The Wraith of Despair

 

Two young children sat on a log in the middle of the forest, weaving thin reeds through and over each other, their fingers moving as delicately as they possibly could. At length, the boy, the elder one, threw an alarmed glance at the sky to see that it had already picked up an orange color.

“Alice, we must go home now!” he gasped, jumping to her feet.

“But I haven’t finished my basket!” Alice complained in exasperation; she had been fighting a frustrating task against a knot that appeared on one of the reeds.

“Nevermind that! It’s almost soon!”

“Soon for what?”

“There’s a wraith that apparently lives in this forest. The adults were talking about it, thinking about driving it out, but no one’s dared to disturb her yet. We’re not supposed to stay out too long either. Let’s go! We can return tomorrow!”

“Unfair, Zeke! You’ve finished your basket, and tomorrow, I would not have time to make it!” Alice scowled. “We need them for our gifts to Father! Mother would not be happy. Even if you tell me that she might excuse me because we were cutting close to the time this ‘wraith’ appears, I would still be put into my room with no dessert because I was too slow.” She gathered her reeds and what was of her basket. “I shall take them home, then.”

Zeke sighed, but he could at least do that much for his precocious younger sister. Still, dessert! Of all things, she worried the most about dessert! Though he supposed that their mother’s baked pears and cream were still the most delicious of all foods. “Alright. Let’s go.”

As they half-ran, half-walked through the thick bushes of the forest, Alice asked after a moment, “What do you know of this wraith, anyway? The adults sometimes make up scary stories to keep us from doing anything. Just like they did with Old Louie’s well. They told us that a devil lives in the well beside his house and that it eats naughty kids that go near it. But those naughty kids who got eaten were just idiots who fell down it and it was an hour before Old Louie found out what happened and called for help-”

“Alice, you think too much,” Zeke sighed. “But I think that this wraith is real. They weren’t telling any child a story, after all. The adults were whispering among themselves, and Mother told us to come home before sunset…did you actually listen to her? You were there, after all.”

Alice pulled a face. “No.”

“…but the wraith seemed to be real,” Zeke continued with another sigh. “I even asked, so this is what I know: this ghost wanders at a certain hour at sunset, as if it is looking for something. It takes the form of a young woman with long hair that looks like a gold river. Her eyes are empty and gray, and they seem to suck you in. She attacks anything and anyone without seemingly thinking, or perhaps for no reason. Just last week, Mr. and Mrs. Belmont were attacked when they came here for a picnic. Two days before that, Henry and Margaret two houses away from us hurried back after a night walk from the forest.”

“Is it not that the ghost only attacks a man and woman together?” Alice prodded her brother cheekily. “You listen to too much gossip as well, don’t you?”

“At least gossip is fun to collect!”

“For us ladies, Zeke.” Alice giggled at the rising shade of red on Zeke’s face.

A light cloud billowed their way, and Zeke stopped in surprise before he could retort back to his sister. It was then that he realized that a fog was beginning to thicken around them.

“Oh, no, we have to hurry!” he groaned. “We were too slow.”

“We can still tell the direction of the road back home, thanks to this path,” Alice frowned, but Zeke noted that her hands were beginning to tremble as she clutched her reeds. He extended his hand, which his sister immediately took and held tightly.

“Listen,” Zeke muttered, “I will lead the way, you look out for the Wraith. If you see one that looks like that, run. Pull me along, because I’m only going to have my eyes on the ground so we can get home.”

Alice nodded.

As they started back on their quick pace, Zeke constantly looked behind him to make sure that it was his sister that he held onto. Wraiths and ghosts are tricky and dishonest creatures. They love to mess around with humans, despite having once been human before. Must be because they were built only on petty thoughts. Maybe that’s why the Wraith attacked a “pair of lovers”, as it seemed to be with the stories of Mr. and Mrs. Belmont and Henry and Margaret. Now that he remembered, the gossip referring to this Wraith of Despair certainly had victims who were lovebirds.

His thoughts on the Wraith did not help his own anxiety, and it was worsened when he finally stopped in the middle of the path. Though he could see a shadow of his own shoes, the path in front of him had blurred out of sight. Even Alice seemed to be fading into the fog despite being close.

“Zeke?” Alice whispered, sounding young. She was already crushing her half-finished basket and reeds without noticing. “Why did you stop?”

