The deformed man was Maugrund. He stooped so far that he often used one or both hands when he walked, and I thought of him as being several feet long rather than tall. There was no way to tell how bulky or twisted he was under the musty folds of grey cloth he wore. He hunched nearby and leaned his elongated, wide-snouted face closer to me. Thin, flat flakes of skin covered his face and neck. In the depths of his throat, something rough and hard gnashed together arrhythmically. His bloodshot eyes were human enough.
Maugrund had a gravelly, gobbly voice. He said, “I can see you in there, Isband.”
That was my name: Isband the Engineer. Or it was my name, before Maugrund worked his dark miracle on me. Now, I was Isband the Masterwork. My memory was not in one piece, but I knew that my team and I were all dead. The disfigured lunatic had captured my soul before I was gone, and he’d trapped me inside the copper and brass machinery of my finest contraption. When he leaned in close to seek me out, he peered into my optic lens. I have no idea what he saw, apart from glass and gears, to know that I was alive and awake inside.
He said, “I hope little was lost. The more of you I saved, the more you will suffer.”
My team and I had encountered Maugrund when we established our base camp in the ruins of Emptus. Nothing much remained of Emptus, even in legend. Maybe it was the name of a town, or a temple, or a god. The way people once bowed to the now-fallen gods, it was all the same thing. The place was an earthy field strewn with large and broken blocks of moss-covered stone. Perpetual damp fog hung over it all. Two men in my team jumped like superstitious rubes at every shadow in the fog, and the rest of us laughed at them until one of those shadows turned out to be Maugrund.
He was a creepy relic. And he didn’t have anything to say about Emptus that we didn’t already know. Did he know anything about legendary, fire-breathing lizards? He didn’t even answer. Did he know anything about dragons? He suggested that we might use the sacrifice stone, if my red-haired apprentice, Sascha, were by any chance still a virgin.
I’ll admit that I treated him poorly after that.
But the sacrifice stone was a good lead. The stone was a deeply-gouged dais that Sascha said might have had manacles embedded in it, once upon a time. I kept my doubts about that to myself, but there was an open hole nearby. It yawned onto a deep, uneven shaft in the spongy ground. I’d argued for months that the dragons were subterranean creatures. We hauled the climbing gear from camp to the hole, and I descended alone.
At its narrowest, it was a dozen feet across. It went down thirty feet, then opened onto a vast cavern. Columns of stone reached from the top of the cavern to the floor, and they went off beyond the reach of my lantern’s light in all directions. I splashed down into knee-deep water at the bottom, found dry ground in a pile of stone and muck, and surveyed the find.
There was a lot of masonry down there. Time and damp had done a lot of damage, but I could spot the traces of chiseled shapes in the stonework. Where the stone was cracked open, I found mortal remains.
These were catacombs, which meant that Emptus was more than I thought. Also, that I owed my colleague back home a bottle of wine. What it meant for my search for dragons, I couldn’t say.
My memory went blank after that. I could feel the analytical engine deep inside my machinery grinding away on the problem, consuming a lot of power from my mainspring. That had to stop; I didn’t have power to spare.
I couldn’t remember the details of how it happened, but the Catacombs of Emptus suffered a near total collapse. The stone columns that supported the ceiling had cracked, spilling down stone and earth. From far off in the dark, there came the slow crash of rock as the disaster continued to unfold. Around me and Maugrund lay countless tons of rubble, including everything from the base camp. Horses, the sledges of gear, the traveling shop, and our tents: all of it, and my team, had come crashing down into the catacombs.
Behind where Maugrund lurked, one of our corpses floated in the water. A bulbous, white bug with misshapen wings crawled on the body’s neck. Above us, the fog trailed downward, and through a hole in the fog was the grey sky.
Maugrund said, “I was the guardian of this holy place, and you have destroyed it. But that isn’t why you will suffer. You will suffer because I enjoy it.”
He gripped me with both hands and heaved me up. My body of brass, copper, and glass weighed a few hundred pounds, but he lifted me without straining. Then he threw me across the yards of gloom into the remains of a stone wall. I had mechanisms for detecting balance, but they hadn’t time to reset before the furious guardian sprang upon me again. He yanked me up, set me on my base, and swatted me with the back of his hand. Pieces of clockwork broke away and were lost in the shadows.
I couldn’t feel anything, but I knew every bit of damage meant some fresh limitation. I might be broken to lifeless pieces before my mainspring ever wound down. Then what? Would my sentience remain forever in the brass, to go mad in the ruins?
