by BD Mitchell
Welcome to Clockwork Manor -- don't forget to duck.
The Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor
It should come as no surprise that poor Ben was a bit rattled. He had already seen more death at Clockwork Manor than in the whole of his life – and he was only as far as the foyer. The front gate had certainly been more decapitory than one would prefer in an entryway. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the quick reflexes of another adventurer, Ben would surely have met his own demise by a rather vicious ornamental jardinière. By the time the rescue party clambered through the front door, their numbers were evenly halved.
Once the whole motley crew arrived in the manor proper, the party immediately split and embarked on separate paths into the house, as no one seemed to be in a mind for conversation.
Or rather, nearly no one.
"It couldn't all be automatic. There must be some mechanism for precision aiming – do you think we have time to go back and check? No – I suppose you're right. Tempus fugit, after all. But it can't possibly be spring-activated! Perhaps some kind of piston-trigger...?"
Since it took every scrap of Ben's willpower to hold at bay the crippling panic, there was nothing left-over to temper his mechanomania. Mortal dread aside, he was having a grand old time.
His police escort, on the other hand, was not amused.
"You might look out for traps, sir," said Captain Durward gruffly. Though clad in a nondescript greatcoat and lightly-weathered bowler, there was the air of a big-game hunter about the captain. Perhaps it was the wary manner with which he carried his rifle, or the way he scanned the corridor as if constantly expecting a tiger attack.
"But Captain!" said Ben. "Within these walls is the most advanced technology on Earth! Are you not the least bit curious?"
"I expect you're more interested in devices of a head-lopping variety?"
"I suppose I can't fault you for that. But still! Just imagine the craftsmanship that produces this much clockwork! How is it powered, I wonder? It shouldn't be springs or pendulums – not on this scale! A steamwork furnace, I think, would fit the–"
Ben was tackled roughly to the marble floor. Something massive swept through the air at an ominous torso-gouging angle. Ben only managed a glance at the enormous glinting blade before it vanished back into the wall.
"You might look out for traps," Durward repeated, hoisting Ben off the ground.
"What could have triggered it?" said Ben, gathering the scattered contents of his satchel.
"Don't know, sir."
If Ben wanted to forestall a mad, screaming dash back through the treacherous yard, he had to bring his heart-rate down to a less-combustible frequency – and there was no meter in his life quite so influential as that of clockwork. "Well, let's take a moment to consider! It could be most instructive!"
Taking care to remain under the contraption's reach, Ben retreated along the corridor. He only managed two paces before the dread weapon re-emerged, slashing along its murderous arc and retreating behind a retracting panel.
"No tripwires," thought Ben aloud. "But then, there wouldn't be something so crude in a Plumpocket design. No pressurized plates in the floor. No visible mechanical activators at all, in fact– oops! That was close! Er, if I didn't know better, I would say the trigger is hovering right here, invisible to the eye – but that's impossible, of course. Then how... oh! Oh, I see!"
In the dim light of the corridor, a speck of light gleamed like a diamond. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a small glass lens masquerading as pearl imbedded in the wainscoting.
"I've never seen anything like this!" Ben exclaimed to the captain. "It seems to be an artificial, light-sensitive eye; any obstruction of the lens activates the trap. But how is light converted to a repeating mechanical action, I wonder?"
"The pearls launch the traps?" muttered Captain Durward.
"It would appear so, yes. Why?"
The captain said nothing, instead pointing to scores of watchful eyes glittering in the darkness. Poor Ben's nerves twanged again.
"I... suppose we're still committed to this venture, yes?"
"To save innocent lives, and all?"
"Er, capital," said Ben with a weak smile. "Once more unto the breach, then."
I don't believe I have the heart to describe in full detail every terrible trap our adventurers encountered in the slow trek through Clockwork Manor. However, an incomplete list would include such devices as a pair of whirling bladed chains, an array of air-cannons that launched a barrage of brass flechettes, a roaring fire-siphon, and a hall-spanning retractable floor that deposited one onto a bed of gleaming spikes.