“Sorry, I can’t see far ahead of me. We have to slow down for a bit.”

“But what about going home?”

“Calm down, we’ll get there.” Zeke tightened his hold on his sister’s hand. He started a half-hearted step forward when the fog suddenly shifted and split apart in front of him, clearing a space that indicated that he and Alice were in a glade, halfway through the forest back to the road they were trying to reach, as if someone brushed the fog aside.

“My, my, children? I did not expect there to be such young adventurers here,” laughed a tinkling voice, and the two whirled about to it, their hearts nearly jumping out their throats.

The person they saw instead was a young woman with a bonnet and a white dress made of heavy lace. She carried a brightly burning lantern and a handful of candles. She smiled. “Good evening. Gathered reeds to make baskets, I see?”

“You better not be staying here too long, or else the Wraith will chase you!” Zeke gasped.

“You are talking about that ghost that wanders around attacking lovers? Oh, I am alone, the Wraith will not disturb me in that case. The same shall go with you children. You need no longer fear it.”

“Why are you in this forest?” asked Alice in a small voice. “It will be night soon…”

“My house is in this direction. I’ve passed through here at night at night before and I have yet to be attacked.” The woman laughed. “Oh, but this fog is surprisingly thick. Although I prepared for it, I wasn’t expecting this.” She handed Zeke her lantern. “Young man, take this lantern and bring yourselves back home.”

“R-really? But what about you?” Zeke gawked at the woman.

“I have candles. Just allow me to light one, then I shall be on my way. Winning a fight against a fog is nice, but it is cold, and I must continue now.”

She touched one of her candles to the lantern, then turned and started off through the forest. “Goodbye! It is just a short way to the town road, so just walk on!”

With that, she disappeared into the fog, save for the light of her candle that shone even in the cloud. All in a moment that startled Zeke before he could ask if that candle would be able to stay lit in air filled with water droplets.

Finally, giving in to the favor, he turned and held up the lantern. “Alright, Alice, let’s try that again!”

They hurried through the forest again. To their surprise, the time they walked quickly passed as they soon arrived onto the town road. The sky had turned a pretty pinkish-purple color by now, and Zeke sighed before checking on his sister.

Alice was even more out of breath than he was.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

She shook her head wildly, and now that he looked at her properly, she looked more frightened than she did when they realized that a fog had begun. “Z-Zeke, what – what did you think of that woman we passed in the forest?”

“A help? Our savior!”

“Her hair was gold and long, it looked like a river. I would not say it, but they might have exaggerated that her eyes looked dead, but though they seem like she’s in a good mood, the eyes definitely give me the feeling of them being empty.” Alice scowled. “Zeke, that must have been the Wraith herself! Why did you accept her lantern? No, why would you talk to a stranger who walks through the fog without worrying that she might get lost?”

For a moment, Zeke paused in surprise, then the lantern slipped from his fingers and fell towards the ground. It didn’t land and shatter like a normal lantern would have if it dropped; instead, it vanished in a tiny cloud, as if it was also made of fog.

“It’s gone!” Alice shrieked. “D-does it mean that…w-we’re cursed?”

Zeke looked back at the forest, then turned away from it. “W-well, we got our baskets, and I suppose that we do owe the Wraith, then…alright, let’s go home! Let’s tell every married man and woman to keep away from the forest for a while and pretend that we saw no one. The adults won’t believe us if we tell them what happened, anyway. Then again, maybe this might be the last time we see her, too, because she walked into a fog with an unprotected candle! Maybe the candle died because there’s a lot of water in the air!” He spoke quickly in one breath and now, he inhaled a deep gulp of air. “Now, we go home. Quickly.”

Clutching onto their salvaged reeds and baskets, the two children fell into another sprint on the road, half-gasping for air as they hurried back home.

 

Advertisements

Wind & Passing: A Short Story

Eh, I wrote a short story that I thought of after recently heading to the beach on New Years. It’ll delay The Castle of Gears chapter posting, but I’ll eventually get that done in a while. So here’s a little distraction.


The sound of the sea was surprisingly loud as it rolled over the sand, the silence, except for the hot wind, putting Akira’s blackened heart in tranquil.

She walked quickly, almost jogging, but still at a pace considered walking. A light trail of footprints followed her from the crowded area of the resort’s beach to a desolate part of the shore. It had been a long time since she had time alone for herself. Having held back enough anger before it exploded at her unreasonable father and pathetic brother, she’d taken control of her body language and left their hotel room until she was only a tiny dot in the eyes of the holiday goers.

