“That Grim Machine” | Short Story | Written by Tim Babbitt - Mishmashers Mishmashers

“That Grim Machine” | Short Story | Written by Tim Babbitt

   He woke again to the guttural coughing and gagging that filled the empty hallways of Castle Hafferly. The wretched sound penetrated deep into the walls, its commotion causing the flame of his bedside candle to flicker like a wind-blown rag. This time, it seemed as if there would be no end to his father’s bout of violent hacking. Edmund wondered how much longer the sickness would last, or if there would ever be an improvement to the man’s horrid condition. The sound echoed through the empty corridor once more before finally fading away among the countless ghosts that wandered the keep.

   These were the ghosts that fueled Richard Hafferly’s madness, after all. First, it was the spirit of Edmund’s mother, whom he had never met. Her portraits still hung high on the halls of the great room, but she was a stranger to him. His birth had been a complicated one, leaving her lifeless in the end. Edmund often wondered if he was to blame for her death, but his father assured him that it was an act of God that took her. Lord Hafferly was left to attend to three boys, but received enough help from the castle’s many maids and servants. Despite their family’s loss, the castle’s ancient rooms were filled with the laughter of playing children. Edmund and Donald often ran along the outer walls, climbing up the spiraling towers and battling with sticks on the parapets. Isaac was the oldest of the three, and spent his time training in swordplay and archery.

   But that did not last forever, for the souls of Edmund’s brothers came next when they went off to fight King Edward’s war. He was too young to join them on the battlefield, but often reminisced of the day they left. The boys, no older than sixteen, were clad in shining chain and metal with steel swords strapped to their hips. They looked like heroes from a story, riding off on horseback to serve in the royal army. He had envied them in those days, before the black raven came with the dreaded message. That was the final straw, and his father’s grief overtook him. The servants and maids were slowly sent away, leaving only Richard and Edmund to watch over their family’s ancestral home.

   Edmund spent the following years in silent study with the proctors that visited throughout the week. They taught him alchemy, arithmetic, and mathematics. Religion had been banned by his father, and the priests and nuns were no longer welcome within their keep. Lord Hafferly spent this time working, locking himself away in his room and building all sorts of odd machines. Edmund barely saw him, for the ruler of their family only left to quickly grab scraps of food and bring them back up the winding stairs to his room. As to the purpose of the devices, Edmund could only guess. No matter, their construction had recently stopped. His father no longer had the hands to continue his work, and he feared the man’s mind had left him long ago. Two winters after his brothers’ passing, Edmund had first heard his father’s strange monologues. From behind the thick oak door, he listened to one-sided conversations and shouts of frustration. Sometimes they would seemingly be directed towards his mother, or brothers. Lord Hafferly would call out “Caroline!”, or ask for Donald to bring him a hammer. Other times it devolved to the banter of a crazy person, echoing unintelligible shouts through the hall. Edmund was glad that this was no longer a common occurrence, with most of his Father’s time now spent sleeping, or coughing up a thick green paste.

   One day, the conversations became centered around an unfamiliar person. “Karizan! I can’t finish it like this, show me again!” Edmund had never known a Karizan, but assumed it was someone from his father’s past. Maybe an old soldier, or a servant who worked in the castle long ago. Concurrent with this new banter was Richard’s move to the basement. In the old times it had served as a dungeon for the house, but was converted to a storeroom a century past. His father had never clued him in as to what he was doing down there, and shut the metal door with a heavy padlock. Despite his secrecy, Edmund’s father seemed a bit happier in those days. Instead of exiling himself to his bed chamber, he ate in the great room alongside his son.

   Lord Hafferly continued his imaginary conversations, but spoke to Edmund as well. He even welcomed the scholars when they arrived during the week, but still hatefully shunned any priest brave enough to make an appearance at the castle. Eventually, the church gave up on the old man and stopped sending people altogether. That proved to be a stroke of luck for Lord Hafferly, for now he didn’t have the strength to cast off unwanted visitors. Edmund was the only one allowed in his room, taking care of his chamber pot and bringing him shanks of roasted venison. It would have been horrid work to do for a stranger, but Edmund didn’t mind taking care of his father for these last few months. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before the coughing stopped for good.

