The Castle of Gears

Hey! Guess it’s been a bit of a long time since I last posted. Then again, the real life always has the habit of getting in your way when you want to get something done.

So to get myself back into blogging, I’ll be writing a short serial of chapters to a story with the above title. Rough drafts have been finished, all that’s left is to edit it, and it’s set in the same background as the earlier two short stories on this blog: the world of the Gremlins, steampunk and mystery.

Unlike those short stories, though, they’re written in the point of view of the one they call the Horologii Gremlin, Ethaon Haldier. Yes, he will be the protagonist…not to mention, I just remembered that there are other short stories in the same setting that will require my attention sooner or later.

Oh, well! Guess I’ll finish them soon.

Truth be told, this was to clear my head and make way for a new project for NaNoWriMo. Last year, I don’t think I managed to reach my goal in time, so this year, I’m going to have to put in more effort.

Expect the first chapter of the Castle of Gears to come up in the next post, which will come – actually, I have no idea when. But it’ll come when it’s done!

 

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The Silence of Narr

A short story of the Gremlin Anthology

The surrounding street and buildings appeared quite literally the ghost town. The skies overhead were cast with gray, ready to pour. The stone paths were crumbling, laced with weeds and tiny trees already sprouting through its cracks. Steel structures stood bare in the sky, some rusting, all like skeletons of the town itself.

And the last time Luke Seiden and Abby Linne saw Ethaon Haldeir was just when they arrived in this worn-out city. Somehow or another, he’d gone and went on one of his wanderings without telling anyone he had been accompanying.

“I hate this,” groaned Luke Seiden as he stared upwards at the sky. “I want to go home.”

“And abandon Ethaon?” Abby grumbled. “This is a mission that the High Knights told us to figure out.”

“And in the process, we lost one of our companions,” Luke retorted. “Investigating the death of a city called Narr that happened sixty years ago sounds like a rubbish case. I mean, why don’t they have records of what happened in this city back sixty years? It’s not like all the people here disappeared in one day, right?”

“I think Ethaon will find his way back later,” said Abby cheerfully. “He probably got a headstart long before we did. We should go ahead, too.”

“Not in a ghostly city like this,” Luke groaned.

“Oh, beat it. You’re not afraid of ghosts, so let’s get to work. Investigating lost history sounds like an easy task, anyhow.” Abby tightened the grip on her rucksack. “If he doesn’t find us or we don’t run into him before evening, we’ll start searching for him.”

“-which is worse of a pain in the neck.” Luke sighed and cracked his fingers. “Well? Where do we start?”

“Why not the newspaper offices?” Abby suggested. “They might have some details about this place that we can check out. Since that’s what their job is supposed to be.”

“Oh, straight to the people who might have recorded all the most recent events of sixty years ago, eh?” Luke chuckled. “Why not? Also, where is it?”

A quick search around the city of an old map they picked up at a store took them to the where they wanted to go. Upon entering it, though, they felt a wash of hopelessness go over them; the first office they saw showed a room that had been cleared out of all papers and electronic devices. A search deeper into this building soon found a large corner that had been scorched black with untouched remnants of an old, now dusty fire that was intentionally made, but miraculously did not burn down the building. Why the fire was made in that corner instead of the empty fireplace, they couldn’t tell, but there were obvious scraps of paper left with ink writing on it.

It must have been hints of the event that someone didn’t want know, Luke guessed.

That proved correct because several other buildings that they both should have had at least even a file or two about the events that might have happened here were all marked with fireplaces that still had thick ash with a blanket of dust. Perhaps there were fires outdoors as well, but the ash from there had either been washed off by rain that might have passed by, or overgrown and long hidden by weeds and grass.

Just as fruitless as their efforts to find even an answer or at least the hope that someone might still be living in this ruined city was the fact that they still hadn’t found Ethaon since he disappeared.

It was dusk when they finally went through the city and also gave up on hoping to run into Ethaon somewhere there.

Dusk had arrived when they decided grew tired of running around the city. By now, they had come to a large street lined with many shops and boutiques. Compared to the rest of the ghostly city, this corner seemed safer for some reason. But chances that Ethaon would venture here was not that high; Ethaon preferred mischief and danger to safe-looking streets if he was in his best mood.