But she couldn’t deny that she almost snapped that time. She could have probably tried to attack her father. In return, he might counter-attack, and the next moment, she would end up with the bruises she would have to hide again. Her father wasn’t the nicest guy; the only reason she accompanied him was as luggage, to blend in with his fellow colleagues who were also on the vacation with their own families. To show that their father was also a caring type, not a family tyrant.

There was a reason Hayato, her brother, recently had a mental breakdown after the police suspected that he might have purposely – in their own words – given their grandfather a heart attack that killed him. Hayato wasn’t right in his head anymore these days; he had been the topic of her disagreement with her father earlier before she left.

She didn’t notice that the anger had blinded her sight except for her intention to appear like a dot from the holiday goers that when she slowed herself to a stop, she stumbled over an unnoticed half-buried rock, sending her plummeting to the ground. Instinctively, she lunged out her other foot and stopped herself from planting her face into the sand.

She gasped; she’d been carrying an ancient Polaroid camera, a gift from her grandmother before her death. Like a charm, she feverishly cared for it and took it wherever she went. Had she hit the sand, she could have damaged it.

The Polaroid. Grandma it to her after retiring from her photographer job, the last of all the cameras she used to own. Neither her father nor brother knew it because it was her and Grandma’s secret, carried everywhere in a lunch bag that also carried muffins to cover it because she claimed her appetite was large.

Presently, she noticed her distance from the resort and sat down on the rock. Angling the camera, she aimed it for the horizon of the sea, which connected to the sky. She contemplated taking a photograph but changed her mind; the film she had was a precious amount; she should just continue searching for the things she really wanted photographs of.

Not that it would be easy to find that “something”. People were out of the question.

A figure had begun to follow the shoreline towards where Akira sat, and she eyed it warily, thinking it was either her father or one of his acquaintances. She was wrong; a youth in shorts and a plain black t-shirt, and what looked like a book in one hand, walking at a relaxed pace. A stranger, ignorant of the world – and her troubles.

Relieved, Akira turned away and plopped herself down onto the rock, stretching her legs and kicking off her sandals. She hadn’t put on any sunscreen so her skin was beginning to turn red. She’d rather keep her skin fair, but at the moment, could not get in the mood to get back to her feet to find a shade or go back to fetch the darned sunscreen.

Her brother. If he didn’t back down from their father just now about staying hidden and pretending the weather got to him just so none of the accompanying colleagues learned of his face and name, if he was still the strong-headed, admirable brother she always saw him as, her mood won’t have been this way. Sure, their father had some good sides, she supposed, but most of the time, he was cold to them, and her brother always kowtowed to him. Akira could consider herself less pathetic than Hayato was at this point. That anger in her, seething beyond her teeth, clawing at her chest, up her throat, had no doubt meant she could no longer trust Hayato to be the same strong person she saw him as.

Maybe the incident in which he’d been falsely accused of their grandfather, Grandma’s husband’s death had been the reason Hayato cracked.

“Say, take a portrait picture of me,” said a voice, and Akira looked up to see the youth who had been walking along the shoreline standing in front of her.

Alarmed, she sat up, stunned to realize she didn’t notice him when she’d been high on alert for anyone she knew who might find her. “What?”

“Take a photograph with that camera. You wanted to use it, didn’t you?”

Akira blinked, looked at the Polaroid, then back at him, turning wary. Men were dangerous, and especially to girls like her who are alone.

“You don’t need to give me a scary face,” the stranger chuckled, and he sat down on the sand at an acceptable distance from her. “I’ll give you my name, too: Rin.”

“What do you want the photograph for?”

“It’s just a request. Like I said, you looked like you wanted to use it. Why don’t you, with me as a model. Only, I’d like to request that I have the picture, too. And – a Polaroid, the black and white type of camera? Isn’t that rare these days? We use digital ones these days, don’t we? It’s interesting.”

Akira frowned at him.

“It’ll just be for one piece of film, right?” Rin, the stranger, chuckled.

She noticed that it really was a book that he carried, a book in a foreign language that she couldn’t discern. The sight of the book made her remember how much her brother, too, loved books. He might know the title of the book, maybe even the plot. Rin, as if waiting, flipped open the novel and began to read.