I had to give Maugrund something else to do. I tried to make my flutes and bellows work properly. I had no mouth, but I must speak.
“Plea—” I whistled, and this made my torturer pause. I tried again. “Please.”
“What is it, fool? Pray, beg me for anything. It’s been so long since anyone begged me for boons.”
My clockwork brain was fast, but my memory was broken. I had only wild guesses as to how I might bargain with Maugrund. All of my ideas were base tricks, no better than a child might devise. It was all I had.
“Please don’t show me the bodies,” I said.
It worked. He dragged me along the shattered rocks and mounds of mud to the large pool of bloody water. Then I was up in the air, overlooking the fires and the wreckage, for a moment. I tried to see it all before he dumped me into the shallow pool, face to face with myself.
Most of my time was spent in workshops. I wore the heavy goggles of a working engineer, and they left deep impressions across the bridge of my nose. My work kept me up late and called me back early, putting dark circles under my eyes. Seeing no sunlight left me pale, offset only by the accumulated grime of factories and shops. I carried the stamp of my profession to my death. My mentor often said that I bore an expression of wonder when I worked, but now that was replaced by terror.
My corpse floated in the water, and it would rot here. The bugs would eat the flesh, leaving the leather clothing as an empty shell. My work gloves would carry the bones of my hands to the shallow bottom of the pool, to rest alongside the fallen shoulder bag. Inside that bag were my weapons. And on my belt were the most necessary and versatile tools.
Maugrund dunked me underwater and held me there. The filthy water clouded my lenses, and grime worked its way into my gears, but that was all. Did he think he was drowning me?
He hauled me up, roared with laughter, and dunked me under again.
I could reach my shoulder bag. I reached in, blind. Unfeeling brass is not the best tool for this kind of thing, and I came away with only the tube of spent power cells. It was a rolled sheet of tin, capped at each end. Lightweight, just sturdy enough to withstand bouncy travel, it was not even a little useful as a weapon.
I left the tube in the water. Maugrund pulled me up and away from my corpse, then across a short distance to other bodies. My team: two shop assistants, two students, and two burly men from town. Four men, two women. Black hair, red hair. Young. I led them from the safety of town to this blighted ruin. I killed them because the legends couldn’t be true.
They didn’t carry tools and weapons with them. They stayed at the base camp, with everything stowed in trunks and sacks on the sledge. The gear was now scattered across the length of the collapse. If I could get free and had time to search, I might find something useful.
Maugrund would not let that happen.
I couldn’t fight him. Heavy as I was, he lifted me like a toy. He punched my mechanical body without apparent harm. And my masterwork was not designed to carry weapons. It was meant to showcase the next advancement in our craft: a machine powered by both steam and springs. A steam-powered core, a clockwork exoskeleton. Power and precision in one simulacrum. It was wonderful, but useless in a direct confrontation with this monstrous relic of the old ways.
I needed another trick. Not just to get a weapon, but to get away.
Maugrund was gloating. “Your brothers are dead. Your women are dead. Pity. If I had another of you, I could torment the one with the torture of the other. As it is, I have only the dead as playthings.” He stroked the arm of Doran, the larger of my hired townsmen, then gripped his wrist. A weird light spasmed around Doran’s body.
Doran jerked. His legs were crushed under stone. Blood and gore made a horror of his face and torso. But his head moved, and his eyes squeezed shut. His mouth opened to loose a hollow groan of utter despair.
I recoiled. It wasn’t Doran, Doran had died. This was a flesh puppet, a thing Maugrund could manipulate, but it wasn’t Doran. Doran had gone beyond all caring. It was my fault, but he was safe now, out of reach.
Maugrund’s hand came away from Doran’s corpse. Dead eyes turned my way. They searched my masterwork’s molded face. Dull eyes, expressionless. Then a flicker, and if I’d had lungs to breathe, I’d have stopped: Doran remained. I saw him in those eyes, looking out from inside dead flesh.
All of my plans disappeared. I reached for Doran. My mechanisms for sound worked without coherence for a moment. I said, “I’m sorry. I wish I could fix this.”
Maugrund reached for Sascha, my red-haired student. The rocks had buried the left half of her body. Her skull was cracked, and gore had pushed out through her left eye.
I couldn’t bear to see her returned to life in that body. My limbs worked enough to stand me up and launch me at Maugrund. I couldn’t do more than grapple with one of his arms and bash my fist against his torso. He shoved me away, and I fell into another pool of water. This pool was deeper than the other, and I scrabbled for a hold on the rocks before I could sink. I hung there, helpless to stop him.
