“Permanence is the illusion of metal and wood. It is the eleventh hour that must pass for all turns.”
- The Mad Tinker
The creature that spoke was a monster among monsters. The monster had called to him. Expected him.
Steam gushed at his sides. He knew his life was short, yet he went to the sea. He knew the sea was dangerous, yet he sought trouble anyway. He figured this was the last trial of the strange chamber. The hardest to. He swallowed hard. His feet shuffled.
Tiguak Trimbly faced the creature behind him. He saw little of it past the blue flicker of his hands. But he saw enough.
Black, endless pupils fixed on the boy, and golden irises ringed the pupils. Four of them. Two large, the closest to him and two smaller further back. A massive draft bombarded them and Tig whirled away momentarily. He froze the moment he returned to that sight. The head had swung incredibly close. The eyes lay seconds in front of him. Tig’s head raised and did not stop rising.
One eye was as large as a three story house. The head swung back forcing Tig to cover his face as the wind swayed with its movement.
The creature puffed, the stench of sulfur made Tig cough.
When it spoke the chamber trembled, “If time is slowed, it must accelerate. You know little for approaching me.”
Tig stumbled back.
The head vanished into darkness and appeared again, several minutes above. He saw the outline of craggy jaw well in the distance.
“Little fleshy thing, do you know what I am?”
Tig tried to speak but the words did not come out. Drop after drop, sweat trickled of his face. How could he?
The far off eyes squinted, “You cannot see me. Neither can your companion.”
The head swayed and something massive approached. Tig shivered. His feet would not move. He saw the tip of what came and could only gawk as a pointed edge hurtled towards him.
Perhaps instinctively, the boy raised his arms to defend himself. Tig slammed his eyes shut.
Silence. The wind settled.
“Lower your hand. Lower it!” echoed the creature.
Eyes still shut, Tig held out his palm.
“Turn it around, fleshy thing.”
Tig gulped. His wrist clicked until the back of the hand faced the ceiling.
A gentle tap warmed the center of it. He peaked at his own limb and gasped. His breath was stolen for the second time that day.
Tendrils of blue light seeped from his hand. The tendrils snaked in every direction as if they were roots or a snapshot of lightning.
More and more facets of light split off from the main branches and spread haphazardly. A luminescent nervous system lit the impossibly large chamber and stilled.
Tig shut his iron jaw and peaked at where the light came.
“Impossible.” He hushed as words finally returned to him.
It had all come from his hand.
“Light bending.” Murmured the colossal voice. “A mere triviality when one wields time itself.”
Winds swished and Tig followed the tip that had touched his hand. In the newfound light, he realised what it was. A black claw, yet one the size of a caravel.
The claw lifted up and the head came into view. He could see it now for it was. For all it was.
The thousand flights of stairs before made terrible sense. This creature was the size of a city. Had he sat on Verace he would have flattened it.
He saw its teeth first. The reptilian snout second. Rows of two story daggers flashed in brass just under its crumbling lips. Two mandibles snaked from the back sides of his jaw and ended in curved saffron fangs. A patchwork of craggy black stone plates made its skin. Yellow liquid oozed in between.
Tig trailed back to its eyes. Layers upon layers of jagged obsidian clung above and below, forming eyelids. Scaly brows formed an ebony crest.
There was more of course, but Tig could not look away from its golden eyes.
“W-What then,” stuttered Tig, “what are you?”
The creature rumbled. The chamber shook.
“I am the end of your beginning. You are meek. Untested.” The eyes rolled to a little ways past Tig. “But because you travel with him, you are different. You walk one path among twelve and still you know nothing of it.”
Gemjo stepped passed him. A weak smile crept up his face. She seemed to have regained much of her composure. He saw her steels hands shaking. Though not all of it.
“The Professor?” she said. “That drunk?”
The creatures had a long neck with obsidian spikes jutting from it. Anything below that was covered in the dust it kicked up just by moving. But he could gears turn whenever it shifted its claws.
The creature swayed to their left. Bits of blue from the lighting reflected off the creature’s scales.
“You underestimate him? Then truly you know little. Your ignorance abounds. Perhaps,” it mused, “I shall kill you.”
“Wait.” Pleaded Tig. “Please, I can’t die here. I have something I must do. Gemjo to.”
Gemjo nodded fervently.
The creature paused and turned to them. Steam rushed out its nostrils.
Gemjo stood in front of him, her hands were still shaking, “Tell us then. If we know so little, teach us.”
“You want to learn, little fleshy things?”
“We do.” Said the seawolf.
Its eyes lumbered to the Professor and stayed there, “You seek the Mad Tinker. Then learn that you have wandered here far too early.”
Tig swallowed hard. His throat clicked, “What--”
“You’ve blundered by coming here, fleshy things, so blunder less. Of mind and metal you have neither, not yet. Seek the clock that neither ticks nor tocks, find the hour that lacks all but five minutes. And then and only then, may you enter the sand with a sea within it. But not now. Not…yet…”
The head faded into the dust and the lights began to fade, one branch at a time.
Tig took a step. He had to ask.
“Who are you?”
The chamber shook abruptly as several deep hums played in the distance.
“The Gatekeeper.” It echoed.
Then silence. He took quick, shivering breaths. He felt as if he were a sardine before a whale. A spark in the flame. Nothing got that big. Nothing. He would have thought it was a dream had not been for the stench of sulfur keeping him awake.
