Penny and Minkus worked together on a near-daily basis. Early every morning, thanks to a deal they’d struck with the librarian, the two would arrive at the Durmand Hall, lift open the surprisingly weighty tome, and begin skimming the next section of its contents for pertinent information. Each day, Minkus stood for the better part of an hour beside the far end of the librarian’s desk, where Penny sat hunched over the tome, quickly flipping back and forth between the brittle pages without the slightest indication that she was aware of the presence of anything else in the room. Minkus’ role was to follow along and let her know when their hour was up and it was time to return to the shop for the day’s work. Though she would have preferred to keep on at the project at hand, the shop still needed to operate for customers who came calling, and, lest she miss out on the payday coming, she and Eddie still needed to construct the six turrets Sigmund expected to have in his possession within the season. Before departing the Hall, she would give him her transcription and translation requests, pointing out the sections that were important, and leave him to his part of the labor. When he finished, he’d return to the shop with the new text and schematic copies, which Penny added to her growing collection. This went on for weeks.
Finally, one morning, Penny had only been skimming for about twenty minutes when she slammed her hands on the book and leaned back in the old, creaky chair. Both Minkus and the librarian started, looking up to see the most satisfied grin either had witnessed on the studious machinist’s face.
“Well,” she declared, resting her hands on top of her head, “That’s it!”
“That’s it?” Minus asked, surprised.
Penny slid the chair back and rose to her feet. “You heard me, Biggie. That’s it! No more. The end. You copy down these last few things, and I have what we need to get to work.”
“Excelsior!” The asura exclaimed, hopping up with a fist in the air.
“So,” she continued, slipping back into the deep-blue leather coat she’d only just taken off, “you work on that, and I’ll head back to the shop to get a jump on things. Sigmund’s turrets aren’t far enough along to hand them over to Eddie yet.”
“You got it!” Minkus moved toward the chair to get a look at Penny’s page notes. “Is this it?”
“That’s it,” she replied, looking back over her shoulder as she made her way to the door.
“I’ll have this done in no time. Then I’ll see you back at the shop.”
She raised a thumbs-up as she passed through the door.
Minkus hopped into the seat and was about to start the transcriptions from a page on control matrices when the librarian approached the table. For the most part, she had been silent whenever Penny was in the Hall working, but after Penny left each day, she’d taken to chatting some with Minkus, who many times was the only person she had to talk with who wasn’t associated with the Priory. It seemed to brighten her day to talk to someone else. That, in turn, brightened his day.
“So, forgive me asking, but what’s this project you two are working on so diligently?” the woman asked.
Minkus looked up and smiled in his familiar way. “Oh, the project? No, that’s fine. You can ask. Well—” he scowled a little, playing with his ear. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t know what it is. All this work to do— I never thought to ask.”
“You never thought to ask?” She turned slightly, looking sideways at the asura sitting on the other side of the table. “You’ve been here every day for weeks, studying a tome no one in Divinity’s Reach ever asks for, and you never asked your friend why?”
“Well, I know she plans to construct something,” he began, his face still scrunched as his eyes rose to meet the librarian’s again. He shrugged. “I guess I just figured she’d tell me when she was ready.”
A few hours later, Minkus returned to the shop, the mechanical bird chirping as he entered. He whistled along with the clockwork creature’s song when Penny’s head popped up from behind the counter. In her smoke-tinted work goggles, she looked like an iron frog rising from beneath the surface of a pond, which made Minkus snicker.
“You know.“ He pointed, still snickering. “The thing. The—”
“Oh, the goggles?” Behind the lenses, she rolled her eyes. “I’m welding back here— and how many times can that possibly be funny? Never mind. Did you get it?” She slid the goggles up to her forehead. “Is it all copied?”
He held out the sheets of transcriptions in his hand as he crossed the small room. “I did. And it is!”
Before he was aware of her movement, she slid out from around the counter and strode the length of the room, kicking a few stray wrenches as she went. Taking the sheets from his hand, she quickly glanced them over, ensuring everything was there. She paused, slipping one sheet out of the bunch and turning it to Minkus. “What’s this one?” She asked. “I didn’t ask for this.”
The asura squinted up at the paper held just over his head. “Oh, that? That’s an overview of the friend-or-foe control matrix in golems with weapons. I know you didn’t ask for it, and I don’t know if this model had one, but it seemed important if it did.”
“Alright, whatever,” Penny replied, immediately reshuffling the page to the bottom of the stack.
When she finished skimming it all, she turned from Minkus without a second look; headed toward the curtain at the back of the shop; and slipped through, a specter disappearing from sight. Still standing in the same spot, Minkus leaned around the side of the counter to watch the curtain. Though he could hear the shuffling of papers and the creaking of floorboards back and forth across room, he had no idea what Penny was doing.
