The desire to foist one’s own work and duties upon others is universal, even among mages. Especially among mages, if some people are to be believed. Consequently, it should not surprise anyone that many magical methods of acquiring servants have been invented over the ages. Many of these amount to slavery, however, with all the problems associated with that.
Eventually, many mages decided that in order to acquire a truly loyal servant, capable of performing the most demeaning and repetitive jobs without pause or complaint, they must create one themselves.
The two most popular methods for this are golem creation and necromancy.
A golem is a magically animated doll. It can be built out of nearly any material, but wood and metal are most common – wood because it is cheap, and metal because it offers excellent durability and performance. They can’t be built out of a solid block of material; they need joints and such to move and interact with the environment. Thus, the dexterity of a golem depends partially on the sophistication with which its body is crafted with.
Still, while building a proper body for a golem can be tricky, it is ultimately the easiest part of golem creation. The heart of the golem, and the part most difficult and expensive to make, is the animation core that allows it to move and interpret orders.
Essentially a fancy ward stone at its core, the animation core is imprinted with a multitude of animation spells that work together to give the golem a semblance of life and intelligence. The extreme amount of animation spells that have to be imprinted on such a small object means that the animation core must be constructed out of very expensive materials and designed by a specialist in golem making. These specialists must have excellent skills in both animation magics and spell formula, and tend to be reluctant to share their craft. Consequently, golem creation is a relatively rare skill, and golems themselves are an unusual sight in most places. Most people find it cheaper and easier to just hire human laborers.
Like all animation spells, golem animation is limited to skills and abilities that the caster knows how to actually perform. As such, almost every golem is humanoid in appearance, as that is the easiest form to animate for humans. Creation of non-humanoid golems typically requires that the caster spend some time shapeshifted into the target form in order to familiarize themselves with it.
Although technically capable of autonomous operation, it is typically a bad idea to leave a golem completely unsupervised for large periods of time. No matter how sophisticated their animation cores, they are still mindless constructs and often do shockingly stupid things if left on their own. Most operations that employ golems field them along with a human overseer (who doesn’t have to be a mage) who makes sure they actually do what they’re supposed to without complications.
Aside from their high cost of creation, golems are also limited by their need to consume mana to function. This means that golems need either mana-rich environments to work in, or their owner must pay extra for crystalized mana to serve as an internal battery.
Though rare in civilian environments, golems see heavy use in most countries’ militaries. Most military golems are made out of alchemically-treated metal, and have a wide variety of defensive wards imprinted onto their body and core, making them highly resilient and resistant to offensive magic.
Although soul magic deals with all sorts of different aspects of the soul, one of the most iconic powers of necromancers is their ability to animate the dead. With sufficient access to corpses and appropriate souls, a necromancer can create a small (or not so small) army of tireless warriors and laborers. Unfortunately for necromancers, most people do not appreciate the enslavement of souls needed for this to work.
Mindless undead, such as most zombies and skeletons, are essentially golems that use souls as a substitute for an animation core. This makes undead a lot cheaper, easier and quicker to make compared to regular golems. Using an existing body also helps to drive down costs, as it’s a lot easier to make a corpse than a sophisticated puppet.
The first part of this process is to acquire a suitable soul for reanimating the body. Souls of most creatures stay anchored to the body for a while after death, unless the body is totally destroyed, but after that they move on to the spiritual planes and are beyond the reach of mortal necromancers. Thus, extracting a soul from a body that had died a long time ago is not possible. A necromancer needs access to the recently dead to capture the souls they need to practice their craft. Getting access to the dying in their last moments can be tricky, so most necromancers resort to producing their own recently deceased corpses (through killing).
Once a necromancer has one or more souls captured and ready for use, they need a suitable body. A soul can only serve as an animation core for a body that is similar to the one it once inhabited, so one cannot use animal souls to animate humans and vice versa. Obviously, the quality of the animation is the highest if the necromancer uses a soul that was originally matched to the body in question, but any human soul will do to animate most human bodies.
The body that is to be animated is typically put through a preservation process to stop it from rotting, as it will not last very long otherwise. Despite this, most zombies will break down over time, depending on how intensely they are used, how good their preservation is, and how hostile the environmental conditions they operate in are. Skeletons tend to last longer than zombies, but also tend to be weaker and less dexterous, as the soul is meant for controlling a body of flesh and not one of bone.
Despite some fanciful depictions in stories, zombies do not shamble and stumble about – they move with the speed and coordination their living forms once possessed. They are still as mindless as any other golem, however, and do poorly if left to execute orders without supervision.
The souls that animate the undead have another function beside being cheaper than a constructed animation core – they are sources of mana, meaning undead always have their own power sources. This makes undead easier to use outside of magic-rich areas than regular golems.
Despite its many advantages over classical golem making, undead creation is seen very unfavorably in most places. Necromancers desecrate the bodies of the dead and enslave their souls, which makes their actions completely taboo for most people, regardless of possible efficiency gains. Priests in particular hate the practice, as the gods pronounced it extremely blasphemous while they still talked to people. Any country that tried to legalize necromancy would inevitably find itself a target of a coordinated holy war from all their neighbors.
It is possible to animate a corpse with the aid of an animation core. Using a corpse instead of an artificial puppet cuts down on the costs somewhat, and is often not outright illegal in the same way real necromancy is. On the other hand, flesh golems carry many of the same stigma that regular zombies do, regardless of what the law says, and flesh is not a terribly good material for golems. As such, flesh golems are rather rare, even by golem standards.
Particularly capable necromancers will sometimes make sophisticated flesh golems by fusing various corpses and body parts together, often drawing upon corpses of different magical creatures and incorporating non-biological parts into the construction. The resulting body is too different from its component parts to be animated with a soul, and requires an animation core to function properly. Souls may be used in the construction regardless, in order to help power the thing.