Something in the dark was breathing. William opened his eyes. Two figures stood at the foot of his bed. Long, thin faces like white knives. The rustle of heavy cloth as black hands reached down for his face. His screams echoed through the house, but there was no one there to hear him. He was alone and helpless.
The figures vanished. Somewhere in the dark, a door opened and slammed shut. The streetlight shone through his window, illuminating an empty room. He climbed out of bed slowly, cautiously, lest a hand reached out from the closet or under the bed. But there was nothing. He flipped the switch on the wall and the lights came on, shining behind their pointed, white shades.
“Just a nightmare. Nothing more… nothing more.”
The morning marked two weeks since his mother’s death. William had completely run out of space in the refrigerator. For some reason, any time a friend or family member heard the news, their first reaction was to bring over food.
“Sorry your mom died. Here’s a casserole.”
“I know it’s hard being nineteen and all alone in the world. Here’s some banana bread.”
“Must have been horrifying to find her swinging from the rafters in the attic. Have some scalloped potatoes.”
The funeral had been a short, simple affair, just a prayer and one of his aunts singing a hymn he didn’t recognize. Other than giving him food and the obligatory “sorry for your loss, dear,”, no one talked to him much. Their expressions seemed to say “Everyone knows this type of thing is hereditary. How long until he cracks up, too?”
During one of her lucid moments, William’s mother had written out a simple will: Everything goes to the boy. “Everything” was an ancient pickup truck, a library of black and white movies, and the family home, a half-rotted Cape Cod surrounded by woods. With his mother gone, the house seemed to have come alive. Suddenly, there were sounds he’d never quite noticed before. The furnace growled, the pipes creaked, and the water heater groaned and hissed. The worst sounds, though, were the echoes. At night, the echoes of his footsteps sounded like someone walking through the next room.
He made himself a meatloaf sandwich and carried it back to his room. The bedroom was dominated by a row of shelves made from cinder blocks and wooden planks. The shelves were covered in a collection of small machines, gadgets that he had cobbled together from parts picked up at the local junkyard or salvaged from thrift store electronics.
There was a machine that could siphon mayonnaise from a jar and squirt it on any nearby pieces of bread. Another machine could sort silverware and drop it into the right slot in the drawer. There was a tiny robot designed to rove back and forth across the carpet looking for any stray plastic building blocks. If it found any, a warning siren would go off, preventing you from stepping on them in your bare feet.
There were all very entertaining to watch in action but, other than that, completely useless. His mechanical engineering professors always pressured him to enter something in the various robotics and invention-building contests, but his machines just weren’t quite ready yet. They looked serious, but he knew he was essentially just playing with toys.
He finished his sandwich, checked his favorite websites for new content, straightened his room, and checked the internet again. “I can’t keep procrastinating,” he thought. “I have to take care of the finances now. No one else is going to do it for me. Not anymore.”
He walked downstairs to the living room, where a stack of mail was waiting. Sitting at his mother’s roll top desk, he tossed another red “FINAL NOTICE” envelope in the trash and filled out yet another check. It seemed his mother had been buying groceries with a credit card, and paying off that card with another card, and paying off that card with still another, ad infinitum. “I’ll have to start working full-time,” he thought. “Probably have to leave school. I know I’ll have to sell the house. Good luck to me. People aren’t exactly dying to move to Gary, Indiana. Whichever Gary they named this town after, I hope he’s burning in hell.”
He put the check in the mailbox and headed back inside. He decided to check the attic for anything worth selling online that his mother hadn’t already pawned. He pulled down the ladder and yanked the string for the light. The attic was cold and drafty and smelled like smelled like spoiled leftover Chinese. Mice had chewed half the boxes and left their droppings in the other half.
Apparently there was a leak in the roof. Water had destroyed the Christmas decorations and some crates of his old books. His boxes of childhood toys were gone, save for a couple of cast iron wind-up robots laying on the floor. They had been stepped on and broken, silver gears spilling out their seams. Grandmother’s china was also missing, and his grandfather’s coin collection, and everything his father had left behind after the divorce. There was nothing left.
That night, William stood in his room, staring at the light switch. “I would sleep better if I just left it on… God, I wish Mom were still… No. No, I don’t. I am an adult. Adults sleep with the lights off, and don’t cry for mommy every time they have a bad dream.” He closed the curtains and reached for the light switch. “Lights off.” But his fingers didn’t move. “Lights off… now. Okay, now… Now!”
The lights were still on. He decided to get the broom from the garage, and use that to flip the switch from his bed. Not because he was scared. It was just more convenient that way.
The light vanished and the darkness crept in. He closed his eyes and listened to the house. The furnace clicked on and the vent exhaled its warm breath across the floor. Outside, an autumn wind caressed the house, and a branch from the sycamore by his window scratched against the glass. “Every sound has a normal, reasonable explanation. There are no ghosts wandering through the night.”
