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Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 14308

Updated: 2018-01-18 23:50

I run.

And I run.

And I run.

The problem with large, dark places is that finding ways out can be hard. Even more so when you're running from a scary person with a scary cane. This complex has become a labyrinthe, deep halls of deep dark that makes sweat burn my eyes like tears.

I keep up the pace until the stitch in my side cuts so deep blood oozes from my insides. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from crying out. Flesh and loose bolts don't always play along, I suppose. Every movement sends a jolt through my bones. Every impact locks up my joints that much more. Ah, the joys of not being all that human.

The darkness is unyielding, an expanse that only deepens the farther I race. MN-9 hardly keeps up, I can just hear his faraway whistles. Tingles claw through my veins and behind my bones, heat flushing me through and through. It settles in my aches, dulling them like a shot of rum. "No, no, no."

I don't know where I'm going. I still don't know where I am. But I know it's close to midnight; I can feel the magic thrumming through my veins. "Hey!"

I skid toward a flash of something white, a column to steady myself with, when a hand lurches from the darkness and takes my shoulder. I scream. My entire body recoils and I launch into the air, the heat coming heavier, thicker now. I can feel it filling me up, settling under my skin, in my joints, around my heart. The moisture dries up in my hands and cheeks, each movement becoming more of a struggle. I have to fight to keep my footing. I have to fight to get away. "D-don't touch me." My breath quivers and I pull out of his grasp with a single, lousy kick. I shiver. This must be how a moth feels with its wings trapped under a glass pane. The dark never lifts. I can feel bruises welling up underneath my skin where the man grabbed my shoulder, but I know they'll go away very, very soon.

"MN-9?" He rolls up to my shoe, my strides coming that much shorter, that much stiffer. Rain pelts the rooftop, the pattering an incessant drum in my ears. MN-9 whines. I swoop down and lift him into the palms of my hands, his scrap parts glinting in thin pinpricks of starlight. The more I stare at him, the more he only looks like a bundle of cogs and wheels held together by a few bolts and the endoskeleton of his prongs. A junk pile. His glowing sensors only provide a pinprick of light and suffice to say, it's not much help, not really.

I slam into a wall, one, two, three times, until my entire body aches and quivers from shock of it all. "I could use some goggles, " I mutter to MN-9, though we've had the conversation a thousand times. Goggles are expensive things, infused with old magic to make the night less dark to tired eyes. My fingers find the stucco and I use the prickly edge to guide me across the threshold, gliding with a gentleman's restraint. I can hardly move. MN-9 twitters, and if droids were the emotional type, I'd pin it on nerves.

Of course. It's raining. I suck in a heavy breath, the smell of sweat and damp earth misting through the dark. Smooth material meets my fingertips, a curl of cylindrical metal under my fingertips. I pat MN-9 back into his pocket and draw my hands up, above the metal, against polished lacquer. A door. My chest throbs, and I have to wait for it to ease. The faster my heart beats, the harder the transformation is on it. I squint, ignoring the surge of heat pressing at my skull. It has to be a door.

Fingers tap the side of my neck. I jolt, my stomach upturned and twisting, a twinge in my chest. I don't want to fight. Please don't make me fight. I freeze, bracing for the worst.

"Let him go." The voice is gruff, the words spoken as a command. I grab for the door, groping for something to hold, a knob of some sort. The air feels sour and thick. I almost gag. The voices dizzy me, all around. I can't even make out who's speaking.

"But you saw what he did! He let the man—"

"What part of 'let him go' do you not understand? We can't hurt him. He's a Cheng."

My hand closes around something cool and round. Cheng. I've forgotten how important the name is here and what it means to my kingdom. I lift my leg, grip the knob, and kick out as hard and fast as I can. The door is a lot heavier this time, jammed in a lot harder. Laughter dogs me. I slap the hand away and kick with all my might. MN-9 whines. The door squeaks open, mud splattering my shoes and squishing through my soles. My eyes don't adjust to the light in time and I stand there dumbly until a hand shoves me out. "Good luck, enchanted Cheng!"

The door slams behind me.

I run.