Most of Ben's life thus far had been spent in the sedentary, gently-ticking calm of a clock-shop workroom. If left to his own devices, so to speak, the manor would have dispatched him without mercy. It was all the better, then, that Ben had a companion with faster reflexes than he.
"This is too much!" exclaimed Ben as he was hoisted back over the brim of the spike-pit. "Clearly this endeavor is better suited to a gymnast than a watchmaker!"
"Good catch, by the way."
"Thank you, sir."
Ben peered down into the pit. "Shame about that hat, though. They're not easy to find this time of year."
With several clicking shudders, the floor slid back into position. Ben shouldered his leather satchel again and steeled himself for the next obstacle; however, something about the captain's visage made him hesitate. Durward stared straight ahead, slowly raising his rifle to a firing position. Unnerved by this distressing posture, Ben listened to the darkness with all the concentration he could muster.
"I say, Captain," he whispered. "Do you smell nutmeg?"
The captain nodded.
"I thought so. Also, do you hear a voice?"
Captain Durward stalked forward intently. Ben followed; he glanced around for more of the little black lenses, but there seemed to be none this far into the manor. Perhaps there were no more traps to overcome.
The corridor ahead curved to the left in a sweeping arc, concealing the terminal end. With every step, though, the voice grew clearer:
"... won't be intimidated. No, I say! Not unless it's absolutely necessary!"
The voice was unfamiliar to Ben. It presumably belonged to another member of Plumpocket's rescue party, but as none of them had spoken in his presence, he couldn't say for certain.
"Of course not!" continued the voice. "It's here – I know it is! You saw the tracks!"
The invisible man seemed to be arguing with someone, but Ben could hear no other speaker. He wondered if some sort of wireless communicator could be an explanation.
Suddenly, the voice ceased. Ben nearly collided with Captain Durward, who had halted abruptly in his paces. Though he strained against the silence, Ben heard no other noise than his own repressed breathing. When a long attack-free moment passed, the captain beckoned Ben to follow again.
And there, quite abruptly, was the end of the corridor. The passage led straight into a solid wall, but it was a wall unlike any Ben had seen before. Apart from some brass ornamentation, it appeared to be solid steel. An array of massive gears held in place a pair of steel bars as big around as Ben himself. More so than any other structure yet encountered, this wall was built with a single phrase in mind: "highly impenetrable".
Quite suddenly, Ben's mind became occupied by a rather different phrase: "freeze in terror".
"Creeping along, are we, gentlemen?" said the mysterious voice.
Something cold and hard pressed into Ben's neck. The barrel of Durward's rifle whirled around, aiming just past Ben's head.
"Come now, soldier – let's not do anything rash. Lower your weapon, if you please."
Ben could see the reluctance in the captain's eyes, but Durward grudgingly complied.
"Very good. Walk forward, boy."
The obstruction on Ben's throat relented and he managed a few steps Durward-ward.
The first thing Ben noticed about the mysterious assailant was his eyes. Actually, more accurately, the first thing he noticed was the enormous curved knife vanishing into an ornate leather sheath, but the eyes were an easy second. While the man's tense posture and pinched face all spoke unfavorably of rough times, there were ghosts in those eyes.
Overall, he was a study in contrasts. His garb, mostly khaki in color, was quite shabby and worn, although very neatly arranged with no visible dirt. His accent was smooth and refined, but there was a savage edge just beyond audible range. And while his manner was polite, the massive leather-wrapped rifle strapped to his back suggested he could easily be otherwise.
"Very good. No need for unnecessary violence, is there, soldier?"
As usual, Ben's curiosity managed to overpower his fear. "How did you know he was a soldier?"
"He has the look," said the man. "I see it in the mirror every day; I know the signs."
"The mirror...?" puzzled Ben. "Oh! You're a soldier, too!"
"Formerly, yes. Captain Lewis Haven, at Clockwork Manor by way of South Africa."