The clink of metal on metal. His eyes snapped open. Two figures leaned over either side of his bed, examining him closely. Their eyes were black sinkholes in the middle of their sharp, white faces. He wanted to strike out, to shove the nightmare away, but he couldn’t move. The rustle of fabric. Black hands appeared in the air. William screamed as they grabbed his face and held it tightly. A hand produced an enormous needle and pressed it into his left eye socket, between the bone and the eye.
“Not so deep this time,” a muffled voice said. “Three taps should do it.” A hand produced a small, rubber mallet and tapped it against the end of the needle once, twice –
William awoke in a great deal of pain. The ghostly surgeons were gone, and so was his bedroom. This room was much smaller, with a low ceiling of rough-hewn wooden beams. The walls were made of random stones, from great limestone boulders the size of tree stumps to tiny, varicolored stones like you might skip across a lake.
He attempted to sit up, but still couldn’t move. Thick, leather straps held his arms, legs, and neck to the bed. There were no sheets, and the mattress, such as it was, felt like burlap stuffed with straw.
The afternoon sun was coming in through a large window. There was no glass, just a pair of simple, wooden shutters that were open halfway. It looked like the room was fairly high up. Through the gap in the shutters, he could see a dirt road far below crossing an open field and disappearing in the trees beyond. “Middle of nowhere,” he thought. “Probably no point in yelling for help. There’s no one around to help me.”
A door creaked open behind him, but he couldn’t turn to look. A dark figure stepped into the room. The figure wore a shapeless, black robe, wide-brimmed black hat, and a white mask like bird with a long, pointed beak. The eyes were covered by some sort of black lenses. A gloved hand held a wooden, manual hand drill with a long, silver bit. The figure peered down at him, then lurched back, startled. A muffled voice said, “He’s awake!”
A woman’s voice called from the other room, “I told you to repeat the operation until it works! Did you talk to him? …No, I suppose not.”
The figure leaned over the bed, pressing the drill bit against his temple. William started to scream, but the woman cut him off. “Stop that! We have to test you first. You should know that by now. Now… Do you remember your name?”
“What is your name?” the voice demanded.
“…Good. Now, where are you?”
“…A room?” he ventured.
“Is that all?”
He stared at the drill and gritted his teeth. “…………My room?”
“…Close enough.” An elderly woman entered. She was wearing a simple surgery mask and an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform, a mix of Florence Nightingale and medieval nun. The masked surgeon left without a word.
“I am so glad to see you lucid, William,” the woman said. “My name is Muriel. We have only met once before, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t remember me. It is now mid-spring, about five months since you came down with the fever. Fortunately, since then, the doctors have developed a surgery that cures it. …Or makes you not care about being sick.” She untied her mask and tucked it into a pocket. “Thanks to their miraculous procedure, you should now no longer be contagious.”
William considered telling her that’s not how contagious diseases work, but he didn’t want to risk angering her before she unstrapped him from the bed. She continued, “You can rejoin the others in the palace as soon as your strength returns. There aren’t as many as there used to be. Of those that survived the war, half are mad with sickness. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which half is which. No use asking them. They lie.”
Muriel unstrapped William from the bed and helped him sit up. Through the window, he could see smoke rising in the distance. “Nothing to worry about,” she said. “It’s fine. You’re perfectly safe. Unless the smoke turns blue, or if you hear screaming. Now rest up. We will have work for you in a day or two.” She left the room and closed the wooden door, locking it behind her.
“Well, it’s not a kidnapping,” William thought. “They can’t get any money out of my family. Mom’s gone, and they can’t send Dad a ransom note. First, they’d have to figure out where he is. Even Mom didn’t know that. So what do they want from me? And what kind of doctor walks around in a bird mask? They must just be insane.”
He got out of bed and stuck his head out the window. He was on the second or perhaps the third floor. It looked like a thirty-foot drop to the dirt road. There were gaps between the stones in the wall, but climbing down would be dangerous. Better to wait for some other opportunity to escape. Besides, he was still in a lot of pain.
He went back to bed, closed his eyes, and waited for his head to stop hurting. It didn’t. Hours passed, and the light faded. Voices in the next room muttered back and forth. Muriel’s voice said, “Of course he can do it! Just give him a few days to heal! We don’t want to send him out until his strength returns. Remember the last one? They still haven’t found his arms.”
He swallowed hard. “Maybe the window isn’t so dangerous after all…”
The leather straps that had held him to the bed were attached with a simple thumbscrew. He unfastened the screws and laid the straps in a line on the bed. He connected the buckle of the first strap to the end of the next strap, and so on down the line, until he had about forty feet of leather. It wouldn’t be as easy as climbing down a rope, but it was better than nothing. He buckled the end of the last strap to the bed post, and slowly lowered himself out the window.