   The following nights Edmund was awoken by the usual noises of spitting and hacking, but in a weeks’ time woke up to silence. The morning dew glazed over his frosty window, as Edmund knowingly gazed through its iron bars out into the surrounding forest. The trees were still green despite their snowy crowns, pines and spruces that had survived for countless generations. What tragedies had they seen, how much death? Edmund wondered if this one would be any different, and prepared himself to enter his father’s chamber.

   He didn’t cry when he pushed open the door. Richard Hafferly lay there with closed eyes, and what looked like a tranquil smile. His father finally had peace, after all these years of insane rambling and bizarre construction. The odd pieces of his work still sat on the mahogany desk, lying in heaps of notched wheels and metal rods. Edmund grasped his father’s hand, uttering one final goodbye. The halls of Castle Hafferly were now home to one more ghost.

   Later that day, Edmund summoned the family doctor, who pronounced Lord Hafferly dead. Funeral arrangements were made, and the event was attended by strangers and commoners from all the nearby villages and houses. Edmund knew that none of these people paid any real respect to his father, likely wanting his own favor once he became Lord of the castle. His father’s coffin was extravagant, inlayed with their family sigil and outlined with gold and silver. Soon enough, the piece of art was buried beneath the dirt, its beauty never to be gazed upon again. Edmund accepted their meaningless condolences, and retreated back to the keep after the ceremony concluded. He was the last surviving member of this great house, with all of its wealth and history falling into his young hands. The new Lord Hafferly found it emptier than ever. He locked the door to his father’s room, leaving all its contraptions inside. Edmund wanted to remember the time before his father’s madness, when they were a family.

   He still received his education from the proctors, but didn’t summon back any of the castle’s previous servants. Edmund even abided by his father’s policy, shooing away multiple representatives of the church. It angered him that they only came after Lord Richard’s death, hoping they could appeal to the son more than the father. The months went by, and eventually the years. Edmund became a solitary man, but managed the finances and lands of house Hafferly well. His education was finished, and he used his knowledge of agriculture to greatly improve the yield of the local farms. In turn, they increased their taxes to his lordship. When winter came, the peasants no longer went hungry. For that, they were ever indebted to House Hafferly.

   Still, Edmund refused to hold feasts or hire maids. He even refused the other great families when they offered to give him their daughters as wives. More winters passed, and war continued to rage on throughout the continent. Eventually, the other families forgot about House Hafferly. It grew rich off of tithes and taxes, but the neighboring lands learned that bothering Edmund would be of no use. He grew more and more like his father.

    One day, Edmund awoke to the sound of coughing coming from the adjacent room. He assumed it was another dream, but even once his eyes were open the noise could be heard resonating into the hall. Curious, he lit his chamberstick and wandered out onto the crimson carpet that covered the floor. He found himself standing before his father’s door, a place his gaze often avoided. The lock was unlatched, laying on the floor in front of the great wooden sigil engraved into the entryway. Perhaps the ghosts had grown tired of silently wandering the keep. Edmund was curiously devoid of fear.

   He gave the door a gentle push. It slowly creaked open, its hinges stiff and rusted after years of neglect. Inside the room was as he left it, the only difference being the many layers of dust that covered Richard Hafferly’s bed. Curious objects still littered the desk, but they were not what caught Edmund’s eye. Perfectly centered among them was a golden key, seemingly untouched by time. It shone a rich yellow, brighter than any jewel or gem. He took it in his palm, his mind wandering downstairs to the locked iron door. Soon enough his feet were following the path.

   As he walked through the hallways and descended the stairs, he caught glimpses of Donald and Isaac. They ran around the great room in circles, and slid down the polished railings. His father looked down from the balcony above, watching with an expression of concern. “Look at them, Caroline. How long until this war hardens them, too?” His mother stood beside him, her face a misshapen blur. Were these the ghosts Lord Richard had seen in his final days?

