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The nine-foot golem swung its bladed arm and another officer fell, bloodied and immobile, joining the five others—officers and adventures alike—that had tried to halt its progress through the Gastonian thoroughfare. The town was near enough to the capital to qualify as a suburb, but once the golem reached the city proper, the real havoc would begin.

At his home, Morbo the Metalmancer stretched out and prepared for a nap, a bit worn out from his morning’s labor. He had long seethed about the rumor that Gastonia was developing its own clockwork fighters that could make his figures obsolete, since they wouldn’t need his touch to “inspire” them. He’d considered demonstrating how much more powerful his figures could be by wreaking havoc in the streets, knowing his patrons in the Houses would protect him from reprisals. He’d only held off from doing so because a sorcerer should be above such petty displays. His alchemic studies were more important than the opinions of the idiot populace.

But after yesterday, after that…insolent gnome, that tarted-up little quarter-person had dared lay her grease-stained hands on him…he found he no longer cared about the dignity of his station. Gastonia had rejected him, and so Gastonia would hurt. And if she or his miscegenated “classmate” or any of these other “Piecemakers” happened to get in the way of his creation, that would just be a bonus. He slept, the sleep of the just.

On the streets, the golem felled a seventh opponent, an eighth, a ninth, like wheat before the scythe. It seemed none could stop its progress…

Until someone did. With a bang, the golem’s arm smashed into its target, yet failed to budge it. It retracted the arm and its other arm swung down. Another bang, another failure to move.

Scipio calmly noted dents starting to appear in his third-favorite shield. And his endurance was not infinite. He could take six more hits…

BANG. Perhaps twelve. If the gods were kind. But he saw no reason to gamble. He studied the creature’s legs, assessing.

BANG. The golem’s stance was firm. It didn’t have leg joints like a human’s.

BANG. But that didn’t mean it had no “joints” at all. There was a bit of a bend in the metal. Stabilizing the legs.

BANG. And the golem’s blows were rhythmic. He could predict its strikes. The instant before each strike, it would be a bit off balance–

BANG. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. Four–

BANG. One. Two. Now.

Scipio leapt, his sword extended out like a rapier, finding the junction in the metal and lodging its point within it. The golem staggered, but then simply rotated its upper body 180 degrees. Having done so, it prepared to swing again at Scipio, whose sword-arm was too exposed and whose shield was too dented to block further strikes from both directions.

“Hh,” commented Scipio.

And then a fireball blasted the golem in the back, forcing its arms to aid in its balance and giving Scipio a reprieve from attack. Then came another fireball, and another and another, flying with a frequency that surprised Scipio. Most wizards were academics and rarely adjusted their spells to match the pace of a battle, acting as if one single, decisive move would be enough to resolve things. The fireballs kept coming, but Scipio couldn’t turn his head to see their source. Was there a team of flamecasters backing him up, or…?

“Other leg’s yours, Rachel. Now!” commanded a familiar gnomish voice.

Rachel stepped up to stand next to Scipio, her hands flaring with holy light.

“Yes. Now. Bringer of pain, mockery of life, let the Heart of All expel you as waste from the blood of Arkerra!”

Rachel lifted her fists, and her fists were the sun, and sun smote metal, and sun smote metal, and sun smote metal, and sun smote metal, and metal buckled, and metal was crushed, and the golem’s arms waved wildly until it pitched forward and collapsed.

But the golem continued to move, like a half-smashed insect. Rendering it totally immobile was some minutes’ work, requiring the use of more fireballs, more swordplay, more glowing hands and feet. And as Scipio had feared, Bandit, who had none of those things, used those minutes on conversation.

“Nice t’be workin’ with you after all, Scipio. Thought y’were freelance.”

“I am.”

“So why the volunteer gig?”

“Self-preservation. Town gets wrecked, nobody has any ralds to spend. No ralds, nobody pays me.”

“Cool. Coolcoolcool. But still… we’re all gettin’ paid to do this. An’ you’re not. Don’t seem fair.”

And then Bandit did something quite atypical for her, but she was starting to get a sense of how Scipio worked. So she let her statement hang there. Said nothing. Even managed to affect mild disinterest.

Finally Scipio said, “You’re right.”

She smiled.

He drew his sword on her. “Gimme your money.”

Bandit stared at him, then burst into laughter. “I wasn’t… Y’don’t… This is not how you mug somebody, man! You gotta wait ’til I’m alone in an alley or somethin’, cripes!”

Scipio sheathed his sword, but kept his eyes narrow. “I’m not into your ’cause,’ the way you gave it to me the other day. I don’t care about ‘saving civilization’ or ‘legitimacy’. I’m done trying to be things I’m not.”

E-Merl already quiet on this mission, seemed intimidated by Scipio’s scorn, as he had by Ardaic’s reserve at their meetings. Bandit still hoped her old crew would walk in on them at the tavern any day now…but she did wonder how awkward E-Merl would get if he had to rub shoulders with them.

But Rachel broke in. “We can all become more than we are. The word of Frigg Akerfeldt teaches that when one uses one’s strength responsibly, whole new vistas open up. As they did for her, when she took on the responsibility of immolating our mother!”

Scipio let that statement float in the air for a few beats before saying, “I’m an atheist. And a mercenary.”

“Then just be our merc’nary,” said Bandit.

“I owe you one. Figure that’s worth a trial run. I’m just trying to manage your expectations.”

“Works f’ me!”

“Because it seems like you’ve got a lot of those. Maybe your own. Maybe others’, real or imagined.”

Bandit just nodded and reminded herself, Mean’s not a dealbreaker, I’ve worked with mean b’fore. In the weeks to come, she would have to endure more stings from the scorpion before winning, however gradually, the respect of the man.

As they headed to the tavern to rest and refresh themselves, Rachel noticed E-Merl was lagging. She dropped back herself, out of Scipio and Bandit’s earshot, to ask why.

“…I recognized the design of that golem. Bandit might suspect, but…I know who made it. And what’s more…I know he’s t-too well-connected for us to go after. I’m sorry, I know that doesn’t mesh with your ‘smash all evil’ thinking, but…”

How could he explain it to someone like her? Morbo was his better. He’d succeeded where a shit elf had oh so predictably failed. E-Merl didn’t… He couldn’t…

“You think I’m naïve about politics,” said Rachel, seriously but without taking offense.


“Priestlord Gigundus was a Head of House, E-Merl. And Mother Scarlett was Priestlord Gigundus. Every…every queh-questionable thing she did, to Frigg, to…me and all my sisters… Consider that, and then ask yourself if I truly don’t understand how the powerful can use their connections as shields.”

“I… We haven’t talked about that much. But…”

“You do not know if this culprit is untouchable. And if he is not an actual Head of House, Ardaic outranks him. Share your concerns, E-Merl. With Ardaic, and with your friends. Perhaps you’ll be proven correct and he will escape justice…for now. But you will still have done right.”

The knot E-Merl carried always in his stomach seemed to loosen ever so slightly. Just then, his thoughts were filled with the idea of telling the others, and what surprising relief he felt once he let himself contemplate that.

He wasn’t thinking much about the person who’d given him permission to think such forbidden thoughts. Not consciously, anyway. Not about her eyes, not about the respect that flowed out of her like molasses onto hotcakes, not about the wisps of hair peeking out of her headscarf only sometimes.

But later, he would look back on this moment and say that this was when he knew.