The pain in my side almost cripples me. It's the type that burns, rising through my ribs and searing under my flesh. My entire body trembles. The rain is no relief to the heat; it only makes it worse. Each drop sizzles as it drags down my skin. MN-9 squeals. I slam my hands over his pocket, the flutters in my stomach growing so sharp I drop to my knees, the pain and heat and transformation tremors so intense I can't stand. It just, well, it hurts. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. They're the only words in my head, forced commands to keep me alive. I think about the man. I hope he's okay.

MN-9 gives a mechanical wail and my heart plunges in my chest. The magic takes over. My skin, human and soft, tightens to my bones until it fits around them like a porcelain straight jacket. My neck jerks up, out of my control. I hear the tick, tick, ticking in my ears and let my body limpen. I've learned not to fight the process. I've tried before. It never works.

Knocked on my back from the violence of the magic, I stare up at the sky, the stars glittering like holes into the heavens. The night sky. I haven't seen it in so long I feel an ache in my chest. Heavy steamliner airships chug across the sky, their bellies moving like shadows over the clouds. But they can't blot out the moon. It hangs like a white medallion in the sky, painting the city in broad, milky strokes. I shake my head to dislodge the drenched, limp strands of hair blown out of my ponytail and slicked to my face by the storm.

Tick tock. My timebomb heart ticks in my chest like a clock, and I know the transformation has ended. I can feel the gears whispering against each other, hear their scraping. It's a sound I know so well, I could cry.

But I can't cry. I can't even blink.

When my "real boy" form slinks away I become who I really am once more—a clockwork toy—I can't do or feel much, and even that's a bit of an understatement. I can't smell the smoke of the city or the scent of buttery croissants rising in the baker's oven. I can't taste cinnamon dustings on crumble cakes or feel the scratchy lace of tea dollies. I can see, but the edges are blurry and unfocused, like I'm squinting through a dirty looking glass.

Sometimes, when thoughts about it all come to my head in a rush like this, the pump in my chest throbs so hard I think my heart's mechanical parts and human parts will come undone and finally kill me. The rain soaks through my shoes, drowning the plucky clumps of grass around and seeping through my thin

shirt. I almost wish I had my jacket. MN-9 squeaks, scrambling up my body and searching for a dry spot.

"Okay, " I say to test my voice, my jaw popping down when I speak.

When the green-eyed man spoke and his voice carried a musical sound to it, it was beautiful. It's the type of voice you'd listen to for any stretch of time because of just how natural it sounded, how comforting and deep. But mine isn't like that. Mine is light like flute music, but not in a beautiful way, in a mechanical way. When I talk, the sounds are never quite right. They're eerie, too musical, like a music box never wound down. And it's a painful reminder. I don't sound real because I'm not real.

I wrap my porcelain fingers around MN-9. He jerks. My hands are wet, but I have nothing to dry them on. "Okay, " I say again, listening to the clang of his body against my delicate hands. I lift myself to my feet, every jerk of my mechanical parts choppy and painful. Each movement is a fight, like pulling against puppet strings. My breathing comes in shallow clicks. The rain pounds. I rise on jerky legs. The city slopes, cobbles scraping through my shoes. "We're going back to Stepmother's, somewhere safe and warm." Except 'home' is never safe with my stepfamily, but I'm too tired to grapple with that now, all machine and MN-9 malfunctioning in the downpour. The city sags before me, shops and carts built of rotting white wood slats. I can make them out easily, caked in green and yellow mold. I can even make out traces of the church in the distance, gothic architecture washed out under the moon's silhouette. The palace isn't that far either. Hanging in the clouds, shiny and white, its towers twisting so high up they fade out of sight. When I was little, I used to think it was heaven. For a moment, I hang back. Standing here, numb to the whistle of the wind as I look over the hills, I watch moonlight glint off shop windows and think of the streets I used to take refuge in. For a moment, I'm a child again, led by my stepsister's hand. "You wanna see the circus?" she asks with a wry wink.