Sascha stirred, and what breath she could take, she used for screaming.
Maugrund was cackling again. He saw me struggling to crawl from the water. I’d panicked, because this was no shallow pool. This was a well that disappeared into inky black not far below me, and as a heavy contraption, I would never be able to swim.
However, I didn’t need to breathe.
I let go, and Maugrund dove for me. Fast as he was, he never had a chance to grab me. His nails caught only some of the gears on my shell. He roared with his head underwater, then released me and vanished above. I sank, and I consoled myself with the hope that the souls of my fallen teammates had gone for good. It was only dead flesh that moved, and its suffering was lesser.
I wasn’t alone in the water. Tiny, blind cave fish darted around me. The well continued downward, but as I descended I discovered a tunnel that branched off from it. I grabbed hold, I swung in, and I landed in silt. The passage angled upward, probably into the catacombs very close to Maugrund, but at least on the far side of him. Other branches led out and into the unknown. Here, for the moment, was relative safety.
My problems were legion, and the biggest of them was my analytical engine. It was still whirring away at the faults in my memory, draining my mainspring of power at an unhealthy rate. Peripheral clockwork that I designed to keep such things in balance had been destroyed by Maugrund’s violence. When the mainspring ran dry, I would be unable to move. For all that I knew, I would remain alive forever in this hunk of immobile brass. This was not the kind of escape I had in mind.
My optics could see as well in night and day, and even in the dark of a subterranean water passage. I carefully detached the oculus from its housing, turned it to face my body, and used vision to guide my unfeeling fingers through a delicate operation. First, to pull out the slack in the cable that fed signals to my clockwork brain. Then to position the oculus to behold my inner workings. And, at last, to reach in with a telescoped finger to jam up the gears that converted spring tension to mechanical power to abstract thought.
My mainspring quieted. Until then, I’d not realized how loud my thinking had been, nor how the water distorted the sound.
The devices I’d lost included the tension gauge, so I couldn’t tell how much time I had left to me. I could have a few days or a few minutes. I decided to assume that I had enough to undertake a reasonable plan, but nothing left to spare.
The analytical engine ticked over once. It had tension left inside of its bronze case, so it wasn’t done working, and it demanded more power. And I couldn’t very well proceed with my finger jammed up my gears. I had to get inside and fix whatever I could. Specialized tools were clipped inside my leg casing, but it was a limited selection. I’d make do. What else could I do, climb back up to find more tools from the sledge that had fallen into the catacombs? And face off with Maugrund, unrepaired and running low on power? No good could come of that.
I retrieved the tools from my leg, wedged the oculus where I could watch my work, and opened up the analytical engine housing. What I was doing was madness: the first step in any maintenance or repair was to power down the device, but in this instance I needed the engine to keep working away. If it powered down, I would certainly lose a lot of cognitive function. So, wary of pressing on the wrong gear, I performed open brain surgery on myself.
I blocked the gears to a section, and a replay of everything I’d witnessed about Emptus and Maugrund ran through my surface thoughts. Over and over, again and again. This was a suppression module, and I let it run again. The replay stopped.
Another device was locked in place. I studied its position for a moment, and the situation became clear: this was designed to promote information for analysis at a reasonable pace. Locked down, it kept the information bottled up. And the analytical engine’s error system recognized the blockage, and that was what it had been going crazy about.
I held back power, I removed and realigned the gears, then I restored power. I’d had an idea what was being held back, and it was something I didn’t want to relive. But not remembering it would ruin my chances of escape, so that was that. I didn’t even give myself time to ponder the question. I just let it go, and I unjammed my finger from the mainspring-to-engine circuit.
I had seen the dragon.
Back at my workshop, I had predicted them small things. Perhaps not like the lizards that scurried under bushes to eat beetles, but like dogs. They must be small, I said, because of the wings. I’d sweep my arms at diagrams chalked on walls of black slate. Where once, the old gods held back the monsters and kept us safe, we now had science. Mathematics held back the monsters, now. It shrank them. The numbers were clear. How could dragons fly if they were the size of their legends?
Old things have different rules, my colleagues warned. They were right.
At the end of my rope in the Catacombs of Emptus, I spent time exploring the masonry. To the west lay graves still undamaged. Southward, the stone was shattered. The columns of stone to the south and west were spindly in comparison. They looked to have been carved this way by huge blades. I sketched what I saw in my journal, and I made a note to ask some historians about catacomb architecture.
