Kepta Valley spanned between two mountain ranges. Snow, ice, towering ledges, and faces of granite brooded near cloudlevel while the trees thickened farther down the slopes. A river gushed from the junction of three mountains to the west, feeding into a greater way whose tributaries supplied the inhabitants of Kepta with fresh water, along with irrigation, and revolutions on their mills. In the forested foothills of Llerenos, the fourth highest mount in Kepta valley, rested the gnome kingdom of Vastway. Allied with a community of halflings who dwelt in the plains and grassier hills, the gnomes traded with their taller neighbors for food and textiles. When dwarves appeared across the valley way from the depths of Llerenos itself, gnome King Vastway the First sought trade from them as well. With the raw materials supplied by the dwarves, the gnomes soon turned bits of metal and gems into cunning devices and beautiful works of art. Halfing gardeners grew alchemical foliage in gnome lodges and used the strange illuminating crystals of the dwarves to cultivate new plants which could flourish underearth. The dwarves delved deeper and faster with the gnomic mechanical marvels aiding their mining production and strengthening their shaft supports. With the acumen and merchant contacts of the halflings, raw materials and craftwork alike flowed from Kepta Valley for considerable amounts of gold. Vastway I, the dwarf king Propnear, and halfling Mayor Longfollow, along with landowners and members of their courts, convened the first Kepta council to swear a new alliance. As the wealth of the three groups grew, each could see the wisdom of a defense pact. Each tended to his kingdom and curtailed most non-valley folk, known as Nonva, from exploring much within the borders of their kingdoms. Through the years, tensions arose often amongst those who would expand trade, incorporate new techniques, invite foreign scholars to help improve art and technology, and those who would prefer a more isolationistic policy. Kepta could certainly stand alone, self-sufficient in supply and determined in defense. Vastway I had witnessed the detriment of foreign invaders in the Exile three hundred years before. Others, like Pikespear Willowbank of the Longfollow Court, argued trade brought the influx of new ideas and strengthening of generations. Voices for and against filled the places of power down the decades of Kepta's governance, and many near-conflicting statutes, precepts, and provisions littered the laws to the day. It was only with great reluctance and heavy pressure from the Southern Alliance that Kepta allowed the entry of Hilt’s clergy. A church was constructed in Longfollow. Clerics ministered to the halflings and slowly earned the good graces of the gnome monarchy. These workers of the divine power never quite impressed the wielders of the arcane, however, and continue to possess a tumultuous relationship with the gnome wizards and mages. As for the dwarves, the clergy found the underfolk welcoming but stubbornly resistant to the ways of Hilt, preferring the worship of Edro as most dwarves do. Whether open or recalcitrant, what each ruler of Vastway could agree upon was the need for a strong, loyal agent for their royal person. Vastway I's steadfast lieutenant surrendered all twenty names for the one his liege bestowed: Kingsage. In exchange, the lieutenant and one heir in each generation would serve the king with all he or she had. If that heir were to die, then another of the family would take up the burden.
Trey Willowbank heard the distant yelp and flew to the burnished plate set above the bar to check her reflection. The halfling squinted, counting down the seconds before the main door would swing open. She tucked one stray whisp of hair back behind one pointed ear, tugged an auburn curl to trail becomingly down one side of her freckled, round face, and dashed back behind the bar to polish a pewter tankard with casual, deliberate motions.
Right on cue, Able Kingsage entered. He limped in the right foot as usual. “Sorry, ma’am,” he called, closing the door behind him and adjusting his collar. “I tripped over your flower pot again. It’s mended.”
“Oh, hello, Able!” Trey smiled, the tankard threatening to slip from her hands as her fingers tightened in reflex. “It’s all right.” She set down the mug and leaned on the long bar. “What brings you here today?”
“Uh,” Able brushed off his sleeves with an absent gesture. Black ink on his hands left wide smears on his white shirt arms. “Oh, bother-“
“Here, let me,” Trey offered. “Welbut Hearnew made up some new solvent.”
Quizzical expression crossing his slightly jutted brow, Abel blinked. “Why? You know I can do magic, right?” With a deft motion of his fingers, the white crystal on his twine bracelet flashed. The stains on his shirt and hands vanished, though the gnome’s generally rumpled appearance would need a lot more than magic to rectify.
