by Derrick Boden
At the heart of every magical town lies a curse. The curse is the driveshaft, the motor, the preternatural fuel. Without the curse, there can be no magic. It’s a simple cost-benefit. Magic isn’t rocket science.
Take the town of Gurt: a bona fide magical town, with its spontaneous treasures birthed from the rusted exhausts of the smog-belching castle. Its rototillers, its diesel-powered grape stompers, its oil-farting laundry presses. Its puzzle boxes and music boxes and coin-operated fortunetelling boxes. Its automatons patrolling the fortifications, only mildly disturbing with their saw-toothed jaws and gaslight optics.
Magic. Case closed.
And with magic this remarkable, who could blame the good people of Gurt Town for turning a blind eye to its cost? Even if, say, that cost was measured in daughters. In a magical town, a little discomfort was to be expected.
Consequently, it was not surprising for Mica, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, to begin bleeding oil from her left nostril. Such things happened to young women with a clockwork regularity, although by the contemptuous whispers of her classmates one might assume otherwise. Being unnaturally preoccupied with engineering and thereby dreadfully unpopular in school, Mica hardly noticed the uptick of negative attention. At least the oil matched her nail polish.
Mica’s pretense of indifference, however, did not survive the first sneeze.
Her sneeze triggered the sudden and violent deconstruction of the classroom’s mechanical clock into a snot-spray of gears and springs. A second sneeze precipitated the explosive disassembly of the miniature waterwheel that had, not three weeks prior, won grand prize at Gurt Town’s annual pseudo-science faire. The transgression culminated when the final sneeze dismantled the three brass microscopes by which the school had so cleverly christened itself, The Academy of the Three Brass Microscopes.
The classroom fell achingly silent.
Mica chewed her lip. Every daughter in Gurt dealt with their own manifestation of the curse, sooner or later; nearly half of them even survived the ordeal. But by the looks of horror on her classmates’ faces, Mica knew from the get-go that this particular affliction was very fucking bad.
In the span of three sneezes, she’d become a threat to the town’s magic.
Mica wiped her nose. Pulled her knees together. Tried to look very small. It would be nice to have a friend, she thought, at a time like this.
Instead it was Brielle Buttercup – valedictorian, reigning beauty queen, perennial trendsetter – that spoke for the whole class when she muttered, loud enough for everyone to hear without betraying the polite illusion of soliloquy, “Nast.”
Then Brielle noticed the waterwheel – her own contribution to the Faire, despite admitting she’d pulled it straight from the castle’s exhausts – and cried out with a guttural intensity that every pubescent boy in the room would dwell on for many a lonely night.
Mica reddened, excused herself, and retreated. She knew she had to cure her affliction – and soon – but her resolve paled against the urge to hide her shame.
She fled for home.
“Goddamned piece-of-shit puzzle!” Mother’s shouts drifted from the bedroom. She’d been playing the same game – a gyroscopic marble maze – for the better part of a year. It was top-shelf magic, everyone agreed, though as far as Mica could tell it had failed to induce anything but callused thumbs and frustration. The puzzle never left Mother’s hands.
Out back, Father worked the shop. Their family was the only smith-farrier in town, and they never missed a chance to mention how busy all the forging and horse-shoeing had kept them – before the magic. It could’ve been the town’s slogan, Mica thought: “How did we ever survive, before?”
In place of workbench and anvil stood a miracle of machinery: pistons pumping, grease-trap hissing, hammer hammering. A horse hung from chains some twenty inches above ground. Father scrambled between the crankshaft and the console, brow knotted with anxiety as if he hadn’t a clue how the machine worked – which, Mica admitted, was true. The axes aligned beneath the horse’s foot; Father slammed a button to engage the shoe.
Mica stifled a sigh. He always forgot to engage the flywheel.
Magical machines were a difficult business. Sometimes, Father would explain, they just weren’t magical enough – a fact that coincided with the recent decrease in Gurt’s equine population. Even with Mica’s surreptitious midnight repairs, Father spent more time tending the machine than he once had shoeing by hand. Mica had calculated this, earning Mother’s weary assurance that she’d understand when she was older. Yes, the cost of magic was high, but the intangible benefits were infinitely greater.
