The Marish army was easy to find, sprawling on the west bank of the Ilmarys two days out from the foot of the Ranges.
The Cadets also found a Keeper sitting by the river whittling away on a fishing rod with his Citadel cloak wedged between his butt and the mud. While they were labouring away at the refugee camp this man had been sitting here catching trout. When accosted he became defensive.
‘I was charged with overseeing the army,’ the Keeper said, ‘and with Thaumian agents turning themselves into Remnants everywhere, it is only right that I remain at my post in case something happens.’
Hanni, upon seeing Valiann’s eyebrow twitch, mustered what little patience he had left and said, ‘we thought to borrow a golem from the Marish army for that cleansing we mentioned. Could you please liaise with them on our behalf?’
‘A golem? What in the Word for?!’
‘For the…cleansing….as I said…’
The Keeper shook his head like a tambourine. ‘You are out of your minds. Only the Thaumians have golems, and they are on the other side of the river looking to kill everyone here. Forget it.’
Valiann promptly bowed and walked away before frustration could manifest on his face. Hanni followed promptly. ‘I could punch him.’
‘We can’t give up. We need that golem for the camp and for us. Let’s go see the commander; the treaty says they have to see us.’
The sentries let them inside after Hanni did a brief demonstration of his Affinity. The Marish commander’s tent at the centre of camp was guarded by statues of crowned lionesses. As they made themselves known and waited outside, an attendant brought them, out of all things, a platter of tiny cakes with pink icing. Valiann eyed them suspiciously, a thousand questions running through his head, while Hanni cleaned them up in a flurry and grunted approval.
They were given a long wait, but the Citadel’s agreement with the Empire included a clause on receiving audiences. In other words, no matter how unpleased the Marish were with their presence, the Cadets couldn’t be turned away. Seeing that they would not leave, the attendant finally showed them in.
Pink-coloured drapes, carved mahogany furniture covered in lacy cloth, and a huge candelabra lighting up the tent interior like a palace bombarded their senses. The conference table that took up half the space has on it papers neatly stacked and sorted, and in place of flags or markers there was a tray with little toy soldiers lined up inside according to rank. A vase of flowers, obviously arranged by a florist, sat above a map of the Border Ranges.
A girl younger they were sat in the general’s chair flanked by two officers. She wore a silver flower in her jet black hair, and donned an embroidered armour that fanned out below the waist into a plated dress. Her fingernails were painted blood-red, the same colour as her heeled boots. She reminded Valiann of an expensive doll.
One of the officers said, ‘Valiann Del and Han’Nietzeul, from the Citadel. I believe they are known as Starlings among our cavalry. They are here to see you with a request to cross the Ilmarys –’
‘Which one is which?’ The girl interrupted, her dark eyes excited.
‘The-the thin one is, I think, Ha–’
‘I am Valiann,’ Valiann interrupted, ‘and he is Hanni. You may call us as such, general.’
‘General?’ The girl put a hand to her mouth in a practiced gesture of amusement, ‘but I’m a princess.’
‘Why would you call her general?!’ Hanni whispered urgently.
‘How am I supposed to –’
‘Does she look like a general to you?!’
The other officer spoke up, ‘Starlings! Such conduct is of utmost disrespect in the presence of Her Highness. I would think students of the Citadel more learned and eloquent than this pitiful display.’
‘And you will learn the names of those you are indebted to, whoever you are,’ Valiann instantly retaliated, ‘or I shall think you a man who knowingly invites uninitiated guests in front of his master and bullies them for a taste of self-superiority.’
Whatever ugly looks that statement received were made worse when the princess clapped merrily. Her laugh was like ringing a bundle of high-pitched bells.
‘You are permitted to call me Lynia, short for Hai’Lythania In Kangsi. Be at ease, we are friends now. Tell me why you’ve waited so long to see me, must be important business!’
Regretting his outburst, Valiann stuck strictly to the task at hand. As he suspected, though they desperately wanted one, the Marish did not possess a single functioning golem, and was less than enthused about helping them. At least Lynia proved somewhat open to the idea. Inexplicably, she appeared to like them a great deal after that disaster of an introduction.
‘We’ll sneak you into the Thaumian camp if you give us the golems you steal from them,’ the princess concluded after a lengthy discussion.
‘I would if I could,’ Valiann said, ‘but to commandeer a golem requires an item called the Master Cube. Its operation is a Thaumian secret, and although I know a bit of how it functions from texts –’
‘You do? Tell me!’ the princess exclaimed.
‘Eh...unless you have two or three years to spare…’
‘You jest, it couldn’t be that difficult!’