   Edmund stood before the cellar door, glimmering key in hand. He pressed an open palm against the cool metal, memories of his father flooding into his mind. With a turn of his hand, the heavy padlock fell to the ground. The doorway slid open, and Edmund slowly walked down the stone stairs. Spiders crawled in the corners, darting up to the ceiling when they saw the light of his chamberstick. This was their home now, for he had forgotten of its existence this past decade. The air down there was stagnant and chilly, and filled his lungs with the sickeningly sweet odors of mold and mildew. Edmund thought he could make out faint screams emanating from the dungeon cells, which were now filled with dry wheat and sacks of old potatoes. After wandering the hallway for some time, a familiar smell entered his nose. Curiously enough, he identified it as the pungent aroma of oil and lubricant.

   A second doorway sat at the end of the walkway, past the dungeons. It was a place he had never explored, and a gate which he had never seen. Edmund cranked the wheel mounted against the stone wall, slowly raising the massive portcullis. Through it was something unexplainably foreign. Before him lay his father’s great work, the culmination of decades of madness and ingenuity. The machine’s great wheels sat still, its gears stuck in place. A vast system of piping ran throughout the huge chamber, snaking between cogs and running like veins along the walls. At the ceiling, they combined to form one massive nucleus. A heart of metal and steam that had never beaten. Edmund stared upwards in a whirlwind of horror and wonder, his movements unknowingly watched by glowing eyes. Jagged teeth formed a smile as Edmund gazed upon the horrid craftsmanship, perplexed as to its purpose. He froze in terror when the unholy voice penetrated his head.

    “You must be the son.” Its words were raspy, like frosty wind on a stormy night. Edmund had not seen what evil mouth the voice came from, and feared to give it a response. “It’s alright, Edmund. I fear you may know of me already.” The notion confused Edmund, surely he had never heard such a being. “I don’t know what you speak of, who are you?” His question was swiftly swallowed by the darkness around him.

   “I’ve been called many names, but your father referred to me as Karizan.” Edmund remembered his father’s one-sided monologues, and wondered if he too was going crazy. “Maybe you are. What’s it matter anyway?”

   The unknown entity had seemingly read his thoughts.

   “Stop it! Come out, there’s no use in hiding!” Edmund yelled out to whatever rested in the dim shadows. For a second he glimpsed a crooked smile, and a flash of hideous red eyes. He turned and ran, sprinting down the hallway and up the stairs to the great room. He slammed the metal door behind him, and quickly latched the padlock back into place. A whispered laugh resonated from the depths below.

   Edmund turned around, wanting to flee to his chambers. Before he could, something darted up the wall to the top of the stairs. Whatever it was, it immediately sunk back into the blackened hallway. “There’s no need for fear, my friend.” He didn’t trust that cursed voice, or its deceitful tone. “Tell me what you are!”

   “Such a dull question, Edmund! Richard never asked me anything so… plain.” Karizan let out a deep, throaty wheeze. Edmund interpreted the mocking sound as a chuckle, and his courage began to return. He was quickly becoming annoyed by whatever presence resided in his house. “If you really want to know, so be it. But I warned you.” A figure leapt from the darkness, swooping down onto the large table that sat in front of Edmund. He fell backwards, staring up at the being called Karizan.

   It was something ancient, a hint of dark intelligence lying beneath its sunken eyes. A demon that surely inspired tales of the devil, a cursed thing covered in dark scales and grotesque veins of fire. Its pointed teeth curved inwards, the thing’s mouth forming a sinful pit. Edmund feared it would jump down and tear him limb from limb. But it didn’t. Karizan stood there, his dark leathery wings folded up at his sides. The beast stared at Edmund with something that looked almost like disinterest.

   “What’s wrong, don’t like what you see?” This time its hideous snicker was unmistakable. Maybe this creature wasn’t here to destroy him. “A correct assumption, I am a demon, or at least I was at one point in time. And no, I’m not here to bring you back to hell in pieces. I didn’t harm your father after all.”