Now. About that cost.
Father spotted Mica’s oily lip. His forehead creased. “So it’s happened.”
Mica reminded herself, blinking to stave off the tears, that she now bore the responsibility of the whole town. That without the curse, there would be no magic. That at least the mortality rate for girls hadn’t increased.
None of this helped.
Father wiped her nose affectionately, frowned at the black smudge on his hand, shrugged, and rubbed it on the crankshaft.
Too late. Pistons popped. Cogs skittered; chains sagged. The horse staggered to the ground, bewildered.
“This is bad.” Father’s words wrenched Mica’s insides. Mother had sold the old shop gear to a traveling merchant years ago – losing the auto-farrier threatened their livelihood. And it was all Mica’s fault.
Father’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell your mother.”
“Too late.” Mother’s lips quivered like boiled sausage; her hands clutched the puzzle behind her back. “Stay away from my game.”
Mica felt trampled. Father reached for her hand, but she withdrew–straightened her back with sudden resolve. “I’ll fix it.”
Mother eyed her like she would a feral child. “Broken magic belongs in the junkyard. There’s only one thing we can do, now.”
Mica shivered. By we, she meant Mica. This was the nature of the curse. Whatever it was that fueled the magic’s thirst, Gurt Town’s daughters would forever bear the burden of slaking it. Whether she’d sprouted strangler vines from her toes like the twins down the block, or gnawed her own fingers off like poor Yvonne, her affliction could only be cured in one place.
But Yvonne had never returned, nor had the taller of the twins – the one everyone said was prettier when they thought her sister couldn’t hear. And of those that had returned, none would divulge a single detail of their experience. Perhaps the events were simply too grisly to recount. To lift her affliction and keep the town’s magic alive, Mica had to find the castle’s throne room. But . . .then what? And more importantly-
“What if I don’t survive?”
Father’s gaze shifted with unease and, strangely, a flicker of guilt.
“Those girls aren’t dead,” he said. “They’re working at the castle.”
“We’ll find you a match.” Mother’s words were hammer to anvil. “In the meantime, stay inside. And for god’s sake, don’t touch anything.”
Mica would’ve gone alone, the hell with the risk. She had no friends – never got the hang of swearing, high-fived when she was supposed to fist-bump, the works. She favored tinkering over rugby and had zero interest in boys. But the curse demanded a pair. Mica was barely old enough to remember the only time a daughter had entered the castle alone – Genevieve, the tanner’s girl – but she wouldn’t soon forget the perfectly bisected young skeleton that washed ashore on the lakeside later that year.
So, Mica waited for her match.
Quarantined in her bedroom, the suspense was interminable. Her birthday passed in solitude. She stewed over the misfortune she’d brought her family, until at last the guilt grew unbearable. She snuck out after dusk, intent on repairing the auto-farrier. But the shop was vacant, the machinery already cleared away. She followed a trail of diesel out the back and down the avenue, but within two blocks a sneezing fit devastated local commerce: first when the wheels came off the milkman’s pedal cart, then when the chain of the mechanized sheep-shearer decoupled. The blood-curdling bleats haunted her dreams.
She did not sneak out again.
And so in the twilight hours of the third day, when her parents sent her to rendezvous with her match, she departed with some relief. Father’s brooding silence and Mother’s stony warnings and Mica’s own grisly premonitions aside, she at least controlled her own fate. She would find the throne room, fulfill her societal duty, return free of this ghastly affliction.
Her optimism died at the western well, where she met her match beneath a smog-bruised sky.
“Oh, no.” Mica backed away. “Hell shit no.”
It was Brielle fucking Buttercup. Perfect hair, perfect ass, perfect social grace. The girl whose unsolicited advice for Mica had once been to “try making a friend from all those spare parts.”
She was the absolute worst.