‘What I’m saying is that I can only operate one Cube at a time. So even if I somehow manage to steal multiple golems, only one person can control them.’
‘As I’ve already said, we need it to cleanse the Haze at a refugee camp upriver.’
‘Fine. I’ll even delegate a regiment to escort you, as long as you bring the golem back.’
Valiann looked at Hanni and Hanni at him. ‘No, we will not. After our business concludes around these parts we are taking it and the Master Cube to the Citadel. They are required for a key experiment which…well, suffice to say it will get rid of all the Remnants in the world. That is of benefit to the Empire as well.’
There was a long pause as Lynia pulled a big frown and silently crossed her arms. Her officers waited wordlessly for her decision, offering no advice. They obviously thought there was only one way this could go and expected the princess to know it.
‘Tell me about the Remnants,’ Lynia said suddenly, ‘that’s what you call those fleshy things? What are they?’
Hanni took over the next thirty minutes. The visceral discussion about corrupted life and Haze-induced madness intimidated her not at all; rather, she was uncannily keen. At the Hanni’s description of its black blood and its harmful properties she actually grinned. With each passing minute Valiann liked her less; her pretty face was being outweighed by an increasing list of unpleasant traits.
When it was obvious that Valiann would not budge on the matter of golem ownership, the princess, who began to look bored and started fiddling with her hair, loosely agreed to take them across the river in stealth if they informed her of everything they saw in the Thaumian camp. An expensive and decidedly vague bargain, one as false as her smile as she shook his hand.
The Ilmarys ribboned across the foothills wide and slow under the clear night sky, its liquid canvas of starlight erased by the glow of campfires lining its banks. Between fire and night, where the shadows were the thickest, the Cadets slipped onto a boat with their cloaks and weapons. In the distance Marish war drums were beating as the lionguards marshalled on the river bank, pretending to be up to something and drawing attention to themselves.
Crossing the river was eventless and swift, for Thaumians boats have withdrawn in anticipation of an engagement. The golems, according to vague reports, were kept away from the main camp, but the Master Cubes – without which the golems were but hulks of metal – were under constant guard to prevent misuse and theft.
As a consequence of the noise, the Thaumian camp was woefully alert. Soldiers wearing flamboyant crests of the burning crown patrolled in groups of six, steam rifles at the ready. There was no chatter, no detachment of dealers, courtesans and such, the likes of which so cherished by the Marish.
Crouching in the long grass and waiting for an opening that wasn’t coming any time soon, the weight of their task became clear. Find the Master Cubes, then find information on Thaumian facilities, then make their way to the golem arsenal, steal one without anybody noticing, then make it to the banks in one piece, then cross the river again under what undoubtedly would be heavy fire.
The generosity of the Marish in offering their help now seemed like a trifle, or worse, a game.
Valiann and Hanni dashed from shadow to shadow, not knowing what they were looking for or where they were going. It was a mistake to bring along the cumbersome staff. The massive stick liked to bang against rocks and trip over roots more than anything he has ever known.
Grumbling, Valiann agreed to hide in a reclusive corner while Hanni scouted ahead by himself. Free to move as fast as he could, Hanni vanished from sight in the blink of an eye, leaving him alone with his increasingly colourful thoughts.
The wait was interminable. As the moon lugged itself up through the cloudy muck, his right eyelid started to twitch, an itchy squiggle that moved uncontrollably up and down, up and down. More than ever, he wished for an Affinity that was useful on its own.
It was not as if one got to choose during the Trials. Apparently, the Affinities were intricately linked to one’s character, and thus were unique. Without it Keepers would still be able to cleanse, but Haze-spawns like Remnants can easily overpower one who was defenceless. A shame then, that most Keepers nowadays used their Affinities against humans instead of the enemies they were meant for.
Suddenly, an explosion. A fire came alive nearby, followed by several more at the stables, and as the panicked neighing of hundreds of horses made a sudden cacophony people began to run every which way. A stampede of hooves mingled with the crumbling of a field of tents in the distance.
In a blur Hanni dashed to his hiding spot with hair smouldering and cloak red with someone’s blood. In his half-burned hand was a sleek metal cube marked on all sides by squiggly depressions and knobs. A faint glow emanated from the gaps between its components.
‘I sure hope your skill is up to par,’ Hanni said casually, as if he hadn’t just been running for his life, ‘because I have no idea how this thing works.’
‘Perfect! Now for the golem.’
‘I know where they are -‘
‘Oi! You two!’
In their mutual excitement they both forgot to keep a low profile. Hanni grabbed Valiann’s hand and dragged him into a run just as two bullets flew past their shoulders. Shouts of alarm surrounded them in an instant.
