(Twenty years later)

“Why again, Professor, are we freezing our danglers off to study golems outside that we already have in the laboratory?” Klemens complained.

“Not all of us have danglers to freeze off,” muttered Katja as she trudged ahead of him.

Klemens pushed his spectacles up his nose. “I should be back in the library.”

“It would do you some good to get your head out of those dusty, old books every now and again,” Katja rejoined.

“It is important that we study these creatures in their natural habitats,” said Professor Ignatius, trudging up the snow-laden path with his two best students in tow.

“Then why must their natural habitat be in the thick of Frost Woods?” Klemens said.

Ignatius chuckled. “These woods are close enough to the university to make a day’s trip and happen to be teeming with golems, most of them still untouched by the Führer. If we are ever going to conclude that people like you and I can communicate with golems, we best figure out how with the ones found out here.”

He stopped at a fork in the road and checked his map. Lightly falling snow sank into his white mustache and bushy sideburns that stuck out from his fur cap. It seemed to Katja like yesterday that his whiskers had been dark brown and his thick eyebrows even more so. She could not decide if Ignatius was a young man who was graying before his time or an old man finally starting to look his age.

“So you really believe that the golems out here have never been dominated by the Führer?” Klemens asked.

“The Führer can dominate any golem anywhere,” Katja added. “Or so they say.”

“Perhaps his power cannot stretch as far as these woods,” Ignatius surmised. “More likely though, it can, but he just hasn’t bothered. He’d have no use for them this far north.” He rolled his map back up and headed east. “There is a clearing up this way where I believe we will find some man-sized golems to study. If we are extremely lucky, maybe even a giant one.” Ignatius looked back to his students, his brown eyes sparkling.

Katja adjusted her wool scarf to keep out the frigid breeze and followed the professor up the icy incline. Unlike Klemens, Katja treasured any time spent away from the lab or the library—rather, any time spent outside of four walls. Her whole life, she had lived within the confines of one castle or another. Her few brushes with nature had been within gated and locked gardens where no outside eye could ever catch sight of her. Such was the lot in life for many young highborn women like Katja.

Klemens jogged ahead of her. “It’s slippery here, Kat. Feel free to take my arm if you wish.”

Just as he turned to offer Katja his hand, his left foot slid out from beneath him. Klemens sat in the snow, grumbling at his own clumsiness. Katja gave a wry chortle while stepping past her wet and cold classmate.

Turning back to Klemens, she offered him her hand. “I’ll take that arm now.”

Klemens grabbed hold and hoisted himself to his feet. “Well, at the very least you could crack a smile. Some laughter would be fitting.”

Katja gave Klemens half a smirk. “I’m laughing on the inside, Klem, always on the inside.”

It was a running jest between the two of them that Klemens would make her smile before the year was up. To him, Katja’s passing grins or sarcastic smirks didn’t count. All throughout adolescence and into adulthood, people commented on her sour face, saying that she would be so much prettier if she just smiled more. More often, she would politely tell those people to shove it in some fashion.

When you smile, all I see is how Verishten has blessed you, for he’s given you intelligence beyond your years and beauty beyond measure. The memory of those words made it seem as if the man who had once spoken them whispered them now into Katja’s ear, sending shivers up and down her spine.

As the group continued up the snowy mountain trail, the path widened enough for Klemens to walk next to her. Before he could utter a word, Katja said, “Hope that fall didn’t break your flute.”

He took the long wooden wind instrument from his bag to make sure it was intact. “Still good, although I doubt it will matter much. I know you said the golems in the lab responded to the noise, but I just don’t think these flutes are going to work.”

They had both read corroborating historical references that people thousands of years ago used flutes and other such instruments to communicate with golems. They theorized that regular folk used them to subtly influence the ones not under Golem Mage control. Once a Mage had a golem under his or her command, no other Mage could take it over until it was released. After the Golem Studies team had uncovered the ancient texts alluding to regular people communicating with golems, it offered a potential opportunity for humanity to share a little in the power that now only the Führer possessed.

“I’m with you, Klem. That’s why we’re out here. The answers are clearly not in the texts, so we take our hypothesis, however negligible, and experiment until something works.”

“Katja is right,” Ignatius joined in, still walking ahead. “We know the flutes have some effect on golems. We find out what effect it has on the untouched variety, and if it’s the same or stronger, then we direct our research accordingly. If there is minimal to no effect, then we go back to the texts and find a new lead.”