Fifteen minutes passed and nothing changed; whatever Penny was doing, she kept at it, giving Minkus no indication that he was welcome to join her, so he hopped up to his usual seat on the counter, where he found some leftover copper wire and a horseshoe magnet. Before he thought about it, he’d picked them up and begun to coil the wire around the magnet. It was something he hadn’t done since long before he left the Tarnished Coast, back in his first days as a progeny at a Metamagicals labs run by Vakk, a family friend. He thought about his sister as he continued to wind. His peers were already deep in the study of energy relays and golem weight-distribution while he had depended on his little sister to teach him the basics of electromagnetism. He could almost hear her squeaky, young voice again: no, always coil in the same direction. You can’t just wind it around any which way. The current has to flow. Sitting there on the counter, he wound counter-clockwise.
The clockwork bird suddenly chirped his tune again, snapping Minkus back to the shop. In came Eddie, hair tousled by the wind that had kicked up outside. The two exchanged a greeting before Eddie raised a small bag over his head and called toward the back of the room, “Miss Penny, he didn’t have the right size bolts, but he gave me matching nuts and a drill bit for widening the holes.” The rustling and creaking continued, with the occasional scraping of metal hardware across the floor, but there was no response.
“What’s she doing?” Eddie asked in a near whisper, turning to Minkus, who he now stood beside.
Minkus shrugged. “I have no idea. I gave her the end of the transcriptions, and she went back there to do— something?”
“So you don’t know what she’s building either?” The boy asked, laying the bag down on a nearby crate.
Minkus tilted his head as he looked at Eddie. “You mean you don’t know what it is? I’m still a newcomer, but I assumed you were helping her.”
“Me?” He shook his head. “No. I only help around the shop and build when and what she tells me to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be Miss Penny’s apprentice—I am. She’s given me more than anyone ever has, but an apprentice is all I am. She doesn’t trust me with her personal projects.”
Eddie leaned forward and began to dig into the bag of hardware when the curtains suddenly flung open in either direction. Penny stood squarely between them, her arms fully extended in each direction, still grasping each curtain. A cocky grin dressed her face. “OK, I’ve figured everything out. I think we’re ready.”
The boy and the asura made no response. Penny looked back and forth between their frozen faces. “Well?” she asked. “What are you dolyaks looking at? Are you coming back here to look at this or not?”
A few minutes had passed since Penny had answered the last question from Eddie, who she hadn’t expected to understand as much of her design as he did. His grasp on the intricacies was still lacking, but the fact that he understood the overall relationships between such wildly different systems pleased her, and that satisfaction only served to further her overall happiness, a happiness that was palpable. Minkus just couldn’t pay much attention to that at the moment, as instead he was currently focused on the paper mosaic of designs, notes, and schematics tacked to the wall behind the curtain. In a way, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen, but that was really only because he’d never seen asura technology in the hands of a human who was most experienced in charr steam mechanics. It took some time, and many questions, for him to wrap his head around what she was trying to accomplish.
The silence persisted until Penny was no longer able to wait. Turning to the asura beside her, she asked, “So, Biggie? What do you think?”
His brow furrowed slightly as he considered his words. “It is an interesting idea: a backpack that sorts and dispenses your tools on voice command,” He paused, still looking at the wall. “But, don’t you already have a functional intelligence core? You’ll have to break it to accomplish this.” He turned to her. “Why not just build a golem as an assistant? A full golem could—”
Minkus stopped. Penny wasn’t even facing him, but her expression went cold.
She crossed her arms, still not looking at Minkus. “No golems.”
Minkus shot a quick glance around Penny at Eddie, who shook his head. He paused, then pursued further. “I’m confused. What’s wrong with golems?”
Penny turned to look down at Minkus again. “Golems are creepy.”
Minkus frowned. “Creepy? I— I don’t understand. Golems are as common as—”
She interrupted him, eyes widened. “A golem is a walking, talking, thinking machine just waiting to blow a fuse or be reprogrammed by some low-life with a bone to pick.” She lowered herself to Minkus’ level, poking him in the chest with her forefinger. “And that’s if the thing doesn’t first figure out that it’s essentially a slave to some smaller, weaker, fleshy thing, like you or me.”
The asura stood silently, his face inches from that of the woman crouched before him. Penny continued, rising from the floor. “Your people can use golems to your heart’s content, but I have no intention of building a machine with a brain.”
Eddie held his face in his hands, silently snickering against the wall. Minkus looked down at the splintered wooden floor, his puzzled expression hidden as he processed this utterly foreign opinion on golem technology. He turned his gaze up at his friend again. “But then— why are you using a golem intelligence core at all?”
She didn’t look at him, but continued to peruse the sheets on the wall as she spoke. “I had a suspicion that our research affirmed. I can strip out the parts of the core necessary for voice control, object recognition, and sorting, giving me all I need for a system that sorts tools and responds to my command without all the terrifying possibilities.” She turned back to him, smiling now. “Don’t be so sullen, Large. Trust me. This is a much better idea: all the perks, none of the problems!”