It divided the major city from the commoners’ homes.

“Think we should check this place?” Abby asked.

“Well, let’s just go look, and that’s for ‘just in case’,” Luke sighed, and they started on.

“Don’t go further!” shouted a voice, but the warning came too late, for suddenly, Abby yelled as she stepped down into a crack in the broken path, which shifted lower under her weight, as deep as if it was a lower step. The ground below Luke gave way below him and he almost disappeared through if Ethaon, who appeared out of nowhere with his trademark – a massive pocket watch that hung around his neck and swung wildly as he moved – didn’t catch his wrist.

Luke gripped hard onto Ethaon’s wrist in surprise and slowly looked down. Heights aren’t a problem, but he let out a sigh of relief when he saw what was below him. Had Ethaon not saved him in time, he could have landed into a hole of spears that most likely would have skewered him.

“Ethaon, don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go, or I swear I’ll haunt you if something happens to me!” Averting his eyes from the many skeletons and mummies that lay below him, Luke scrambled out of the hold with Ethaon’s help.

“I’m sorry! I’m really sorry!” Abby gasped, rushing over. With her face pale as she collapsed to her knees on the ground. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

“As far as I know, I’m still fine,” grumbled Luke. “Speaking of which, why are you here? Where’ve you been?”

“Why are you guys here?” asked Ethaon, puzzled. “That’s what I should be asking.”

“Oh, don’t tell me, you forgot that we’re both here with you on a mission? Together!” Luke scoffed.

For a moment, Ethaon looked surprised. Then his face put on a look of recognition. “Oh. I forgot. I thought that I was investigating the city’s silence on my own. I just finished going through the commoners’ houses.”

Now it was Luke and Abby’s turn to stare at him in surprise.

“W-wait, you didn’t get lost?” asked Abby.

“No, I didn’t,” said Ethaon sheepishly. “I went around the town to take a look at the place here…but I – uh – I did forget that you guys were here, though…and then I found your bags and remembered…” He averted his glance as he trailed off.

“You didn’t get lost like we thought you did, but rather, you went about investigating stuff on your own? You moron!” Luke seized Ethaon’s shoulders and rattled him hard. “How dare you forget us! That feels insulting, even though I should already know that you’ve got problems with your short-term memory!” He wanted to say more but stopped when Abby started to laugh in amusement. He released Ethaon.

“Did you find anything?” Abby asked. “The city’s bare, it’s almost as if the people here didn’t want anyone to know what happened. They cleared off a lot of evidence, didn’t they?” She frowned at the hole. “What is that, anyway?”

“A trap to protect some graves,” said Ethaon grimly. “If we could go underground, we’d know, but I think it would be better that we don’t go there. “

“Graves?”

“To be exact, mass graves.” Ethaon nodded back to the main street. “I’ve gotten the gist of the story. Let’s camp here. It’ll be a bit safer than sitting out in the open. This street’s laced with a lot of traps that if you’re sleepwalking, you could easily fall into one.”

“I’m not eager to hear that,” muttered Luke.

But they followed him through this new street, following his footsteps as they tread carefully. A short ten minutes later, they reached a plaza at the end where rotting leaves from overgrown trees that surrounded it collected in the corners of the stairs that led down into it. Perhaps had the plaza been well tended, it would have been prettier.

“Are you sure this place is safe?” asked Abby.

“We’ve passed that street, so yeah,” said Ethaon, dropping his pack onto a step on the short stairs. “That street, as well as a few others leading towards the main city of Narr, are apparently widely used as the fastest roads, so anyone on their way there would fall into them. Six decades ago, they were meant to be used as traps against anyone who might still be alive back then.”

“Mass graves, you said before,” Luke mumbled as they sat down. “Well? What happened in this story? Sounds like you figured it out way before we did.”

“It was a plague.”

“What?” Luke stopped laughing and stared at him in surprise. “You mean, fleas? Something like that eradicated an entire city? They should have had the cure at that time.”