It was an obvious clue in retrospect, but I wasn’t able to see it then. My mind was made up on the size of dragons. The dragon had spent centuries sharpening its talons on those stone columns. Reaching far above, scraping down. If I’d given it a moment’s thought, I might have known. I could have retreated. Come back another time, better prepared. Or thought better of it all and resigned myself to feeding my masterwork nuggets of coal.
I didn’t retreat. I tempted fate.
As I explored, I used chemical flares to light my path. They cast a surreal, green glow in the dark. Lit this way, the area turned out to be littered with odd remains. I couldn’t make sense of them, because the scale was wrong. All around me lay the shed skins and flaked scales of an enormous dragon, but I couldn’t see it. Not until I saw the copper and iron plates, which were from the dragon’s younger stages, when it was just twice the size of a horse. Then I understood how wrong I’d been, and that my plan was doomed.
The spent power cells in my pack had been my plan. They were just the right size to feed to a dragon the size of a dog. Trap the poor creature, let it bellow and flame, and the power cell would suck up the power. Do it again and again, until I had sufficient dragonfire to keep my masterwork’s steam engine running for years.
But what could I do against a dragon the size of a house?
It had lumbered out of the dark while I was paralyzed with dawning fear. My human body had gone weak. I was still trying to reconcile my beliefs in small dragons with the traces of a giant, and seeing the real thing emerge cost me all of my courage. If it had chosen to snap at me, or to burn with flames, I’d have done nothing but die.
But it didn’t do anything like that. It couldn’t.
A much younger dragon had those thick plates of metal to protect it, and the powerful muscles required to move the weight. Wings and magic could make it fly, even. But age brought its troubles to everything, gods and dragons included. It was a huge and bloated beast. It had to drag its belly along the stone and mud ground. The pale white scales were brittle enough to crack and trail bits in its wake, and thin enough that I thought I could glimpse muscle underneath in the green glow of my chemical beacons. The serpentine neck of old picture books was a drooping, pathetic thing that could barely hold up the dragon’s head.
The skull was as big as a carriage for two. Its eyes reflected the green light. Its breath carried a stink worse than gangrene.
It looked at me, and its expression said something to me. Maybe it meant to call me the last dragonslayer. If so, it was being ironic. I was certain it meant to do what it did next. Its tail, far behind the body and out of sight, thrashed once. It bashed a thinned column of stone. I heard the second of its strikes, and the sound of cracking stone above, and the first splash of water.
I ran back the way I had come, screaming pointlessly for my team to retreat. And a stone crashed into my back, crushed my spine and pinned me to the floor. I wasn’t dead, but my body was done. The organic mainspring of life wound down, and my human analytical engine ticked over for the last time.
Then there was Maugrund, and I was reborn.
My brass body shuddered as my main engines took up all the trailing bits of my human death. Silt drifted on slow currents in the water. I had fewer problems now than when I first landed in this passage. Escape remained my goal, and Maugrund blocked the path back the way I’d come. But now I had an idea or two about the dragon, and my options were limited to either wandering unknown passages until I could move no further, or seeking out the beast once more to test my ideas.
Newfound humility was one thing, but enough of my nature remained that I couldn’t resist the chance to prove an idea right. I picked up my pieces, packed myself together, and made my way up toward the catacombs.
I came out not far enough away from Maugrund and my team’s final resting place. I could hear the chorus of moans from their dead voices. Periodically, Maugrund would cackle incoherently, or shout taunts at me into the dark. He’d no idea where I’d gone, and perhaps he even thought I’d died in the well. All that was left for him was an insane fury.
The collapse here was less severe than elsewhere. Most of the columns remained intact, and they were thicker than those the dragon had pared away. So, all of the aspects of the elaborate deadfall trap were deliberate. I was impressed.
I climbed over the last of the debris toward the surviving catacombs, where the dragon had to be lurking. Not much space remained for it to hide in, and it was no smaller than I remembered. It lumbered out when I drew close.
The dragon picked itself up more when it moved, now. Its ponderous motions did not instill fear, and its size was something I could accept. Perhaps having a clockwork body meant I could only take on so much emotion, and Maugrund had given me my fill. When the dragon paused, its labored breathing roused pity instead.
My review of my memories of Maugrund had suggested that perhaps the dragon scared him. That was obviously wrong; Maugrund had nothing to fear from this beast. It was the other way around: the dragon feared the madman. And now the shape of Maugrund’s body made sense: he’d been using his miracles to steal aspects of the dragon for himself, bit by bit. For how long? A few hundred years, maybe.