Minkus caught sight of Eddie, still laughing quietly on the other side of Penny. As often happened to the asura, the sight of that laughter brought a mild grin back to his perplexed face. “Alright,” he said, hands in surrender, “Whatever you say.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Grab that box over there and hop up here. This is where I’m starting.” As he climbed up to her level, she pointed at the schematic of the intelligence core’s circuitry then waved at the left side of the wall, covered in plans for clockwork mechanics and miniature conveyors. “The rest of that, I can do that in my sleep, but this,” she pointed again. “If this doesn’t work, the rest of that doesn’t mean anything. This is the priority.”
Several days later and countless leagues away, on a forest road somewhere in eastern Maguuma, a lone sylvari lay sleepless amidst a small copse of trees. “It came at us out of the shadows,” he recited again, rolling over for what had to be the hundredth time. He stopped on his back, staring up through the fronds at the patches of stars he could see beyond the trees.
He was a soldier of the Vigil. In his time with the order, he’d been tasked with various duties to aid the defense of Tyria and its peoples. Primarily, the Vigil had taken up the battle against the elder dragons, enormous creatures bordering on forces of nature that had risen in a few corners of the world, destroying, consuming, and corrupting everything and everyone they touched. When other needs arose across the continent, though, they would stretch the forces they had to help however they could, and he’d generally been a part of those additional efforts. Most recently, he’d been assigned to a small outpost in the Brisban Wildlands, the furthest edge of the Maguuma jungle with any notable population. It was there that his current mission had begun in tragedy.
He sat up and pulled back the hood he wore to keep his pale green glow from drawing unwanted attention. The light pulsed gently from under his brow and shown through the angular cracks in his wooden cheeks. In his left hand, he ignited a small fireball, which instantly out-shined his dim phosphorescence. At the same time, with his right hand, he rummaged in his bag, pulling out the letter and flipped it open before the flame.
By this point he’d read it enough times that he could nearly recite it from memory, but he read it again just the same.
To: Warmaster Efut
On the 47th day of the Season of the Zephyr, in the year 1324, a team of Vigil crusaders, led by Sergeant Edward Vulmos, was attacked and killed by an unknown entity in the ruins of the Duskstruck Moors.
The team had been assisting local Peacemakers in pursuit of a small Inquest cell that had been assaulting asuran researchers establishing a lab in the area. Following a lead that seemed to indicate their presence in the ruins, the team began a security sweep. According to the only remaining member of that team, that is where they were attacked. The entity was destroyed, but only after the majority of the team was killed, leaving only Crusader Yult Fjornsson alive.
When the team failed to report after their search, a second team was sent to find them. That team returned with Crusader Fjornsson, the bodies of his five fallen comrades, and a large pile of stones Fjornsson claims are dismembered shards of the entity. As the wounds Fjornsson sustained will keep him in the hands of local sylvari healers for some time, we’ve recorded his statements for your information:
“It came at us out of the shadows. Crusader Pypp, he was saying something, another stupid joke. Alayna turned around to respond, when she just fell over. Nothing happened that we could see, but like that, she was rolling on the ground, holding her head and screaming. Pypp ran and dropped down beside her, and that’s when it appeared behind him. It was hard to see, but it was huge. It had lots of eyes, glowing eyes, maybe six. Before we could get a word out, it grabbed Pypp by the head. It broke his neck and threw him aside— Pypp didn’t even have a chance. Alayna was still laying there, balled up, screaming, when it floated into the light and attacked the rest of us. It floated. It looked like rocks floating in the air— Almost like some kind of elemental, but it wasn’t any elemental I’d ever seen. It— it’s really hard to say what happened after that. It was so dark, and it all happened so fast. Vulmos, Keaste, and Dulf, they fought it tooth and nail, but they all fell. Dulf, like Alayna, was screaming, until the boy went silent. The thing took more blows than anything I’ve ever seen. I thought we were lost, and then— and then it just suddenly collapsed. I don’t know if someone struck it or if it just died on its own. I was covered in blood and could barely move, Keaste was breathing all shallow, and all the others were silent. I sat beside Keaste as she bled out— she deserved a more glorious death. They all did.”
I’m sending you this information, along with some of the shards (the rest of which are being transferred to Arterium Haven for safe keeping), in the hands of one of the members of the team responsible for the recovery of Crusader Fjornsson. Sergeant Ventyr is a trusted member of our order and has firsthand knowledge of the scene left in the entity’s aftermath.
As a potential and unknown threat, we believe we need any information and resources you may be able to provide. Please respond quickly.
Signed: Captain Orell Gelwin
Ventyr sighed. There was nothing there he hadn’t read before, nothing that shed any more light on the scene he’d witnessed. He needed to get answers. He needed to reach the Keep.