With a sigh, she said, “Fine, I’ll take the photograph. Let me tell you, though, the pictures in the film come out in sepia, not black and white.”

“Oh? I didn’t know that. I assumed that all old pictures would be black and white.”

“No, not all.” Akira got up with the Polaroid, then knelt on the sand in at an angle in front of Rin, who watched her with interest. “Okay, a portrait photograph, right?”

“Yep.”

She held the camera up and peered through the lens, shifted the angle of the camera with a frown. In the lens, Rin was still watching her, wearing a faint smile; it felt like their eyes met through the camera, the intensity in their look despite his statue-like stillness. Fingers trembling with excitement, she pushed the shutter. And a second time, this one by accident. Rin didn’t miss it, and his smile widened.

When she finished, she waited impatiently for the photograph and the second one to come out. She hastily handed them to Rin when it was done.

His scrutinizing eyes studying the photograph briefly then he cracked a smile of amusement. “Hey, not bad! We could imagine that I came from the past. Although…why did you take two?”

“An accident?” Akira retorted with a chuckle. “Also, you would look like you came from the past if it wasn’t for your clothing style.”

Rin laughed. “That’s right.” He returned one to her. “Keep that. So we could remember the day that you took the photo of a stranger on a beach.”

“Okay,” Akira looked at the photograph again, then watched as Rin continued on his way, returning to the shoreline and going on after the point she stopped at.

When she studied the photograph, she noted the grayish-brown colors and lines that traced out Rin, whose glance and knowing smile seemed to be looking beyond the rectangle of the photograph. If anyone could look so alive on a sheet of film, it was that guy, she supposed.

She glanced at the holiday goers and noticed a familiar figure among them starting this way. Hayato, her brother. Her anger at him and their father, his weakness and her father’s coldness dissipated. She looked in the direction Rin had gone; he was already really far, a dot himself among flat sand and rocks, book and photograph in either hand, his pace as lax as the wind blew around her.

She’d thought he was at unawares of her thoughts; she must have been wrong. He’d clearly approached her as if he knew she was in a bad mood.

Akira stuffed the Polaroid and Rin’s photograph into her lunch bag, slung it over her shoulder, then walked with a brisk pace back towards those holiday goers where Hayato waited patiently for her.

The Castle of Gears: Chapter 001

 

And thus begins the story! I will later update the chapter to link it to the second chapter when I’ve finished it. 🙂


The Lady lay on the ground in a mess, her hair and limbs splayed out, broken and dirty.

“I should have more observant yesterday so as to not miss this,” I sighed as I knelt at the body.

“It’s not your fault, Master,” Isaiah insisted. “We were enjoying ourselves yesterday in a way that we couldn’t have noticed.”

“Isaiah. I run a detective agency and am an inventor. If I cannot understand a human, both occupations could cease being my pride.”

The dead Lady had been discovered not longer than fifteen minutes ago by me myself, but by now, all who live in Kamillia Castle should know already.

I wonder if I should have kept it quiet, though; the servants of this household are not going to keep quiet, are they? Women gossip, as my mentor always complained.

But I admit that we have jumped too far ahead in this story. Let us go back to yesterday to begin the story. That way, it would be easier to understand, won’t it?

***

Kamillia Castle sat among rocky hills, a grand and majestic residence that looked down at the city of Moorwalk in the distance, as a bird from its nest. Although anyone could visit it from the metropolitan of Moorwalk on foot, it would take an hour just to leave it, and a further two hours to hike and navigate the forest and hills that surround the Castle. A car or horseback would work better.

Me, being who I am, I decided the best way to reach it: my newest project: Helios the airship.

“I apologize, Master! I feel sick!” Isaiah groaned, lying flat on the ground of the cockpit.

“Hopeless!” I laughed as I manned the controls.

“There’s a reason I’m afraid of heights, sir!”

“Don’t worry, we’re nearly there now! Hold on a little longer.”

Isaiah groaned again and flattened himself to the floor as I turned the airship into the Castle’s courtyard. It landed with a light thud, and I turned to the boiler and tossed water to kill the fire.

“We landed safely!” I went to the door and threw it open.

“T-thank goodness!” Isaiah gasped, staggering up with much difficulty. “I thought I might die!” When he looked through the door, though, his eyes widened. “This castle is huge!”

