Seven copper caskets lay on the cellar’s granite floor. They were spaced evenly from each other in a neat circle with their heads pointed toward the cellar’s walls. Maximilian retraced his measured steps from one casket to the next, each one barely as tall as his knees. The man crossed his arms and looks at the bipedal form inside a casket marked with the number “1.”
It was taller even than Maximilian, just like the other six. The smooth, armored plating on its torso, head, and limbs reflected the dim orange glow from the magicked, evenly-set torches. Where the plates separated to allow for joints, tiny engravings crisscrossed the boulderwood surface in veritable rivers. Its “face,” with two shallow pits for eyes in its carved skull piece, included a hollow, horizontal rectangle as a crude facsimile of a mouth. Just like the other six.
Also, just like the other six, it lay motionless in its shallow pool of clear, arcane liquid.
Maximilian turned to the long, low, and orderly workstation against the cellar laboratory’s back wall. There, a diminutive figure with short sandy hair deliberately pulled a thin paintbrush across a seventh colored, hexagonal crystal. Ludger’s languid pace sent another surge of tension through Maximilian’s nerves.
Maximilian walked to the station, stooping slightly to keep his head from scraping the ceiling. He stopped behind Ludger.
“Your letter assured me the preparations would have been completed before my arrival.”
Ludger completed the black, ruby-flecked curve of the symbol with a measured lift of his paintbrush and exhaled. He set the yellow quartz down gently before spinning around in his seat. Ludger redirected his level gaze from Maximilian’s torso up to Maximilian’s eyes. The slight crow’s feet and deep laugh lines of Ludger’s round, rosy face creased further with a reassuring smile.
“Indeed, they would have been! A last-minute crisis emerged with my grandchildren.” Ludger waved the paintbrush in his hand lazily. “Fussy little things demanded my sole and personal attention while my wife and daughter were away. Do you know how it is?”
Maximilian thought of Talia, their four young sons, and the small staff of well-paid servants at their disposal.
Ludger joined his hands over his apron and reeled his head back. “Ah, you will one day, by fortune, you will.” He turned to his workstation once more. “They are a wondrous burden, grandchildren,” he continued as he added another meticulous line to the crystal. “Upending… each… plan… that you didn’t know you could change.”
Ludger set the paintbrush down and moved the crystal onto a silver tray with six others. Each quartz was a different color, but they all had the same black, red-infused markings. Ludger picked up the tray and turned to his client.
“Fortunately, the scamps interrupted only the final steps before your arrival. You are quite the punctual man, Don Baron DiRossi.”
His arms still crossed, Maximilian pivoted to allow Ludger passage. “I respect my associates’ time.”
Ludger bowed. “I appreciate your candor, Don Baron.” He took swift, stiff steps to the first casket. “I appreciate your financial faith in my work, as well.” Ludger placed the tray on a small table next to the casket.
“Adaptive arcanics has seen no significant advancement in over three hundred years.” Maximilian paused to watch Ludger place a cloudy gray quartz on the chest of the form in the casket. When the swiffok picked up a cobalt-blue quartz and moved toward the next casket, Maximilian added, “The success of this project will benefit us both.”
Ludger placed the quartz and returned for the tray. “Absolutely!” He placed a bright green crystal on the third form. “Although the process would have been much simpler had I possessed a Stone of Kaywinn, I mustn’t be obtuse.” He placed a milky-white crystal on the fourth form. “I enjoy the work I do with what I can get at hand!”
Maximilian watched Ludger set a violet crystal on another humanoid form. “Your inability to access these…” Maximilian tilted his neck to one side until the joints popped. “…legendary stones will not hinder the SECAs’ performance?”
Ludger paused, an orange crystal in his hand. “Oh, they’re all identically quite capable! I understood you want them to simulate productive thought process rather than be mindless drones, so I reveled in hand-etching all of the runes myself.” Ludger set the crystal in place and approached the final casket. “Each one will have their own peculiarities, subtle idiosyncrasies that set them apart from the others.”
Maximilian nodded while Ludger inspected the script on the yellow gem. “Regardless of their ‘idiosyncrasies,’ they will follow my commands?”
Ludger placed the final gem and stepped away from the casket. He inhaled deeply, sighed, and turned to Maximilian with a smile. “Even without your keyphrase, they will obey as well as the most loyal child or employee!”
Maximilian blinked once and fingered the tiny, scarred-over pinprick in his left wrist. That assurance would need to suffice.
Ludger knelt between two caskets’ outer ends. He touched the granite floor and began humming.
Maximilian scanned the cellar as the air grew thin and sharp. Ludger’s hum turned into an incomprehensible chant. A swirling green haze seeped from each of the copper caskets. A boiling buzz crept throughout the cellar. Ludger steadily increased the volume of his chanting, and the buzzing amplified itself underneath.
A pop pulled Maximilian’s attention directly to the center space between the caskets. A sizzling, quill-thin symbol rotated within the ethereal cloud. It was an upright, seven-pointed star that shifted colors by the second. A faint stream of energy stretched from each of the points toward a separate casket. The cloud soon contained constellations of shapes and sigils, all of which were beyond Maximilian’s capacity, and desire, to understand.
Ludger’s chanting had become a lyrical howl. The buzz shook the stars in the arcane cloud. The markings that had gathered in the spaces above the caskets pulsed with the colors of the gems affixed to the forms inside. Still kneeling on the ground with his head bowed low, Ludger crossed his arms in front of himself and swept them outwards.
The central star exploded. Each point shot along its trail to their respective casket, carrying its section of the ethereal cloud in its wake with a rippling thud. The cellar fell dark, with only the walls’ torches for light once more. Ludger panted in his spot, otherwise unmoving.
Maximilian adjusted his collar and cuffs, which he hadn’t realized he had rolled halfway up his forearms. He clapped one hand to Ludger’s back and looked around the room.
“You put on quite the spectacle.”
The muscles beneath Maximilian’s hand relaxed. “I assure you, Don Baron DiRossi,” Ludger slurred as he struggled to his feet, “the theatrics are all quite coincidental.”
In the corner of his eye, Maximilian saw movement at the nearest casket. He followed it to find a hand, plated in black and pulsing with silver markings, gripping its casket wall.
One corner of Maximilian’s mouth turned upward.