“Never mind.” Rolling her eyes, Trey crossed her arms and leaned on the bar again. “What can I get you, Able?”
“Uh…” Squinting, the gnome stared past her, eyes unfocusing. He peered around the room without seeing for a moment as if seeking inspiration. Pikespear’s Tap, unlike the Delve or the Copse Cup taverns, featured a healthy mix of small and large tables and seats. The bar was filled with tables worked with cunning hands to fold out and allow shorter beings to sit next to taller visitors. Bunches of light globes flickered on pillars; smaller bubbles of illumination glowed on metal-wrought blooms and buds in the center of tables. A squat iron stove took up a large portion of one corner, a fanning of chairs facing it. When bards or traveling entertainers visited, two tables shoved together next to the stove served as makeshift stage.
Able’s stomach growled and he brightened. “Food! Yes, food. I haven’t had time to, uh, cook.”
“Very well, then! One ‘food’ coming up.”
“Three. Three food – er, enough food for three. A meal for three.” Able tucked his lower lip between his teeth, hands dropping to his sides. He shuffled his feet.
With an inward sigh, Trey took pity. “Have a seat, Able. I’ll need some time to cook it.” She turned to the cupboards behind the bar and plucked spices and dried foodstuffs from them with brisk, efficient motions. A simmering pot of stock soon materialized on the stove. Apples followed cabbage and onion inside. As Trey sliced up celery, she cleared her throat. “So how is Lily?”
“Lily?” Able started at the sudden question.
“Lily Goldplum? You two had a walk together last week, didn’t you?” Trey plunked the celery into the stew and looked up to see Able staring at her in confusion. It was not an unfamiliar sight.
“I saw her last week, yes.” Brow crinkling again, Able struggled to remember more. And then wondered why she was asking. “And we, I guess so, we walked the same direction.” He shrugged, the lines of the puzzled frown deepening. “Why?”
“She mentioned it.” More than mentioned it, Trey added silently. Lily Goldplum, the daughter of Kepta’s finest gnome cobbler had raved on and on about their two minute walk ever since.
For the same reason I push the flowerpot out an extra four inches every day, hoping you’ll come by. Instead of revealing this, Trey stirred the stewpot. From an ornately carved maplewood box, she pinched up some augenlea and dusted the stew. “Able, you may be a genius,” she said, hoisting up the pot and carrying it over to the bar, “But you’re very dense.” She set the pot down next to him and rested a fist on her hip, glaring at the gnome over the counter.
The utter helplessness on his face, coupled with the fidgeting of his hands and the wordless opening and closing of his mouth was too much. Though she tried, Trey’s lips curved and parted into a peal of laughter. “Able, Able, Able,” she gasped out. “Whatever will become of you?” She turned back to the pot.
“I’m not dense,” Able’s face flushed and he stared down at his fingers, pressing them into the scuffed stone of the bartop. “I just don’t notice…things like…her.”
“People. Uh, people like, uh, her. Oh, for Nystra’s sake.” Covering his face, Able groaned.
The way his shoulders hunched, his bony fingers twining into his dark brown bangs, and the genuine moment of realization sent a shiver of something through Trey’s chest. She hesitated, wiping her hands on a rag. Then, she leaned on her elbows across from him. His shoulders felt so knobby under her palms. By Zoetha. He needs to eat more. “Able.”
He raised his head from his hands, a pitiful expression in his soft green eyes.
“You have a bright, keen mind, master gnome. There are poems of beauty, words of love to assemble as well as inventions of brass and clockwork within its labyrinth.”
Taking a breath, Trey released his shoulders. She reached down and intertwined her fingers with his. “You have nimble hands, master gnome. There are girls to dance ’round with them as well as gears to fix.”
For a moment, Able said nothing. He looked down at their joined hands, blushing. His eyes cleared and he raised their hands nearer to his face. The sudden increase in proximity set Trey’s heart thumping. His warm breath on her palm prickled the skin on her neck. One of his fingers traced a gentle, slow circle around the yielding flesh at the base of her thumb. “That-” raising his gaze to hers, Able shook his head. “Amazing.”
With the word, an intense heat broke over Trey’s body and she shivered. She almost leaned forward but forced herself to wait. He’s realized it, she thought. And I didn’t have to say it outright. Her gazed flickered down to his small mouth, pursed in thought-
“I didn’t know you were double-jointed.”
