April 6th, 2024
It was the first time Aurelio had ever been inside Renard’s laboratory. As he had come to understand, a mage’s laboratory was their sanctum sanctorum, the heart of their research and the absolute center of their world. Aurelio had expected dusty bookshelves, the skulls of strange and exotic animals, and any number of unidentifiable devices meant to divine the secrets of the universe clustered on shelves.
What he received instead upon entering was something between the castle of Dr. Frankenstein and a serial killer’s den. Human body parts littered shelves and worktables, several of them with empty chest and stomach cavities, and unkempt piles of scribbled writing stacked here and there across the walls. Large chemistry glassware bubbling with strange fluids stood against one wall, and other walls of bare stone were covered in diagrams of the human body combined with arcane figures. It was, in a word, a terrifying place to be, which made it all the more unsettling when Renard led them inside with a casual stroll, whistling as he walked.
“Well, get comfortable.” He said, hanging up his jacket and rolling up his sleeves as he placed his cane against the wall. “There’s some preparation I need to do.”
Aurelio had come along with Elisa and the Mara, still held within its cage. The homunculus seemed far more at home here, or at least more comfortable than Aurelio was.
“How does this place not give you the creeps?” Aurelio asked her quietly.
“Hmm? This is like a childhood home to me.” Elisa said. “I was made here.”
“It’s full of body parts.”
“They’re not human.”
Aurelio nearly jumped as Renard clapped him on the back.
“That’s right.” The mage grinned. “Don’t worry, none of these bits and pieces were ever part of a human begin. Think of it as a room full of…really well-made prosthetics.”
“So they’re all fake?” Aurelio asked.
“Oh, now I wouldn’t call them fake” Renard said. “They’re perfectly serviceable and built much like the real thing. I even synthesize the bone matrix and muscle strands right here. Make the skin down the hall, and if you thought THIS room gave you the creeps let me tell you… Heh, well, at least it’s all locally prepared organic body parts, eh?” He said with a slightly crooked grin.
“Sure…” Aurelio said, not sure if he was joking or not.
“Master Aestling is an expert anatomist.” Elisa said as Renard went back to work. “I was built by hand, after all.”
“I always imagined mages disdained the sciences.” Aurelio said. “Seemed kind of…antithetical.”
“Maybe to some.” Renard spoke up as he worked, sliding into protective gear that wouldn’t look out of place in a chemistry lab. “Sometimes magecraft is as much science as art. It’s like…sculpture.”
As he spoke he rifled through several cases and racks of body parts, examining them one by one as if looking for details Aurelio couldn’t see. “See, if you want to be a master sculptor you need to understand many of the finer aspects of form, figure, anatomy, and proportion. Otherwise your attempt at Venus de Milo is going to look like an asymmetric yeti. My work however requires an even finer touch. Imagine for me, hunter, not a sculptor who works down from a block of marble, but a sculptor who works up from a skeleton. Every bone, every organ, every muscle, every patch of skin and strand of hair placed with deliberate design. Oh sure you can make something slapdash, two feet tall with long arms, buggy eyes and a limp and call it a homunculus, but where’s the pride in it? Where’s the craft?”
He smiled as he stepped over to ruffle Elisa’s hair. “You, my dear, are a work of art.”
Elisa smiled somewhat demurely as Renard returned to work, but Aurelio could not help but watch her as he considered his words.
She was certainly pretty, if somewhat plain, but he could not help but think of her now as a sculpture rather than just another person. Was the way she held herself intentional? Could he plan that from the proportions of her hips and leg bones? Had Renard meticulously placed the pores in her skin, the way her hair parted or the shape of her ears? Had her brow been designed to easily fit that furrowed expression she so often wore? Had he made each delicate finger through some design or with an artist’s keen eye? How long had he worked to sculpt the curve of her eyes, the point of her feet, or the shape of her breasts? While he had not made Elisa to be intensely beautiful, she suddenly seemed much more…deliberately pretty than any quirk of randomly combined genetics could allow.