Except something was wrong with Little Miss Buttercup. She’d traded her prissy dress for a pair of coveralls. Where the sleeves terminated, black veins spiderwebbed her skin. Her fingertips crackled with static; her hair bristled. She stared at Mica through incandescent glass-bulb eyes.
Brielle worked the seam of her coveralls with trembling fingers. “Please don’t laugh – hey, what the hell is that on your face?”
Mica glowered through her chintzy goggles. “Keeps the sneezes inside.”
“It looks like a plague mask.”
Which, to Mica’s chagrin, it was. The potpourri-spiked beak hooked heavily toward her toes. (Don’t ruin our magic! Mother had insisted.)
Mica glowered some more. “Well, you look like a science project.”
Brielle’s flinch wasn’t as satisfying as Mica had hoped, but this was no time for pity.
Brielle swallowed. “So I was thinking-”
Mica whirled and marched toward the castle. That’s all she needed, Brielle thinking. She should’ve gone alone, consequences be damned. She didn’t stand a chance at finding the throne room with Miss Buttercup in tow.
Brielle huffed to keep pace. “Can we, uh, slow down?”
Mica sped up. Around the corner and past the apothecary’s stoop, where husband and wife hunched like statues, damp eyes turned toward the castle that had long ago claimed their daughter Alejandra – first victim of the curse. As Mica passed, the man leveled a glare that said fulfill your duty, before turning again toward the castle.
Mica shivered, hooked a sharp left straight into the nest of shadow at the center of town, where-
“There’s no road to the castle, you know.”
Brielle was getting angry. Good.
Mica pried off her mask, wiped oil from her nose. “We go through the junkyard.”
Brielle bit her lip and sparks showered. Mica caught herself thinking badass, turned away to hide her reaction. “You’ve been inside.”
“No, but-” Mica hesitated, flush with embarrassment. “I sneak into the junkyard sometimes.”
Brielle’s lip curled a little, but she bit back her response. Small victories.
The distant wail of the evening bugle prickled Mica’s nape. The junkyard was not the place to be at night.
“Come on,” Mica said. “It’s getting dark.”
The castle didn’t produce treasures. It birthed them. Oil and reek and molten steel suffused through the veins of Gurt Town – gurgling along desiccated ditches, clanging through sewage pipes, moaning beneath cobbles and carriage-ruts. It was a grisly gestation. But when the finished product – be it towing winch or water clock or auto-ratchet – breached the carapace of the earth, belched from a well or vomited from a sinkhole with a wail of torment, the townspeople shed their discomfort like undergarments at the bathhouse. Magic, after all, is messy.
Just ask any girl in town.
But the magic! the townspeople exclaimed. The infinite magic!
Alas, nothing is infinite. On a long enough timeline, everything breaks. Axles, sprockets, bones.
Thus, the junkyard.
The wrought iron gates creaked open. The girls crept inside.
Heaps of dilapidated machinery crowded the quad: rust-gnawed trawl winches, disembodied mechanical arms, twin-piston butter churns. Great tentacled monstrosities oozing fuel from cracked bladders. A lifetime of happiness delivered, expired, discarded.
Brielle’s filament eyes brightened. “Cool.”
Then she spotted Mica’s skeptical glance and giggled, with a touch of hysteria. “I mean, if you’re into junk.”
Movement snared their attention. Brielle’s eyes blazed trails through the smog, to a diesel-powered courier. Mica had seen that very courier delivering memos for the town crier not a week prior, in perfect health. Now the sad little machine protruded from a mound of waste, limbs twitching. It tried to stand, but only succeeded at kicking itself in the head.
Broken magic belongs in the junkyard. Mica checked a sudden swell of anger. It was just a misaligned timing gear. An easy fix, and the poor creature would roam freely again.
Brielle clamped onto her wrist and dragged her back, as if the courier could do the slightest bit of harm.
Mica broke free. “What the shit-”
Then she sneezed.
The courier shuddered, coughed smoke, and fell apart. Springs, flywheels, the works. A brass eyeball rolled to Mica’s shoe.
