Everyone is safe in the ruined city where Annie the living doll resides. And also they have passed the mysterious test of character they didn’t even know they were taking.
“Thank you, Prince Alister,” Annie said, giving him a curtsy.
She giggled which, to Alister, was very creepy. He rolled his eyes, obviously not caring for his new title.
“Charlotte,” Annie said, addressing the room. “Prince Alister. Mr. Giovanni.” She looked at each of them as she spoke. “I have decided that you are people who love and care for each other.”
“Um… thank you, Annie,” Charlotte said, confused. “My father,” she continued, “told me that I was to wait for people to come who love and care for each other and me. He said that they would not be afraid or angry with me but would be nice and kind. You have all become my friends and made me oh, so happy.”
See, turns out Annie knew where her father’s secret alchemy lab was all along, she was just waiting ’till she was certain that these strangers qualified by her father’s criteria. There’s nothing wrong with the basic premise of a father entrusting his golemized daughter with the secrets of his life’s work before he expires, and setting some guidelines that 1) a child could understand and 2) will hopefully keep the lab out of the wrong hands. And generally speaking, this moment where the heroes get something they could not have gotten had they not grown and changed along the journey is good. The problem is, who all has been growing and changing, exactly? Charlotte and Alister aren’t more caring and compassionate people than when they started, they’ve just warmed up to one another, specifically, through constant exposure.
On the other hand, we’re only 60% of the way through the book, and you’d expect the moment when the hero’s growth over the course of the journey gives them the strength to complete it to come more like 80% of the way through. So it’d hardly be unusual for this bit here to not actually be emblematic of any particular growth.
In the secret lab, Charlotte finds the lost diary of Annie’s father, who helped create the machines that annihilated all life in Labati. Turns out he helped Harthum and the one other immortal in the world to suck the life out of a nation in order to become gods.
The journal refers to the two siblings immortaled by the process as “Hassams,” so presumably Harthum is a corruption of that.
Also, the secret to getting a philosopher’s stone (an alchemic power source created by siphoning the soul out of someone) that can leave its container without crumbling to dust is extracting a complete soul all at once. The book had a potential explanation why no one had ever tried this, but then ignores it completely to instead…mock itself for having a dumb reveal?
Up until now, Alchemists could store within a stone a set amount of energy drained from human and animals alike. Through this processs, that stone would become what we lovingly refer to as a philosophers stone. But no one had been able to produce a philosophers stone capable of powering indefinitely. That is, not until Dr. Hassam. I still remember the day he revealed his secret. I remember feeling underwhelmed at the revelation. Looking back on it, my insides twist at my apathetic manner.
The secret was surprisingly simple. Dr. Hassam had built a potent Ens Primum Machina powerful enough to sift an entire human soul into a stone, killing the person. He assured us that the ones used to make the stones were highly dangerous criminals, but that hardly concerned me. I marveled more over the simplicity of the method. If a fraction of a soul could power machines for a time, then what could the entirety of a soul do? How had none till now discovered this simple truth?
The obvious limiter here seems to be that an ens primum machina isn’t usually powerful enough to suck an entire soul out at once. Making a sufficiently powerful people juicer was the breakthrough necessary to get this working. But apparently that’s not the limitation, and instead people just hadn’t bothered to make a sufficiently powerful people juicer to check what happens when you juice all of someone at once? ‘Cause Dr. Flamel here thinks it’s weird that no one’s ever figured this out before. And it is indeed weird. Almost every society has people it’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of power, and fairly often has people it’s willing to sacrifice just for the Hell of it.
Charlotte and Alister puzzle over how alchemy works and what the philosopher’s super stone retrieved by Dr. Flamel after the ascension of the immortals may have to do with it. And my first guess would be “nothing, because the specific superpower of that stone is that it requires no container, and therefore there is no reason for one or the other of them not to bring it with them when they leave.” Even if they don’t trust each other, they could build a fortress here in the Blight on top of it and guard it with golems, or bring it to another, more easily supplied neutral area and guard it with regular human guards. The book suggests (pretty much out of nowhere) that touching the super stone might be fatal to the immortals, but they can just have a golem pick it up for them.
Also, this chapter includes the bane of all writing, the joke that everyone laughs uproariously despite not being particularly funny:
“Charlotte, if you are not going to marry Prince Alister, may I?”
Alister coughed into his drink, sputtering the liquid all over himself. They all looked from one to another then, as one, started to laugh.
“What is so funny?” Annie asked looking to each of them.
Alister was rolling on the ground. Charlotte’s eyes started to tear up. Taking deep breaths, she finally calmed herself. Annie seemed slightly irritated and confused. “Yes, Annie, if I do not marry Alister, you may.”
This is the kind of comment that might get a “heh” out of a real person.
