It is disturbing to see bodies dangling from a ceiling on metallic hooks, even if the bodies in question are made of wood and clay and wire. A puppeteer’s shop has always seemed a disturbing thing to me. Macabre in an inexplicable way. It’s as if the artisan has arranged a room full of corpses on display, peeling back the skin to reveal the inner anatomy. Their hollow eyes remind me of the dark pits in skulls.
It’s even more disturbing when you know that you’ve been asked to locate the murderous golems that have escaped the puppeteer. Just how alive are they, I ask, as I stare at their limbs and body parts strewn about the workshop.
Odomira asked for our assistance while we were aboard the Juniper Light, a light cruiser frigate that carries goods between Thrushmoor and Caliphas every other day. Aetherton recommended the vessel, saying he frequently used it for travel. They generally didn’t take on too many extra passengers, but they did reserve a few cabins for those who know to ask. Fortunate, because renting a stagecoach would have cost much more. And their sweet bread is to die for. The late season pecans were a treat.
Odomira offered us each a minor magical enchantment on an item of our choice if we were to bring her back the hearts of her fugitive golems. A steep reward. Su left the table in disgust after asking several questions, and I soon learned that freedom is a moral imperative for Su. It’s a fascinating thing to see in a mercenary. I suppose I have only dealt with Ustalav mercenaries, and though they value freedom, they often kidnap, imprison, or generally disrespect individual freedoms. It was a little strange, but uplifting to see such high ideals in a mercenary. Persephone and I agreed that we needed to learn more, but if these golems could think and feel, Odomira might one day regret asking for our assistance. We might instead be assisting her fugitives!
Halda, on the other hand, had a hard time understanding our dilemma. We had no evidence to suggest the golems were anything other than constructs. And were constructs truly alive? Did they have spirits? She was right to ask. To that end I made sure to grab a small necklace I discovered in Odomira’s workshop, made of wire and twigs. What use would such an object have, if not to beautify? And if a being cares for beauty, can it not see beauty? Does it not ask itself, am I beautiful? Does this creature deserve to have its heart scavenged so that Odomira can live in more comfort and we can gain our minor magical enchantment? Who would we be then?
For the time being, we kept our philosophical discussions from Aetherton. We didn’t want him concerned by conflicts of his position – to aid fugitives in his own land or do “the right thing.” He was busy anyway. His father invited us to stay at the Lowls Estate in Thrushmoor. The city, by the way, is full of winding streets with a biting cold and a thousand gradations of fish smells: from putrid brine soaked fish to day old fish to fish as fresh as the open sea.
Sulayn and Persephone spent an evening investigating the fugitives. We learned there are three more self-aware golems. The largest, their apparent leader, is well-spoken. There’s also a marksman and ammunitions expert and a repair golem. They’ve gathered a number of other golems to their cause, though those appear less self-conscious. They apparently went on a murdering spree in their efforts to take up arms. Check one for the column: monsters. But Sulayn and Persephone also discovered there’s an underground movement to free thinking and feeling Created. These are not isolated incidents. And truth be told, I’ve seen the occasional exception around Ustalav – I just never knew how it was they came to be so…alive. So, check one for the column: human. Or should I say, living? Spirited?
Su learned of a password the rebellion uses. We’ve agreed to use that to greet the Created, in the hopes we can avoid a bloodbath. Persephone tracked the Created to a river outside Thrushmoor and Halda helped us gain their trail with the help of the wand Odomira gave us. It tracks magical auras and provides some basic information through its auras, but it has limited uses. A useful item, and I experimented with it as well. Leaving Mila in good care at the Lowls Estate – with a tub of wood dust for her needs, plenty of water and food, and a warm bed, she’d be fine for at least a few days. One kind servant assured me she’d make sure her daughter checked on Mila daily. She looked at me disapprovingly as I left, and I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. But I could not take her into the Versex wilds. It was too dangerous. Too many unknowns.