A single petroleum tear yanked loose from Mica’s eyelashes. She would’ve served the thing better by letting it go on kicking itself. Instead, her affliction had killed it. She had killed it.
The implications of Mica’s condition wrenched her gut: the castle had stolen her only passion. If she didn’t find the throne room soon, she’d never touch another machine again.
Brielle pressed her lips into a flatline of electricity. “Suit yourself.”
Mica couldn’t meet her glare. Had Brielle Buttercup been trying to help?
Mica donned her mask, gave the junk a wide berth. When a gear rattled or a limb twitched, Mica did her best to ignore it.
For her part, Brielle did the same. Mica didn’t know what to make of this.
There was only one thing more distasteful to the citizens of Gurt than the junkyard: the castle. It delivered their precious treasures, but it also embodied their curse.
Thus the lack of street access.
And the thirty-foot perimeter walls.
And the fourteen padlocks and bolts that embellished the entrance.
“What a tiny door!” Brielle giggled sparks, then grew suddenly sober. “That’s some serious security.”
Mica mumbled Mother’s explanation, “To keep the mysteries safe,” and knew it was a lie. Those locks were proof of just one thing: whatever lived inside, the townspeople didn’t want it getting out.
Brielle produced a fist of keys. Electricity arced through her delicate fingers. The hair on Mica’s arm stiffened.
Mica produced her own portion, without the fanfare. She narrowed her eyes at the intricate mechanisms within each padlock, tried to ignore the anxiety gnawing at her gut, and said: “You’d better do it.”
Brielle fumbled with the first lock. Then the next. Padlocks clattered to the ground, one after another. The final bolt slid open with a heavy finality.
A chill wind cut through the junkyard.
The door groaned open.
“You first,” they said at the same time.
Qualifying ingredients for a magic castle:
Gargoyles or other suitably vengeful guardians.
Unnecessarily high ceilings.
A throne room.
A princess, though rarely in need of rescue despite trending belief.
Dreadful working conditions.
A coldness that penetrates the flesh.
Within the outer wall, the castle looked nothing like a castle, and everything like a factory. Big, square, metal. Smokestacks belched noxious smog into the frigid night air. Cast-iron gargoyles leered. Groans and wails leaked through welded seams. The front doors, all cold steel and rivets and despair, hung open.
A brown mist crept out.
The girls crept in.
Inside, every surface moved. Steam hissed through leaky joints, oil sputtered from ceiling pipes; gears rattled, belts lurched. The doors sealed them inside with a resounding thud, and Mica knew at once that coming here had been the biggest mistake of her disastrous life.
Then she remembered the courier, its brass eyeball staring vacant into the smog-stained sky. She remembered the auto-farrier, and the devastation painted on Father’s face.
She shoved her doubt aside. She had to keep Gurt Town’s magic alive, whatever the cost.
They hustled down a hammered metal hallway barely wide enough to walk abreast. Brielle’s fingers grazed Mica’s. A spark flared, went unnoticed.
Flickering gaslight eyes spied from the walls. Passageways branched, twisted, reconnected. Massive cogs groaned; one doorway closed, another opened. Mica glanced over her shoulder and recognized nothing. The labyrinth was transforming.
They were hopelessly lost.
And worse: their condition was deteriorating. Mica’s eyes watered and her nose bled. She sneezed into her mask. The air crackled with static, its intensity ratcheting with Brielle’s every step.
Think of your town, Mica told herself. Your family.
Behind Mica, Brielle hummed softly. The nervous quaver in her voice wasn’t remotely endearing, Mica assured herself. When the humming suddenly stopped, though, the chill air bit harder at Mica’s flesh.
Brielle stood frozen. “Did you hear that?”
Mica did. The wheezing of the pipes carried a pained intonation.
Al . . . Ale . . . Alejandra . . . They exchanged a troubled look.
Mica lifted her mask and wiped oil from her lip.
“My father told me the story.” Brielle dropped her voice to a whisper. “About how this place is alive – like, really alive. How it fell in love with the apothecary’s girl.” She faltered. “And went mad with jealousy. Ripped off her arms, then her legs, then . . . that’s how the curse started.”