"Er, Ben Bradley, at Clockwork Manor by way of Maddox Street."
"Are you being funny?" said Haven gruffly.
"No! Sorry – this is quite a new situation for me."
Captain Haven glared for a moment before turning to Durward. "And you, soldier – name, rank, and station."
"Captain John Durward. India."
"And just what are your motivations here, Captain?"
Durward said nothing more, and the way his grip seemed to tighten around his rifle was making Ben nervous; indeed, he was feeling a bout of chatter coming along.
"We're here to rescue the Plumpockets, of course!" said Ben quickly. "Isn't that why–"
"I'm sure I didn't ask you, civilian," snapped Haven.
The terse remark caught Ben off guard, but not nearly as much as what occurred next:
"That's not my concern," Haven muttered. "Mala'i matalaba chaina!"
It took the young clocksmith a moment to realize that Haven wasn't addressing either Ben or Durward. It was as though the world-weathered captain was having a conversation all by himself.
"Samasya tyahi ho, Sanjay. This really isn't the proper time."
"Er, are you... well, Captain?" ventured Ben.
Haven regarded him calmly, as if nothing amiss had happened.
"Have you seen it?" he said.
"Seen – er, seen what?"
"Don't palter with me, boy! Have you seen it?" Captain Haven turned to the great steel wall. "Why else would Plumpocket have a door of this magnitude? Not to ward off meager burglars, I'd wager – no, there is something else within these walls."
In his preparations for this Clockwork Manor incursion, Ben knew to expect deadly devices and fearsome traps of any description. It was only now, however, that a very different danger was becoming apparent. Ben glanced at Durward, hoping to glean some inkling of a plan that didn't result in personal injury, but he already knew this was an unlikely prospect. And turning back seemed an even riskier option; Ben was fortunate to have made a single trek unscathed through the corridor. Another attempt would surely be an undue strain on his luck.
"You may be right," said Captain Haven to his invisible companion. "We shall see. You – boy!"
Ben jumped. "Er, yes sir, Captain, sir!"
"You have the look of an engineer about you. What do you make of this barrier?"
Ben's focus gratefully turned from the menacing stranger to the steel wall.
"It appears to be an ordinary mechanized draw-bar lock – much increased in scale, of course. The primary bolting action is driven by a locking worm-drive that transfers power from the–"
"I'll take that as a yes," interrupted Haven. "Good. And does this mean you can open it?"
"I... I'm not sure. Possibly."
"That's not acceptable. If you can open the door, I suggest you do so. Otherwise – don't interrupt! My tone is irrelevant, and we're wasting time. Back to your post, Sanjay. Yes, noted – now back to your post! And you, boy – best get to work."
Ben understood that only half of these comments were meant for him, though the thought wasn't particularly reassuring. Either way, a glance at Haven's colossal rifle made the very notion of arguing unthinkable.
"If I built a door this big," thought Ben aloud, tapping idly on the steel, "I would want some kind of security bypass – otherwise I might become locked out of my own house. And if I were a bypass, I would probably be... here!"
With very little effort, a subtle crack in the corridor wall yawned open to reveal a much smaller clockwork device not unlike an elaborate sundial. Ben tested the dial and several other gears twitched in response.
"Remarkable!" Ben exclaimed. "So elegant!"
I expect that to you or I, the jumbled clockwork would appear random and indecipherable. But then, neither you nor I possess the peculiar mind of Ben Bradley, the ablest son of the best clockmaker in the British Empire. After mere minutes of prodding, perusing, and general pottering, Ben gave the dial four quick twists and stepped back.
With a whirring sound akin to an unspooling fishing reel, the clockwork lock spun into action. As more of the mechanism engaged, the whirring gave way to clicking, and the clicking to clanking. Finally, with the deep groan of metal on metal, the massive steel bars slid smoothly aside and the barrier parted. The door was open.
