Here is episode 4 of our serialized story. Make sure to read to the end then vote on where you think the story should go from here. If you need to start at the beginning, the first episode can be found here.
After sitting for a couple of hours, discussing what might have happened and what to do about the lawsuit, Dawn had to leave for an Arcane Metal Shaping class. Knowing she had to get it over eventually, Claire headed to the foundry. As she approached the thick doors, her heart climbed into her chest and she wanted to run the other way, but she kept going until her hand was on the handle. The surface was warm, a feeling that used to be comforting, but now she wanted to curl into a ball and forget about her troubles.
“Forging metal requires heat and work hardening to make it stronger.”
It was meant as a pep-talk but the words bounced over her mind, leaving her no more motivated than she had before. Claire pulled the door wide. A wave of oppressive heat flowed out, briefly tousling her hair.
She entered the foundry, staying behind the safety fencing where observers could join without being required to wear the overlapping layers of equipment. Professor Wolfe was working with a trio of students mixing a batch of arcane modified steel on the far side. She knew it was Wolfe because of the tufts of gray hair sticking from the back of his hardhat. Their faces were obscured by a silvery face shield. The professor slipped his thick protective gloves off and made articulate gestures over the bath that glowed bright orange-red. His hands would be protected by enchantments, but being that close to twenty-five hundred degrees would still be painful. When he was finished, a ghostly light emanated from his fingertips, swirling around until it settled on the contents of the crucible. The metal flashed cobalt blue before returning to its original colors. Claire recognized the spell as one that would help the metal accept enchantments later, making them permanent features rather than temporary improvements.
But watching Professor Wolfe teach the third-years wasn’t why she’d returned to the foundry. The opposite side of the foundry was where she’d been working when Mara had her accident. The concrete had fresh repairs and the old fencing had been replaced and painted a bright yellow. On the back wall, a picture of Mara hung over a basket filled with flowers.
Claire closed her eyes. The burning steel was sharp inside her nose. It was a smell that she’d hated when she first came to Metallum Nocturne, but she’d grown to love it as she learned to create intricate castings and forgings.
She flexed her arm, feeling like her muscles had atrophied in the weeks of convalescence inside the hospital. The doctor had told her to take it easy since she was still recovering, but if there were only a few months left of the semester, she couldn’t afford to ramp up slowly.
The latch unhooked easily as she headed to the station where she’d been preparing her night metal bath. Technically, she shouldn’t be past the safety barrier without equipment, but no one else besides Professor Wolfe and his students were in the foundry and they were on the far side.
The blemishes on the floor made it clear where the night metal had spilled out and destroyed the concrete. She rubbed her fingers across the smooth surface as if they were scars on her own body. Claire stared at the new crucible trying not to be consumed with regret.
The project she’d been working on would be impossible to renew. It’d taken most of the year to collect the exotic materials required for the hammer. There wasn’t enough time to do it again. Whatever project she came up with would have to be simpler in design and preparation.
The desire to work with night metal again was strong. While the material was capricious and prone to disasters, the end product was incomparable. But if she wanted to use night metal again, she’d have to raise the funds to purchase the raw materials. It would make her task even harder.
“It was a tragedy.”
The voice startled Claire. She spun around to find Professor Wolfe standing behind her with his silvery protective coat unbuttoned and his hardhat under his arm. The three students were no longer in the foundry. Claire didn’t realize she’d been quietly contemplating the accident for that long.
“I’m sorry, Professor. I shouldn’t be past the barrier.” Her gaze shot to the make-shift shrine on the wall. “Maybe I shouldn’t even be in here.”
His wrinkled face creased with softness. “Claire. In all the years you’ve been in Metallum Nocturne, you’ve been exacting in your preparation and execution. There’s no way that it was your fault. I don’t care what the media, or the lawyers, or anyone else says. If it comes to that in a trial, I would happily take the stand to tell them that.”
“Thank you, Professor. That means a lot.”
He reached out and squeezed her arm. “How are you doing? I’m a bit surprised to see you here. I’ve seen accidents like that and usually people don’t come back for months. You almost seem like nothing happened.” His forehead creased. “You’re made of stronger stuff than anyone guessed, including myself.”
“Lucky I guess,” she said.
The bandages beneath her clothes would stay on another week. There was a low level ache as her flesh knitted back together. The bones had healed quickly.
“What are you planning to do?”
Claire inhaled slowly. “Start a new project. I have to. I know I don’t have much time, but it’s the only thing I can control. If I can make something worthy enough then I can graduate and find a job. A well-paying job, if I’m going to have to pay for lawyers.”
“Do you have an idea?”
“Redoing the hammer is out. Not enough time for materials collection. I’d like to work with night metal again. There’s something that calls to me about it and it’s the symbol of the Hall.”
“I’m intrigued. Go on,” said the professor.
“I have four ideas. The first is a ring. A smaller item would be easier to produce, making material collection the longest step. It would detect imminent danger. Something that might prevent what happened to Mara and myself.
“The second idea would be a spear. I can’t help but want to make a weapon and I would only have to create the stabby end. The shaft could be darkwood or something easily acquired. Not sure what it might do, but I can figure that out later. Something unique.
“The third would be a personal golem, maybe out of clockwork, or formless steel. It’d probably be the most difficult, and I’m not sure I’d have enough time, plus creating a pseudo-living creature would require a touch of my soul, but it might balance the loss.”
Professor Wolfe tilted his head. “I assume it would be smaller? A true golem is usually much larger.”
Claire nodded. “Something small for sure.” She paced away and then came back.
“The fourth could be bracers. I’ve always admired the Academy of the Subtle Arts, the way they can run like the wind and jump impossible distances. Something that could make me strong and fast like them.”
“Each of those sound quite interesting,” said Professor Wolfe as he quirked a smile. His gaze flashed to the door. “I have a class to teach. I must be going, but if you need help with this final project, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
He left Claire standing by the crucible. It’d taken her years to come up with the hammer project. She hated to make such an important decision so quickly, but if she wanted it complete before graduation, she had to hurry. What to choose?