‘Hold on, we are going fast!’ Hanni yelled.
‘NO NO NO MY SHOULDER WILL –’
The hundreds of Thaumian soldiers swarming at them left no room for discussion. Hanni dug his heels into the ground and sprung for the gap between two tents with his Haze fully empowered.
Valiann screamed as his feet left the ground. The world zoomed past dreamily, almost slowly, as if instead of running at speed they were taking a stroll through a blurry world. The only certainty was the heavy staff slipping out of his free hand – a painfully good riddance, since turning a corner whilst holding that thing would have broken his wrist. The Thaumians couldn’t even follow them with their eyes, let alone give chase. Rifles discharged at their shadows, all missing their mark.
Hanni zigzagged through tents big and small, sometimes lost and sometimes pretending not to be, and came to a halt behind a large canopy standing far apart from the rest of the camp. The momentum threw them both into the ground.
Valiann thought his head was split open, tried to feel it, and realised his right arm was at a weird angle and not moving. After pausing out of sheer curiosity, he used his left instead. Unlike the arm, the skull appeared quite speed-proof.
That is, until Hanni forcefully dragged him to his feet. Golden sparkles wiggled on his retina while a wobbly top spun between his ears. Valiann blinked, missed a step, and would have fallen face first if Hanni hadn’t held him up.
‘How do you keep beating me when you can’t even handle that?’
‘Shut up and put back my arm.’
The jolt as his shoulder popped back in place cleared his head somewhat. ‘Where are we?’
‘The arsenal of golems. Here.’ Hanni replied, shoving the Master Cube into his hand corner-first.
‘I lost my staff.’
‘I liked that staff…’
With most of the commotion at a distance, the arsenal was poorly lit and unguarded – not that there was any point keeping watch here. Ranks and ranks of golems stood on guard inside the darkened tent, unmoving and silent.
They were human-shaped and bipedal, with square blocks for heads and four-fingered hands and triangular feet. Their torsos looked like elliptical balls of tightly rolled cable, to which metal limbs were attached with joints made out of a bundle of hydraulics. On each of their chests blazed the crest of the burning crown; the bodies were otherwise steel grey.
At four metres tall they were small giants, but those heads made out of singular, smooth blocks looked strangest of all. It was as if the creator of golems thought the humanoid shape should naturally be headless, and only added them on later as an afterthought.
They crouched far back in the ranks, Hanni keeping a lookout while Valiann pushed and pulled at the Master Cube in a sequence that matched the series of squiggly lines etched onto the closest golem.
When nothing happened he tried it again. And again. He was about to attempt it for the fourth time when Hanni spoke up, ‘uh…could it be a broken?’
‘Where did you get this one?’ Valiann asked, annoyed at his own annoyance.
‘There were crates of them sitting in the middle of the camp. I just took one.’
‘Unguarded? Then it’s a blank. Before calibration the Cubes do nothing.’
‘You’re saying it won’t work?’
A muscle twitched on Valiann’s face. ‘What do you think –’ a subconscious warning made him bite his tongue. Blaming Hanni wouldn’t help with anything. In one breath Valiann threw his venomous thoughts into a lockbox and buried it in a mental cellar. It would have to be reopened sooner or later, but for now his head was clear.
‘I need time to work this out. Could be a while,’ he said instead, pulling out a battered notebook from under his cloak. A thin chain slung across his shoulder allowed him to carry the book like a satchel; four such chains criss-crossed his chest.
Hanni looked over his shoulder and saw not crammed pages of writing but annotated charts and pictures drawn with extreme detail. One page had what looked like a disassembled joint, with each component blown out and noted, and two curved graphs below them plotting some variable.
‘When did you learn all this stuff?’ Hanni asked, googly eyed.
‘The Citadel library, alcove sixty-eight, shelf three through eighteen,’ Valiann said as he began thumbing through the pages at a blazing pace, his nose practically rubbing against the writing, ‘they keep all the stuff they’re not allowed to keep in there.’
Commotion outside the tent grew while inside there was only the furtive sound of flipping pages and quickened breathing. Several times soldiers came in, but between the densely packed golems and a million shadows flitting on the edge of torchlight, one could see nothing. They were left alone after a while, but the camp itself showed no sign of going to sleep.
An hour must have passed before Valiann spoke again, ‘alright, let’s go.’
Hanni stifled a yawn. ‘Done?’
‘Of course not. It’s impossible without knowing a pre-determined set of procedures.’
‘The Cube was not nearly as well designed as the golems, so this should work.’
‘What would work?’