   “Then, what are you here for?” Edmund’s curiosity overtook him, his fears somewhat eased. “You do want to know why old Lord Hafferly spent all that time building those exquisite contraptions, don’t you?” The word Lord brought a twisted smile to the demon’s face. Edmund was taken aback by Karizan’s openness. Why would his father have partnered with a demon? “Oh come on, don’t act so surprised. He had to be building them for some reason, other than pure insanity. And it’s not like he had the knowledge to come up with the plans on his own. If you want, I can show you what he was truly working towards.”

   Edmund remembered the great metal machine that sat unmoving in the cellars, and the strange objects that littered the upstairs desk. He desperately wanted to know what it had all been for, why his father spent years and years away from his only remaining son. It occurred to him that Karizan might not even be real, and he was just following in his father’s maddening footsteps. Edmund didn’t know if he could stomach whatever truth the demon held. Karizan must have sensed his apprehension, for it gave the man a bleak nod and took off into the darkness of the night. Just before he vanished, the demon turned back.

   “I fear you may soon know that device’s purpose. The plans were mine, but the idea was your father’s.” Karizan’s remark burned itself into his psyche. The beast was polite enough to close the door behind him, leaving Edmund alone once again.

   He awoke early in the morning, wondering if last night was some fever induced dream. Real or fake, it inspired something new inside of him. Edmund refused to follow in the insanity of his father. That day he called back the servants and maids, and in the coming months even began attending the other high houses’ feasts and parties.

   Every other day Edmund would set off for the village, talking to the shop owners and trying to help the war-weary town however he could. Eventually, it earned him the people’s favor. His halls were opened to the commoners, who came to him with their requests and praises. Edmund would often invite townspeople to eat at his table, and slowly got to know each of the people he governed over. He became known as a gentle and generous lord, wiping away the memory of his absent father. Other nearby houses began to notice the love Edmund’s people showed him, and the plentiful bounties they sewed. Envoys, and gifts arrived by horse and raven, hoping to bolster good will with his prosperous lands. He graciously accepted them, but declined the frequent marriage proposals issued by the other lords.

   In the end, it was in his town where he found love. One of his frequent trips to the market square brought him into the path of a lowborn seamstress. She was only slightly younger than him, but ever more beautiful. Her blue eyes were like two uncut sapphires, and her dark hair curled down to the small of her back like an auburn wave. He paid no mind to her humble birth, and quickly invited her family to dine in his keep that evening. The feast would have surely pleased any nobleman or king. Edmund served a broad pallet of venison and quail, aged cheese, and imported wine. Her father was a hunter by trade, her mother a seamstress. They were not used to such commodities, and issued no qualm when Edmund asked to wed their daughter a week later.

   Margaret Hafferly would be her name, and the two lived happily together. In the evening they walked through the wood behind the keep, strutting about the pines and spruces. Castle Hafferly held frequent balls and feasts, inviting jesters and singers from all across the countryside. Lord and lady took daily rides throughout the town, checking grain stores and setting aside a tax for the royal army. It wasn’t a burdensome amount, though some of the other houses struggled to pay it. The traumatic memories of events past seldom occurred to him, but every once in a while Edmund’s eyes unintentionally settled on the iron door of the dungeon. He quickly turned them back to the soft face of his young wife. Soon, it was not just her face he gazed upon. His eyes moved down to her large belly, thinking of the young child inside it. His unborn son would be a Lord one day, ruling over all the lands around them.

   One night, when the battle was far from his mind, Edmund heard a peculiar commotion from the nearby village. Curiosity led him to ascend the spiraling steps towards one of the keep’s parapets. Edmund walked onto the balcony, and gazed out over the nearby village with widened eyes as he remembered Margaret’s earlier departure for a festival in the town square. Unfamiliar banners paraded through, as fires and screams rose up from the undefended town. He mounted a horse and set off for the dreadful scene, hoping that sweet Margaret had evaded the soldiers. By the time he descended the hill and arrived on the outskirts of the village, the invading army had already passed by. The houses were crumbling cinders, and bodies lay strewn about the squares and streets. Beside the king’s statue, he found Lady Margaret. Her beautiful face was burnt, and her hands laying protectively over her stomach. Beneath them the wound was unmistakable, both child and mother were gone.