“Is it common to mages,” He asked. “To have a scientific background as well?”
Renard waved dismissively over his shoulder. “It varies and no two mages are really the same. If you get really deep into the sciences, magic stops working quite so well, just like how delving too much into ritual can screw with your experimentation and repeatability. It’s all about finding the balance that works best, not just for you but for your work as well. Like…take me for example. I know what the body looks like and what it does, but I’m a novice in microbiology. Don’t ask me how a stomach works on the cellular level because I don’t know. Most of Elisa’s organs are for show, or they work by entirely different processes altogether.
He moved to a tall case that Aurelio at first thought had been filled with busts for holding wigs, before a second chilling glance informed him that it was in fact full of human heads. Renard looked them over with the intense gaze of a man choosing a tire, before shrugging and taking two of them by the neck. He carried them over to Mara’s small birdcage and held them up for it.
“Tell me, which do you like more?” He asked. “I’m feeling this one for the chin, but these eyes seem more you.”
Mara, seemingly as unperturbed as everyone else in this increasingly mad basement, pointed to the one he carried in his left hand.
“Ah of course!” Renard smiled. “I can be such a fool at times.” He casually replaced the other one on the shelf as he set back to work.
“Did…did she just pick out her head?” Aurelio asked.
“Well I’m not about to pick it out for her!” Renard scoffed. “So presumptuous. Tell me, Aurelio, if you had to wear only one suit for the rest of your life, and it covered your entire body from head to foot, and that’s the only thing you could wear when you went to a formal gathering, did the shopping, stayed in on a lazy afternoon, made love, or ate lobster, would you let someone else pick it out for you?”
“Er…I guess not.”
“Precisely.” Renard continued. “Normally, I’d make it a custom job from the ground up, but we’re a bit pressed the time so I have to work from templates. Still, it’s our dear Mara’s body, so she gets to pick.”
“Fair enough.” Aurelio gave up and leaned against a wall, arms folded as he tried not to touch anything.
The preparations went on for over three hours. Renard would ask Mara’s opinion on even the most minute of details, from the width of her fingernails to the parabola of her foot arch, weighing to her the pros and cons of each. Aurelio at first thought that a lot of the questions seemed silly and irrelevant, but the more he thought about it the more he realized that if you truly had that much control over your appearance, would you pass on picking most of the details? Even if it took a while, it seemed only right to let her choose, and it made him a little assured that she was indeed planning to stay in this body.
Aurelio couldn’t help but turn a bit red and politely look away when Renard polled Mara on what her ideal breast size would be, or especially when he made a point of mentioning her new body would be fully functional in all respects.
“Oh don’t look at me like that.” Renard chided him. “She wants a human body then she deserves to experience all the best parts. It’s a fundamental part of being human, and trust me once you’ve built enough of ‘em you stop being juvenile about it. I made all of Elisa’s reproductive organs by hand, that doesn’t mean I have any interest in getting in them.”
Elisa made a point of looking away and coughing, clearly preferring not to be mentioned.
Renard glanced at her before shaking his head. “Right, point is, shut up I’m working.”
As Renard and Mara worked, Aurelio couldn’t help but notice one particular oversight they seemed to be making.
“Umm…”He eventually drew up the courage to speak. “Doesn’t she choose…you know, hair and eye color? Or do all homunculi turn out like Elisa?” He glanced between them, having long since noted the similarities in white hair and red eyes between Renard and Elisa.
“Nah, that’s just trademark.” Renard smiled. “The stuff like hair and eyes are temporarily protomorphic, it’s hard for me to get quite right, so it can be mentally altered within three hours after creation to any color you like.
He glanced at Mara. “I’ll give you plenty of hair to work with, but if you want it cut don’t worry, extensions are easy on a homunculus, even if it doesn’t grow back.”
