A door hinged open in the golden face of the clock. Saffiah stood in front of it, not breathing, waiting for an answer. The flame of her torch sputtered in the cold air.
The miraculous timepiece whirred and ticked and whirred again. She shouldn’t have asked her question, but the temptation had been just too great. This device alone would know. Other clocks knew only now. This knew the time of all events. The birth of heroes. The death of queens. She’d been told all the tales about it as a girl, of course: her father’s face lit by the flickering glow of the fire on winter nights as he described the wars fought over The Magister’s Clock. The lies, the betrayals, the deaths.
And here it was, ticking patiently away before her. She had found it. So many had tried and failed. She herself had nearly been killed more times than she cared to remember on her quest. Comrades and enemies had died. She’d lost count of how many had come seeking the clock, never to be seen again. On this day alone she had battled through ranks of sword-wielding horrors, leapt for her life again and again as traps triggered and spikes flew at her head.
Now, finally, the clock was hers. She could enfold it in the cloth-of-night she carried with her, take it home, and sell it to the highest bidder for enough money to buy whole kingdoms.
But then she asked her question.
She could have asked it anything. She could have asked it nothing. Instead, exulting in her triumph, she called out to it in a clear voice:
“So, tell me the time of my own death, clock.”
Something flashed inside the workings. No clockwork cuckoo here. A waxwork face wound forward, the countenance of the Magister himself. The sorcerer who had built the clock and, it was said, imbued it with his own spirit. The sneering face was painted in hard, black lines. Somehow the lines moved, scowling a cruel scowl. Saffiah backed away a step despite herself.
The face spoke. “Nearly an hour ago now, Human.”
Saffiah didn’t move. She shook her head, disbelieving. After everything, despite all the tales, despite all the sacrifices, the machine was useless. Broken. She wouldn’t be able to name her price for a clock that just told the wrong time.
She was about to scream in rage when movement in the air around her caught her attention. A breath of cold air chilled the back of her neck. She soon saw where it was coming from. The chamber behind her was thronged with ghosts. She’d thought she was alone but there were thousands of them. How come she hadn’t seen them before? Among them were some she recognized. Comrades and enemies both.
She could feel the cloud of regret and anger coming from them. An icy chill of understanding trickled through her. They were all caught here, trapped until the day someone took the clock and defeated the Magister.
And they’d hoped she was the one. And now…
Saffiah turned back to the clock. She swung her fist to strike the sneering face of the Magister. Her hand passed right through. Her ghostly, translucent hand. She studied her palm: fascinated, appalled. The lines of the clock were clearly visible through her. Her flesh faded as she watched: into gossamer lines, into mist, into nothing at all.
She let out a howl of rage but it became only a low moan.
“Told you,” said the clock. The face grinned evilly as it wound back inside and the little door snapped shut.
© 2015 by Simon Kewin
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