When his feet hit the ground, he took a few steps back and examined the house where he had been held captive. The house was large, but simple. It was timber framed, with stone walls covered in some sort of white plaster. The roof was gray slate save for a pair of white stone chimneys. Next to the front door hung a large, wooden sign with hand-painted lettering: Sir William The Fair, Knight of the Realm. Unfortunately, the sign did not say where the “realm” was. Amish country, probably.
A sliver of moon shed just enough light for him to pick his way across the grounds to the dirt road. The road wound across an empty field, up a hill, and into the woods. After a hundred yards or so, the road widened into a large circle, which extended to four different paths. “I suppose it doesn’t matter which path you take when you don’t know where you are or where you’re going.” He chose a path at random and continued on.
From somewhere in the dark came a sharp ticking. “They must have a clock tower out here. I bet I’m headed towards the town square. Maybe there’s someone I can ask for help. Hopefully someone not in a creepy mask…” A sudden wind brushed the treetops and was gone. The road bent between two hills. As he rounded the curve, he noticed the smell of smoke. Somewhere in the distance, a hundred panicked voices screamed.
He came to a clearing where a small village was burning. The village was surrounded by a six-foot stone wall topped with iron spikes. The wall’s great, iron gate had been ripped from its hinges, and was lying in a crumpled heap at the foot of the watchtower. A woman ran from her flaming home, a screaming baby in her arms. She stared at William, her mouth dropping open. “It’s him!” she screamed, pointing. “Sir William is here! Look! He’s come to save us! Oh, save us, please! Kill it!”
The woman’s arm shot up, pointing to the roof of the stone watchtower. A dark shape was clinging to the roof, a vast shadow with gigantic, yellow eyes. A crash, and stone tiles rained down. A man’s voice screamed. Something round flew from the tower, thudded to the ground, and rolled across the road. The night watchman’s silver helmet, still attached to his head.
William turned and ran, followed by shouts of “Coward!”
He found himself back at the foot of the strange house. His leather straps were still hanging out the open window. “Those people are insane, and might kill me in the morning, but I need shelter fast. Anything is better than being outside with… with… whatever did that.”
He climbed up the straps and slid back in the window. Muriel was sitting on his bed. “Oh, I see you’re feeling better already,” she said coolly. “Well, since you’re up and about, looks like you can start work tomorrow.”
“What… what kind of work?”
“Surely you know! Can’t you remember? Well, don’t worry, we can fix that. Doctor!”
“I remember! Yes! I remember! Let’s start work early!”
The next morning, the two doctors dragged William from his bed and pulled off his clothes. They dressed him in a long, gray tunic and loose, brown trousers. The clothes had no tags, and looked to be handmade. The doctors were still dressed in their black robes and bird masks. They each grabbed one of his wrists and led him to the door. In their other hands, the doctors each had a long knife. If he tried to run away, they would be ready to prod him back in the right direction.
“Where are you taking me?” William asked. “Are we going to your farm? To the woods? Some other Amish-type place? I don’t know what you people do here. I’m sorry, I’m from the city. It’s called Gary. Ever heard of it?”
“Quiet,” a doctor grumbled, his raspy voice muffled by the mask. A horse-drawn cart came up the road and stopped at the house. The doctors prodded William into the back, and forced him to sit between them.
The cart bumped along to the circle. The road to the village was now blocked by wooden barricades and “Danger” signs. They took another road, a steep, stone path that wound through the trees and headed farther uphill, bouncing along for miles. Other than the burned village, there wasn’t a single house on the road, or any traffic. Finally, the forest gave way to a vast lawn of well-manicured grass. At the far end of the lawn stood a dilapidated stone castle.
William gasped. “Apparently I’m a bit farther from Indiana than I thought…”
The outer walls of the castle were laid out in a hexagon, with a watch tower at each corner. A larger tower, a hexagonal keep, stood in the center of the courtyard. The keep and outer walls were made of white stone, but large patches were blackened with soot. Chunks of stone were missing from the outer walls, and had been replaced by wooden fencing. The largest hole was in the roof of the keep. Wooden scaffolding had been erected around the keep, but no one was working on repairs.
The castle was surrounded by a wide moat. The water was brackish, filled with mud and bits of debris. As they approached, the drawbridge lowered slowly. As soon as they were across, it was pulled up again. The doctors put away their knives and pushed William out of the cart. “Go see Thaddeus,” a doctor said. “He’s been waiting for you.”
“Yes, Thaddeus…” William muttered. “Of course.”
The doctors appeared to lose interest in him and wandered off about their business. Apparently they weren’t concerned about him escaping the castle. He decided to head for the keep. The immense castle courtyard felt like a museum. Everything was quiet and still. The few people around didn’t seem to be doing much of anything. There were no guards, just a handful of people dressed like they were doing Shakespeare, if Shakespeare had written a play about mud farmers.