The research team finally reached the top of the hill. A small creek bisected the snow-filled clearing, trickling softly against the silence of winter. Katja frowned. This was her last year in Nordenhein before she earned her doctorate and set off for home. If she were in Deschner, the pure, white snow that fell around her now would be replaced with gray volcanic ash raining down from the Volcano of Verishten.

“Well then, shall we start playing?” Ignatius said.

“Are there even any golems here, Professor?” Klemens wondered. “It’s far too quiet.”

“No matter. Dormant golems are no different from stone and ice in these parts. There’s only one way to know if they’re here. We wake them.”

Ignatius blew three sharp notes into his flute that cut cleanly through the crisp winter air. Nothing stirred in the wilderness. Katja and Klemens joined their flute songs with Ignatius, but still no sign of the scores of golems he claimed were there.

“Perhaps we should fan out a bit more,” Ignatius suggested.

“Come with me, Kat. There might be some this way.” Klemens beckoned as he made his way toward the stream.

Katja couldn’t help but be a little annoyed by Klemens’s attempts to be alone with her. The two had studied closely together for the last two years after Klemens transferred from Military Studies with the Führer’s approval. Since then he was hardly ever far from her sight. Earlier that day, Klemens had requested to stay behind and catch up on his historical readings—until Katja expressed a keen interest in accompanying Ignatius, and suddenly a winter stroll didn’t seem so bad anymore.

There was nothing she found particularly unattractive about Klemens. He was clearly from good highborn stock—polite, well-spoken, and his intellect was unrivalled among scholars at his level. With his spectacles, wavy brown hair, sideburns trimmed short, and a clean-shaven face of friendly features, a highborn lady like Katja could do much worse than him. However, she held no interest in marriage or starting a family. Only golems mattered to her; colossal, powerful, and ageless wonders of Verishten’s creation that had served mankind for millennia.

“I think the professor meant that we each fan out.” Katja waved her hands in a fanning motion.

Not waiting for a response, she ducked through a thicket and slid carefully down a snowhill to find a peaceful clearing cut off from the rest of the team. She held onto her thick woven skirt with one hand while steadying her descent through the deep snow with the other. To Katja’s relief, Klemens didn’t follow. She felt sorry for the way she’d dismissed him, but today she needed some distance, not just from Klemens, but from the professor as well.

She had an experiment of her own to conduct, but she was afraid to let the others in on it, especially if it happened to work. Klemens had a point that playing randomly on musical instruments to communicate with golems was not enough. The people in the Age of Man had to be playing a specific song, and Katja thought she might already know that song.

When she was a girl, she had stumbled upon an old book of sheet music in one of her father’s libraries. She had learned to play each and every song on her cello until they were second nature. Her favorite was the Ode to Golems. Eventually her father had found the sheet music left out in her music room and chastised her for taking it from the library without permission. He informed her that those songs were forbidden under the Regime, and she should never play them where outside ears might hear.

Katja walked until the others’ flutes were whispers through the leafless birch trees surrounding her. There, she began to play the Ode to Golems. She loved the simplicity of it, yet its hauntingly dark melody filled her with both solace and sorrow. It was sad, yet hopeful—such were the ancient songs of the Age of Man. She became lost in a melody she hadn’t played since she was twelve until she caught a shadow in her periphery.

Startled, she spun around to find nothing but a mess of trees and snow-covered rocks with icicle fingers connecting to the ground. She carefully inspected a cluster of soapstone, finding nothing unusual. She continued to play the Ode again while wandering around the clearing. When the song finished for the second time, the formation she had just inspected moved. The icicles shattered as one of the snow-covered soapstone boulders rose up and stood on two legs.

Katja gasped in both shock and delight. There, just a dozen feet away, was a frost golem. It was an inch or two taller than her, about six feet in height. Sweat formed under her woolen scarf. She stood mystified. This frost golem was leaner than the others of its type in the laboratory. The soapstone that made up its shape was darker in the areas not covered with snow and bits of ice. Its elliptical eye shone blue like a glowing icicle between its rigid shoulder blades. The light flashed bright, dimmed, and lit up again.

The golems in the lab do a similar thing when interacting with each other, Katja thought. This one was trying to communicate with her, but like in the lab, she couldn’t figure out how to communicate back. The golem turned away.

“Wait, come back,” she squeaked. She tried to play her flute again, but her mouth was suddenly too dry.

The creature of ice-tipped soapstone bounded away through the pine trees and disappeared more stealthily than anything of its size should be allowed. It took her breath away to watch it move so effortlessly for having a body made entirely of rock. These beings should be respected in fellowship with man, not dominated by them.