   The ghosts of his keep were multiplied tenfold that day. Lord Hafferly’s grief knew no bounds, his halls once again emptied by sorrow. The pines blew in the wind outside his bedroom window, silently watching as another tragedy unfolded. The servants had all left, moving away to some land untouched by war. But he wouldn’t leave, he wanted to remember all of the pain that plagued his life. Spirits were all he had now. Edmund let out a pained scream that penetrated every room of the castle. “KARIZAN!”

   At once, the demon appeared in front of him. It did not smile, recognizing the unmistakable suffering behind Edmund’s tear-filled eyes. He now knew what the machine was for. Karizan and Edmund set to work on its construction, gathering his Karizan’s plans and his father’s creations. Great gears were lifted into place by pulley systems, and piping jutted out in every direction around the keep. It was not just the cellar that was filled with machinery, but the whole castle. Every room had some dreadful engine as its centerpiece, forming a clockwork of ingot and wood. The house filled with the sounds of churning rods and shafts. Oil stained the intricate fabrics of the hallways. For decades man and demon worked together, laying foundations and cementing motorized fixtures.

   Karizan revealed to him the secrets of modern engineering, creating a construction unlike any other. The keep remained otherwise empty for all that time, as did the ruined village beside it. No one paid notice to what took place there, for the war was never-ending. Eventually, as his father before him, Edmund began to grow old and mad. Ghosts danced around him, reminding him of why he must push forward with the hideous plan.

   Soon, when everything was close to fruition, Edmund and Karizan looked back on their evil work. Perhaps it was divine intervention, or something much more human, but one day he asked the question Karizan had waited years to answer. “Tell me, demon, why did you help me build this resentful thing, why not do it yourself?” Even Karizan looked tired with age, surely far older than Edmund could ever imagine. For the first time, he saw something like sadness in the creature’s eyes.

   “Because, my friend, it had to be you. I’ve seen man die again and again through the eons. Despite his best efforts, God’s greatest creation could only serve to fail him. Stagnation or extinction, those are the consistent outcomes of every lifetime, of every cycle. You, Edmund, are a part of the final era. God finally gave up. He died after He realized man would never change.” A dark realization began to fill Edmund’s soul, replacing his frenzy of anger and despair. “You and your father’s grief built this wretched thing. Complete it, and it becomes the device of humanity’s destruction. Fail, and you only prolong the inevitable. Is this not a mercy?”

E   dmund thought about the demon’s words, considering all the options. He looked down from the balcony, into the great room of the keep. He saw Isaac and Donald, playing alongside his unborn child. Margaret sat in the corner, smiling up at him with her blue eyes, as calm as still water. Richard coughed from the room behind him. His life had seen war like no other, lasting one hundred years and claiming millions of lives. It seemed as if there would be no end to humanity’s self-destruction, but something about Margaret’s stare filled him with apprehension.

   All this reminiscence led him to a new idea, a third option. In one last action, fueled by both hope and despair, Edmund proposed a change to his creation.

   The machine may yet kill humanity, but they would be given one final chance to avoid their fate. His terrible device would accelerate their evolution, bringing new advancements in science and technology for whatever purpose humanity may use them. In one century they advanced faster than ever before, discovering electricity and new forms of communication, even managing to put a man on the moon. Along with this came an unparalleled level of violence and warfare. Genocides were carried out in the name of gods and nations and men killed each other with shrapnel and poison. One single weapon had the power to wipe out cities. But still, not all of their actions were unjust. Hospitals were built and peace treaties signed. Aid was given to those that needed it, not just those who could pay for it. Atrocities were realized, and the past was used as a lesson instead of a template.

   That grim machine continued to turn its gears, while ice caps melted and jungles burned. While education advanced and men safely grew old. Karizan watched intently the outcome of Edmund’s decision, wondering what the primitive race would do with these newfound advancements. Some of their actions showed promise. Perhaps this time would be different, though he imagined it would end all the same.