Though we call it Kamillia Castle, in truth, it was more a chateau than a fort. Back ten years ago, I remembered there being a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, but what replaced where it had been was now a neatly clipped croquet lawn. Croquet was the Lady of the house’s hobby, so that was the reason.

Maybe I should have been more considerate and landed Helios on one of the nearby hills. The Lady will be angry.

While Isaiah gawped at the castle, I pulled out my pocket watch to check the time. Rather – I call it a pocket watch, but it’s too big to even be called one that I prefer to wear it around my neck like a stone medallion. Made of bronze and walnut, a present from my senile grandfather, I called it the Spider Clock. That’s because of the spider motif on the lid.

Ten o’clock, thirty minutes since Isaiah and I left the city of Moorwalk. The ride in an airship may have been pleasant, but I may need to up the speed a bit.

“Mr. Ethaon! Is that you? Welcome back!” a voice called, and I looked out the airship to see a man in overalls approaching cautiously. He had on a straw hat over his head and gardening gloves over his hands. This man’s face brightened when he saw me as I jumped out of the airship.

“Hello, Wilden,” I said, pushing the Spider Clock back under my vest. “You look fine today, though dare I say, your hair has gotten whiter.”

“Oh, I am quite fine. Ah – let me help with the luggage, son. Are you alright?” He peered into the ship, and I noted that Isaiah was still struggling to walk, despite still looking green.

They nearly jumped when a loud voice said, “Ethaon! This belongs to you? What are you doing?”

“Ah, Lindon! This is my latest project!” I turned towards the voice. I didn’t miss how Isaiah winced, but anyone would be scared of Lindon Lorren’s loud voice. “Your bellows haven’t changed since last year!”

“Last time it was a mechanical horse, and now this?” Lindon Lorren frowned as he walked over to us. “And you’re going to destroy the courtyard.”

Though Lindon looks to be a cold-looking man who seemed to be born out of fire, with deep brown hair brushed back from his forehead and fierce blue eyes.

“I hope that Lady Emily isn’t going to be angry about it,” I sighed.

“What is this mess? Hey, get that thing off my yard! How will I play my games if you leave it here?” a third voice shouted, this one a woman with a sharp tongue.

“Ah, the Lady herself,” I groaned as a woman in a bright red dress stormed out the Castle. “I beg your pardon, Lady Emily, but there’s at least still some space left. I made sure it fit only half the courtyard, so it’ll be fine.”

Emily Lorren, her eyes flashing with rage, started to storm towards me. “I would appreciate it if you -” She stopped abruptly, then, with a scowl, turned away again and stormed back to the house.

“Is she fine?” I asked Lindon, and now noted that he had dark shadows under his eyes. “What’s wrong? Missed a night of sleep?”

Lindon clicked his tongue. “You are not a doctor, yet your guess is correct. Last night was tiring.”

“Work?”

“No. Not – exactly,” muttered Lindon. “May we change the subject?”

I smiled. “Alright, then.”

“M-Master!” groaned Isaiah as he dragged out a suitcase.

“Don’t call me ‘Master.'” I pulled out a bottle of tiny orange baubles and tossed it to his hand. “That may ease you a bit. You should have told me about your airsickness when I worked on the airship.”

“I apologize, but I didn’t think you would force me on board just to meet the people here.” Isaiah  straightened himself. “But I have told you I dislike heights before.”

“Ah, I should have picked up the hint back then,” I chuckled. Isaiah threw a few pills into his mouth and the color of his face began to return to normal.

“What is that?” Lindon asked in a low voice.

“Homemade candy I made myself,” I replied, also quietly so Isaiah doesn’t hear. “He won’t know, but he doesn’t notice that he recovers faster if I trick him with something he thinks is medicine.”

“That’s deception!”

“But it eases his mind. If it works, it works.”

Lindon sighed. “I shall never understand that mind of yours.”

“So you are Isaiah, then?” Wilden dragged out a second suitcase with more ease compared to Isaiah. “Welcome to Kamillia Castle and thank you for taking care of Mr. Ethaon here.”

“Is he a bit of a prick to you?” asked Lindon.

“If I must be honest, yes, he is!” said Isaiah abruptly. “But my position is only as a less-than-noble character. Please take no notice of me and treat me as if I don’t exist.”

Lindon turned back to me. “Another weird person?”

“Compared to me, he’s normal,” I said.