The smallness of his mouth vanished a broad grin. “That’s perfect, Trey!”
“It is?” The heat faded and her heart calmed; Trey tried to fight the sinking sensation in her stomach. As Able released her hand and scrabbled in his pockets, however, she knew the moment had not called out to him as it had with her.
“Yes! See, we’ve been doing this wrong for generations.” Letting out a tremendous snort of derision, Able produced a half-crumpled, half-smudged sheet of paper and bit of charcoal. He smoothed the page on the edge of the bar. “The digits and joints could bend back far enough given the right materials…”
Grabbing her hand again, he wiggled the thumb back and forth. Another smile lit his eyes and he dropped her hand to scribble at the page. In seconds, a sketch of Trey’s hand appeared under the flurry of strokes. Lines pointed to various parts, notes filling in details. “Perhaps we cannot implement- I suppose, given time – but if – uh…” He stared at the page, brow arching. Silence fell.
His stomach grumbled again.
Trey Willowbank sighed through her nose and turned to the pot of stew. She ladled the piping hot contents into three lidded wooden bowls. Stacking one atop the other, she pushed them into his hands. “Here. We’ll put it on Ziln’s tab. Go and eat before it gets cold.”
To Able’s mind came the feeling he had missed something important once more. Remembering his manners, he bowed – an awkward motion with three full bowls to balance – and turned toward the door. He paused, attempting to jiggle the handle open with his elbow. A hand wrapped around it and pushed it open. “Thank you,” he mumbled and padded out into the sunshine.
“Wait a moment.” Trey balanced a basket atop the bowls, the wholesome fragrance of freshly-baked bread issuing from within. “There.” She leaned on the door as he set off down the street, back toward the outskirts of town. Biting her lip, she bent down and nudged the flowerpot back into place.
“Ah, good, junge!” Gramfer Ziln clapped his hands together as Able entered the workshop. He adjusted his sleeves and cleared his throat. From the chair across from him, Ulluna arose, frown fading as her only son set the bowls of soup down on the work bench.
Mystified by the machinations of the female mind though he was, not all subtlety was lost upon Able. “Trey Willowbank sends greetings,” he said, setting a bowl on the bench closest to his gramfer. They argue a lot these days, Mother and Gramfer, he thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ulluna’s fist unclench.
“She’s a lovely girl.” Ulluna managed a strained smile which only confirmed Able’s suspicions. “Despite her wastrel of a father.”
“Pikespear?” Letting out a rude noise, Ziln sipped noisily at his soup. “A blowhard he might be, but a nice fellow.”
“Yes, he does not a lick of work, makes poor Trey run the tavern all by herself, and drinks all day.” Ulluna spooned up some soup and dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
“As may be, but he does talk to every nonva that comes through Kepta. Smartest council member of the Longfollow Court, that one.” Ziln set down his spoon and hopped over to a square chest. Tapping it once with his wand, he opened the lid, releasing a draft of chilly air. From within, he produced a jug of milk and rummaged for beakers midst the workshop debris around them. He waved his wand again, the dust and scum vanishing from the glass. “He does possess a few qualities worth emulating.”
Accepting a beaker of milk, Able once again caught the note of formality in their tones – the particular note used between adults who are in a subtle argument in front of children. “Ah!” he scrabbled for something to say and found it. “Nut bread with cinnamon! My favorite.” He sliced the loaf Trey had added.
“Yes, Trey did give you your favorite, didn’t she?” A curious expression appeared on Ulluna’s face. Ziln appeared to catch sight of it and sighed. “That was certainly nice of her, wasn’t it, Able?”
“Yes, and I got an idea about work from her, too.” The savory slice, warm and filling, sent a soft glow through out his chest. Chewing, he met his mother’s expectant gaze. He swallowed. “What?”
Ulluna said nothing, only turning back to glare once more at Ziln who raised his bushy eyebrows in a bemused chuckle. “I will be so glad when this is complete.”
“Four generations,” Ziln said through a mouthful of stewmeat; he swallowed and continued. “My great-grandfather through me to you, and now the fifth,” he nodded toward Able. “With all of that, we are closer than ever.” He swiveled to fix anxious eyes on the gleaming object in the center of the workshop.