“Back then, the cure wasn’t distributed without a price, so a lot couldn’t afford it,” said Ethaon with a chuckle. “Narr’s people called it a curse instead.” He pulled out a large, thick book from his pack and handed it to Abby. “It’s a really dark story, one that caused the city to confine itself and its people.”

The book’s pages were yellowed and brittle, with the only thing keeping it straight being the tough black cover. Abby reluctantly thumbed through the pages as Ethaon said, “That’s an account written by one of the commoners, a diary. Start from page twenty, which is when he starts to document the events; the earlier pages detail the start of his year.”

“Luke and I searched the newspaper company headquarters, but they apparently burned whatever they had about the event,” said Abby as she handed the book to Luke.

“I thought so, though,” chuckled Ethaon. “I always considered the majority’s view; they’re loose with their tongues. Upper-class people and journalists had to be prim and proper with their words, so I think it’s likely I won’t find enough of what the people in this city see.”

“This is too thick,” grumbled Luke, closing the diary. “You’ve already skimmed through this book, right? What’s a brief story of it, then?”

“Aren’t you just lazy to read?” Abby retorted.

Ethaon frowned and sat back against the steps, thoughtfully looking out at the city. Then he replied, “Six decades ago, when that plague – curse, then – broke out, a panic rose in the city where people argued with the city’s mayor to leave to protect themselves. The outside cities, though, refused to have them, and not to mention, their means of travel – airships, carriages, cars – went on shutdown. The people were angered by their treatment, especially of those who are still physically fine, and they started gatherings on plazas, like this place here.”

He pointed out to the center of the plaza, where a large fountain, with only puddles of water from some rain that might have passed recently inside. “A month into the event, a particular gathering found their way to the borders of their town to a road that would take them to another city. This group barely escaped until they were gunned down by Narr’s Enforcers. They tried to keep this a secret, but then it was accidentally exposed. The gatherings changed into riots.

“The riots sickened more people into the curse; where a sick man stands in a crowd, more people get sick, too. Apparently, there were plenty of people ill with the plague who joined the riots of their own accord. Narr’s enforcers were rounded up to gun the riots down as a warning to keep them away.

“Fast forward seven months into that, both plague and riot had killed more than half Narr’s population. By that time, the riots’ intent has changed: from protesting that they weren’t being treated fairly and that their sick families weren’t saved from the illness to pointing out those who are dying of starvation and how unfair the government was. The author of that diary states that people were turning to robbery, attacking civilians’ homes and running wild. The diary ends with the final riot being the largest and emptiest of all that’s happened.”

Luke and Abby stared at him, then Luke said, “What did you think, then, was its death blow? Was that final riot actually it’s end?”

Ethaon frowned at them. “You really want to know?”

“Why not? We’re here, after all,” grumbled Abby. “And, like you, we’re Gremlins. We’ve seen the worst of the world, too.”

“The mayor of this town came down with the plague’s sickness, too. The rioters took the chance to attack his house, stabbed him to death in his sleep, along with his wife and son-in-law. His daughter was the only one who survive, and made to take over his position as mayor. Her final orders were, ‘Kill all and anyone who is still alive in this city. Massacre and leave no traces of the plague behind.’

“Somewhere underground in this city, there is a mass grave. All major buildings like the banks and government offices that have underground basements are now mass graves, and that’s only if you can find the doors to them. I’ve found a few bones of children scattered in a cathedral somewhere in a neighborhood of houses.”

Another moment of silence.

“Well, the truth is even worse, and shouldn’t there be at least one person who would refuse to obey those orders?” asked Luke finally.

“Not when the soldiers have been under a lot of pressure that many have long lost hope of saving their families and themselves,” said Ethaon. He thumbed his Clock, sliding his finger over the rims. “I think that even the people have long forgotten what they wanted to fight for. The new mayor, the aforementioned lady, was the last to die after making sure her enforcers died, too. Revenge and a tragedy. I think that, in its last moments, there was only fear in Narr before its silence.”

The Spider Clock

A Short Story of the Gremlin Anthology

A clock. Its presence, ticking loudly from her satchel, annoyed Neah as she walked through the busy streets that were flocked by several people in neat suits or dresses on their way to whatever they were up to.