The three adventurers peered through the opening, all animosity temporarily forgotten. The corridor continued for a few meters beyond the door before finally sweeping upwards into a wide marble stairway.
Ben beamed. "It seems we're making progress, gentlemen!"
While Durward nodded in approval, Captain Haven's reaction was a bit more troubling. The battle-worn soldier stood silhouetted against the doorway, and even from behind, Ben sensed the man's nerves standing on end like the spines of a hedgehog.
"Er... Captain Haven?"
"Quiet!" hissed Haven. "Do you hear it?"
Aside from the fading whir of the clockwork lock, the corridor was completely silent to Ben's ears. Even Durward seemed to sense nothing.
Slowly, Haven reached over his shoulder, unsheathing the great hunting rifle. Once it was free of its leather case, Ben could finally appreciate the eerie beauty of its design.
The weapon was a masterwork. Every inch of it – from brass-inlaid wooden stock to gaping steel muzzle – gleamed even in the dim light of the corridor. A network of tubes snaked from several cylinders slung under the barrel into the main firing chamber. Free of its enclosure, the rifle began to hiss like a kettle about to boil.
"Did you not see the tracks?" said Captain Haven, staring through the massive doorway. "Can you not hear its heartbeat? The thump-thump-thump of those monstrous pistons – the raspy breath in its steel throat – the click of golden claws on the ground. Yes, it's here."
Perhaps the heartbeat Haven sensed was Ben's – it was certainly loud enough. Aside from the pounding in his ears, though, Ben could hear nothing else.
"W-what is it, Captain?" stammered Ben.
"It killed my men," said Haven quietly. "It's killed hundreds more. But no longer."
Suddenly, the captain whirled about, aiming the great steam rifle straight at Ben's head.
"I'll have you, lion!" Haven snarled.
Ben only had time to slam his eyes shut when a clang of steel on steel echoed through the hall. A scorching gust screamed over his head. The deafening blast charged through Ben's ears like an exploding locomotive. He was flung to the floor. Despite the relentless ringing, he forced his eyelids open.
It was Durward. In the crucial instant, Ben's comrade had knocked aside Haven's rifle, laying waste to a wooden pillar instead of Ben's head. The two soldiers struggled in the twilight. A flash of steel flickered and Durward staggered back.
"No!" roared Haven, brandishing the fearsome curved knife. "The beast is mine!"
"Get to the door!" barked Durward as he lunged forward.
Ben clutched his head. He knew he had to do something, but it was hard to concentrate. Someone had mentioned a door – perhaps that could be–
The thought sliced through the fog of Ben's mind: a door – doors can be closed!
He clambered to his feet and reeled through the doorway. Sure enough, there was another camouflaged panel on the opposite side. Ben ripped the hatch aside and tore at the clockwork inside.
"Durward!" he shouted. "Durward, come on!"
Ben lurched back to the opening, beyond which the battle raged. Haven lashed viciously with his knife, compensating for the cumbersome weight of his steam gun with pure unfettered fury. Durward parried slashes with his own rifle, but was too close to manage a shot.
The clockwork lock reached its critical frequency and the great steel doors slowly rumbled to life. The path through the doorway began to wane.
The combatants fought on, but now Haven faced away from Ben. Without thinking, the clocksmith ripped open his satchel, seized the first object his hand could find, and hurled it through the air.
The spare pocket-watch bounced harmlessly off Haven's shoulder, but the split-second flutter in his concentration was all it took for a rifle butt to crack into his jaw. Knife and steam-rifle clattered across the floor as Haven collapsed.
"Durward!" Ben cried.
Captain Durward sprang through the door as a gunshot rang out.
"Stop, lion!" bellowed Haven between revolver blasts. As the massive gates clanged shut, a final raging howl slipped through, fading quickly to an echo.
And finally, they were two once again.
Ben helped Durward wrap his knife-wounds. On one side of them loomed the great clockwork doors; on the other, the marble staircase. By some miracle or other, they had made it half-way through the manor.