“Come, come, now, Mr. Lindon! You’re forgetting your manners!” Wilden chided as he started to carry the suitcase towards the Castle. “Why don’t you go inside to have a talk?”

“Please let me take the suitcase,” Isaiah insisted.

“No, no, in this estate, this is my job. Let me help.”

Upon our entry to the Castle in the grand foyer where a large staircase led up to the second floor, a woman hurried to greet us. Clearly not a housekeeper or cook, for she was dressed in a pale brown dress, her long dark hair streaming down her shoulders in a smooth sweep. Her features made her beautiful and bright. She smiled at our entrance.

“Hello,” she said, squeezing her arms against herself. Her accent was clearly British.

“Pleased to meet you,” I replied politely, taken aback by this guest. “You are?”

“This is Amelia Bailey, a photographer visiting from an abroad country,” said Lindon abruptly. “Amelia, this is the grandson of my father’s friend, who is here yearly to wind the clock tower, Ethaon Haldeir.”

“Lindon has told me a lot about you,” the woman spoke politely.

“Pity I heard nothing about such a lady,” I chuckled. “Where is Uncle Marcel?”

“My apologies on not telling you about here,” said Lindon with a small smile. “Father is in his quarters as usual.”

“You must see him, Mr. Ethaon,” said Wilden urgently. “Sir Marcel is ill at the moment and there is a doctor present as another guest. Young man, if you’re feeling better, I shall lead you to your master’s usual rooms.” He turned to Isaiah.

“I feel better already, sir!” Isaiah said with relief. “Master, are you going to be alright?”

“Are you questioning me about my navigation through a place I’ve been through several times before?” I demanded. “Also, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, do not call me ‘master.'”

Isaiah smiled. Now that he looked better, the brat had the guts to smirk. “Yes, Master.” Wilden laughed as they went up the grand stairway, and I went through the second doorway from the foyer, leaving the lady Amelia and Lindon alone.

I have already begun picking up unusual signs in this house. Lady Emily, who is Lindon’s wife by arranged marriage, and her strange behavior; she is easily hostile. Lindon, a straightforward, honest man, with no reason to fear truths, wishes to hide a secret. And then Amelia’s presence; no doubting she is the cause of whatever is happening now.

Perhaps it would be better to be involved with whatever their problem is because I am a detective, yet I feel as though I will only worsen the subject if I were to interfere.

The doorway led to a large corridor that opened was also in a way an art gallery, exhibiting several paintings by many different hands. Most were landscapes and art of the Castle itself, but there were a few portraits of Lindon and Sir Marcel Lorren, the landowner. A few were photographs, all of them groups of people.

After the gallery came a smaller corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of light. They showed an expansive view of the forest outside. Here, there was another door that was the bedroom quarters of the landowner.

I approached and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” an unfamiliar voice called out, and I pushed the door open to see two men sitting at a table, one in a divan, the other in a chair. The bed was not neatly arranged as if its owner had kicked off the covers and no one bothered to clean it. Natural light streamed into the room through the windows.

“Ethaon, my boy! Welcome! Don’t just stand there, enter!” A ragged voice came from the wizened man who sat in the divan, weak one second ago, but now energetic. He leaned on a walking cane, and the man in the chair, who was younger with graying hair, hurried to help him up. “How have you been? Ah – I must introduce you! This is Dr. Jennings, my current doctor who is staying here to watch over my condition. Doctor, this is-“

“Yes, your friend’s grandson, but also a son to you,” the doctor chuckled. “You have told me several times.”

“Doctor, do you mind if I talk to Ethaon privately? A favor, may I ask?”

“As you wish,” said Dr. Jennings, and he helped the old man sit back down in the divan.

When we were alone, I looked at Uncle Marcel up and down. Despite being Lindon’s father, the old man is water to Lindon’s hot-headedness; pale hair, cool green eyes, calmer features. He did seem to have changed somewhat – by height, I suppose? But it is strange that Uncle Marcel would have fathered a son at the age of sixty. Grandfather, whose name was Rudolf von Hald, received me as a grandson at that same age.

The relationship between Grandfather and Mr. Marcel was well-known in the city of Moorwalk and their hometown of New Tompa to the north of the Democracy of Pallin. Whereas Grandpa von Hald gained renown as a scientist, eccentric clock making hobbyist, and a bunch of other things, Uncle was a General, gaining his knighthood a decade after his retirement. The clock tower of Kamillia Castle was one of the few landmarks that indicated that friendship.

