Hello and welcome to my latest monstrosity, Black Wire Engine! This is loosely based off of the poem of the same name, viewable somewhere in my profile. I consider this to be my masterpiece, and I would be thrilled if you would so kind as to read it.
The girl was slender, pale, and weak. Her arms and legs were covered with cuts and bruises, and her sandy hair hung lifelessly down the back of her tattered dress. She wouldn't last another half-day out here, especially not when the sun was about to fall. Anything she had encountered so far would be less than nothing next to some of the things that liked to come out when the sun wasn't around to burn their wretched hides.
The thing that lurked in the darkest shadow of the craggiest rock in the Twisted knew this, and thought that the girl probably knew it as well. Yet still she stumbled on, not stopping for a moment even though the thing could see the blood that darkened her footsteps. Whatever she's fleeing must be bad, it thought. She must be very desperate to get away if she dared brave the Twisted.
But weren't they all desperate?, it mused. It was no secret that the Twisted held nothing but death; even the landscape was so dangerous that the mere sight of it had earned it its name. Yet still they came: the weak, the forsaken, the broken, the chased. All hoping that beyond the jagged spires of the Twisted's rocks there was another land, one more kind to those who sought refuge.
This, the thing knew, was stupid. Perhaps there actually was something beyond the wasteland, far beyond any map that had ever been made, but if so it was too far to be of any use. There was nothing in the Twisted but death.
But still, in defiance of all logic, there was the girl. She was weakening now, sinking to her wounded knees in despair. The sun had nearly set, its topmost edge just barely clinging above the horizon like the hand of a drowning man. Already there were rocks being moved, dust clouds being stirred, motions being made by the creatures that could smell the scent of fresh prey.
Can't have that, can we, the thing thought, as it spread its wings just before the sun vanished and the world went dark. Unbothered by the fading light it flapped and glided into the night air, stopping to circle above the girl. She had given up, lying on the ground waiting for something to eat her and staining the ground with her tears. She was utterly pathetic, and had the thing been in possession of a heart it would have felt pity.
Isn't that ironic, the thing mused as it spilled air from its wings and began changing shape even before it touched ground. The girl's life was about to saved precisely because it didn't have a heart- it needed one.
Wings turned to arms and claws turned to hands as the thing adopted a shape that the girl would find more comfortable. It knew better than to appear as a full human; no sane person would believe that another human was still alive out here, much less that they could offer shelter. No, the shape the thing took was one of legend: a jackal-man, called a huyin by those who knew the stories. Its body was human, but its hands were more like paws and it had the head, mane, and tail of a jackal.
The thing paused to recheck its disguise before attempting to contact the girl. It- he, really; the thing switched genders as easily as it did shapes- was not inexperienced when it came to Collecting. He took care to appear as a friendly-but-not-unrealistic figure, clothed in skins that looked like they had seen better days and of definite male gender. Desperate people were surprisingly picky about who they trusted, and he needed this girl to come willingly. The Engine would not force its fuel.
"Hey," he said, keeping his voice soothing and tinged with just enough of a jackal's bark to be realistic. "You need help?"
Evidently the girl was not as comatose as she seemed, because she wheeled around angrily in the dirt, holding a knife that the thing was surprised not to have noticed.
"Don't touch me!" she screamed, her hair flying about and her eyes wild with desperation. She pointed the dagger at him and hissed, "I've got a knife! If you try to eat me I'll stab your eyes out!"
"Eat you?" he said, sounding just amused enough to be disarming but not enough to be condescending. "My dear, you haven't enough meat on you to satisfy a creature of my size. Even if I did kill you, the blood would only attract something bigger that would steal you from me anyway." Yes, he thought, seeing her expression change from anger to skepticism. That's the way.
"Then why are you offering to help me?" the girl said, getting up but not taking away the knife for even a second.
"Because you're bleeding all over the place, and we happen to be very close to my lair. When something kills you it won't leave your carcass for days- and that's too long for me to wait in my hidey-hole for it to leave," he said baldy. Honesty was the best policy, after all- except that only about half of what he had said was actually true. Ah well. "If you come with me, I can get you cleaned up and out of my fur before dawn, and neither of us will have to deal with the night spawn."