Her current assignment had come from her own best friend, Astra, in her mother’s diner just a week earlier, in her hometown.

The clock was an unusual thing. It was a pocket watch, actually, with a spider’s shape engraved around the frame of the clock, and the legs extending to the underside of the watch. But because it was a big as a disk pendant, it would probably be correct to call it a clock.

“Creepy, isn’t it? How the ticking is really loud?” Astra had laughed as she placed it in front of Neah. “Mother received a guest yesterday, a cousin of ours. He showed it off to us, scared our souls out, too. I sometimes get the feeling that it’s alive. He left it behind accidentally. Sadly, he can’t double back to pick it up, so we’d need someone to send it to him. The Post would damage it, he said, so all that’s left is the Jack-of-all-trades. Do us a favor, yes?”

So she said, and Neah found herself walking through the unfamiliar city called Moorwalk. It’s a massive city built on a small island of buildings, old-fashioned, with stone paths still in good shape after centuries gone. Still, for a small, somewhat isolated island far from the mainland, it was famous.

Oh, and that he might also be a ‘Gremlin’, Astra had added.

Neah grimaced at the thought of ‘Gremlins’. Not that she never heard of them. Gremlins are honorary titles given to ex-assassins, famous throughout the world, skilled, and once highly-paid until they stopped taking services. Not that she hated them; Trick and Eva back at Dial, the handyman company she worked at, were also Gremlins, though now one has picked up the occasional call by a circus to perform and the other took on bandit hunting mostly.

That she would deliver back a clock to a Gremlin made her wonder what the clock’s purpose is to that person.

The only thing that Astra told her she didn’t have was the address to this person, Ethaon Haldeir’s home, so that meant that Neah had to inquire everywhere. Then again, Gremlins are famous, so their identities should be well-known where they live.

“Ethaon Haldeir? ‘Whozzat?” asked the woman managing a stall that sold tea and pancakes in a set on the side street.

“Uh – he apparently lives here? In this city?” Neah said, puzzled. “He could be a Gremlin, too.”

“‘Ain’t heard of this Haldeir man before, little girl. No Gremlin either. Oh, what about the Horologii Gremlin?”

“H-Horologii?” Neah gasped. That was the name of a famous Gremlin. No one in the world won’t know of it, and they said that he worked few bodyguard assignments for famous people before. His trademark had been something like a map of starts projected from some kind of object.

“Sir Horologii is sent here to defend us, but he doesn’t live here. But we ain’t know his face. Them Gremlins are rare, anyway. This Haldeir never heard of. Now how ’bout some pancakes?” As if to emphasize her stall, the woman flapped a fan and the smell of pancakes wafted into Neah’s face.

Giving in to the growling stomach she had been ignoring since her arrival, she bought two and a cup of tea before going on her way.

The next people to whom she asked the questions to, they never knew who Haldeir was, nor if he was a Gremlin, but attibuted their city’s defense to the Horologii Gremlin, just like the pancake seller.

A whole day of getting unanswered questions made her feel exhausted, and she sat down in a bench in the main square to rest.

A rattling sound caught her attention, and gawked at a sight: a wheelbarrow, heaped with possibly hundreds of gears, metal pieces, screams, and two or three wheels possibly torn from a car. The young man pushing the cart along was young and tall, dressed in a white shirt and brown vest, with a pair of goggles on his dark blond hair, and hazel eyes. He was in a rather good mood for someone who caught the attention of several people around him.

Or he was possibly too ignorant.

He passed her as one of the wheels fell off the wheelbarrow and started rolling by. He gave chase and managed to catch it, before passing her again and continuing on along the way he had been going, taking the wheel along.

The wheelbarrow just sat.

“Hey, wait! Your wheelbarrow!” she called, and the young man turned around in surprise. Catching sight of his wheelbarrow, his face contorted into a look of surprise and he ran back to it.

“Thank you! I’m really glad you told me! I always forget it when I get distracted!” the young man said, carrying his wheel back to the wheelbarrow. He topped his things with the wheel again and grabbed onto the handles.

“You forget?” Neah stared at him incredulously.