The pressure in my chest comes so suddenly and unfurls so deeply I think the steel in my ribs will come undone and all my parts will spill out. I heave a gasp and bolt, no matter the strain it puts on my joints. I stagger down the hill, clumps of grass and mud sticking to my shoes and making speedy escape even harder. There are no gates to the city, only crumbling remains of two brick walls. I tear past them without much thought and stumble through the city square. The dark coats it like a fog. A few lone women slink through the streets, parasols raised and goggles drawn up on their noses. MN-9 makes a pained sound and I hush him, my head ducked to keep from seeing and remembering too much. I can deal with it all in the morning. Right now, I just want to go home. I just want to get out before the situation devours me.

The streets slope up, then back down again. The hills of Elizra. I remember the serpentine lay of the land like I remember the day I left. Magnolias. Spice candy. Clara's hand. "Luciel?" a woman calls. I risk a glance up. Fashions on the street have changed, leather to lace, work pants to long skirts. I'm closer, and with heart-wrenching ease my feet find the steep footpaths I used to climb. The pain is suffocating. Someone knows my name. Someone remembers who I am.

I wish they'd forgotten.

Windows gleam, splashing my reflection back at me. My mangy silk ponytail, my blank mask of a face, my glassy brown eyes. I even catch a hint of the silver key sticking out of my back, the length curved and glowing under the moon. MN-9 silences his clicking. I curse and force my joints to extend farther and my steps to hit the ground heavier. To me, it doesn't matter my body isn't built to take the impact. Nothing matters at all. I focus my eyes to the to the only place I dare, to a house that juts out of a rocky mass in the distance. I ball my fists, trembling, the dumb, terrible magic in me crackling up my gears and down the braided plating on my spine. If I could, I'd squeeze my eyes shut and sink deep, deep into the street, huddled in a ball to stop the spinning in my head. But I can only stare, like a horse with blinkers, all the bubbling feelings and fears surging inside but unable to slip across my sculpted face. The only sign is a twitch in my fingers, my thumb and forefinger clanging against each other while my mechanical lungs pump. I can hear every cog as it spins inside me. Tick tock.

Time doesn't heal old wounds. As I approach the house, heart and mind trained on MN-9 and the man he saved, the thought whispers into my mind with the hiss of the pounding rain on the street. If time healed old wounds, I'd be dead, buried, and rotting. I step into the mud, weeping trees waving like skeleton arms in the night. The brass knocker glints, burning at the edges of my vision.

The house is just as I remember it, a prim manor painted white with quaint red roofs that arch to the sky in vaults. The windows glisten blue in the night, smoke lifting in elegant curls to the clouds. I clutch my droid with shaky hands. He's dying. I have to get him home. Tick tock. My heart keeps time as I step from the muddy road to the lawn. I have to lower my head to watch my steps on the greenery, my peripherals of little use. Many a time have I longed to smell the crisp scent of early spring grass, but now it is only an ache. An ache that will have to wait.

I step up onto the path and lurch for the door, the key in my back twirling, twirling, twirling. It makes a sound like bristles dragging over a scale. "You think that scoundrel got home?" I ask MN-9, my nerves so thick I can only feel the tick of my insides. I hope the man is doing better than I am. He's probably been through more than even I have, and babbling about him is a good distraction. "What did he tell you, MN-9, to get your help? Sure, he seems charming. And his eyes, don't they seem familiar somehow?" I pause. MN-9 whistles softly and I pretend to know what he's saying. Sometimes I think I do. "Okay, yes, eyes are a funny thing to dwell on, but they seem so odd. They don't look quite human, but then again, we aren't quite human."

MN-9 sputters and falls silent.

The house looms over me, scattered memories of my stepsisters blotting out my thoughts like shadows, funneling them into whispers of days long passed, of a boy long gone. My rigid lips press together, the only outward sign of emotion I can give. I wonder if my "sisters" missed me. I wonder if they cared.

I shamble up to the pink door and stand there, fist raised and poised to knock, the rest of me frozen like a garden statue. I stare.

My stomach can't clench and my heart can't flutter. My knees can't weaken and my lungs can't heave. You'd think that would make me braver, but it doesn't. I still want to run, still want to hide. But I can't. I have as many places to escape to as I do friends in this now foreign land—none.

I knock. One, two, three times, until a crack grows down my fingers. I knock and let the demons back in.

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