by Kris Schnee
©2006 Kris Schnee -- all rights reserved
The plague was spread by metal. Zel had iron arms. He wore a cloak all through the city, asking about the Artisan. People thought he knew.
Cityfolk would see the thin rods and folded wings beneath his clothes and run. The ones who stayed were those who didn't think the blue rust could find their skin, who wore metal collars to show they weren't afraid, or who worked in the few factories not torched.
"Where is the Artisan?" Zel asked.
"In the Clockworks," said a boy. "Have any food?"
Zel didn't, and they wouldn't pay for his sort of flying. He could prey on what was left of the population for money. He didn't. He climbed through a dank wooden building, rapping stairs with his iron arms.
He climbed over bodies and not-quite-bodies and swore, with what was left of his voice, at someone who tried to knife him. The blade was stone and it clanged against him, tearing his cloak, nearly reaching the face and neck and chest that were still flesh. The noise rang through the stairwell and no one wanted to touch him after that. He shook off the cloak and jammed a wingtip into a door handle to open the way.
The wind made him stagger on the rooftop. Zel bared his teeth and they caught grit. Good flying weather. The city haze was blue-grey like smoke from a pipe. It hung over the districts where people fled, day by day, into firetrap wooden tenements and stone churches. Zel turned in place, feeling iron struts and copper feathers stretch from long disuse. Not a spot of plague on them. He knelt as the wings spread. Ahead was the deadliest neighborhood, the Clockworks, the place of metal.
Zel wasn't sure what he would ask from the Artisan, or what he could pay. But he had no doubt that he should go. From here, perched on a building, staring over high walls and locked, blue-rusted gates.
Finally, he threw himself off the building with a screech. His wings whined and pinched the small of his back. Blue fog seemed to congeal in his lungs. The wings flapped by reflex. He couldn't fly far. Far enough.
In the Clockworks the buildings were iron, steel, brass. They had been beautiful. There were still bones in the streets. Mixed with the bones Zel saw discarded tools and infected furniture dumped from windows. Entire buildings had slumped and overturned when parts had been pulled out or seared. What remained was a whole district that smelled charred from fire and sickly-sour from plague.
Why would the Artisan be here? It was said he changed people, but here no one could ask him. No one but Zel.
Wind whipped through his dirty clothes and tickled his feathers. One tore away and drifted down to a scrap heap. When Zel looked back up he had to swerve; he was too near the Clock. It crouched and leered now, its numbers twisted by blue fuzz into unreadable runes. At its base Zel could see bones and metal piled up, and he sucked in a breath of the sour air. People had stuffed the metal parts of their lives into this town and left them as a sacrifice.
Nearby stood a more modest building, one that glittered red where its copper terraces hadn't been eaten by blue. Bits of wooden scaffolding stuck out as though people had tried to fix things there.
Zel's wings ached and rattled. The streets were speared with junk. The Clock or the copper place? Where would the Artisan be?
Zel decided. I'll look for him where he should be. In any other place he wouldn't be worth the visit.
His wings roared around his ears as Zel stalled, reaching his feet up for a battered copper roof. He staggered and slammed his knees into the metal. Patches of blue waited for him. So far they'd done nothing, but still he swung his wings painfully up and out of the way. He stood, felt himself, slipping, and threw himself forward into a dusty room. The world flared and punched him hard.
Zel opened his eyes. The building had seemed large outside, but here where he rested with a heaving, bruised chest it looked cramped. His wings throbbed where they'd slammed the window-frame and his teeth seemed to rattle. The wings slowly pulled back and folded against the poles of his arms. Blood trickled from skinned knees. The air smelled stagnant and dusty.
Sawdust? Above him a stairwell seemed mostly intact; it was shattered below. Zel staggered along it. Very little plague here; could it be dying out? Was that possible in this metal graveyard?
He would ask.
Zel rounded a corner and found more stairs. He climbed. Then at the top the scent widened Zel's eyes. Sawdust and animals. Life and work. He poked with a wingtip at the jumble of boards and plaster. "Hello?"
He saw his own wing. Feathers missing, rods and sub-rods bent. His head spun and he leaned against a wall, thinking of the broken stairs down. But this was the place; it had to be. "Hello. Please."
Something shuffled in the sawdust maze ahead.
Zel knelt and peered into the dim air behind the boards. Then he went through. More debris blocked his path and made it impossible to see around the next turn. There was an intelligence behind the chaos. Maybe a mad one, from the angles and the low boards that forced him to crawl on battered wingtips and bloody knees. Grit crunched against his skin. He expected cobwebs in his face but found none.
He didn't need to ask why the Artisan would work at all. There was a sort of pride in the repairs, the construction, whatever this jumble of wood was meant to be. He could respect that.
In the dim, dusty air something stirred. Zel swiveled and saw nothing. He called out but no one answered. Something was grinding and scraping. His shoulders quivered. When he slumped to rest his head on the wooden floor, he saw a low, jagged opening -- and eyes staring back. Eyes that were black and shiny, around a hairy snout ending in teeth like twin chisels. Bright steel chisels.
"You interrupt me," said the creature.
Zel reared backwards to a sitting position, back slapping against an irregular wall. Every muscle hurt.
Claws scratched wood as it scuttled after him. It sat up too, staring up at him with a cross expression. "What do you want?" Sawdust caked its fur and its bizarre black griddle of a tail.
Zel stammered with a dry throat. "Artisan?"
"Yes. I'm busy."
"Doing what?" said Zel.
The Artisan's smile was functional if not pretty. "Come and see." He slipped beneath the boards and with a webbed black paw waved Zel to follow.
Zel leaned down, face on the floor, to look through the hole in the wall. Through the dust and the mucky air he saw the beginning of a new tower, inside the old. Inside or out he couldn't tell, only that the Artisan had carved out a swirl of lacquered wood, a fragment of wall that stretched down through floors of scaffolding. Zel could imagine that the dead land around him, the other buildings, were all a scab around something new. A work in progress. "The Clockworks -- you're replacing them with wood!"
The Artisan chittered at eye level. "Nothing wrong with metal."
"But the plague --"
"Metal rusts, wood rots, and flesh gets old. They all have their blights. Bad, but then there's --"
"Work to do, yes," Zel found himself saying. He stared with longing at the city that wasn't ready yet.
The Artisan watched him. "You look broken, yourself."
"I want to see the city revived," said Zel.
"I want, you want. What can you do for the project?"
"Give me hands. Please. I'll give my wings."
The Artisan's tail slapped the floor. "Those things? I don't want scrap."
"Then tell me what you want!"
"To get back to work, if you'll excuse me."
"But you can help people, change people."
"It's the work that does that. Help if you care to. Otherwise, go." The Artisan shuffled away.
Zel watched the creature retreat and begin gnawing at the far wall, stopping occasionally to inspect it with tiny clawed fingers and beady eyes. The Artisan showed no sign of tiring, of fear at the scaffold's edge, of worry for the plague and the dead city around him. His only murmur was to himself: "Maybe a city of horn and shell after this one..."
Zel lay on the floor, angry at himself for being hurt and tired. There were things to do. Maybe he could help. He pushed against the low gap in the wall and felt metal strain and tear painlessly from him. Feeling came to his rough paws and they dragged him through, scraping the fur of his back against the boards. He whirled to inspect himself when he felt a fleshy tail slapping behind him, and clacked incisors in surprise. The room beyond seemed huge from this side. He stared at the claws and the webbing between them where there had been only iron rods, and he clenched them into fists before dropping back to all fours.
It didn't matter what he was, only that he could work. He could take pride now in a city he had only flown over, skulked through.
There was work to do.