She eyed him for a moment, then asked a few more of the usual questions. Who are you? Nissthus, a huyin. No, I don't expect you to be able to pronounce that. Are you taking me in just to eat me later? No, we've been over this. You're too skinny to be worth the trouble and I don't have the resources to fatten you up. Humans taste funky anyway. When will you let me go? When the sun rises, or when I feel that it's safe.
And so on. But by the time he had answered the last question, the girl was ripe for the picking. She accepted his invitation, and managed the short walk to the cave that had been used in such ruses for years and years. It was small and musty with the smell of coyote, but it was warm and hidden from the hungry eyes of the night spawn. She fell asleep as soon as she hit the ground, and the thing hunkered down to wait.
He didn't sleep that night. He never did. Instead he carefully wove gossamer spell-threads over the sleeping human, slowly bending her will and probing her mind. She was not nearly as tough as she had acted, he found. She didn't even know how to use the dagger she carried. It had been stolen from whoever she had fled from; that little bit of information set off some memories that he quickly skipped over. Heartless he may be, but sadistic he was not.
When she woke in the morning, the girl found that the night of sleep among the huyin's collection of furs had weakened her resolve quite a bit. She discovered that she wasn't willing to head back into the wilds of the Twisted at all. So it came as no surprise to the thing when she hesitantly asked if she could stay with him, and after a bit of hemming and hawing he suggested an alternative.
"Girl," he said, "I have a confession to make. I am not a true huyin. But," and he held up a hand to head off the objection he knew was coming, "that does not mean I was lying to you. In fact, everything I have told you is true except for my identity. I meant you no harm."
Objections, complaints, the like. Nothing that hadn't happened every single time he'd done this trick. What are going to do to me/ what happens now? I won't do anything to you that you don't agree to. Like I said, I meant you no harm. I desperately need your help.
That last bit always caught their attention, even the men on the rare occasions they were chosen. Every human, it seemed, had a part of them that had always wanted to play the hero.
So he followed the script, taking her hands in his and looking deep in her eyes, knowing that she would see only pleading in them. "My people are dying. We live in the farthest reaches of the Twisted, beyond where any human has reached unaided, and we are slowly falling prey to its darkness." He went on a little spiel, explaining the prevalent theory among his people that they had once been humans, but became so consumed by magic that they were chased by the rest of humanity into the Twisted. "We learned to survive off the dark powers that created the wasteland, purifying them through an enormous engine built by our forerunners- the Black Wire Engine." He said the last with breathless awe, to impress on the girl its importance.
He was reaching the climax of the charade, the part where it became vital beyond words to convince one's target to come to the Engine. If he fumbled now, the girl would be lost and he would have to throw her back into the wild and find a replacement, which could take months. The Engine didn't have months.
But he was a professional. He'd convinced far tougher targets than a half-starved wild child. So it was with confidence that he continued, making his eyes even sadder and drawing his spells tight, "The Engine needs a heart to power it- a pure, unsullied heart that can purify the evil of the Twisted's power. Without it, all we know will perish, and the now-unchecked darkness will overtake the humans as well."
Oh, that got her. The girl's eyes widened in amazement- and fear. "You want to tear my heart out?" she squeaked.
He put a shocked hand to his chest, as he had so many times before. "Heavens, no, child!" he said as if the though had never crossed his mind. "The Engine needs a living heart to function. That can't happen if there's no body to support it. When I said we needed your heart, I meant that we needed all of you."
She still looked unwilling, so he said, "There's no danger at all involved. You will be treasured as all our Coals have- that's what we call the people who power the Engine, see. You will be protected by every able body in the city, and you need never fear for your life again."
He didn't add that the Engine processed too much of the Twisted's power for her to remain pure for more than a decade or so, after which she was useless. But finally she nodded assent, and he drew her in towards him in what appeared to be a passionate embrace.
"Hold tight," he whispered. And then they were gone.
He didn't know how they ended up back at the city; he never did. That was the way of the Engine's magic: mysterious and unknowable. No one really knew how it worked except the person who had built the Engine, and she was long since gone. But it had never failed those who called on it, and the thing found himself safely at the city's edge with the girl in his arms.
He let go as soon as they landed, giving the girl a clear view of the city's dark radiance. She gasped, taking a few steps back and finally sinking to her knees, her shoulders shaking in awe and breath coming in gasps.