The clockwork knight loomed above them. It was a full head taller than most gnomes and was sculpted from brass, iron, and steel. Metal plates on cunning hinges propped open all over the figure to reveal gears, bladders of rubber, and other intricate machinery. Instead of blood, runic leylines ran the length of the limbs, digits, torso, an head. Hand-etched runes met acid stenciled ones, the handwriting older, spidery here and newer, more fluid there. Rougher hammered iron plates were welded to thinner forged plates of mithril and adamantium. An amalgamation of rough and delicate, ancient and new – it spoke of centuries of work by different smiths, tinkers, alchemists, mages, all adding their knowledge over separate lifetimes.
“I don’t want to be close. I want to be finished.”
“We’ll do it, mother.” Able reached out and took his mother’s hand.
She squeezed for a brief moment and released, crossing her arms.
“The king will count our debt complete,” Able added, looking for a hint of hope in her eyes. What were they arguing about before I came back?
Gramfer Ziln swallowed the last of his stew and set the bowl aside. Munching a slice of bread, he paced around the mechanical construct. “It would have been easier to make a golem,” he mused. “It is a pity the Kompendium was destroyed.”
Chuckling to cover his anxiousness, Able picked up a tool and knelt by the knight to adjust a joint. A faint hum tickled his ears as he twisted the bolt. “But golems are enormous. They would not fit in the throne room, much less the average dwelling.” He stood up and dusted his knees off. “Did you complete the leylines to the toes? The legs are balanced.”
“Yes, last night.” Ziln nodded. Then winced. “Early this morning, rather.”
With a tired, gentle smile, the old gnome shrugged and hung his head. “I know, Ulluna, I know. I would have gone to bed earlier, but-” he tilted his head toward Able. “I sent the junge home-“
“I am sixty-five,” hands on his hips, Able felt a surge of irritation bull past his attempt at continued nonchalance. “I am not a junge.” He flinched as Ulluna and Ziln turned to him with raised brows. Already, his fingers twirled the tool in nervous motions. Catching himself, he gripped it tight, trying hard not to shake.
“He is.” Ziln crossed to the workbench and shoved papers aside. From underneath them, he produced a simply-bound book. Arcane runes and ciphers filled the pages flipped under the old gnome’s gnarled fingers. “As such, he is to make his own choices. Oh, blast!” his exclamation cut off a protest from Ulluna. “Which page is ‘close sight?'”
“Seventy-three,” Able replied automatically.
Some point had been proven in his gramfer’s favor given the look of triumph Ziln gave Ulluna. The latter’s anger turned her knuckles white but then dissipated into a strange defeated look. Ziln carried the book over and raised his wand to trace a pattern in the air. The clockwork knight’s eyes glowed once and darkened. With a snap, the old gnome shut the book and sighed, suddenly sober once again. “So much accomplished and yet so much still to do,” he blurted.
“Mindful ambulation?” Reaching up, Able pulled open the helmet. Between where the eyes were set on two delicate curved wires, a gap yawned, surround with a dozen brass terminals, waiting.
“Precisely.” Ziln scooted a stepstool closer to the knight and tapped the gap. “It needs a brain. Not just the ability to receive commands, but to learn-“
A loud thump at the door caused them all to jump. Ulluna snatched up a sheet and cast it over the clockwork knight while Able skirted around the workbench to answer the door. Before he could reach it, a muffled voice on the other side called out a word. A crashing boom echoed throughout the workshop, shivering the dustmotes in the lamp light. All of the bolts on the door snapped open and it swung inward.
A group of five gnomes entered. Four wore the armor of the Slightstands, the king’s personal guard. The fifth was hooded in soft, cream-colored acolyte outfit: loose linen pants, tunic, cloak, hood, and white leather boots. Around his neck on a silver chain hung a medallion upon which was etched a tower with square crenellations. “Ziln!” the robed one greeted, raising his fingers in a wave.
Ziln’s lips curled in a sour smile which added to the frostiness of his eyes. “Acolyte Deepfield,” he murmured.
“This is an unlawful intrusion,” barked Ulluna, shoving past him. She strode forward, a heavy wrench held loose and low in her hand. “We are tasked with a clandestine effort which necessitates the utmost secrecy. Remove yourself at once, Deepfield.”
