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Clockwork’s hand pressed against his face, covering his eyes.

There was no point in denying it anymore. Georgie, Dimitry, Billy – they…

The leaves rustled, and glass shattered. Clockwork turned his head. Eris stood behind him. Wearing her usual white skirt and blouse, she had lowered her head and held her hands against her chest.

One look at her face revealed that she had seen them before. Now, everything made sense. Why Eris had been reluctant; she had tried to hide the truth from him. Eris had locked him up in that sickbay so he wouldn’t find out. What did she intend to do? Trying to keep him as her prisoner until he had forgotten their friends existed?

“You knew they were dead,” he said. He drew out the syllables; his voice softened and turned into a singsong. Even if he knew the answer, and Eris couldn’t give one, he had to see her reaction.

Eris stepped forward. She reached out with her hand, tried to touch his shoulders, but Clockwork started to cackle. He bared his teeth, his laughter filling the silent forest.

“You tried to hide the truth from me, right, right, right?”

Eris froze.

Yeah, that was right. Eris had tried to hide that she didn’t save them, like a child hiding that they broke a plate because they knew their parents would beat them again.

“Why didn’t you save them?” He slapped her hand away, and like an animal, he screamed. “They were our family. Did they mean nothing to you? Answ-”

Clockwork stopped. Eris’ eyes glittered and pleaded.

“I…I…I,” he tried to say. His hand reached out to her, but the moment he made contact, cracks ran through Eris’ body, and she shattered. The pieces fell, and the moment they touched the ground, they disappeared.

“Eris,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He slapped his face.

“I will never hurt you. I promise.”

Words from the past flashed inside his mind, and his Fylgja activated. His thoughts, memories and emotions transformed into sound and scenery, blurring the lines between musical and reality, and sucking in his mind to abide the symphonic laws.

A black, leather dentist chair appeared out of thin air in front of him, and a flute echoed. Bindings bound Eris to it. They constricted her wrists and her ankles and glued her head to the lean. She rattled against them, her face contorted, and around her wrists, the black gained a red hue. Metal pincers forced her eyes open. Light shone at her; liquid dropped from the ceiling into her pupils. It dropped and dropped like a ticktock. Eris’ tremors intensified. The metal scratched against her eyelids she tried to shut. A pair of arms without a body rolled up her sleeve. They were like ghosts floating and haunting her. One of the arms held a syringe in their hands. Inside the plastic casing swam a green liquid. The syringe pierced into her arm, and the second one pointed at Eris’ eye, her pupils reflecting its needle. Mere millimeters separated them, but then, blood splattered on Eris' face, and the arms disappeared. Instead, he marched into the room, pulled out his butterfly knife, and cut through the bindings. Clockwork tore the apparatus from her, and smiling, petted her head. Eris didn’t react. Her eyes displayed confusion, unable to process the events that had transpired.

“I will never hurt you,” he said. “I promise.”

Liquid dropped on the plants. All moisture inside them disappeared, and they lost their colors. The plants withered and crumbled to dust, forming a ring of ash around Clockwork. He stepped out and walked. And where his feet would touch the grass and plants, he left behind a patch of dead vegetation. Clockwork didn’t look. His eyes didn’t see where he was walking; his mind didn’t register. He just walked.

The play of a piano accompanied the flute and his steps.

“It’s not her fault. It’s not her fault,” Clockwork sang. “She was saving all she could. Fragments of a mosaic slipping away. It should have been me. It should have been me. I was their leader.”

“You were their leader. You were their saviour, their king.”

Children played around him; five in number. Patches covered their rags; Scars and bruises covered their faces and skin. The children's bare feet left prints in the mud. They all smiled and laughed.

The adults appeared, and their laughter turned to cries: Shadows with teeth like needles, fingers like knives, and swirls for eyes.

“Our days were nothing but their cruel designs. We were the poor, the homeless, the runaways, collared by broken promises.”

A man played on a piano; a woman held a tact stick and sang. Men played trumpets and saxophones; one played on an organ, and others, other instruments. A cacophony of sounds and emotions filled the atmosphere. Their intensity and passion the musicians expressed in their movements – wild yet controlled. A cosmos within the chaos, and all of that watched a boy. His face shone like gold; he moved to the rhythm and sang along. The boy approached the musicians, walked towards them. But from the ground emerged bars, separating him from the music forever. The shadows appeared behind him and dragged him into the dark.