“I heard a different story,” Mica started to say, but just then the pipes wheezed – . . . Alejandra . . . – and her tongue locked up. She swallowed. “Let’s get this over with.”
Two turns later, a massive door. Iron ribs clung to the black wood, a spine of rivets down the center. No knob or knocker, though a knife switch the size of Mica’s forearm protruded from an adjacent console. Wires sprawled to the jamb.
Machinery groaned from the other side, so loud it could only be one thing.
The throne room.
Mica glanced from the console to her oil-stained hands.
“I’m on it.” Brielle gripped the switch and pulled down hard.
Electricity arced – a nest of snakes that slithered down the switch and plunged into the console. Wires burst through their cracked insulation, severing the connection to the door.
The door, now powerless, remained closed.
Tears welled in Brielle’s bulb-eyes. Mica found herself standing much closer, saying, “It’s okay,” and “I would’ve broken it worse” – all rather disquieting given her loathing for the cosseted valedictorian. She bit back the last of her reassurances, crossed her arms, glowered.
Brielle’s gaze sank; a tear raced down her pale cheek. “I’m sorry.”
The words stabbed inexplicably at Mica’s chest.
They pried at the door. It didn’t budge.
Banged on it with their fists. Not so much as an echo.
They kicked, shouldered, shouted, and at last leaned against the door, sweaty and panting and defeated.
They had lost.
The grease on Mica’s hand glistened, baleful reminder of their failure. Her failure. She blinked back bitter tears at the thought of returning to her family a disgrace – if she could return at all. With the curse unfulfilled, the town’s magic would end. Mundanity would return, along with the suffering it promised.
Mica couldn’t bear to look at Brielle, in fear of spotting her own misery mirrored in those glass-bulb eyes. “Hell damn,” she said. “Ass.”
Brielle pursed her lips. Static lit her tentative frown. “Fix it?”
Fix it. Of course.
Five minutes later, Brielle worked the last of the screws from the console with the flat end of a key. The makeshift screwdriver chewed at the metal head.
“Careful!” Mica cringed from a frustrating distance. Despite the risk, she inched closer. “You’re stripping it-”
“Like you could do better!”
“You’re shit right I could-”
The panel clanged to the ground. Frayed wires protruded from the bare switch. A full three feet separated the power input from the door: too far to reconnect.
Mica scoured her pockets for spare wire – anything that might bridge the gap – but came up empty handed. And with the castle doors sealed, the junkyard was inaccessible.
Mica stifled a cry of frustration.
Brielle’s fingers crackled dangerously close to the wires. She backpedaled straight into Mica, who caught her by the wrists from behind and muttered: “Genius.”
Brielle cocked an eyebrow, but Mica was already leading her back to the console. She clamped Brielle’s fingers around the red wire protruding from the door. Then she pinched the index and thumb of her other hand around the corresponding wire at the switch.
Sparks danced from both ends. Mica’s skin crawled. She tried to wrench her hands free of Brielle’s charged skin, but the electricity seized her muscles. Brielle’s body trembled against her own; her hair tickled Mica’s face. The scent of lavender and sulfur flooded her mask. It was intoxicating. The charge intensified. Mica’s vision dimmed; her knees trembled.
Then, with a sharp pop, it was over. The charge ebbed to a dull buzzing in Mica’s chest.
The door swung open to darkness.
A tenuous silence ensued, during which Mica discovered she was still gripping Brielle’s wrists, their bodies pressed together like the pages of a book. Brielle shifted slightly, but didn’t pull away. Her bulb-eyes flickered.
Mica found it suddenly hard to breathe. The silence stretched on – awkward, frightful, strangely warm. Her palms began to sweat. Brielle’s heartbeat pumped against Mica’s chest.
Mica let go, shuffled backward, stared at her feet.
And the mangled screws littering the floor.
She narrowed her gaze. “Your waterwheel.”
Too quickly, Brielle said, “I dug it from the ditch.”