“Bishop Deepfield,” the robed gnome corrected in a pleasant tone. He examined a chair with a tutting noise, waved his hand at one of the guards, and sat down as they pulled it out for him. “Ordinated only this morning at the behest of our good king. An early honor of his birthday, I might add.”
“Delightful,” Ulluna did not back up and she still held the wrench.
“Indeed! As to the unlawful intrusion, well,” gaze flicking over to Ziln, Bishop Deepfield’s smile curled into something sinister. “That is a sticky matter. The law, that is. Tell me, Ziln Kingsage, what is the law regarding Necromancy?”
Only the slightest of twitches in his gramfer’s jaw hinted at any annoyance and Able held his breath as Ziln replied, “Doubtless, the same it has been in the last millennia in Kepta and all lands of the Southern Alliance.”
“A millennia,” Bishop Deepfield repeated, his smirk fading into a more serious expression. “One thousand years. Since the Exile at least.”
“Good. You know how to count.” Ulluna’s voice continued to growl.
Able snickered, Ziln put out a restraining hand, and Deepfield’s guards stirred. One rumbled through the hook-beaked Hilt concealing his face. “You will accord his excellency the proper respect, Ulluna.”
The words had just passed his lips when Able’s mother crossed the room the rest of the way in a twinkling. Her hard hand thrust out to jab against the gleaming cuirass with a resounding bong. As the guard stumbled back, Ulluna placed her hands on her hips in a deliberate motion to show their emptiness. “And you, Delwin Holdfast Corngeld, will do me the courtesy of calling me by my full name as is respectful of your teachers.” Eyes narrowing to silver slits, she rocked forward on the balls of her feet. “Or does the fact that you used only one mean we are in combat?”
Three of the guards stepped back, iron shod boots clanking against the stone floor. Their hands dropped to their belts for their blades but all paused as the fourth laughed. “She has you there, Commander Delwin.” Raising the visor on her Hilt, she squinted out in a wry half-smile. “Do excuse him, Mother. He was most anxious for any assignment since gaining his own promotion.”
Gaze softening, Ulluna smiled. Tension eased in the room as she clasped her daughter’s forearm.
Frenai Kingsage Brandstone winked at Able whose mouth had fallen open in surprise. “Hello, Bloom-Egg. Come by for dinner tonight and tell me about your harem. Lily is furious about you and Trey.” Tall and solid like her mother, her eyes were also grey. Unlike her mother’s, they possessed a softness.
Cutting through Able’s sputters of protest, Bishop Deepfields harrumphed. “Yes, yes. See, this is a happy occasion! Reunion, family, et cetera, no need for threats. However,” he rapped the workbench with a heavily-ringed hand. “There may be cause for concern.” He leaned forward, his rose-colored eyes piercing toward Ziln. “Are you familiar with the name Raithros?”
Here, it was only Able’s long familiarity with his gramfer which drew his attention to the subtle tightening around the eyes. “I’ve heard the name before,” Ziln shrugged.
“Raithros traveled through Kepta twenty years ago for the first time. Every six months or so after, he returned, always passing through the same place until vanishing two years past. Last week, an emissary of the Southern Alliance approached us, King Embercore, and the Longfollow Court.” Steepling his fingers, Deepfield leaned back in his chair, not taking his eyes from Ziln for a moment. “Raithros had been accused and convicted of necromancy, grave robbery, and crimes against the passed-on.”
Ziln said nothing.
“So, what does this have to do with us?” Ulluna raised her eyebrows, glancing from Ziln to the bishop.
“Thus far, I have found no one who has exchanged more than cursory greetings and pleasantries with Raithros.”
“Well, we gnomes are nothing if not pleasant.” A note of irony complimented the facetious comment from Ulluna.
“Neither has any investigator from the halfling council or Embercore,” Deepfield raised his voice to talk over her. “Only a few who remember talking a little with him about nothing more important than inn bills or weather.”
“Really? Not one word relating to raising the dead in exchange for room and board? Treason!” Ulluna threw up her hands in exaggerated exasperation. “Liars the lot of them!”
“Lying or perhaps their memories have been magically altered.” Deepfield studied Ziln who stared back at him in silence. “There are many talented arcanists among the alliance.” The rose-colored eyes turned and gazed straight at Able.
