This story is by Nick Franck and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Sweat left a salient aftertaste inside Klem’s mouth. His army clomped a slight distance behind him. They had reached the no-man’s land between Engine Heart and Iru’Shia. The latter of which he, and the others of the Engine Heart reserve forces, had been called to protect. He shielded his eyes from the sharp sunlight, trying to end its tricks. It cast a ruddy light over Iru’Shia, making it look like it was burning.
“Iru’Shia is burning.” Said the small girl next to Klem. Lieutenant of the Engine Heart reserve forces, and barely twelve years old. Her helmet spilled over her head, its edges reaching her collarbones. Her eyes propped wide, her mouth fell open. The others mirrored her fear.
Not a trick then, but actual fire.
A pungent smell wafted over with a strong breeze. Burning materials mixed in with burning flesh.
Klem scratched his head, a pang of guilt mounting an offense on his psyche. It turned to fear after a second. He should not be there. He’d only become part of the reserve forces to get out of work. Not to mount an actual defense.
When the call came, he hadn’t believed it. He thought it was some elaborate joke. But it wasn’t. Iru’Shia, city of inventions, burned as black as its gate. An army of red poured from it.
Engine Heart would be next. The two cities were divided by a long stretch of grass, a wide ridge in the middle. Defending Iru’Shia was a fallacy, but Engine Heart could still survive.
“What do we do now, Engineer?” The tiny lieutenant said.
“Huh-hum. Technician,” Said Klem.
“I’m sorry, Technician.”
Klem nodded. He touched the ever-sharp sword strapped to his leather belt.
Do not use that. The Engine whispered.
He fiddled with the the growing buckler tied to his arm.
That is not for you.
He fastened the wrench’s binding to his back. It would remind his army of who he was, what it meant for them to be lead by him. Touching it lessened his fear.
Maybe use it for once.
Expectant faces rounded on him. “Ah. Uhm.” He had been elected their leader. Simply because the general populace had no idea what an Engineer could do. Fighting wasn’t one of those things. All they were made for, was keeping and maintaining the Engine. Or so that’s what they thought. Klem had never maintained it, but was still given knowledge. He was still able to invent things, which gave him the title of Technician.
He breathed in and cleared his mind. His force was composed of haggard people with shabby weapons, and not enough food in their stomach. The valiant defenders of Engine Heart. If they failed, the country would fall. Without the Engine’s knowledge, they were nothing.
“We will defend Engine Heart.” Said Klem. “They need to cross the ridge first. It’ll give us time.” He pointed at the little girl. “Give me those.” He pointed at her daggers.
She unsheathed them and laid them before him. Shabby was high praise to their state. “Tell me girl-”
“Celine,” She squeaked.
“Have you used these before?”
Klem frowned. Weapons, but no knowledge of how to use them.
“Then why did you join this army?” He asked.
A redness crept to the rest of her face. She kept her eyes to the ground.
“Does anyone here know how to fight?”
None responded. Their heads were pointed down, eyes fixed to the dark-green grass. Some muttered, but none spoke out loud.
“I saw my father fight. Once. Before he died.” Said Celine. “That’s why I joined. To uphold his honor. To fight for his courage. To stop people from laughing at him.” Her eyes burned as she said the words.
“That’s something.” Said Klem. Even the young had better reasons than him.
All he could do was grant them better weaponry. Change them, to give them an edge. The rest would be chance.
From his pants pocket he took one of nine bolts. The reason for his title, bolts that could change in size. He held it in his hand and said with no small amount of grandeur: “By your knowledge, through my labour, grant me power.” It grew hot and stung Klem’s hand. He held steady until it disappeared, and the burning lifted to his soul. The power only he and his kin held. The power to change objects. Make them better. More refined. The basis of their civilization.
Klem grabbed the two daggers.
Property change: Quality – Pristine. He thought.
Sunlight stung Klem’s eyes as it reflected upon the daggers. Their leather grips became tight. Frayed edges straightened and became smooth.
Klem’s soul still burned.
Property add: Lightning. He thought.
Lines etched themselves within the daggers. Klem smiled as the power faded from him. He gave the daggers back to the girl.
“Try swinging them.” He said.
She did, and the arc trailed sparks of lightning into the empty air.
“Now, the rest of you.” Klem raised his head.
Something flew past Klem. Celine put her dagger next to Klem’s face. It rung out. Hitting something invisible. A wind swept up around them, and the clinging of blades repeated itself. A clamour that ended in the screams of his army. All of them fell to the ground, bloodied. Celine fell next to him, but she still breathed. Her eyes wide, looking at something.
“An Engineer.” Said the one in Celine’s line of sight. He was covered in cloth that spanned his entire body. The cloth was red with streaks of silver. “You’re wearing a sword?”
Klem looked toward Iru’Shia. Where the enemy army was still making its slow way out. They had the same colours as the cowled man that stood next to him. How had he crossed that distance so quickly? And murdered his army?