The keep had a pair of huge, oaken doors which were guarded by a short, stocky man in a black overcoat and chain mail vest. The guard lowered his spear and saluted. “Hail, Sir William!”
“Yeah, hail… I thought this was supposed to be a castle? Where are the knights?’
The guard’s face fell. “I am so sorry, Sir William, but I am afraid you are the last. Half of the knights were stricken with the madness, and were killed by the doctors’ medicine.”
“And the other half?”
The guard’s head jerked upward. With a shaky hand, he pointed to the sky. “That.”
A strange shape glinted in the sky. An immense pair of scale-covered wings, like the unholy offspring of a crocodile and a bat. The creature was forty feet long from mouth to tail, over two hundred feet from wingtip to wingtip. The whole thing shone like polished brass. From somewhere inside it came a sharp, dreadful ticking, like an alarm clock counting down to the end of the world.
A voice called from the castle walls. “The beast returns!”
“Oh my god,” William gasped. “What are you waiting for? You’ve got to do something!”
“Me?” the guard sputtered. “That’s your job.”
“You’re the blasted knight!”
He threw up his hands. “I’m no knight. I’m just a kid. I don’t have any idea what’s going on.”
“Then let me explain it to you.” The guard gestured up at the approaching beast. “If that thing gets any closer, it will kill us. So you have to kill it first.” He cracked William on the back of the head with a meaty hand. “So go find Thaddeus. Now.”
The guard reached into his overcoat and produced a bundle of wood and string. With one swift movement, it snapped together into a longbow. In a flash, he fired off three shots, each one striking the monster in the head. The arrows bounced off harmlessly. He might as well have been firing at a tank.
William spied a nearby hole in the outer walls. The hole had been patched with wooden boards, but the patch job was so shoddy, he could probably kick the wood lose and be swimming in the moat in no time. It wouldn’t be a pleasant swim, but it would be better than sticking around to see what that monster was about to do. While the guard was busy firing at the beast, he ran for the hole.
“I might not be able to put an arrow in its eye,” the guard called, “but I can hit a coward’s back at 300 yards!”
Wordlessly, William turned and headed back to the keep. Inside the tower, a tall, white-haired man was peering out the window. “Thaddeus?” William ventured.
“Oh! Sir! You’re here! I’m so glad.” Thaddeus pulled him into a tight hug. “Ever since you were stricken with the madness, they have had me working here in the kitchens. The cook is a vicious harpy of a woman. But now that you are here again -”
“Thaddeus,” William interrupted, “who exactly are you?”
He released William from his grasp and took a step back. “Why, sir, I’m your squire.”
“I thought squires were teenage boys training to be knights.”
“I’m a slow learner.”
Thaddeus disappeared into a back room, returning with a large trunk. He threw the trunk open and produced a sword in a belted leather scabbard. Although he still had no intention of fighting, William strapped on the sword. The scabbard seemed much thicker than it should be, and was surprisingly heavy. Thaddeus helped him put on a steel breastplate and a pair of gauntlets, and then the wall exploded.
The beast’s hands wrapped around William’s waist and pulled him from the keep. As he drew his sword, there was a loud bang and a scream. Apparently the sword had some sort of firearm built into the handle. “Sorry Thad!”
He swung the sword at the beast’s arm. The blade glanced off its brass scales harmlessly, producing nothing but the scrape of metal on metal. A blow to its wing managed to knock a scale loose, but the dragon didn’t seem to notice. As it flew up over the moat, its wings clicked and whirred loudly.
“What am I doing? This thing is mechanical. Go for the moving parts!” There was a tiny gap between its wings and its back where a cast iron gear was just barely visible. He jammed his sword into the gap, and the gear ground to a halt. Suddenly, the dragon was falling.
Spinning like a maple seed, they fell, crashing into the moat’s dark water and sinking rapidly. William yanked off his gauntlets and struggled out of his breastplate, swimming to the surface. The clockwork dragon crawled along the bottom of the moat, then climbed up the side, dragging itself to the surface.
The dragon’s powerful jaws clamped around the sword, attempting to pry it loose, but the gears were jammed tightly. It bit down on its own back, prying up the metal and exposing its inner workings. It twisted the sword until the wing gear snapped loose. The dragon flung the blade aside and scuttled for the trees.
Some of the farmers who lived in the castle dragged William from the water and took him to a well, where he washed off the mud. Before he had even finished drying off, the few remaining castle guards insisted he go with them to speak to their master in the great hall. The castle was owned by a man named Lord Killebrew. He had a tangled mane of red hair and a reddish brown beard that nearly reached his waist. He wore an emerald green, sleeveless robe emblazoned with his family crest, which was several members of his family decapitating several members of other people’s families. His left arm was metal from the elbow down. The prosthetic looked to be a combination of an iron gauntlet and a jackhammer.
William offered the brass gear to Killebrew. “That dragon is a complex machine,” William said, “but save for its size, this gear looks like something you’d find in a toy.”