“Eternal hell what am I? Livestock?” Alister asked, sitting up. “What if I don’t want to get married? I knew a smuggler, er um transporter who got married once. In a year, he had a small shipping business and about a hundred kids.” He scowled as if he had just eaten a rotten fruit.
“That sounds wonderful,” Charlotte sighed, staring into the sky. “I have never considered children.” She blushed when she realized that she had spoken out loud.
CJ Olsen wants to remind all of his female readers that all of this adventuring nonsense isn’t any excuse to forget that ultimately your only purpose in life is to produce children.
“Alister,” Annie said proudly, “I can’t have children.”
Jesus fuck, kid, how much did you know about childbirth at the age of, like, eight, when everyone else died and you got golem’d, that you know that being organic is a prerequisite to it?
Upon emerging from the Blight, the party is ambushed by the Crimson Order in the border town where they left their ship.
Charlotte’s hands began to shake. “Why are the people of the town helping the Crimson Order?” Charlotte whispered to Alister’s back. “They are nomads.”
“Ah, you are wondering why they’re helping me?” The Crimson Guard said, motioning to the two-dozen armed men. “You know, no one has ever traveled into the Blight and lived. Some think that’s because of the dangers of the place itself, and they would be mostly correct. For those who survive though… well, the nomads of this land have been sworn to Eternal Harthum for many decades now with strict orders to kill any survivors.”
This is such stilted dialogue, and entirely unnecessary. I would’ve been happy to assume that the Crimson Guard had just dropped a briefcase full of cash in front of them. Why should they care about these randos who parked their ship in their town? In any case, the party feels the need to surrender.
One of the nomads brings the party’s pilfered golem-commanding whistle to the Crimson Guard’s attention.
The stiff-coated man straitened, his eyes taking on a dark cast. He took the whistle and stepped up to Alister. Standing face to face, the Guard set the whistle in his mouth and blew. He lowered it. “Golem,” he said, addressing Geoffrey, “you will no longer obey these people. I will be the only person you will respond to.”
Now, all of the golems (later stated to be about a half-dozen) used in this ambush are Crimson Guard brand. Indeed, they’re practically identical to the party’s pet golem. So despite the party surrendering because there’s just no way out, the obvious plan here would seem to be 1) take cover behind Geoffrey, 2) blow the whistle and order the golems to attack the nomads, and 3) open fire on the Crimson Guard to gun him down before he can get his own whistle out and seize control of the golems again. This isn’t a foolproof plan or anything, but it’s no more dangerous than escaping the stalker, or the brawl in Prawle, or the giant serpent chimera from the Blight.
This plan would be doubly effective given that Geoffrey has decided that obeying the whistle is for losers.
Suddenly, Geoffrey stepped forward bringing his metal arm back. Then he swung it forcefully, his rasping breath rattling with rage. His iron fist crashed into the Crimson Guard’s face. The man’s head exploded, his corpse flying twenty feet away in a cascade of blood.
Plus, the nomads open fire on the party anyway.
Geoffrey brought his arms up then slammed them into the ground sending out a plume of sand. The armed villagers, terrified of the rampaging golem, lifted their rifles and began firing into the cloud of dust.
So this isn’t even an act two down beat or anything. It’s not that the plot mandates that they not use their secret weapon against the Crimson Guard, because their actual plan of escape is actually considerably more dangerous, in that they have one loyal golem instead of six or seven (it’s not clear whether Geoffrey was counted in the earlier count of six enemy golems).
Not only that, but using the whistle proves unnecessary, because Charlotte actually already used the whistle.
A vain hope formed in Charlotte’s mind. Are these the same golem I tested the whistle on? she thought frantically, remembering back to the alleyway where she had commanded them to raise their arms. She ducked her head as a bullet hit nearby. Would they still obey me?
This happened in a brief scene right before they went into the Blight and I don’t think I commented on it, since its only particular purpose seemed to be establishing for sure what golems the whistle does and doesn’t work on. This would’ve been really great foreshadowing, where a scene that seems to be serving one purpose is actually serving another…
Except that if you scroll up a bit, you’ll notice that the Crimson Guard just took control away from “these people,” not Alister specifically, which you’d think would include Charlotte. But for some reason she can command the golems anyway. They make their escape, but the nomads wheel out a cannon to shoot them down. Geoffrey throws himself in front of the first cannon shot (uncommanded) and that buys them enough time to fly away.
Alister should really invest in some ship weapons.
This is probably the best chapter yet, in that it has an action scene with some solid reversals, but that’s damning with some pretty faint praise, because it still has a reversal that makes no sense (excepting Geoffrey, who has discovered the true meaning of Christmas, none of the golems should have responded to Charlotte’s commands) and the protagonists surrender at the command of the plot despite having the means to enact not just an escape plan, but exactly the same escape plan they end up using, right from the beginning. And the narrative even reminds us that they had those means right as they take those means away.