Able took an automatic step back, shrinking from the piercing intensity of the bishop’s gaze. Ulluna backed up and set herself between them. “Take care, Bishop,’ she ground out. “If you have anything to accuse my family of, I would you remind you of our generations of steadfast loyalty to the crown.”
“Admirable,” the bishop’s voice softened. “For a former Willstone, you guard your husband’s name as though it is your own.”
This time, it was Ziln who reacted. The pearl at the tip of his wand glowed fierce blue, but Ulluna skipped forward and forced his wrist down. Frenai and one of her fellow guards stepped in front of Deepfield, shields raised. “Gramfer, please,” Frenai pleaded, hand falling to her belt. Her fingers did not touch the sword at her side but Able knew she would if Ziln tried to attack the bishop.
“That name was passed on to me through the deepest love, Bishop,” Ulluna said in a quiet tone. “Just as the first Kingsage received his new name out of love for his liege. We shall die before betraying Vastway.”
“You may die for betraying Vastway if our investigation reveals so,” Deepfield snapped.
“Well, uh,” Able quailed as they all turned to him, surprised by his speaking up. “That’s why you’re investigating, right? So you can tell the paladins that Wrathrear or whats-his-name was only traveling through on his way to elsewhere.”
The crimson eyes narrowed at him and then the bishop rose and tugged his robes straight. “Just so. My…our investigations will continue. I shall see you all at the celebration in one week’s time.” One of the guards opened the door for him and he paused with one final close look at each of them. “If not before.” His guards followed him out.
All but one. Frenai lingered with an apologetic smile. “I love you all. Able,” she shut her visor after winking at him. “Don’t forget to come to dinner.” She pulled the door closed behind her.
As soon as it swung closed, Ziln scuttled forward and pressed his ear against the thick oak. He held up a gnarled finger to hush them until a minute had passed. Prodding the door with his wand, he nodded to himself as the gears clinked and the latches clicked.
Able swallowed as his gramfer turned back with slumped shoulders. A few more lines seemed to have appeared under the old gnome’s eyes since the beginning of the interruption. Yet, a fierce desperation lit Ziln’s eyes as he groped his way back to his chair.
“You knew Raithros,” Able clenched his fists, hoping he was wrong.
His gramfer said nothing.
Ulluna strode over to the workbench. She shoved a box of miscellaneous gears aside and picked up a small steel-colored cube with rounded corners. Each side of the cube held a clock face but no ticking issued from within. “So that’s what you used. How many memories did you modify?”
Remaining silent, Ziln turned his wand over and over in his hands, staring down at it.
“How much of Raithros’s work is in the knight?” Her voice rose.
With a deep breath, Ziln extended his hand. He drew his sleeve down to bare his arm and traced the bones from his wrist to his elbow. “All of the leylines we have etched along the appendages are based upon his sketches of the nerves, the bones, the veins.”
“‘Sketches?'” Able gulped.
“I knew there was no way he could have come by his knowledge by any good means.” Letting his sleeve fall back into place, Ziln ran his hand through the thinning snow-white locks of his brow.
“Then why?” Ulluna snapped.
Ziln jerked a thumb at Able. “For him. For you. For Frenai. For too few good kings and too many Kingsages dead at the word of too many bad kings. All for the price of a name.”
Cold fear twisted the hairs on the back of Able’s neck. He shivered and crossed his arms, wishing he could draw back the curtains. Instead, he paced around the shrouded clockwork knight. The boot-like foot poking out from one end of the tarp gleamed dull in the lamplight. He reached down, tugging the cloth to cover the exposed piece. His fingers prickled as though he had brushed them across stinging nettles and he backed away.
“And for all that, you taught my son necromancy.”
“No!” Ziln leaped to his feet, beard bristling as the desperate gleam in his eyes gave way to fury. Able retreated to the other side of the knight. “Nothing I have taught will help him raise the dead.” Ziln stopped shouting, chest rising and falling with exertion beneath his robe. “Raithros shared his knowledge of the body mechanics, nothing more. I paid him a proper fee, and, no, it was not more than I could afford. What is done is done. Believe me and let it go. We have more pressing concerns.” He tugged the sheet from the clockwork knight. “All that we have implemented thus far works; Raithros’s contributions are vital to completion.”