“I’ve seen something like this before,” Killebrew said. “A watchmaker in the kingdom has designed a new type of gear that makes machines rewind their own springs, so they can run indefinitely.” William considered pointing out that this was impossible, but given that everyone he had met in the past two days was clearly insane, he decided to let it slide. “My daughter has a clockwork juggler that runs on such a mechanism,” Killebrew continued. “I wound it once on her birthday, and it performed continuously for a year. The endless rattling was unbearable. I nearly had the watchmaker executed. And now it seems I should have. This clockwork devil must be his doing. Find him and get him to stop the dragon. If he does not, cut him in twain.”
“Sure,” William said, “I’ll cut him twain, a score, a myriad, as many pieces as you like. No problem. Where does he live? Is it far away from here? I prefer to travel long distances alone.”
Killebrew slammed his gauntlet on the table. “No! I can’t have my greatest knight traveling alone. What if you were injured? I’ll send the doctors with you. …The watchmaker used to live in a nearby village, but when the beast first appeared, he was seen heading south for the poison lands.”
William was escorted outside, where the doctors were waiting with a small, horse-drawn cart. One doctor climbed atop the horse, carrying William’s sword at his side. The other sat in the back with William, in case he got any ideas about abandoning his mission.
They crossed the moat and returned to the main road, which wound around the castle and continued into the hills beyond. They trotted along for what felt like miles, but there was no other traffic and not a single sign of modern life. A few hundred yards ahead was a small, wooden bridge crossing a narrow river.
William grabbed his stomach and furrowed his brow, doing his best impression of motion sickness. The doctor gestured for him to hang over the side, rather than being ill inside the cart. William leaned as far as he could, and tried not to think about the knife in the doctor’s hand. At last, they reached the bridge. William threw himself from the cart, rolling into the bridge’s side rails. He scrambled to his feet and climbed over the rails, diving into the water below. He swam upstream for about a quarter of a mile, and struggling for air, pulled himself on shore.
Ignoring the ache in his sides, he pushed on, climbing up the small, stony beach to a brick road. He walked for an hour, shivering in the cool, spring air. The road lead to a busy, outdoor market in the middle of a small village. Vendors shouted at him as he passed by to come see their wares, booths filled with fruits and vegetables, cheese, fish, blankets, and pottery. One vendor was even selling ice cream. He had a row of wooden ice cream makers, each grinding out a different flavor. Instead of turning a crank, the machines were being powered by a group of Alaskan Huskies running on a treadmill.
“I’d love something to eat right now,” he thought, his stomach grumbling, “but the doctors never gave me any money. I guess knights have to kill something before they get paid.” As he walked through the market, he saw a church steeple in the distance. “There we go… a church! They should have a food pantry, or at least someone I can ask for help.”
The market ended at a cross street. As he stepped into the road, someone shouted “Look out! Make way, make way!” An enormous wagon rocketed past, nearly knocking him to the ground. It was fifty feet long, and propelled by an immense sail. The sail was purple and gold cloth emblazoned with the words “The Wakefield Comedy Players Medicine Show.”
“On the other hand,” William thought, “I could see if the medicine show is hiring. It might be a quick way out of town, and away from the doctors. And I’ll need to earn some money, if I can’t get home. …Not that I have anything to go back home to.” He headed after the wagon, which had come to a stop a couple miles down the road in what apparently was the town square. There was already a crowd gathering. A few stagehands hopped out to pull down the sail. They unfastened several large, metal clasps along the ends of the wagon, and the entire side wall lowered like a drawbridge. In less than a minute, the wagon had transformed into a small but lavishly-decorated stage.
A few minutes later, a tall man with a beard down to his waist walked on to the stage. He was wearing a long, royal blue coat embroidered with silver stars, moons, and planets. “Good afternoon!” he said. “As most of you undoubtedly know, I am Doctor Wakefield!” He gestured dramatically, but the audience didn’t react. “Today’s theatrical tour de force tells the tale of two terrifying trolls who take over the throne of a tyrant! After the show, stay seated to see a scientific sensation – my superior sedative, spasmolytic, and suppository! Cures common colds, cirrhosis, clap, cowpox, cholera, chlamydia, croup, coma, chestnut canker, and chemoprophylaxis! Only a single silver sixpence for a six-month supply! See you in an hour, folks! Enjoy the show!”
Doctor Wakefield walked backstage – or rather, behind the wagon – and was replaced by the Tyrant King. The audience greeted him with boos and jeers. Either they were already familiar with the character, or he was based on a real ruler who was very unpopular. The king stood under a painted prop tree and explained in iambic pentameter that his castle had been overthrown by a pair of vicious trolls who had devoured his knights like tins of sardines. The only member of his court who had survived was his daughter, Princess Loreena.
Loreena was dressed in a form-fitting purple gown and an extensive collection of silver jewelry. As she strode across the stage, her curly, auburn hair bounced energetically. And some other parts of her, as well.