The Mara nodded and he kept working. In time, when the sun was starting to set, all of the choices has been made and it was time for the real work to begin. Renard began assembling her desired body parts into a recognizable form upon the central working table, a large raised tablet that looked like a medieval torture station, with a large alchemical pentagram embedded in silver into the wood. The stomach cavity was still open, and Renard set to work hooking up what appeared to be archaic IV stands filled with pale white and silver fluids.
He worked quickly and largely in silence now as Aurelio and Elisa watched from nearby. His work on the body seemingly done, Renard went to a large cabinet sealed with multiple locks and magic wards. It took him nearly ten minutes to undo them all, and when he opened it Aurelio’s jaw nearly dropped. Enormous gemstones that appeared to be of priceless quality were held within, and Renard’s fingers moved past one then the other, seemingly unaware of the massive fortune at his fingertips as he settled on a cubic zirconium carved into the shape of a dodecahedron larger than his fist.
He turned, locking the shelves back up with a snap of the fingers as he looked up to see Aurelio’s dumbfounded expression.
“Oh don’t look so shocked.” He said. “Mages have known how to grow and cultivate oversized gemstones for centuries. Not our fault you mundanes have an obsession with pretty rocks while being ignorant of their true worth.”
“True worth?” Aurelio asked.
“Watch this.” Renard said with a smile as he held the gemstone before Mara’s cage. “If one of you could be so kind as to open the door?”
Elisa stepped forward as Aurelio readied himself. Slowly the homunculus opened the door of the cage as Renard slid his hand and the massive jewel inside. The Mara placed its diminutive hands against the diamond-like surface before pressing its large forehead to it. In moments the tiny image of the Mara had vanished, as if falling forward into the carved rock, which began to glow soft green-blue with its own inner light.
Renard smiled and pulled it from the cage, showing the stone to Aurelio.
“Here it is.” He said. “The heart, brain, and soul of our new homunculus. Elisa’s core is a touch more ornate, but we had the luck of having a largely complete spirit already ready and willing.”
Without further ado, he carried the glowing gemstone back to the prone proxy body. Gently he slid the stone inside the open cavity and upwards into the chest, attaching it to some unseen internal apparatus that would bind the core in place. With another well-placed spell he sealed the stomach closed without leaving a mark, his smile beginning to grow as he began reciting a long chant in some ancient language, Coptic or proto-Arabic or another tongue Aurelio couldn’t hope to understand, clearly relishing each word as the symbols beneath the body began to glow with the same shimmering eerie light.
The light grew and grew, suffusing every inch of the body until every inch of it was luminescent. Only when Renard finished the chant did the inner illumination begin to fade. He took a step back when it had died down completely, and Aurelio could not help but step forward, watching the prone body closely.
A finger twitched, then two, then the toes curled and a shiver ran down its spine. An eye opened.
For the sake of her newfound modesty Renard had placed a sheet over her chest and hips, and as sensation began to flow through the new homunculus body, she gently took hold of the sheet to keep it in place as she, inch by inch, rose into a sitting position.
Seemingly unconsciously the colors of the body began to shift. The skin remained pale but with a touch more color than Elisa’s snow white pallor. Her hair became much darker, almost black, but with a distinct blueish tinge that was visible when the light struck it. Her eyes went from a colorless white to a bright turquoise color, the same as the earlier glowing had been. She flexed and stretched her muscles, feeling each one for the new time.
“This is around the point where I shout ‘It’s alive!’” Renard grinned. “Hope everything’s feeling alright, Mara. The ears working?”
Mara nodded, clearly having heard as she opened and closed her newfound mouth.
“Speaking takes a little work.” Renard said. “Elisa had an adorable lisp for three months after I made her.”
Aurelio had never seen Elisa flustered before, so it was surprising to him just how endearing he found it to be in her.
If the ears were working, however, then Aurelio had a few words of his own.
“Don’t forget our deal now, Mara.” He said. “We give you a body, and you help us track this cult, and your Master.”
A new expression arose on her face, one of rigid and somewhat strained determination as she tried to summon up the words.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=46&sl=31