“The screws were stripped.”
Brielle blanched, accenting her crude-black veins.
“The castle doesn’t strip screws,” Mica said.
Brielle bit her lip; sparks crackled. Mica wondered why the sparks were suddenly warm and not altogether unpleasant, and also in her stomach.
“My sister dug one from the ditch last year.” Brielle shifted from foot to foot. “I thought maybe I could make one from scratch but oh my god please don’t tell anyone.” Her eyes shone damp and intense. “My image is already . . . fragile.”
The sparks in Mica’s gut intensified. None of this made sense, not the least of which being the sudden and conflicting compulsions to fix her hair and vomit on the floor of the castle. Brielle stood fidgeting with hands that Mica only now noticed bore the calluses of machine work.
Just like Mica’s hands.
Mica took a hesitant step toward Brielle, not entirely sure what she would do when she got there, and even less certain it was a good idea. The filaments of Brielle’s eyes glowed brightly; her lips crackled. Mica took another step.
A thunderous boom roped their attention. A chill fog bled from the throne room. Within, gaslights flickered to life.
Pipes wheezed Enter.
The girls did as they were told.
Shadows writhed across the throne room floor. The ceiling arched unnecessarily high. Along windowless walls, rows of golems slouched: hinged jaws agape, furnaces smoldering within grill-plated guts. Mirror-eyes watching.
At the center of the room: an altar. Stout, articulated legs with gears that ground a tooth-locked arrhythmia. On the floor, a wicked knife.
Mica swallowed. “H – hello?”
The altar hinged open, vomited a mass of tubes that slithered toward the girls.
The girls retreated, drew short as a golem blocked the entrance. The tubes lashed Brielle’s arms, legs, neck, dragged her screaming to the altar.
Mica clawed at the tentacles. One struck her across the face, sent her splaying to the ground.
Within arm’s reach, the knife glistened.
The tubes spread Brielle into a standing pentacle.
Pipes hissed. Kill her . . . lift your affliction . . .
The knife was in Mica’s hand now. Brielle’s eyes flickered, wild with fear.
Sacrifice her . . . for the magic . . .
Magic is never complicated. It gives you what you want, and it always bears a cost.
Mica understood now. This was her duty as a daughter of Gurt Town. Her people were counting on her. Her mother, her father. If she failed them, the magic would end. No more treasures from the castle. No auto-farrier, no pedal cart, no puzzle game. Life would return to the way things were, before. Worse than before: her own affliction would persist, forever. She’d never lift another tool, turn another crank, create something from nothing. She’d lose the only thing that had ever brought her happiness.
A recollection of sparks in the darkness, in her gut, drove the thought: perhaps not the only thing.
The knife’s handle chilled her to the marrow. This was the cost of Gurt Town’s magic.
Half the girls never returned. They weren’t working at the castle, they were collateral. They’d died in the gut of this factory, already forgotten because they’d kept quiet and fulfilled their duty. Every daughter that stood where Mica now stood had done as they were told. Taken their secret shame back to town. Every daughter henceforth would do the same. Someday, her own daughter.
What a rotten curse.
What a rotten town.
The knife clanged to the ground.
Suit yourself . . .
The tubes released Brielle, writhed and snapped around Mica’s body.
The knife gleamed in Brielle’s hand.
Kill her . . . lift your affliction . . .
Mica trembled – not at the constriction of the tentacled tubes, but at the sudden dryness of Brielle’s eyes. She won’t do it, Mica told herself, even as Brielle raised the blade over her head. She won’t do it, as Brielle’s perfect lips condemned Mica with a single leaden word.
The knife arced.
Mica cried out.
The blade slashed at her neck-
And missed. Her mask slipped to the ground, straps severed.
Mica gaped. Then she sneezed.
Everything fell apart.
Dismembered tubes molted from Mica’s body. Golems collapsed, bleeding flames from their distended guts. Rivets ejected from the paneled floor, pelted the walls, the ceiling, the girls. The ground buckled and pitched and sucked Mica into the earth. Brielle flung her arms around Mica’s neck as they tumbled into darkness.