A gravely voice called from the back of the audience, “Stand and deliver!” At first, he thought it was a group of men on horseback. But amazingly, it was a group of men with the lower body of horses. There were about half a dozen of the centaurs, armed with pistols and large, serrated knives. They moved through the crowd, demanding coin purses and money belts. An old man insisted he had nothing, but they trampled him to the ground and crushed him under their hooves.
A centaur lept onto the stage and thrust his knife at Loreena. “Take off your jewels and toss them here!” Hands shaking, she followed his orders. “And now, your gown! Take it off, or I shall cut it from you.” The king threw himself between them and attempted to wrestle the knife from the centaur’s grasp, but the beast kicked him in the chest, knocking him on his back.
William felt two hands grab his shoulders. The doctors. They pressed his sword into his hand. “I’m not a fighter,” he whispered.
“You aren’t anything until you do it.”
William lifted the sheath and drew his sword. There was an explosion, and the centaur on stage fell to the ground. “Oh, sorry! I forgot it did that…”
Another centaur rushed through the crowd, a pair of knives in his hand. William pulled the trigger on the sword, but apparently it only had one shot. As the man-monster galloped towards him, William noticed something strange. The centaur’s human upper body was attached to his horse lower body with thick, black stitches. William hurled his sword at the centaur’s waist. The stitches tore and snapped, and the beast fell in two, collapsing in a pool of blood. Horrified, the other centaurs – and most of the crowd – turned and fled.
The other actors came out from hiding and helped the king to his feet. Loreena climbed down from the stage and threw her arms around William. “I was sure I was about to die,” she said. “And I would have, if it hadn’t been for you, good sir knight.”
“I’m not a knight,” William said.
“You are to me.”
He walked over to the severed centaur’s body and retrieved his sword. Wiping the blood off in the grass, he said to the doctors, “Why would someone want to have their lower body surgically removed?”
Loreena smiled. “I could think of a big reason why a man might want to be half horse…”
“Sure, there is that, but it would have so many disadvantages. I mean, forget about using indoor plumbing. Even if you found a bathroom big enough to maneuver in, if you sat down, the toilet would shatter under your weight. Same problem with tubs. You’d have to bathe in a river.” He bent down and retrieved the centaur’s knife, attaching the holster to his belt. “I guess that’s my main issue with being a centaur. I’m just not that outdoorsy.”
One of the doctors carried a large medical bag over to the centaur’s body. Working quickly, he removed a large patch of skin from the centaur’s human half and used it to patch the hole in the horse half. Reaching into the bag, he produced a jar of green chemicals, a length of rubber tubing, and a syringe, and fashioned a crude IV drip. He strapped the contraption to the horse flesh and waited, tapping his foot irritably.
Amazingly, the horse flesh stirred. Slowly, it struggled to its feet. The doctors pulled, pushed, and prodded the horse body to their cart and strapped it next to their own horse. “This will help us move a little faster,” a doctor explained, “for a day or so, at least. The horse meat isn’t technically alive, so it will only be good until it starts to smell.”
Loreena looked sick to her stomach. “Sir knight,” she said, “the medicine show will be here for the next several days. If you would like to see how the play ends, please return as my special guest. …Just don’t bring your friends.”
As William and the doctors continued their travels, the trees and grass began to die. “We are approaching the poison lands,” a doctor said. He reached into his medical bag and produced another of the white bird masks. This one was smaller, only covering the mouth and nose. “Put this on. It purifies the air.”
The inside of the mask smelled like dead flowers. “Thanks”, William said, his voice muffled by his new beak.
A mile or so later, the trees vanished altogether. They came to a line of vast, black spikes that began at the sides of the road and stretched to either horizon. It was as if someone had built a hundred-foot fence out of broken glass. The silent message was clear: beyond this point is death.
As the cart rolled on, they passed into a black fog. “Wait,” William said suddenly. “What about the horse? I mean, the whole horse, the one with the head. He’s not wearing a gas mask.”
“The poison doesn’t kill horses, it just makes them insane. That horse has been mad for years.”
They descended into a deep valley, leaving the fog floating above them. Though the sun was barely visible, their yawns and the horse’s slow plodding told them it was getting late. They decided to make camp. There were no trees around for firewood, but one of the doctors produced a vial of green, luminous liquid called “firefly fluid”, which he poured in a circle around the camp. The illumination wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
William pulled their bedrolls from the cart and laid them in the circle, his on one side, and the doctors’ as far away as possible on the other. “I wonder if they sleep in those masks every night,” William thought. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they did. Hell, as far as I know, they don’t even have faces underneath.”
