all schools of thought. That is the “agent” thesis. This holds that the Empyrean used golems as simple, expendable laborers.
This is supported by a good deal of documentary evidence. Recently recovered texts, dating from the last war with the Shadows, detail the use of Magma Golems as guardians and workers in Empyrean pyreal forges. These forges seem to have been built solely within the heart of active volcanoes. Mount Esper, in the north of Osteth, was at one time such a foundry. (There is some scant evidence that Neydisa Castle was used as a treasury for new pyreal, before it was transported to the continent thought to lie to the east of Dereth.) It seems clear that while Empyrean alchemists and mages worked their crafts on the material from afar, the Magma Golem was needed to physically work the molten metal itself – sometimes by working it within its own semi-molten form, sometimes by working it in liquid lava.
Other recovered texts, more obscure in source, mention that the creation of Mud Golems was a frequent activity of Empyrean juveniles – their equivalent of making mud pies. Mud Golems would be used for large-scale games of “toy soldiers,” or for help with chores (though I am inclined to wonder how much use a creature made of mud would be in cleaning an unkempt bedchamber). Perhaps these simple anecdotes alone serve to emphasize the enormous gap between the knowledge of the ancient Empyrean and our own cultures. The average child of Yalain could create creatures beyond the ability of our most learned mages.
Other known uses of golems are legion. Golems have also been found in ancient mines, kitchens, and storehouses, doing menial and difficult labor that the Empyrean apparently considered beneath them. Judging by the singular scratches on the stonework, it seems that golem labor was used to help construct the great light-house near Tou-Tou. Most often, they appear as simple guardians, keeping visitors clear of areas considered dangerous. It is curious that golems often resort to aggressive behavior in order to keep their guests safe – perhaps a symptom of decay in the enchantments that give them life. Humans in the process of losing their minds are also known to become irrational and aggressive.
The wide variety of golem materials simply reflects the diversity of environments in which they were created. Empyrean enchanters apparently made use of the tools at hand. Thus Granite Golems tend to appear in the Linvak and Lost Wish mountains, Sandstone Golems in the A'mun desert, Wood Golems in the Tiofor Woods, and so forth. Further, there is some indication that when a golem's enchantment begins to ebb low, it will return to the place in which it “feels most at home.” For example, Mud Golems seek out swampy areas, and Limestone Golems will return to caverns.
It is worthy of note that none of the recovered records mention the use of golems as soldiers. Texts have told us of huge armies of soldiers and mages (a particularly intriguing reference suggests that Empyrean mages were able to raise forts of sod for camping on the march – much as the Roulean legionaries are trained to physically construct such a redoubt each night). Golems, however, have been conspicuously absent among the descriptions of troops on the march. Speculation on this curious lacking has only begun.
Prevailing opinion in Hebian-to points out that golems are simply poor warriors. They are astonishingly stupid, often trying to run through walls in an attempt to reach their prey. Certain areas in the caverns beneath Mount Esper have trenches dug from frustrated golem feet. The most popular opinion in Cragstone is that the Empyrean did not wish to divorce themselves completely from war. The sages of the highlands maintain that, like certain societies form Ispar, the Empyrean relished the thrill of personal combat.
As attractive as this notion may be to the highlanders, it does not appear to be borne out by the available evidence. Lord Atlan's personal writings imply that war was an unseemly trade for a noble of Yalain. In this matter, he seems to have been an exception to his countrymen. Perhaps, however, the assertion of the highlanders is close to the truth. An argument could be made that the use of golem-soldiers would have hardened the hearts of the Empyrean peoples. It stands to reason that one would be less hesitant to elect the course of the sword over that of the word, if the only casualties that might be suffered were soulless magical creations. The Empyrean may have agreed to not use golems out of fear that war would come to be too painless a recourse for them.
The most likely explanation, in this author's opinion, is that of the al-Ighaz scholars in Zaikhal. Golems are magical creatures, held together purely by the application of patterned mana. It would be ridiculously easy for a well-trained mage to fell hundreds of golem with an Area Dispel – a feat of anti-enchantment the mages of Empyrea are known to have mastered.