“We looked at the sky, our broken wings dreaming to fly. We heard the song, our broken hearts dreaming to sing along. We smelled the blue sea, our broken legs dreaming to be free. We tasted our chain, our broken tears dreaming to end the pain. We touched the fire, our broken souls dreaming of the world’s pyre.”

A young man ran. He ran and ran, and shadows, and claws, and scissors and knives – they followed him. The young man stumbled and fell on the ground. He looked at the object that had halted his escape: a metallic box. The young man should run, the young man should hide. Yet, he inspected it. Swans and curves decorated its casing. It drew him to it, and the young man opened the box. A melody started to play, and a woman began to sing. It was a slow piece. One could even waltz to it. It rang in his heart, whispered to him like a mother who could love her child.

Tears ran down his cheeks, wetting the ground, and where it fell, the plants absorbed it. Their grey turned to green, and the vegetation grew, stronger than before.

All the desires he had bottled up inside him, all that his soul lingered for, it released at once. How could he live with any of them unfulfilled? She cradled him as if he deserved to live in this world. The emptiness, the void, he would fill it up with all the things he wished.

The young man kneeled. In his hand, he held a golden zippo. He turned on the lighter, a flame spewed out and spread on the floor. The man stood up. He put a cigarette into his mouth and lit it up. Alongside his five friends, he kicked his leg into the air and danced down the stairs. It started to rain, and fire erupted in the background. As the flames enveloped them, the shadows screamed and pleaded for help. The gang did not turn around and started singing in the rain.

“We wished to turn the world around. I gave them my wrath; they followed my path. To destroy all shackles that kept us bound. We desired luxury and riches; to rise to the tops. And when we burn them down, they look into our eyes, see how their society stops.”

Skyscrapers raged into the sky, but immediately, they caught fire. It burned them to the ground, and everything had vanished.

“But now it’s gone. Their lives, I’ve led to an end.”

“You were their leader. You were their saviour, their king.”

“I received a casket of broken dreams and hopes, but now despair’s my gift. I’m a crown without king, I’m an edgeless sword, I’m a river dried-up.”

He had arrived at the temple and walked past the automatic door.

“I’ve become a clockwork orange.”

The music stopped. Clockwork looked around. The lights didn’t flash, so someone else had become the administrator.

What was this? A last hurrah of fate? That this Ragna was still alive? Did Twice try to laugh at him?

He punched the wall and shuddered when his fist hit the metal. Clockwork rubbed his hand and started to walk the stairs and explored all twenty floors – except for the seventh. He had to enter that one the last. The temple was empty – all nineteen levels were. No one was here, not even a single corpse he could find. In any other moment, he would show relief that his droogs had escaped, but he knew that wasn’t the case. Whatever that monster had done, it had left no evidence and no body to bury.

What had they done to deserve such a fate? They had committed evil, but did that deserve misery? Why should good be rewarded and evil punished? Wasn´t man born with the freedom to choose? Yet the world tried to suppress them. Punish a dog for its choice often enough, and it cannot choose anymore. That was the true crime. Good without freedom of choice was worthless.

In their selfish desire for security, the common folk took their freedom and became slaves themselves. Man was born with the capability for good and evil alike. Taking away the evil from him, he would become a wind-up doll dancing for the powerful. But those who set the rules, ignored them.

When the coterie had obtained freedom, it swore it would burn down this hypocritical world, to create a society of luxury where man could choose evil without fear, and where goodness could only come out of the goodness of man’s heart. But now he was alone.

֎

Eventually, he entered the seventh level. His shoes echoed every time he took a step across the aquamarine stone floor, and with each step, his heart skipped a beat. Nothing else made a sound. His eyes wandered through the corridor. Spots of light shone behind the pupils of beasts. They observed his every move like a predator on the verge of mauling its prey. In this sea of darkness that surrounded him, nothing else spent light. He took out a pack of cigarettes from his jacket and opened it. Clockwork sighed. Only one cigarette remained.

When did he smoke so many?

Clockwork took the cigarette and lit it up with his zippo. In the dark, one could mistake his cigarette’s glow for a single, lost firefly. Clockwork threw the box on the ground and stomped his foot on it. Putting the zippo back to his jacket, he took a puff, exhaled, and his body relaxed.

He had to do this.

Clockwork continued to walk and his eyes wandered until they stopped, and he tensed up.