Her reaction came as no surprise to the thing. He had seen the wonder that was the City of Wires too many times to count; he had been born in it. It was so huge that it had become the horizon, stretching back and out farther than the human eye could see. Enormous needle-thin spires rose up against the shattered sky like twisted mountains, the clouds that mottled the night swallowing their highest tips. Other towers, thicker and jagged like broken glass, blotted out the sky with their width, looming above like the gods themselves. Thousands of tiny golden windows speckled the constructs like faint stars.
But the true glory of the city lay in the wires that were its namesake. They wove in and out among the towers, some thick as horses and serving as airborne bridges, others thinner than a handbreadth and winding like ribbons through and around the spines of the city. All hovered in midair unsupported, still and stiff, until they finally led to the enormous gyroscope that lay in the sky above even the needle-towers.
The girl shook, her eyes so wide that the thing could see white around her irises. "What- what is that?" she choked out, pointing a trembling finger at the slowly rotating ball of thick black cables.
"That," said the thing, genderless once more as it took its preferred shape of a winged shadow-snake, "is the Black Wire Engine."
It was gargantuan beyond words, blotting out even the sun when one of its loops swung over it and taking up most of the sky. It could have held the entire city, huge as it was, in its sphere. Its center was invisible, covered by the many loops and circles that swung rhythmically over and over in a titanic clockwork. But the most striking part of it was the noise.
It was near-deafening, shaking the very air with its vibrations. The ground purred along with it, the wires of the city pulsed and twisted to the beat of the Engine's turns. It was the heartbeat of the City of Wires, of the Black Wire Engine itself; it was the breath of life among the darkness of the Twisted, and it was power. Its presence captured everything it touched, binding them to the will of the Engine and channeling them into the city. Even as the thing and the girl watched, its massive turns boomed and pulsed above the city like an alien planet, greater than the sun and more beautiful than the sky itself.
The sight had stunned the girl into silence, as it did to everyone and everything not native to the city. Gently the shadow-snake nosed her elbow so that she stood up at last, swaying in time to the Engine's booming. "That is the Engine," it hissed again, "and it is dying. See how low it is? Its lowest loop has nearly hit a tower more than once. It is dying." Repetition was necessary, for both effect and to make sure the girl understood him. Strangely, the booming of the Engine did not interfere with his words, or anyone else's. That was its power and it mystery.
The shadow-snake that was the thing wrapped the girl in its wings, and once more they vanished like smoke into the night.
They reappeared in a haze of darkness that was quickly blown away by the currents of the Engine. They stood in a small dark room whose floor and walls were made of constantly shifting black metal plates, so that the girl had to keep moving in order to stay upright. The winding metal moved straight through the shadow-snake, leaving tiny rifts that quickly filled with darkness again.
The boom of the Engine was strangely muted here; the girl could only hear a soft rushing, but one that still pulsed through her like an alien heartbeat. She looked around, stumbling over the moving floor and with confusion twisting her face. "Where are we?" she asked.
The snake bowed, sweeping a wing in front of it that passed through the girl without a sound. "My lady, we are in the core of the Engine itself. Are you prepared?" Respect marked its voice, and not a little reverence.
Despite herself and her situation, the girl blushed a little. No one had ever called her 'lady' before, let alone someone of such obvious power as the shadow-snake. She didn't know what the thing meant by 'prepared', but she figured that she was about as ready as she was ever going to be. "Yes," she whispered.
Never taking its glowing blue eyes off her for a second, the shadow-snake slowly raised a wing and brushed the ceiling.
At once the plates began to part like a huge, dark flower; the metal loops spreading apart over and over again as the Engine began to open and rise. Somewhere in the distance she could hear the squeal of grinding metal, but the clockwork above her ran smoothly. Layers upon layers of the Engine's swinging hoops fell apart, the uppermost ones thick as a river or more. The atmosphere began to lighten as the hoops loosened, until finally the unfolding was complete.
The girl and the shadow-snake stood on a platform in the dead center of the Engine, hundreds of feet in the air. The gyroscope's hoops lay open and still, like a vast dark lotus with the black petals frozen in time. They hovered above the city, and she could see it laid out beneath them like a jagged spider sprawled across the dull sands of the Twisted, towers poking up like spines.
The sheer enormity of the Engine stunned the girl into absolute silence. It was as if she was standing on the surface of a dark planet, hung motionless above all. She felt as powerful as a queen- no, a goddess Even the all-encompassing boom of the Engine's turns had stopped for her.