Destruction of vast numbers of golem have revealed very little about their method of creation. Over ninety percent of their mass is undifferentiated, inert material. Only two golem “organs,” if such a term may be used, seem to exist. The first of these is the Golem Heart. This appears to be the core enchanted object, around which the rest of the creature is assembled. The second organ is the mote of magically forged pyreal alloy. While intact pyreal motes have only recently been recovered, I have little doubt that they have existed all along. Gondibyr Langarl, the archmage of Rithwic, believes that these motes may have been what passed for a mind in the creature. Instructions the golem was expected to carry out were magically imprinted upon the pyreal mote.
It seems most likely that, in addition to direct commands by an enchanter, golems were designed to receive instructions from other enchanted items. The basis for this theory (championed by Shikiru Nohon of Hebian-to) lies in the numerous golem “shrines” scattered across Dereth, often in remote locations. These “shrines” can appear as anything from simple standing stones to statuary. Golems cluster around these artifacts expectantly, as if awaiting orders.
Perhaps these “shrines” once contained instructions, in the form of pattern enchantments? Surely the small mote that serves as a golem's mind can only hold a finite set of instructions. Is it not logical, argues Shikiru, that these shrines could be enchanted with more elaborate series of commands? When a golem completed one task, it returned to the shrine for another. When the enchantments on the shrines expired, the golems were left bereft of direction. Yet, after all these centuries, they still patiently stand, awaiting orders.
As a final rumination, it is interesting to note that most golems appear to have eyes and a mouth. These are often quite obvious. Possibly the most striking golem visage is that of the Wood Golem. This entity resembles the classic daemon-tree Aluvian mothers use in story to keep children from wandering too far into the trackless woods. However, one need only look at the shimmering, featureless form of the Water Golem to prove that these are merely decorative. The eyeless Water Golem can track its victims well enough. It seems clear that these features are merely there for the benefit and comfort of the humanoid creatures that once interacted with them.
Unfortunately, the secrets of Empyrean Demiurgy, or golem enchantment, continue to evade discovery. Perhaps one day, the people of Ispar will learn this art for themselves. I do wonder, however, what the result would be. With infinite, expendable armies, would we war more casually with each other? With servants that can be made to do the vilest, most dangerous work, would we grow decadent? Or, would these creatures serve to free us for the higher, finer pursuits of art and learning, as they did the Empyrean?
Here I delve into thoughts beyond those of a simple traveling story-collector, and must cease my speculations. Still, one must wonder...the Empyrean are much a mystery to us still. Were they merely men and women, or somehow...greater than the often petty and mean-spirited children of Ispar?
Jenavere closed the journal gently. A polite snap of Hendac's fingers made her look up. He held the wand in one hand, and had his reagents arranged on the floor between them. He made a lifting motion with his hands, palms up, and she mimed the motion. He held the wand up and mouthed words of power. She had been surprised when he first tried to cast, and it had worked. It was generally held that speaking the words of power was somehow necessary for casting. Apparently, only the intention counted. The scholars of Cragstone had gone into hysterics the first time the mute man had cast before them.
The rising shimmer-sound of gathering power filled the room. Then, with a watery hiccup, the pattern of his spell collapsed, dispersing into the air in a pollen-drift of sparkles. He shrugged sheepishly, and tried again, with the same result. On the third try, his brow furrowed with intense concentration, the spell held together. Healing energies coursed into her stomach – near the area the Sho called the Center of the Spirit – and flowed up into outstretched hands. It was a stimulating sensation.
He peered at her with some anxiety as she unwrapped the bandages. The skin of her palms was a vivid red, like the skin of a newborn, but undamaged. Grinning, she clapped her hands once, and held them up for him to view. Her returned the smile.
Impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed him full on the mouth. He snapped his head back in surprise and alarm, and she couldn't help but laugh. “My brave champion,” she said, with a lopsided smile.