The dragon’s head swung down to my level. Its expression held more anger. The beast wanted to be slain, but properly. It wouldn’t lie down and die for a mere engineer who pissed himself on first sight, nor for a herky-jerky clockwork. Smoke trickled out from between its yellow, chipped teeth. Its breathing heaved and spasmed, and the whole beast shuddered.
It would use what fire it had left to destroy me, and that would leave Maugrund at large. Maybe he would keep my team as playthings for another decade, or he would finally leave this place to lurk near a village.
I said, “Don’t do that. I’m warning you.”
At least clockwork knees don’t shake, and I had no water to lose down my legs.
The dragon was enraged. It was an elderly rage, but still that of a dragon. It opened its jaws to belch flame at me, and I dragged a plate of dragon’s scale between us. I’d taken my time searching the chamber for the sturdiest, gleaming scales from among the cast off skins. It was a gamble, but a decent one: the legends said that dragons fought each other often, but rarely managed to kill one another. Their armor, it was said, could resist talons, teeth, and flame.
The one modification I made to the plate was to connect it by a cable to my power chute. The core of my body was designed to contain the power of a dragon’s fire. My fuel cell plan was still sound; the flaw had been one of scale. As the flames heated the plate, my cable transferred that energy into my core.
At first, I was engulfed in flames. They showered around the dragon’s scale. A human would have blistered in the heat, and then died of suffocation. I remained alive. Some of my superficial springs and cogs softened in the inferno, and I could tell when several ancillary systems broke. I hoped it wouldn’t matter, and I stayed in place.
The cable worked. My power cage worked. It was inefficient, but energy was reaching my core. But it wasn’t enough yet, and I feared the dragon would have some other trick in mind.
Then the chain reaction kicked in. The dragon’s fire was spent, but my power cell was hungry. It sucked heat from the cable, and it turned the dragon’s plate into a syphon. The dragon was helpless to stop it. Its fire couldn’t be held back. I hunkered down with nowhere to run or hide, and I hoped the cells would be enough to do what the dragon needed.
The roaring and thrashing came next. The beast rolled to its side. Its pathetic wings and still powerful tail lashed the cavern, but little remained here to damage. And still the fire came. The plate glowed, and a seething ball of flames filled the dragon’s open jaws, and the monster seemed unable to snap down on it. It lasted an eternity. Then the dragon’s scale dropped free of the cable, glowing in the dark, and the dragon, spent, lay still.
I watched as the fine scales on the legendary beast turned to powder. The flesh underneath crumbled into ashes. The process took only a few minutes, but I stayed until even the bones were cinders. I could hear only the chorus of the dead behind me, and Maugrund’s voice thundering my name. I gathered up the power cable as quickly as I could. I stowed it where it belonged, though I didn’t have time just now to handle all the connections.
I needed water now. The dragon’s fire filled my power cell, and if it wasn’t doused, it would burn a hole out through my chest. Fortunately, the underground waters of Emptus lay all about me. I clanked my way to the nearest pool, and I submerged myself to fill my tanks. Then, I had final repairs to make.
Maugrund still toyed with the remains of my team. And even if their souls were gone, even if the suffering of a dead body was less than the suffering of a living person, I couldn’t go on as a mere contraption myself and deny that it was still unnecessary suffering. My team would need to be laid to rest once more. Then, if I survived, I could consider how best to climb free of the catacombs, leave Emptus behind, and return to town. How would I explain what happened? Who would believe in miracles?
Later for that, I thought.
I stepped from the pool. Already, the power cell’s radiant heat had built up steam pressure in my tanks. A powerful turbine had syphoned off enough power to rewind the mainspring; it was nothing. I could keep moving at full speed indefinitely now, with no fear of running dry. I wasn’t a weapon, but I could be dangerous all the same.
I returned along the tunnel, no longer bothering with shadows.
Maugrund saw me from a distance, roared my name, and pounced. However that body was shaped, it had serious strength in it. He leaped thirty feet forward, and he would have knocked me into the ground if I’d not been fast enough to skitter aside.
He swung a fist, and I ducked under. I stepped in and drove a brass fist into the mass of grey cloth. My blow connected with some part of his twisted anatomy underneath all that concealment. He howled, and I followed with another strike. Repaying him for his violence felt good. I wondered how long it had been since anything had hurt him.
I said, “Let my team rest now. Let them go.”