Valiann began spinning the Cube in two hands, turning it every which way while pushing and pulling on its knobs and depressions seemingly at random. Gradually its internal glow began to brighten, and Hanni quickly positioned himself to conceal the light; Valiann was too absorbed to think of it.
Nothing happened for several seconds, then every single engine inside every single golem whirled into motion. Their eyeless heads first turned left then right, then rapidly spun clockwise exactly three times. Thousands of hydraulic struts screeched and sighed at once as a hundred and twenty-four hulks of towering metal first swayed one way then another in perfect synchronisation.
Out of the corner of his eye Valiann saw Hanni’s jaw drop and felt immense satisfaction.
At his urging, the golems began marching in formation, first lifting their left foot, then awkwardly teetering forward by half a step, then did the same with their right. They moved at the same time, using the exact same motion, and covered the exact same distance. The first rank tore through the canopy as if it was paper, and as the whole tent crashed down and covered them from blocky head to triangular foot the lumbering stampede shredded it to pieces.
From within their ranks Valiann and Hanni trotted to keep up the pace. ‘They are moving! They are all moving!’ Hanni couldn’t stop saying.
‘I can’t see anything. I can’t move them apart,’ Valiann said, ‘which way to the Ilmarys?’
‘This way – wait, don’t tell me -’
At his command the golems simultaneously came to a stop, and after half a minute of standing still with Valiann furiously spinning the Master Cube, turned slightly to the right.
The Thaumian army, long gathered around this formation of metal, threw everything they had at them and did almost nothing. The barricades were paper, the bullets a light drizzle, and no amount of alarmed yelling can stop a legion of metal giants from trampling through fortifications as if they were non-existent.
It looked like a perfect escape until the golems began descending the sloping river banks. Ranks upon ranks keeled over off-balance and fell into a growing avalanche of writhing metal, their legs still perpetually moving. Valiann spun the Master Cube with desperate speed but there was no room for finesse whatsoever.
Thaumian cannons have trained on their location. Exploding shells hailed onto the golems, the shockwaves sending the Cadets sprawling in the mud. Powerful the cannons may be against flesh and common metal, the golems were designed to withstand such paltry fire. Their bodies of balled cables cratered but remained unbroken.
By some miracle no less than twenty golems managed stay upright. The massive pile of gyrating limbs prevented the Thaumians from getting close, but there was now no forest of metal shielding the Cadets from rifle fire.
Valiann and Hanni crawled half-buried in mud, almost invisible from afar, and avoided the deadly metal limbs thrashing about them with bursts of speed. Hanni was laughing hysterically and yelling something about a speedy snail, which couldn’t possibly be that funny.
The golems reached the river and kept walking. Water flowed over their heads but they kept walking. Some fell over, their feet trapped by the riverbed, but the Ilmarys tolerated their passage with easy-walking gravel and windless ripples.
The Cadets too managed to slip into the water, but as golems submerged all around them they grew exposed. The glowing Cube, washed clean in Valiann’s hand, was an easy target, and all around them the water churned with bullets. In a matter of seconds the cannons would be retrained.
Hanni dragged Valiann’s arms around his neck and, ignoring his non-verbal, watery protest, called up the Haze. They shot out of the water like a pair of awkward dolphins, flew for a considerable distance, and plunged back into it with meteoric impact.
Something along the lines of ‘humans aren’t designed to swim so fast’ floated around in Valiann’s head as the resisting water tore at his grip and his eardrums, but complaining meant opening his mouth and in such conditions that wasn’t wise.
A few more of these hops later they no longer swam but skipped across the surface of the water like a cleverly thrown pebble. Hanni sunk no lower than his waist each time they landed, breaking the water surface into a huge fountain with every kick, almost as big as the ones cannonballs were making on their tail.
They were more than halfway across when Hanni stumbled upon a submerged boulder. Valiann had a glimpse of the river bank brilliantly lit with hundreds of fires before plunging headfirst into the water amidst Hanni’s screams. Unrelenting momentum rolled him over and over as he clutched the Master Cube as if it was a life-saving rope, hoping that this was not how their lives would end – having achieved nothing, solved nothing.
Should have waited and planned; should’ve come up with a safer alternative. Instead he was blinded by haste, and now Hanni, dear Hanni, who after the Trials had pledged him his life with a big grin, was sinking rapidly out of his reach.
The surface of the Ilmarys danced with the orange ghosts of faraway fires that changed like shapes inside a kaleidoscope with each cannonball splash an ethereal firework, but underneath that skin of light was an impenetrable cold unyielding to his pleas to be rid of it. There was a Valiann from not too long ago that would welcome such a poetic and stupid end. He was not that Valiann anymore.
Half-drowned and barely conscious, he made a promise.