“Yeah. It’s a bit of a problem. Happens all the time.” The Mechanic – Neah decided to nickname him so, since he looked that part – shrugged. “I have a problem with my short-term memory, so I forget a lot of things.”

“What are all these going to be for?” she asked, looking at the stuff the Mechanic had collected. No doubt he might have forgotten how many screws he had here. “Someone gave them to you?”

“Nope. The town hall clock was being fixed and I asked if I could have the broken parts,” said the Mechanic as he started pushing the wheelbarrow down the street. Neah followed him. “I have a project, see, and I was collecting things to build it. An airship.”

Neah stared. “What for?”

“I was bored, so why not?”

His simple reason was hard to believe. No one normal do something possibly simpler than an airship. But maybe he was one of those scientists who loved building things, or a weirdo. The latter seems most likely.

“Well, then! I better go now! I think I’ll be late for high afternoon tea, and I’m starting to get hungry!” the Mechanic laughed, and he took a firm hold on the wheelbarrow. He was off on a running pace before she could tell him that, no, it’s not even lunch time.

*****

A whole day went spent without finding anyone by the name of Haldeir, and by now, Neah huffed into a park bench in exhaustion. For the first time on all her missions, she was at a loss. Maybe this person really doesn’t live here, but it would be impossible to return to Astra with a report of being unable to find him.

This city, unlike her, was still bustling with much energy, despite it already being dusk. People still walked to and fro around her, and through the part as a shortcut to another road.

She dug into her satchel and pulled out the clock. The only thing it was useful for at the moment was just that it could tell her what time it was rather than looking at the town clock towering above the city. She never really carried around a watch; jewelry made it hard to travel far without being stolen.

Just as she thought of thieves, though a whiff of air passed by her face, and she yelped as she fell back. She also realized that the clock was no longer in her hands. Deja vu, perhaps? Maybe, or maybe not.

“Hey, give it back!” she shouted, and sprang to her feet. Her shouts alerted the people around her as she gave chase after the thief, who hollered with laughter as he ran. He turned down a street, taking a thin, dank alleyway, and she followed him. If she hadn’t faced many thieves through the many other assignments she’d gone through, she possible would have tripped over her own feet.

The thief turned into a corner, kicked down a door, and threw himself in, slamming the door shut. She followed, pushing through the door, only to realize that it was a trap as a cage collapsed around her. Shocked, she squinted out and saw a simply mechanism that had possibly been holding the cage suspended over her, dropping only when she pushed the door open. It was quick to prepare, too, that explained why the thief could avoid getting caught in his own trap when he passed the door earlier.

“Give that watch back! It doesn’t belong to me!” she shouted to the smirking face of the thief before her.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t belong to you?” asked the Thief. “You’re holding it, you’re even worrying about it, so shouldn’t it be yours?”

“It’s a client’s watch! Give it back now!”

That made the Thief smile wider. “Now doesn’t that sound more amusing? You, a civil servant, lost a client’s belonging? That’s funny! How about you skedaddle along back to that client and tell him that you lost his watch? Let’s see what it is.” He dangled the massive pocket watch with its silver case hanging in front of her. “Whoa, it’s the size of a clock! They’re called pocket watches to fit pockets, and this won’t fit any pocket that I know.”

Neah scowled at him. The Thief smiled and clicked the lid open. She watched his face. The inside details were that of an artist, and she knew, having seen many intricate designs before, that the skill of the artist would worth up to hundreds of gold coins. If this Thief, skilled as his fingers were, could tell, he’d be happier.

Instead, she was surprised when his face took on an apprehensive frown.

“T-This watch,” he said, in a somewhat shaky voice. “W-where did you get it?”

As much as smugness and relief filled her lungs at the look on his face, she was equally confused. “What are you talking about?”

“You! You couldn’t have stolen this, could you?”

Aghast, Neah gasped, “What? Thief? I’m not the thief, you are!”

“But this watch is my-“

“ISAIAH!” a voice bellowed outside the building.

“Do me a favor and fall flat on the floor!” yelled the Thief, which she did. There was a beeping sound coming from somewhere, and then the wall collapsed with an explosion as if from a bomb. Neah bit on her lip, covering her head with her arms like the Thief did as he sprawled in front of her cage.