He gave ground. He stopped trying to hit me, and instead curled his arms around his torso. He spat at me as he pulled away, faster than I could follow over the uneven ground. He said, “I’ll never let them go. A thousand years from now, their bones will cry your name.”
I snatched up a stone from the floor. It weighed twenty pounds, but my limbs had strength to spare. I flung it at him. It clipped him in the shoulder, spun his body around, and disappeared into the dark beyond. A bang came as it struck masonry out of sight.
Maugrund staggered to his feet as I closed the distance between us. The dragon’s fire in my chest roiled, as if the dragon lived on in me and spurred me on. He saw me too late to dodge, so he grappled instead. And with his hand on my head, he made the guttural sounds of his miracle-working.
I wrapped my arms around him in return. I’d gotten hold of some narrow portion of his body, below the ribcage. I aimed a fist for where his diaphragm should be, and I squeezed.
My attack wasn’t enough to stop the miracle, but neither of us was ready for what happened. An aura of flame burst from me, burning away his clothes and scorching the semi-scaled flesh beneath. Dozens of pressure relief valves opened, and a sudden burst of steam clouded us.
Maugrund screamed. “What new trick is this?”
“I killed your dragon. I have its fire.”
“Impossible! Dragons cannot die. They will be here to consume the world when it ends.”
“Then come and try that miracle again. I dare you.” I said it, but I felt a twinge of doubt. When the fire blazed out, I had a moment of clarity. I didn’t want to torture Maugrund. All I wanted was my team put to rest, and to get out of Emptus alive. That probably required killing Maugrund, but not torturing him.
But the urge came back, and I knew that I carried more than just the dragon’s fire. I had some measure of its ancient rage. And what did Maugrund have in him, from all this time stealing bits of the dragon’s essence for himself? Was that what drove him mad, or was he insane from before?
I could see the hunger in him. The fireburst had daunted him, and he was wary. But the temptation to claim whatever remained of the dragon was greater than his fear, so he pounced once more.
Maugrund was fast. He seized hold of my chest and bore me to the ground. His eyes gleamed with madness. The miracle he wrought was awesome. The power cell inside my chest unfurled like a bronze and glass rosebud, and the fire burst out of me. It went up, it coalesced into the figure of a dragon in flight, and it dove into Maugrund’s chest. His skin burnt. And, deep inside his chest, something started to tick.
Maugrund gasped and pitched backward. He glared at me. He rasped, “What have you done?”
My power cell was tapped out, but the pressure tank still had the steam built up. I drew on it for strength, and I stood. Maugrund flailed. I lunged for him, batted aside his arms, and peeled back what remained of his robes. The skin there was glass. Inside, I saw organs. I had no idea which was which; my expertise is machines, and his internal configuration was heavily customized. There were bits of metal. Gears, cords, and springs all present and connected, but I couldn’t tell what any of them did. Or, if they stopped, what would happen.
Acrid smoke billowed from his nose and mouth. The fire in me had burned hotter and hotter, and I’d doused it with water. The steam filled my tanks. So long as I had sufficient water, I could survive my ancient fuel. But what did Maugrund have to contain the fire?
Maugrund pulled away and flopped on his side, much as the dragon had done. But he wasn’t dead, and maybe he didn’t need to be. He was being dragged into the new age by his own careless magic. And maybe I could help us both.
I went to the madman’s side, gripped his head, and hushed his shouts and curses. “It’s over. Be still, or you’ll die.”
The power cable still reached my core, but it was connected to nothing anymore. I reeled it out. It only reached two feet past my grip, but it would do. I searched for clasps in Maugrund’s new chestplate, found an ornate set of fixtures, and opened him up. I jammed the end of the cable into the fire, and at once he relaxed.
He thrashed once more, but quietly.
I said, “We’re alive, both of us. We can make our way out of here, but we’ll have to cooperate. Old and new, together. Yes?”
He spat, but he didn’t try to disconnect us.
“Come with me. We’re putting my team to rest, and we’re leaving.”
He did not stop me from the work I had to do, nor the apologies I had to make. When the time came to leave, he didn’t help much, but he let me drag him out of the ruins on a makeshift sledge.
My colleagues had one hell of a surprise coming their way.
Eric M. Cherry is a fiction writer living in Chicago. Most of his work is some species of fantasy, but he also writes about the mechanics of writing. Away from the writing desk, he is a freelance editor, massage therapist, caffeine addict, and masochist (not necessarily listed in order of importance). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header image created using public domain materials and stock provided by rslewisphotos