Chapter 10 Episode 3 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
As he pressed further into the cave, the keening voice in his mind grew stronger: Why do you bring it here? Did I not go far enough? Let me stop dreaming, please take it away. It played down his back like cold rain down his collar.
From the descriptions in the Vatterbroch manuscript’s coda, Adewole had expected something different than this childlike plaintiveness, threats perhaps, or boasts or even cajoling—more likely, nothing at all. The postscript said the god was dead. A kernel of truth always slept in the center of every myth, but the layers accreted over centuries were nothing but gloss and lacquer. He was certain he’d find something, but a god? No.
Faced with a fork in the chamber, he chose the lefthand side; the voice faded, a relieved tone slipping into the distress. Yes, please go away again, let me go back to sleep. Adewole backtracked to the fork’s junction and headed down the righthand side. The voice strengthened, once again pleading for him to leave. The hallway narrowed until Adewole had to turn sideways to continue on. He fought down a trapped sensation.
A sick, pink light dribbled from a small chamber ahead. Lightcrystals unlike any he’d seen before flecked the ceiling and walls, the malevolent, dim pink light’s source. No bones here. A rubble pile took up the back wall, and in its center stood a squared, chest-high, black stone pillar. A large iron box stood atop it.
The hair under his hat prickled on his head as the voice shrieked inside him. It cried nonstop now, imploring, praying, a nonsensical babbling. I can’t run, there is nothing I can do, I’m having a nightmare, please don’t hurt me, I thought I got away from it! He walked around the pillar, holding the lantern close, until the expected words appeared, stamped into the box’s side. Magic and Metal No More. Unthinking, Adewole murmured the rest of the Oath. “This I swear.”
The voice stopped. A grinding noise came from the box; the top rose on metal struts, high enough he might look down inside. The pink lightcrystals brightened, illuminating dust and bits of stone dancing in the air. Adewole stepped back, hand shaking. His nerves screamed he should leave, go back to the Library or even back to Eisenstadt, and leave the manuscript to another scholar. He screwed his courage to the mark and leaned over the open box, his black mercury lantern precariously perched on its edge. In his nervousness, he tipped it over; down it clattered, and he cursed as it guttered out and left him in the cold, faint, pink glow.
A red light flared; a deep, frightening ruby pulse lit up the cavern. A shriek tore through his mind: I’M AWAKE NO I’M AWAKE NO NO NO I’M AWAKE!
Adewole scrambled away. The chamber’s doorway beckoned, but without his lantern he couldn’t see his way back to the Ossuary’s entrance. Nor was he sure he could compel his petrified body close enough to the obelisk to get around it. He was trapped.
The shriek subsided into broken sobs. No longer in his head, the high, husky voice reverberated through the chamber. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” it cried, in the terrified tones of a child left alone too long in the dark. “I’m sorry, sir, I thought you was dead! Did you come back to let me go? Oh, please, let me go!”
This was no awe-inspiring super-being. It spoke a rough, streetwise version of the manuscript’s Old Rhendalian. “Who are you?” said Adewole.
The voice brought its sobs under control; Adewole could almost hear it swallow them down a non-existent throat. “Who am I? I’m Alleine, I’m still Alleine, sir. You sound diff ’rent. How long was I asleep? Please, can you let me go, or at least let me go back to sleep?”
“Who do you think I am, Alleine?” said Adewole.
“Why, you’re Master Vatterbroch, ain’t you?” A thin red mist rose from the pillar; it ghosted over Adewole’s face, gentle as the morning’s mist. He pressed himself back against the rubble pile until the mist crept back into the pillar. “You ain’t him! Is he dead, sir? I swear I saw him die.”
Adewole touched his face all over; nothing dripping from it, nothing rearranged, though his terrified pulse leapt in his lips and throat. “Yes, he is dead.”
“Was you his friend?”
“I’m glad-a that, then, because I’m glad he’s dead,” said Alleine.
“Why are you glad? Was he not your worshipper?”
“Worshipper?” said the voice. “Who’d worship me?”
“Are you not a god?” said Adewole, creeping forward.
The voice grew silent, though the red light pulsed. “I’m nobody. Everyone says so.”
“Did—did you have a body before this?”
“A course I did. How can a person not have a body?”
So not a created divinity, nor a captured one. A human, not a god. The Bone Lyre—Vatterbroch’s notes said its pieces were taken from a still-living “subject.” Adewole had assumed the subject was an animal sacrifice of some kind. Bad enough, but now... “Everyone is someone, Alleine. When you still had a body, who were you?”
“Nobody! I never been nobody. Step-da said so when Mam died, and Master said I was worse than nobody—I was just a girl no one wanted. He said no one’d miss me. Did...did someone miss me, sir?” said Alleine in a near-whisper. “Is that why you come?”
Adewole’s hand snuck to his little sister’s good luck bead on his watch fob. “Listen now, Alleine. I have a notebook your master left behind. It describes a terrible thing, a thing made with—with bones.”
Alleine wept. “Don’ make me think on it, sir, not in the dark like this. I’m scared, I can’t see and I itch and ache all over something bad. Why? I don’ have none to ache! When he did it, it hurt so bad, an’ I screamed but he stuffed my kerchief in my mouth until I fainted dead away, but he kept waking me up until he did all his spells because he said they wouldn’t work if I was dead—why did you wake me up, sir?” she gulped. “It’s worse when I’m awake.”
A sick horror hung at the back of Adewole’s mouth. “Alleine, how old are you?”
“Just before Mam died, she said I was seven, and the summer after the summer after that Master Vatterbroch took me to work for him, and then...then this happened...”
She was only nine years old.