They landed in a heap in a cramped chamber. Electricity spiderwebbed the crumbled ceiling. Combustion engines howled from the walls, forcing pistons into a ferocious rhythm. Giant mechanical spiders scuttled across a bed of bones, steel mandibles clacking, multifaceted mirrors clutched to their underbellies.
At the center of the chamber, a woman lay embedded in the metal floor – face contorted, twin pipes pumping crude oil into each nostril. Wrinkles knotted her face. A powerful engine heaved and chugged within her chest. Her arms and legs extended to the walls, splintered into a dozen drive shafts apiece. Despite the fist-sized padlock and palladium chains that bound the woman’s neck to a stake in the ground, Mica realized that this princess had not been ensnared by the castle.
She was the castle.
The pillars that steadied these foundations were her bones, the petroleum her blood, the rust her flaking skin. Its smokestacks exhaled her foul breath. And even the walls could not contain her as she extended her tendrils below ground. The sinkholes and wells and fissures strewn throughout town were boils in her flesh, from which oozed the magical treasures of Gurt Town.
She was, in a word, a monster.
The monster spoke.
Find them . . .
The spiders scurried, banging into walls and crawling over one another, flashing their mirrors into every shadowed corner.
Bring them . . .
The girls scrambled backward, down an adjoining passageway, anywhere. Darkness consumed them, save for the tenuous glow from Brielle’s eyes. Stalagmitic shards jutted from the ground, mirroring the girls’ shattered reflections a hundred dizzying times. The air grew damp and chill. They clung to one another as they squeezed through a narrow fissure and into a tiny room with an impossibly tall ceiling. Gas vented from the ground, entombed them. Whispers slithered into their ears. A scene bled across their eyes.
It went like this.
Gurt Town cowered under a steel wool sky. Familiar townspeople congregated in an unfamiliar square. A girl knelt at the center, hair matted with sweat. She moaned, pitched forward, and retched.
On a tide of black bile fell a sleek metal pill press.
The apothecary snatched it and ogled. Oil dripped down his fingers.
The girl pleaded for help. A cure. Death. Anything.
The townspeople deliberated.
Her name was Darja, orphaned when her parents drowned in Lake Odious one summer morning after purportedly swindling a traveling witch at a game of spades. Darja was, it seemed, cursed. The milkman spoke of a witch – a different witch in all likelihood, but when it comes to witches who really knows – on a hilltop not far away, with the power to lift curses. The apothecary marveled at his sleek new pill press. The others watched him with envy.
The inevitable questions ensued. What would she vomit next? Could they place requests? Would there be enough for everyone? They just wanted to be happy, they agreed, and being happy was so hard with all this other stuff taking up their time. Blacksmithing was hard. Tailoring was hard. For god’s sake, parenting was hard.
And it was only one girl. An orphan, at that.
They adjourned before lunch.
In the square, they called upon Darja’s friend – lover, some whispered – to talk to the girl.
Alejandra, the apothecary’s daughter, approached. She looked, all things considered, a little pale.
“Stay back.” Darja’s words croaked out with a belch of smog. “I can’t control it!”
Alejandra’s parents shot their daughter a glare that said fulfill your duty.
Alejandra inched closer.
Darja writhed and lashed.
A scream from Alejandra’s mother summarized the events that followed. Blood wormed toward the gutter, then downhill to Lake Odious.
Nothing else remained of Alejandra. Darja, meanwhile, had grown considerably larger. Her knees and shoulders had transmuted into galvanized articulations. Steam vented from her ears.
She presently vomited a sewing machine.
The tailor collected it and rushed home.
The milkman produced a palladium chain and lock – artifacts from his grandfather’s adventures at sea. The smith-farriers – yes, those smith-farriers, carrying a newborn Mica – retrieved a hammer and stake. By afternoon tea, the deed was done.