In the wilderness I began looking for flowers and shrooms for the guild in Caliphas. We came on Teddit and Rose who were being harassed by thugs. Aetherton issued a warning but the cutpurses wouldn’t have it. Persephone ran one through and spilled his guts all over the soft dirt. One thug went for Rose and I made sure to clip his arm with a well-placed arrow. The practice sessions were helping! But the worm lunged at the same time and escaped the worst of it, grabbing the girl – only half his size. Halda concentrated and sent several in the front staggering, while Aetherton, Persephone, and Su all closed in. In a matter of seconds their numbers were cut in half and their bodies lay around Teddit. I angled for another shot alongside Halda. But Persephone wasted no time with her business, murdering another savagely. But now the other two had Rose by the throat. Su dropped his spear and approached, calm as a cucumber. He warned them to disarm, echoing Aetherton’s offer, and empty-handed he moved steadily toward the man. They gave one more try but Su just stepped aside from the man’s desperate swing, drew his dagger, grappled him. The other two began to run for it and training an arrow on them I called out to stop. At last they gave it up.
I took two vials – a venom antidote and a venom – from the leader, while the others learned that the Created had helped Teddit with a broken wagon wheel. Check two, in the column: spirited. But where were they going. In speaking to Teddit and studying their tracks we guessed it was some place north of Rozenport – a dangerous wooded area Teddit and Rose warned. But Aetherton shrugged, “I’ve been playing in these forests since I was a child, there isn’t anything dangerous here." All the better since we were on our way to where the ogres were said to be harassing towns. Maybe we could meet up with Randolph, to whom I’d promised my assistance. For the time being, this seemed more urgent. Randolph would have to wait.
It was less than a day in when we were ambushed in a clearing under an immense tree. Su thought he recognized the tree from his time in Kyonin and approached, amazed, but the ground dropped out under him. Before I could offer a hand, spiders the size of large wolves were dropping down all around us. Halda was able to back away safely, but two spider tore at his waist with their mandibles. In addition, two men with hooked claws and mandibles, with multiple beady black eyes leapt from the tree and came at me. Ettercaps. I'd heard of them attacking Sczarni in Lozeri once, but we steered clear of that area. To make matter worse, a spider was gnashing at my side. Persephone was beset by two more and two spiders. A well-planned ambush. And Aetherton dropped to the ground, losing all ability to move his limbs. White foam spread from his lips. Trying to bat the spiderkin and the spider away, I fumbled for the St. Ezra’s spray, grateful that I’d had the foresight to produce an aerated version. I managed to spray him down while dodging attacks from all directions.
A moment later Su vaulted out of his pit and skewered a spider. I was sprayed by webbing from a spider in the trees, encased in its sticky threads. Aetherton lost no time and scrambled up, luckily not dropping either sword. He skewered another spider. Halda focused and sent another into a daze, created a small window in the melee. Seeing my opportunity, I twisted my wrist and grabbed my dagger, slicing my way through. As I threw off the silken threads I leapt backward through the opening in the melee. Landing on my feet, I drew an arrow. A second later I shot an ettercap through the chest, bursting its lungs. Su, Aetherton, and I killed another of the creatures each, turning the tide quickly, though I wonder if anyone received any more wounds. Persephone who’d been holding the front all on her own finally dropped to a knee while splitting a spider in half. In the next instant, she dropped, paralyzed with the same venom Aetherton had been. She’d resisted the effects as long as she could, but she couldn’t quite resist long enough to kill the last spider. It seized its opportunity and sprayed Persephone with the same webbing I’d been trapped in, then pulled her up with unnerving speed.
Halda and I both acted without hesitation. She flung lightning at it, cooking it instantly, while I shot a well-placed arrow through its juicy abdomen. Persephone dropped and Aetherton stepped up, catching the cocoon that was Persephone. Everyone cleaned themselves off while I proceeded to do the dirty business of making sure the creatures were dead. While I did so, I decided it would be prudent to extract the venom I could, obtaining one vial of paralytic poison.
It is good to be traveling again. The spirit feels more free. A life comes into relief – its most grotesque and its most beautiful.