“I am.” Said Klem. Everyone was dead. They shouldn’t have volunteered if they were useless. Like Klem had. He would be dead soon too. Unless he stayed calm. And solved this without fighting. “I am no mere Engineer. I am the Technician.”
The man in front of him whistled. His blue eyes watered. “Klem.”
“Yes. Yes.” Klem could feel it. That man could be intimidated. “You’d better retreat. Warn your army. Before I come for them.” He straightened himself. To look taller. A daunting task at one meter and fourty centimeters.
The man laughed, guttural, sputtering. “This makes it easier for me. I’ve been looking for you.”
Klem lifted an eyebrow, and blinked. The man disappeared. Something pulled Klem down.
A small hand held against his back. Celine. The girl had better reactions than him. He straightened, and turned his head to find the man behind him. He held a slender blade. Poised to strike again.
Well then. Klem thought. And grabbed the handle of his own sword.
It slid along the insides of the sheath and rung out as it left it. A trick Klem had studied, though it didn’t seem to impress the man in front of him. He smiled through a fanged mouth.
Klem’s blade howled as if it didn’t belong in his hands. Still, he declared himself ready. How hard could it be?
He swung the sword in an even arc from top to bottom. The robed figure evaded, but Klem raised the sword again bringing it down in a slanted arc. It was blocked, and the sword rang out again.
I told you not to use it. Whispered the Engine.
The robed soldier pushed the blade aside and rammed his fist in Klem’s ribs.
He buckled. His breath ran out on him.
“Oh great Technician.” Said the soldier. He lifted his own slender blade and brought it down. Klem moved to parry. His sword screamed as they met. The ringing intensified. Then cracked, together with the blade itself.
Silence fell, and the soldier’s sword struck Klem’s shoulder. It didn’t cut deep, Klem had enhanced his clothing, but left a gash along his shoulder.
How stupid can you be? The Engine whispered again. It would need a talking to when Klem returned. When, and if.
The enemy sword lifted again, but Klem still had the buckler tied to his arm.
Not a good idea, Klem.
Klem made the buckler grow to cover his body, but one swoop of the enemy’s blade cleaved it in two. Taking Klem’s hand along with it. He screamed out in pain. Blood gushed onto the grass. The soldier howled with laughter.
And that’s why.
“Legends of you are spread throughout my country.” The soldier clicked his tongue. “Seems they were exaggerations.” He brought up the sword again. And Klem could do nothing but accept his fate.
The sword swooped down, but two crackling arcs drew themselves in front of Klem, smashing the sword out of the soldier’s hand. “Common man.” Said Celine. “Do something. Aren’t you the Technician? Warrior supreme?”
Celine held her own. But it was obvious he toyed with her. He never moved to parry the daggers. He only dodged them, keeping clear of the lightning charges embedded into them.
“Do something.” Celine yelled at Klem.
What could he do? He panted in pain. His dominant hand lay on the ground, separated from his body. The sword lay in bits and pieces. The buckler cleaved. He was bleeding to death.
The wrench, Klem. You know what to do.
He fumbled for the wrench tied to his back. His first engine-powered creation. In fact, every Engineer’s first creation. The first thing ever made for him. To offer it, was to offer his power.
Celine was being pushed back, the soldier held a sadistic smile. Fangs flashed beneath his black lips.
The wrench was all Klem was. Unused. Procedural. A symbol, rather than a tool.
Celine’s body smashed against the ground. She yelped as she rolled through the grass. Painting it red.
She had already saved him thrice. “By your knowledge, through my labour, grant me power.” Now it was his turn.
The wrench glowed and burned. Klem held on to it in desperation. To let it fall was to lose everything.
“Oh no you don’t.” Said the soldier next to Celine. His slender blade came forward in a single thrust and bored through the girl’s tunic. She screamed, then fell to the ground. Her helmet tumbled, and came to stop.
The wrench burned out of existence. Klem’s essence came alive. The world warped. Became clear, easy to read. Everything made sense at once.
Be what you were meant to be, Warrior-Technician.
With a thought, Klem grew a hand to replace the one cut off. It was metal-made but flexible.
The soldier disappeared in a cloud of linen. Klem saw through it.
An illusion. Magic. A puff of smoke traveled at a high speed, stopped, and revealed itself as the soldier. His sword struck down, but Klem caught it with the metal hand and broke it.
The metallic slivers fell and seemed to evaporate.
Before the soldier’s sword was gone, Klem struck him in the neck. He held the soldier by the throat.
Decommission. Klem thought. And the man fell lifeless to the ground, all light taken from his eyes.
Klem’s soul still burned.
He turned to Celine, who lay face down. Dead. Lifeless.
With long strides he reached her, and put a hand on her back. Change Property: Life – True. He thought.
He could feel his own essence flow into her. He heard the metal heart beat within her, and knew she would live.
He turned to the incoming army, still crossing the ridge. “This is it.” He said to Celine. “The city will be safe. Go and tell them.”
Seconds later, he was off. To fulfill his existence. To do something for once.
As his wrench had disappeared, so would he. The Technician would fade. But Klem would remain.