He was so exhausted, he didn’t bother taking off his boots. Despite his creepy companions, he managed to fall asleep. Unfortunately, his sleep didn’t last long. He woke to the sound of metal on metal. Strange shapes in the dim light. Standing around the circle were dozens of bizarre, humanoid creatures. They were about a foot tall and, other than the napkins tied around their necks like makeshift bibs, completely nude. Each one was holding a full-size fork and spoon. Their skin was hairless and featureless, save for their enormous, drooling mouths.
“Greetings, sir!” a creature chirped.
“We do apologize for waking you at such a late hour!” chirped another.
“We are the finix!” chirped a third. At this, the whole group bowed. “And your name is?…”
William slapped himself in the face. They were still there. Apparently, he was awake. “…I… My name is William…”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! Now, shall we begin our meal?”
The finix rushed across the glowing circle and the tidal wave of flesh knocked him to the ground. Individually, they were smaller than house cats, but combined, their weight was crushing. The tiny creatures stabbed him with their forks, chirping apologies, pleases, and thank yous. A finix climbed up his chest and leaned over to take a bite out of his nose, but he grabbed its throat and snapped its neck. Using the dead body as a club, he beat the creatures away from his chest and legs. “Rude!” they yelled. “Quite rude indeed! Very poor etiquette, sir!”
The creatures surged forward, jabbing at him with their forks. The tiny monster attacking his feet attempted to bite off his toes, but only managed to get a mouth full of boot leather. As William searched his surroundings for a solution, he noticed something strange. The finix were virtually identical, save one. The beast gnawing at his knee had a set of silverware that did not match the others. “Is that… is that a shrimp fork?”
The finix let out a collective gasp, letting their forks and spoons clatter to the ground. Pointing tiny fingers at the offender, they chanted, “Rude! Rude! Rude!” They rushed at the ill-mannered monster, a swarm of teeth tearing him apart.
William crawled away to a safe distance and jumped to his feet. He grabbed for his sword and yanked it from its sheath. The sword went off, and several of the creatures splattered like balloons filled with ground beef. The others did not seem to notice, and just kept fighting for pieces of their rude companion. With a howl, he ran forward and hacked at the swarming monsters. Tiny limbs and heads flew in every direction.
At last, the battle won, he collapsed onto his bedroll, covered in blood and gore. The two doctors appeared above him. “Where the hell were you?” William spat.
“We were burying the half-horse. We didn’t want the smell of death to attract any wild animals. …Perhaps we were a little late.”
Rather than burying the dozens of tiny bodies, they decided to just move camp half a mile down the valley. William washed his face with some water from a canteen and fell back into bed. This time, they slept in shifts, with someone awake to keep watch.
The valley was still dark, but the doctors insisted it was morning. William packed up the bed rolls while they prepared a simple breakfast of fruit, bread, and cheese. Ten minutes later, they were back on the cart and bouncing across the valley.
The valley grew deeper and wider. High above them, the fog grew thicker, choking out the noonday sun. In the distance, there appeared a gray, stone structure nearly as wide as the valley itself. The building was long, narrow, and bent into a U-shape, like the jawbone of some vast, extinct creature. Where the jawbone’s teeth would have been, there was a row of chimneys exhaling black smoke. It was some sort of factory, apparently the source of the valley’s poisoned air.
A long, flagstone drive lead up the inside of the curve to a pair of tall, wooden doors. “Well, there’s the way in,” said a doctor.
William laughed. “We’re not going in that way. That’s a death sentence. There’s only one reason to make a building that shape: to see who’s approaching, and stop them before they reach those doors.”
“How else would we get inside?” wondered the other doctor.
As if on cue, the roof started moving. A section of shingles slid back, revealing an eight-foot-wide hole. A few moments later, something descended from the blackened sky – the clockwork dragon. It drifted down through the hole, which slowly slid closed behind it.
“Well,” William said, “looks like we climb up to the roof and wait for the toymaker to send the dragon bak out again.”
The doctors turned the cart sharply to the right and headed to the edge of the valley. The tinkerer’s factory was barely visible through the fog. They circled around the building to the rear. There was no cover, nothing to hide behind. All William could do was crawl on his hands and knees and hope the fog would be enough to hide his approach.
Thirty yards out, he realized the doctors weren’t following. Apparently he had to do this himself.
He made his way to the corner of the building, where a steel drain pipe ran up to the roof. He grabbed on and pulled, testing his weight. It seemed sturdy enough.
“This is harder than I thought. I wish I had spent more time climbing the rope in gym class, instead of forging my mom’s signature on sick notes…”
He pulled himself up onto the roof and crawled over to the chimneys, where the roof was relatively flat. He was dirty, sweaty, and exhausted. Somehow, laying on the roof of a fortress and waiting for a mechanical monster to emerge, he managed to fall asleep.
His eyes snapped open. The roof was sliding open. He sprang to his feet and carefully stepped behind a chimney. The brass dragon emerged and rose to the sky. The door in the roof began to close. William took a breath, drew his sword, and leaped.