A single breath of wind stirred her hair, bringing her back to reality. She turned to the shadow-snake and said in a voice barely above a whisper, "What is happening?"
The snake, just as mesmerized as the girl had been, blinked its bright blue eyes slowly and said, "The Engine has stopped for you, my lady. You have been accepted. You are the next Coal." It bowed again, sweeping the surface of the platform with its ethereal wing.
"Oh," she said faintly, still in shock. "What happens now?"
"This," the shadow-snake said. And suddenly the hoops slammed upward with a speed that nothing of such size should ever be able to attain, reforming the gyroscope with a deafening scream of rusted metal. The booming started again, but faster and more powerful than before, powered by the girl's presence. The air around them darkened to almost black before either had time to blink.
But the transformation was not yet complete. The hoops around the platform where the girl and the shadow-snake stood, smaller than those that had lain open a moment ago but of considerable size nonetheless, began to move at a more gentle pace, unfolding once more. Slowly, the platform that had been encompassed in a small, dark room found itself in an atrium as the hoops of the Black Wire Engine actually began to stretch. Enormous as it had been before, the Engine near-tripled in size as wires thinned and metal rings narrowed, creating a fragile-looking cage of thin black hoops.
The effect on the landscape beneath was immediate and amazing. The towers of the city seemed to exhale as if an enormous tension had been released from them, lightening to the color of newly brushed steel and growing even higher. The spines on the lower buildings smoothed into decorative spires, and the wires that flowed through them grew airy and ethereal. Even the edges of the city that merged with the wasteland paled and brightened, pushing back the corruption of the sinister landscape. In less than two minutes, the entire City of Wires was freed from the dark influence of the Twisted and was restored to its once-lost glory.
Above it all, unable to see the change but somehow aware of everything that had occurred, the girl found herself leaving the floor of the wire atrium, rising until she came to a stop in the center of the Engine. As she hovered there, her dress rippled and turned to pure white silk and her hair detangled, flowing out behind her in a luminescent mane. She who had once been a scruffy travel-worn girl became beautiful in the soft silver glow of the newly-restored Black Wire Engine- just one of the many gifts the great gyroscope bestowed upon those who gave it its power.
The shadow-snake, changed by the Engine's empowering into a silvery amphitere, flapped its feathered wings and flew up to the level of the girl. Circling about her in the currents provided by the Engine's turns, it- once more a he, actually, now that the Engine's power allowed the creature to maintain a true body- called out to her in a voice turned deep and soothing by the transformation, "My lady! Do you require anything more?"
"No," she said, "No, I'm fine. I- I can feel the city, Nissthus! I can feel everything beneath me thinking and breathing and moving! It's amazing!" Her face grew even brighter as the Engine's power redoubled, drawing on her emotion.
The amphitere, whose name wasn't actually Nissthus but had once answered to something similar, called back, "I must warn you, lady, this will not- cannot- last forever."
The girl's smile disappeared, only to be replaced by an expression of content serenity a moment later. The Engine's Creatrix had passed on her benevolence to the machine; it was sentient in a very abstract way and it did not like to exploit its Coal in ignorance. Even now it was gently brushing the girl's mind and showing her the terms of her newfound purpose. "I know," she said acceptingly. Then a slight frown darkened her radiant face and she asked, "But what happens when I can no longer serve as the Coal? Will I die?"
The amphitere knew from experience that the Engine could not answer specific questions such as these; it was too massive. Its quasi-mind could only deal with matters on the same abstract and enormous scale that it itself was. All the Engine would be able to give the girl on this matter was a vague feeling of closing.
He flew in closer and brushed the girl's cheek with a pinion affectionately. "No, lady," he said. "Used Coal simply turns into an inhabitant of the city. But do not trouble yourself; you have at least ten years to go before that day. The change is easy and it comes fast."
She smiled teasingly and said, "How do you know?"
He grinned back lazily and began to descend back down to the platform, changing as he went so that his wings turned back to hands and his pale feathers melted into skin. By the time he landed he had become a dark-haired boy of about nineteen, wearing clothes that didn't look much better than the ones the girl had arrived in. He spread his arms and called up, "I was the Coal fifteen hundred years ago, love. Trust me, the change is not so hard."
He bowed once more and vanished, leaving the girl alone inside the Black Wire Engine.
So there it is. As I mentioned before, I do consider this to be my best short story so far, and I'd be thrilled if you'd review it.
So long and thanks for reading,