Through the dust and smoke, she saw a shadow walk through what was now a hole in the wall behind where the Thief had been standing. It stretched out through the building, leading towards the street across the alleyway they came from. People began to gather at that moment.

“Isaiah! I leave you at home for an hour, and you go out and cause some kind of mischief again?” thundered the voice of the attacker. When the dust had cleared some, she saw a young man in a dark brown vest over a white shirt, blond hair, and blue eyes, armed with what looks like a mechanical cresent shape over his shoulder. Whatever the cresent thing was, it was definitely the reason of the explosion. It was the Mechanic. “Do you never stop, you little rat!”

“Master! Do you know how much we’re going to have to pay for street damages again?” the Thief yelped, scrambling to his heels.

“I don’t care. Doors are too annoying, so I blasted my way through,” said the Mechanic. Then he saw Neah inside the cage. He turned a glare to Isaiah the Thief. “You’re horrible.”

“No, Master! This girl’s a thief! She stole your watch! Look, see?” Isaiah held up the watch.

“That’s wrong! I was supposed to deliver it to someone!” Neah shouted back. “And you’re the thief!” Then she stopped. “Wait, what? You – you’re the owner? You’re Ethaon Haldeir? Are you Astra Flemming’s cousin?”

A spark of recognition came to the Mechanic’s eye. “So you’re Iphigenia Cross from Dial? Astra did say someone was delivering my watch here. And Violet’s my cousin of twenty years, not Astra.”

Neah stared at him. “When we met earlier, why didn’t you say so?”

“How dare you speak rudely to Master Ethaon? Show some respect! He’s the Horologii Gremlin, after all!” Isaiah hopped to his feet to stare indignantly at Neah.

You show respect to strangers and bewildered young women, Isaiah!” Ethaon Haldeir smacked a gloved hand lightly across Isaiah’s face. “And did I mention that one of your chores today is to clean up the steam engine for the airship! Instead, you’re out here playing around. Now, apologize to Ms. Cross here before we go. Take the cage off of her, too.”

Isaiah scowled at her. Neah glared back.

“Isaiah.”

Isaiah moved, dragging the cage off her. Then he drooped his head and mumbled, “I-I’m s-sorry.” He practically spat out the last word. Neah glared at him again but passed it off.

“When you go back to Violet, tell her and Astra I said thanks,” said Ethaon, interrupting her.

“Is the watch important?” Neah asked, looking at it in his hand.

In response, he clicked open the lid and it flipped open, revealing the clock inside with the spider motif. The lid’s inside glowed and released a star map with several routes crossed over each other. “It shows me places I’ve been to, the easiest routes to get to those places without much trouble, and hideouts I mapped out for myself.”

“Hideouts? Routes? What do you use it for?”

Ethaon grinned. “Oh – gathering materials for my work. It’s nothing much to anyone, really, but it’s important to me. I connect this with a lot of my suppliers. Or else…without a map, I get really lost.”

“Right. Short-term memory problems.”

“Speaking off, Master, where is your wheelbarrow?” asked Isaiah.

For a moment, Ethaon paused. Then he burst out laughing unabashedly. “Ah, I forgot! I think I left it beside the Pancake Seller when I stopped by her stall earlier!”

“Okay, I’m done,” said Neah abruptly and started to leave.

“Thanks, really! Thanks for returning the watch!” Ethaon called again. He snapped it shut. “Oh, and if you’ve been asking the city’s occupant about a Gremlin by my name, they won’t have know. I’m usually called the Horologii Gremlin, not my real name. Thanks to this watch here.”

For a moment, Neah stared back at him. Ethaon grinned back.

“Horologium means ‘clock’,” he said. “Be careful on the way home, or bandit will be after you. I’ll be looking for my wheelbarrow again. Isaiah, let’s go!”

“Yes, Master!”

Neah watched as the two of them left the building before a uniformed group of men confronted them. Then she shook her head. Enough already. There had been a lot of things that happened today, and she hope that was all the excitement to happen to her for now.

She turned and walked out through the alley before the uniformed men noticed her presence.