“But the bishop-“
“-will likely discover the trail I left. Sooner or later, at least,” Ziln acknowledged Ulluna’s protest with a grim expression. “His skills in restoration are sharp.” The old gnome tapped a segment of runes running along the inner portion of the knight’s bracers. A spark of azure energy leaped from his wand and lit the etchings. The knight’s metal fingers curled into a fist with a clink. “But our efforts are nearly complete! If we can finish this project, the king may well forgive us our iniquity and release our debt besides.”
“Gramfer,” Able brought him the stepstool and stood back as the old gnome clambered up to address the runes in the shoulder. “Mindful ambulation has never been achieved outside of the Kompendium, and even then, the golems obey only the simplest commands. They do not learn.”
“It is the simmering problem in all the notes,” Ulluna sighed and swore. “I’ve read through each batch of notes, every scrap of paper which mentions work on this machine for the past hundreds of years.” Her head moved side to side in a slow shake. “All acknowledged the challenge, few attempted it, and none of them made significant headway.”
“It has to be possible, though,” Able leafed through the massive pile of papers upon the worktable under the window. “What about the sentient magical tools and swords? Surely there must be a technique to copy their manufacture.”
“Presence sans effectuation,” growled his gramfer. He swung the panels on the shoulders closed. Standing on his toes, he lifted the helm from the neck armor to reveal the half-sphere set into the neck, the eyes on thin erect wires. “The spirit of the implement would benefit its wielder but without the wielder, the spirit can do nothing.” A wire frame was riveted to the innards of the half-sphere, runes etched into the fine filaments leading down into the throat and off towards the extremities. “To enchant something small enough to overcome that power…” Ziln shook his head. “That is the impossible.”
“It would have to be a gem or like object,” Hopping up on the table next to the knight, Able peered over Ziln’s shoulder. “Each facet would meet each filament and convey the received instructions.”
“Well, that would be an excellent form,” his gramfer nodded. “The guiding force is, as I said, the problem.”
“This,” Ulluna rubbed her temples, giving Ziln a stern look. “Is starting to sound like a phylactery.” Reaching out, she rummaged through the odds and ends of papers, pulling out journals and clay tablets to stack them in neat piles.
“A ‘bound soul?'” Able translated after a moment, confused.
“Able, you are not to ask-“
“Mother, I am sixty-five years old. I have given fifty of them to this project. I cannot swing a sword but I can enchant one. Please do not treat me as though I were nine again.”
“Enough, enough, enough,” With a slam, Ziln shoved the Hilt back down to cover the half-orb head of the knight. “No, Ulluna, I will not bind anyone’s soul with that foul craft just to complete this work. Perhaps, however, we could find one.” He rested his hands upon the armored shoulders. “It would not be as though we conjured it ourselves.”
“And we must not do that, either,” Ulluna glared. “The ones who bind their own souls do not have the best interests of anyone at heart save for themselves. If you could find a phylactery before Deepfield concludes his investigation, which is unlikely, it will not contain a fine, loyal citizen of Vastway, much less a Kingsage.”
Ulluna pressed on, relentless. “Add to the fact that any necromancy within the design would eventually be detected by Deepfield or his like in the church.”
“Not if we reproduced a similar effect using other magic,” drawing his hand over his brow, Able knew, even as he said it, how much effort it would take. Forming new magic, writing new spells took tremendous amounts of time, work, and exposure to the dangers of unstable arcana.
“That would be ideal.” Ziln puffed out his cheeks in a sigh. “Once again, the problem is time. We’ve spent so much time on this and now we find the time we have left is short. If we could present King Vastway with the completed knight at his birthday celebration, then the gift might smooth things over.”
“If it did not, you would be imprisoned, your workshop stripped bare, and all of us investigated.”
“And thus we would not be able to complete the clockwork knight anyway.” The shadow deepened on Ziln’s face, his cheeks seeming more gaunt than pinched. He bowed his head, resting a hand against the knight. “I thought I had been so careful. Instead, I’ve failed you both. Frenai as well. Ricoff.”
Ulluna said nothing, crossing the workshop to put her arm around his shoulder which shook as he stifled a sob. “So close,” Ziln murmured. “So very near.”
A series of clicks echoed throughout the room and both looked over to see Able step through the door and shut it behind him.