“Pete…” Clockwork quivered. Within the illumination of the light stone, Pete's body lay. His eyes were closed as if sleeping, mistaken for a man enjoying his peaceful nap. He kneeled, and as if he cradled his child, Clockwork held Pete’s body towards his chest. His cigarette fell out of his mouth to the ground.

Why did they have to find Ragna Griffin? Couldn’t she have fallen somewhere else? How could he have known that the situation would turn out like this? Everything was normal. It was a job like any other. Would anyone in his position have acted differently?

“She did this to you,” he shouted to the roof. “O my brothers, she did this. The Midgard woman. Ragna Griffin.”

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

The curtain rose, and the orgel played its dark music, starting the musical anew. It thundered through the stage with every tone the organist pressed. Clockwork started to chuckle. He lowered Pete’s corpse to the ground and walked towards the center’s stage.

“Yes. Had she not knocked on our door, we could continue like before. Yes. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. I’m not the one to blame. She had destroyed us with her wicked flame.”

Clockwork clenched his heart, his voice raging his song against the heavens. The organist opened her body, revealing a hollow shell. Women waltzed out of her. Dressed in mechanical gowns, their gears turned, and the women spun, forming a circle around Clockwork.

“I once wished to set the world on fire, but the gears have turned.”

“What’s it going to be then, eh? What’s it going to be then, eh?”

“Cast I have this final desire, for all meaning you have burned.”

“What’s it going to be then, eh? What’s it going to be then, eh?”

A woman broke out of the circle. She walked towards the center not ending her dance once. The other dancers opened their mouths. Flames burst out, hitting the woman in the center. The heat smoldered her metal skin, but the woman continued to dance, setting the stage on fire with every move.

“My revolution’s become vengeance

See, the clock’s ticking. So, prepare.

Ragna Griffin.”

“What’s it going to be then, eh? What’s it going to be then, eh?”

“Your screams will be endless

In this pyre without compare.”

The inferno blazed on the stage, engulfing everything in its flames. The women melted down. Liquid metal dropped from them like sweat beats and tears, turning their once beautiful faces into an abstract caricature. Their voices degraded to electronic buzzes and distress. And within the fire danced Clockwork. His shadow enlarged to a black titian on the wall. Like a conductor, it waved its hands, directing the carcasses to burn more, to screams with more intensity, and to suffer for all eternity.

֎

Clockwork walked through the forest.

He had made his decision. Ragna Griffin would die and would pay for the loss of his friends. An eye for an eye, they say. He would expand all his resources and not leave one stone untouched until he found her, even if he had to follow her to the four corners of Aes. But first, other matters required his attention. Ragna Griffin wasn’t alone. She had a Valkyrie Candidate with her, and if he wanted to defeat Altera Xion, he had to become stronger. His arm needed to recover, and he would need to cremate the corpses of his friends. That was the least he could for them. And most importantly, he had to apologize.

On the ground, Eris’ makeup case shimmered. Clockwork opened it and looked at the mirror. Instead of his image, it reflected a baby blue wall. Clockwork exhaled in relief. The portal was open.

Eris must have opened it subconsciously. Given her age, it was understandable. Emotions contributed to the effects of a Fylgja. One of the reasons why Midgard had stopped conscripting minors was their unreliability. While they tended to be more powerful than an adult with the same experience, puberty and other factors made it difficult to control. A Fylgja that stopped working for even a second could make the difference between life and death. In the end, Midgard deemed it not worth the trouble.

Clockwork touched the mirror, and within an instant, baby blue walls surrounded him.

Now, where could Eris be?

֎

The waves soothed back and forth, wetting the sand and going back to the sea. The sun was sinking, casting a spell of eternal orange over the twilight beach. On a cliff, far above the sea, that the water would never reach it, Eris sat, her legs dangling over the edge, and her eyes staring at the horizon.

“It’s been ages since I have been here,” said Clockwork. “This really looks like the poster.”

Eris didn’t turn around.

“Eris, I’m sorry. I was an idiot.”

She showed no reaction.

“I’m not going to say that I won’t hurt you again. I’ve broken that promise. Instead, I want you to promise me something.”

Eris turned around, raising her eyebrow.

“If I ever hurt you again, then I want you to promise me that you will kick my ass.”

She smiled. Eris stood up from the cliff. She walked towards Clockwork and nodded.

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