The last of the lights flickered out until only Tig’s hand lit their faces. He saw Gemjo’s ears twitch. Her expression grim.
“Hold on to me Tig.”
Tig shook, “What?”
“Trust me on this. It’s coming.”
Tig swung about. He heard nothing, “What’s coming?”
Then he saw it. An empty bottle on the black marble floor shook. The sound came second. It was a distant rumbling at first. It became a coursing static and, finally, rushing water. He turned.
It was close. Seconds away. Tig latched onto Gemjo’s shoulder and she shifted.
He noticed the Professor still happily asleep on the floor.
“What of the professor?” he shouted, the waves deafening.
“Forget him!” she cried in her orca form
Black water engulfed them. They shot forwards, propelled by the current. Tig’s light did little to brighten the path. More water pressed at his back, while Gemjo deftly evaded crags that swung at them.
Tig coughed, water trickled in. He waved his head. It tasted salty. The muted roar of waves got higher as the two entered a slender pass.
The current guided them. The duo swished through snaking caverns. The weight of the sea hammered against them. Even as their movements proved too quick to track, the way the ever narrowing channels seemed to slant suggested they were going up.
The water slowed. Bits of rays spilled past. Tig felt his breath fading. Palpitations deafened all else.
His lids batted. More light came in. The world became defined. Schools of fish swished by, lights scattered among the distance surface. They were under the sea. Ever rising, ever…
His grip loosened. A distancing Gemjo became the last he saw as the world faded black once again.
A hand gripped him and he snapped awake. The hand was bronze. A dirty jacket fluttered by it. Grimy black boots paddled nearby.
They split the surface moment later, gasping and huffing. In his dizziness, Tig scarcely spotted the island swaying in his sights.
It wasn’t far, perhaps a few minutes at best.
“You almost scared me, mate.”
He saw the Professor there, bobbing beside him.
Tig coughed up water.
The Professor continued, “Never been waked underwater before. Quite an ordeal, really.” He scrunched his nose, his blue hat tipping back as he scanned the island. “Now how did we get here? I swear we were walking down some steps, before I, um, decided to rest you might say.”
“A long story.” croaked Tig meekly.
The Professor raised a brow, “I’m all for long stories, but it seem our ride is back.”
Gemjo. Tig smiled.
They finished the swim in seconds upon Gemjo’s back. Tig took two step and stumbled to the shore. He panted loudly. Wet sand clung to his coat. Gemjo fell besides him. She saw her turn to him in his peripheral.
“What was that?” she asked.
Tig swallowed, “He called himself the Gatekeeper. But aside from that, I don’t know. Wilma never spoke of such a creature. No one did.”
The Professor crouched nearby. He had picked up an empty bottle and had been eying its contents.
He frowned and tossed it aside, “Gatekeeper you say?”
The half turns glanced at him. Tig sat up.
“He knew you.” Said the chitik slowly. “Yes I remember that. He knew you.”
The Professor smiled, “Long story, mate. A really long story.”
Gemjo leapt up abruptly. Her brows were narrowed. Before Tig could ask, pistols clicked around them.
Tig blinked. He wondered why he had not noticed earlier.
Several yellows hats wavered about them.
“Merchants?’ asked Tig.
They were all full turns, a collection of men and women made of steel and silver mechanisms.
A burly man stood out in front of the crowd. He had a violet mantle over top his yellow robes. He had gold for skin and diamonds for eyes. A flaxen mustache curled over his little lips, and his blonde hair remained tied neatly behind his head.
“Are these them, Nister Cantinio?” he asked in a baritone.
Franco appeared beside the man and nodded, “Yes, Mr. Lawfield.”
Tig leapt to his feet, “Franc--”
“Lock them up.” ordered the golden man.
Franco had been rubbing his hands together. He swatted his eyes from the angry looks he got from Tig and Gemjo.
“Hello friends.” He started nervously. “So I have bad news, good news, troubling news and hopeful news.”
“Out with it.” Sighed Gemjo as a woman clicked the manacles on her wrist.
Franco pointed behind him. A charred raft sat beside the jagged that had destroyed their first vessel. Little more than iron frames of the sloop remained of the mess. Another ship moored well off on the waves. Tig recognized it from the many he saw in Verace. It was a trade galleon, one made small in the distance.
“Right so where to begin?”
“How about when you betrayed us?” snapped Gemjo.
Franco lowered his eyes, “That was necessary. Though I had not imagine I’d be doing it so soon. You see, I intended to make raft, and I did, but it went up in flames. The smoke from the flames directed Mr. Lawfield here as he had just been passing by. But he happen to be a slave merchant. Terrible news for you but splendid for me. He offered me free passage and sizable reward should I offer you three to him.”
“And you accepted it, mate?” said the Professor.
“Yes. I had to.”
“No you didn’t!” roared Tig.
Franco shut his eyes and spun away. He stopped just before passing Lawfield, and touched the man on the shoulder, “Two of them are half turns. Be sure to feed and bathe them well.”
“I assure you, Nr. Cantinio, we handle our property with utmost care.”
“Thank you.” Said Franco as his hand fell. Tig kept on the man’s bare back. His crunching steps became distant.
Gemjo’s struggle made him look back.
“Where are you taking us?” demanded the seawolf.
Lawfield had a slow and rumbling laugh, “Why to the best slave market in the twelve seas, my girl, the Hungering City.”