“So that airship was yours, I assume?” said Marcel. “You’re just like your grandfather! Tell what have you been up to recently!”

“Nothing much! I just spent a lot of time on a new project – ah, an airship, that is.” I glanced at the door, then turned back to the old man. “By the way, what’s happening in this house?”

Uncle frowned. “So you noticed in the end. As expected of the one we call the Horologii Gremlin, no?”

“Lindon being nice to anyone other than family is weird as him smiling twenty-four hours non-stop. Strangers are not allowed in the castle as guests unless they are approved by Lindon himself. And Emily is apparently angered? I thought I’d get an earful for taking up half the space of her courtyard.”

“Lindon and Emily are in the process of a divorce. Amelia is currently the woman Lindon is courting. I told him that it’s unwise to bring the woman he’s not married to yet into the castle, but he did in the end. That boy is stubborn. I wish he would be more considerate of his mother’s holy grounds.”

Marcel, you’re the only one who considers this castle your wife’s holy grounds, but that’s still romantic.

“The problem is that Emily refuses to hand over her wedding ring.”

That is a problem.

“And doesn’t Miss Amelia seem a mild person? I advise you to prepare to face a strict young lady, Ethaon. I lost count of times she chided me on taking a walk.”

“Those are very serious problems,” I blurted.

“Also, please don’t get involved. You will make it worse, so please just stay and only handle the clock tower. Do not think about this.”

I laughed. “Forgetting about it is the easiest, so don’t worry.”

“Oh, yes, my boy! I know your short-term memory problems, but yes, let us avoid it!” The old man burst out laughing too. “Heavens, I would like to see that airship of yours as soon as that doctor and Miss Amelia let me take a walk outdoors.”

“You should! This worked better than the clockwork horse I rode up here last year!”

Uncle Marcel started to cough, and I patiently waited, holding his hand until he stopped.

“What kind of illness is it?” I asked.

“Dr. Jennings told me that it is the early stages of a flu, and for an old man like me, it may get serious. Tell me a story of your last adventure. If I don’t hear a story of the outside, I will want to go out again.”

I spend the next hour telling the old man of the last adventure I had, in Narr, an old, now long abandoned city that supposedly had strange happenings. I had just finished telling the story when in walked Dr. Jennings again, announcing to perform another checkup on Uncle Marcel’s health, which also requires me to let them sit alone again.

After saying goodbye to Uncle and the Doctor, I left and returned to the grand foyer where I found Emily Lorren rushing out the door. She wore an expensive gown, which was just her usual style, and a bonnet loaded with flowers.

“Lady Emily? Are you going out?” I called after her, but either she didn’t hear me, or just outright ignored me. She was gone out, and I pushed the door open a little to peer out. I could see Isaiah and Wilden in the distant rose garden, a treasure of Kamillia Castle, both armed with a pair of sheaves, singing something as they trimmed the bushes. It’s not surprising, since Isaiah knows plenty of songs that come from the old peoples’ childhood.

On the other hand, Emily turned around the Castle on the other side. There were three places she could have gone to in that direction: the Lorren House’s graveyard, where she couldn’t have had any sentimental feeling towards anyone there; the second fountain with a statue depicting Niobe that she couldn’t have any interest in; and then a rough slope down the hill that may end up crumpling her body if she was careless.

With a shrug, I closed the door and passed myself into the family living room of the house where I sat down into a chair, avioding the larger, more comfortable red armchair that was Lindon’s.

***

If I could bet that this short vacation and visit to Grandpa von Hald’s best friend’s house was going to be fun, I would only be half wrong, in that the kind of fun I expected was going to be different.

For example, the next morning – that is, today – I thought that the dawn sky looked awfully heavy as I stepped out of the house and started my way towards the Castle’s clock tower. Perhaps it will rain today. No, no doubt it will rain.

As I passed through the rose bushes, I caught a faint hint of a smell. No, my nose is perfectly normal, but the amount of perfume that Lady Emily wears is enough to make my eyes water at times, and my nose sting.

But why would her perfume be here? Is she here?

Lying at the end of the rose garden and in front of the clock tower, I saw her. Face down, splayed against the ground on the path between both. Her head bled profusely.

Emily Lorren is the sad victim of this tragedy.

And I could only mutter, “Well.”

 

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.