Chained to the center of that unfamiliar square, purging her body of mechanical wonders, Darja spoke one last time to the people of Gurt Town. She called down a curse on every parent in town. As they’d made Darja suffer, so too would their daughters suffer. As they’d forced Darja to kill, so too would their daughters become murderers.
On their way home, the townspeople assured one another that their daughters would be fine. She must’ve meant someone else’s, and in any case at least the boys weren’t in danger. In the meantime, perhaps a wall should be built around her. You know. To keep the town safe and clean.
Condensation engulfed the scene.
Get out! Get them out!
Mandibles pinned Mica to the body of a spider as it scurried to the central chamber. Brielle whimpered from a second spider. Mica blinked and blinked but couldn’t rid herself of the image: her parents – her own parents – hammering that stake into the ground.
Down the mirror-laden passage, the spiders flung the girls to the floor at the woman’s feet.
Beneath the surface of that unfamiliar square, now a sprawling compound of forced labor and enduring misery, Darja growled. “You look ridiculous.”
“I know,” the girls said at the same time. Brielle added: “I’m so sorry-”
“Spare your pity.” Pistons pumped harder. “The memory chamber is forbidden. You’ll take these secrets to your grave.”
A mechanical hand the size of a horse breached the earth and lunged for Brielle.
Mica balled her hands into fists and stepped in front. It was a stupid thing to do, just like the rest of her ill-conceived plans. But love is like magic: it makes fools of us all.
The hand hesitated.
Mica’s whole body trembled. “Don’t touch her.”
Darja laughed and wheezed and wailed.
“Let me free you,” Mica said.
Darja spat oil. “I’ve spared neither trust nor patience for you people.”
The hand flexed. Oil squeezed in rivulets down its lifeline. A penetrating coldness sapped Mica’s will. She backpedaled.
The hand loomed, drew nearer, surrounded her. Mica tried not to think about what crunching bones might sound like. She lost her resolve, withered.
Smaller, gentler fingers laced between her own. Sparks licked her skin. Warmed her body. Fed her confidence.
Mica squared her shoulders. She thrust a finger at the wall and the town beyond. “They are not our people.”
The hand recoiled.
“They are the curse of Gurt Town,” Mica said. “Their willful ignorance. Their blind eye. And they won’t speak for us anymore.”
Pipes and pistons grew fitfully silent.
“It doesn’t matter.” Darja’s lips twisted into a pained sneer. “Neither I nor anyone in this town can lift the curse. Without fulfilling your duty,” with a narrowed glance at Brielle, “the curse will live within you both, forever. And the others, for whom it has yet to manifest.”
Brielle’s grip remained firm, as did Mica’s confidence. “Then we’ll share the burden. Let us free you.”
Darja’s brow furrowed into chasms of corrosion and anguish. “The lock is made of palladium. Magic. You can’t break it.”
Mica wiped a glob of oil from her nose. “We’ll see about that.”
In the years that followed, the occasional traveling merchant overnighting in Gurt Town would whisper furtively to the innkeeper: “I thought it was a magical town.”
The innkeeper would invariably respond, “It was,” and promptly escort the merchant to the exit. On her way to the main road, the merchant would circumvent the massive crater in the center of town before perusing the junkyard picked clean of all but the most ineffectual gadgets. She’d marvel at the ruined fortifications, the dilapidated houses, the poorly-shod horses.
The disquieting lack of young women.
The merchant would inquire over a pint at the next village, and would learn a thing or two about Gurt Town. How one day all the magic had up and left, and how the townsfolk blamed it on their daughters, who had all incidentally up and left as well.
There was, according to hearsay, a witch on a hilltop not far from there with the power to lift curses.
There was, also, rumor had it, a town some distance further where girls with curses could live in peace.
Anyone that knew the two friends that had led the exile – lovers, some whispered – agreed that the latter was a far more likely destination. But the only thing they knew for sure was that wherever they’d gone, they weren’t coming back.
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. He is a writer, a software developer, an adventurer, and a graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. He currently calls Boston his home, although he’s lived in fourteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by two cats and one iron-willed daughter. Find him at derrickboden.com and on Twitter as @derrickboden.