He dropped through the hole, suddenly wishing he had a better plan. He fell several feet and landed on a large, metal platform, like a larger version of the hydraulic lifts mechanics used to work on the underside of cars. Even though the dragon was heavily armored, it must have needed the occasional repair.
With a gentle hiss, the platform started sinking to the floor. William stepped down and examined his surroundings. He was in a long, narrow room lined with workbenches covered in mechanical projects at various stages of completion. Some of the mechanisms looked like spare parts for the dragon – brass wings, tail motors, steel claws. On other workbenches, there was scattered a collection of wind-up animals mechanical puppets, but they were covered under a thick layer of dust. Apparently the tinkerer had better things to do these days than repair old toys.
The room ended at a pair of heavy, wooden doors. He tried to dramatically kick them open, but they didn’t move. Apparently they opened inward. “Well, that’s embarrassing. I’m glad I’m alone…” He pulled open the doors and stepped into the next room.
The walls were covered in a spiderweb of thin, glass pipes, which were carrying some kind of pale, pink liquid. The pipes were connected to an array of pumps, filters, pistons, and machinery he didn’t recognize. The pipes lead to the far end of the room where a soft, white light illuminated a gigantic, crystal snow globe. The snow globe was eight feet high and over ten feet wide. Inside was a pink canopy bed, and a tiny, raven haired girl. Her eyes were closed, but her lips were parted slightly, as if she were about to say something. Next to her bed was a small table that held an empty wine goblet.
William approached the snow globe and peered into the glass. “She’s not a toy. She’s real! This must be some sort of oxygen tent, or even suspended animation…”
A single pipe lead down from the ceiling and continued into the snow globe to just above the wine goblet, where it tapered to the width of an eyedropper. As he watched, the pumps switched on and pushed the pink liquid forward, until a single drop fell into the goblet.
He followed the pipes back to their origin, a huge, metal vat with a set of stairs leading up to the top. He climbed the steps and peered down. The bottom of the vat had three long, metal axles covered with metal teeth. “Oh my god… It’s a meat grinder.”
“What are you doing here?” A voice from below. A small man in a violet cloak, mostly bald, with a pair of pince-nez glasses perched on his long, hooked nose.
William’s sword suddenly felt very heavy. “I think I’m supposed to kill you.”
“My boy, whatever for?”
“You built that machine!” William said. “The clockwork dragon. You’re a murderer.”
The tinkerer gestured for him to come closer. “I don’t enjoy shouting, do you? Why don’t you come down here? It will make it easier to talk and, if you still desire, to run me through.” William climbed down the steps, keeping a safe distance from the tinkerer.
“So, you say I’m a murderer,” the tinkerer continued. “You’re here, so I assume you’ve seen the girl in the glass bauble.”
“Yes. Smart boy. She is my daughter. She was killed over one year ago. Lord Killebrew started a war with the southern kingdom, ripped it to shreds, and installed his cousin as their new baron. Why? So he could have access to the southern kingdom’s steel, which he could use to make more weapons, which he could use in yet another war. But the southern kingdom launched a counterattack, an attack in which my daughter lost her life. An errant arrow struck her in the heart. I took her body and sealed her in the glass bauble, and she has been there ever since.”
William shook his head. “But, if they’re the ones responsible, why not attack the southern kingdom?”
The tinkerer laughed. “The people of the southern kingdom’s only sin was living on top of iron mines. It is the people of this kingdom who killed my daughter. They are the ones who gave Killebrew his power. Without them, he would be nothing but another power-hungry madman. You don’t think those people deserve to die? They gave Killebrew his power and watched him use it to torture the world. You don’t think they should suffer in turn?”
“Revenge won’t bring your daughter back to life.”
“But it shall, my boy! It shall! This machine takes their bodies and extracts the very essence of life itself. When the goblet is filled, my daughter shall be restored to me. But I have much more work to do. So far, ten thousand men have died, and the machine has produced one… single… drop.”
William raised his sword. “You’re mad. I can’t let you continue. I’m sorry to do this, but I have to kill you.” The tinkerer didn’t try to escape. He didn’t even move. William stepped forward and pressed the blade to his throat.
The old man’s eyes filled with tears. “Do it. Do it, please. Cut out my eyes so I can’t see her face. Slice off my ears so I can’t hear her laughter. Slit my throat so I can’t wake up at night saying her name. Cut her memory from my heart. Kill me, please, please, please.”
William trudged up the hill to the doctors’ cart and took a seat in the back.
“Is it done?” asked a doctor. “You killed him?”
“No. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bare to kill a brokenhearted, old man. I’m sorry.” He unbuckled his sword belt and held the empty scabbard in his hands.
“Then he escaped?” said the other.
“No. I left my sword in his hands… And now he’s gone.”
“Oh.” The doctors turned to each other and seemed to silently consider their options. “North to the castle?”
“No,” William said. “I’d rather go see a play.”