She let out a defeated sigh. Then the shadow returned to her periphery from her other side. She spun around to find nothing yet again. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

“Is someone there?” Katja called out. Her shivering voice billowed as a white mist into the frigid air. Could there be wolves this close to the university?

“Is that you, Kat?” called Klemens from afar.

Katja stared into the white stillness for a time, but without another golem to jump out at her, she decided she no longer wanted distance from her research team. “Yes. Wait there, I’m coming to find you!”

When Katja climbed back through the thicket she was met with Klemens’s smiling face, his spectacles dotted with fallen snow.

“Find any?” he asked.

Katja wanted to jump for joy with a resounding yes, but she would have to explain how she managed to awaken it with a forbidden melody of the Regime. “No. How about you?”

Ignatius, approaching from the north, chimed in, “Thought maybe for a moment I’d seen one, but it turned out to be a collapsing snowdrift.”

“Either this experiment was a failure, or there just aren’t any golems around here,” Klemens said, taking off his spectacles to wipe his lenses.

“Oh, there are,” Ignatius said. “I’ve snuck up on an entire group of them before. I know they lie here in dormancy during the winter months. If we didn’t see them, it means these blasted flutes don’t awaken golems in their natural habitat.”

“Then what’s our next step, Professor?” Katja asked.

“You two return to the library and find another clue in the history books, and I’ll see what I can discover in the lab.”

Ignatius placed his flute back in his satchel and led the team down the mountain trail with every bit the spring in his step he’d had on the way up. The professor never seemed to get discouraged, and Klemens lit up as well with the prospect of reading more history books. Katja, on the other hand, couldn’t decide how she felt after this excursion. She may have just discovered the secret behind the flutes, but it was a secret she could not divulge without bringing undue suspicion onto herself as to how she found the forbidden melody . . . although, she considered, it may have been a coincidence that the golem awakened right after she played it. Maybe it was the shadow in the woods that stirred it.

I have to come back and try again on my own, she thought.

Upon their return, the three researchers parted ways in the university atrium. The University of Nordenhein was an ancient stone structure built with the assistance of golems in the Age of Man, and then modified during modernization efforts in the Age of Kings. The more recent upgrades, within the last twenty years, made the university now resemble a small fortified city to keep out enemies of the Regime.

The atrium was one of the few places where remnants of the old architecture were displayed in breathtaking force. Massive marble pillars presented each hallway, giving Katja a glimpse into the Age of Man. The elongated green and violet stained-glass windows built into the grand vaulted ceilings depicted the likenesses of renowned scholars of old and dressed the atrium in the light of the Age of Kings. The university was the perfect example of what the City of Nordenhein was known for. It was Ingleheim’s center for education and culture, and that fact was showcased through countless paintings and sculptures on every wall and in every great hall. Not even in her father’s castle back in Deschner could Katja marvel at such artistic and architectural grandiosity.

Katja walked through the green and violet beams of light made by the stained-glass windows on her way to the information desk. She checked with the clerk for any confidential messages.

“No messages have been left for you, Fraulein Katja, but you do have a visitors notice. In fact, your guest arrived thirty minutes ago and has been escorted to the Brendt meeting room, down the hall, two doors to your right.” The kind older woman handed Katja a key.

All visitors had to come in secret and wait in guarded meeting rooms for security purposes. The process kept rebel abductors from walking into the university, asking to visit a student, and making off with that student unseen. Many things had changed since Katja’s parents attended the same institution. None of the students enrolled with their true names anymore, and their family ties remained hidden from all other students and staff to lessen the risk of kidnapping.

Who would visit me here without prior warning? Katja wondered. Surely Father would never risk such an appearance.

Then she thought of another man—one not as well-known, but who possessed almost as much power. Her insides began to curdle at the thought of Meister Melikheil coming to see her again. He had left her father’s service to offer magical aid to the Kingdom of Del’Cabria in the Desert War. It had been almost two years since he visited her last, and she’d hoped that she would never see him again. Could he have returned from the desert already? Katja removed her scarf and hat as she walked down the marble hallway. After smoothing out her wavy brown hair and refastening it with a clip, she inserted her key into the lock. She took a deep breath, silently praying that it would not be Melikheil behind the door. Her heart almost leaped out of her chest as she opened the door and entered the meeting room. It flopped instead upon seeing that the Spirit Mage waiting for her was not the darkly handsome one she’d expected, but another just as dangerous.

Want more? Purchase the rest of the book here.