‘Careful, boy,’ snapped Marvo Carvolian as his assistant painstakingly eased the longcase clock into place at the heart of the clockmaker’s collection.
‘Yes Artificer,’ squeaked Ghandrin, sweat pouring from his brow. The youth was precariously balanced upon a set of telescoping metal legs, a dozen feet above the ground. On either side, great rows of timepieces led off into the gloom of the workshop. There were creations of every conceivable shape and variety: Chamonic quicksilver clepsydras, intricately engraved carriage pieces marked with Azyrite sigils, and rune-etched chronographs fashioned in a mock duardin style. There was a reason that Carvolian’s Clockworks was the most famed establishment of its kind in all of Azyrheim.
‘Hurry up, would you?’ Carvolian said. ‘I should like to be abed before my bones rot away to nothing.’
Ghandrin managed to complete his task without incident, and – breathing a heavy sigh of relief – made to lower his rolling platform to the ground. As he reached for the release lever to close the glass casing that secured Carvolian’s treasures, his trailing sleeves brushed against a small, amethyst hourglass, knocking it loose.
The clockmaker’s assistant flailed his arms in a doomed attempt to catch the timepiece, but it fell to the floor and shattered into pieces, scattering shards of pink-hued crystal and dust across the immaculately polished ironwood floor.
What little colour there was in Ghandrin’s childlike face drained away. Carvolian fixed the witless youth with the iciest of stares, his body trembling with rage at this casual act of mindless vandalism.
‘I… I’m so sorry, Artificer,’ stammered Ghandrin. ‘I will take care of it, I—’
‘Imbecile!’ Carvolian shrieked, teeth bared with rage, ‘Get out of here! Get out! We shall discuss this at first gleaming. Any expenses incurred from your bumbling incompetence will be taken from your earnings. Perhaps that will teach you to handle my creations with due care and attention.’
Seemingly on the verge of tears, Chandrin hurried from the workshop. Carvolian watched him leave, shaking his head in disgust. He would have to cut the youth loose. If the fool could not manage such a simple task, how could he possibly continue as the clockmaster’s apprentice? Such a clot could never develop the skill and precision required to etch a pattern of barely perceptible runes upon the interwoven levers of an Aqshyan firedial, or arrange the miniscule gear-chambers and hair-thin mechanisms that were the hallmark of a genuine Carvolian timepiece. Did the boy not realise how fortunate he was to live in High Azyrheim, to be amongst such wondrous creations while the rest of the Eight Realms struggled against the depredations of Chaos?
With a long-suffering sigh, the clockmaker reached for a shard of the broken glass. A Shyishan piece, judging by the intricate yet sombre glasswork. One of a haul of rare pieces he had acquired at the auction halls in Hymnal Square, recovered from the heirloom-vault of a Carstinian tomb if the seller was to be believed.
Carvolian let out a yelp of surprise. For a moment he thought he had seen a flicker of movement within the curved shard, like a shadow passing over water. Peering closer, however, he saw only his own narrow, hawkish face staring back at him. He shook his head and chuckled at his foolishness. A trick of the light, nothing more. Reaching for a broom, he began to sweep the floor clean.
The sound of hundreds of working timepieces serenaded him as he worked – an orchestra of clicks, tocks and tolls rich in timbre and variety. Many of his former assistants had found the sound maddening, but to Carvolian it was a relaxing serenade. He could pick out the sound of each individual piece in his collection, like a woodsman identifying bird calls.
By the time he had cleaned away every last piece of shattered glass, his eyes were itching with tiredness. The High Star Sigendil was visible through the arched windows high above, bathing the workshop in soft, cerulean light. As he craned his head upwards to the heavens, he saw a cloud pass over the distant star, and darkness swept across the workshop floor.
Carvolian felt a sudden and inexplicable chill, as if someone had run an ice-cold sliver of metal down his spine. With trembling fingers he fumbled in his pocket for a fire-taper, and set a flame within the naphtha-oil lamp that rested upon his desk. Raising the lamp high, he turned to peer into the gloom.
‘Wh… who’s back there?’ the clockmaker shouted. ‘If it’s you sneaking about, Ghandrin…. this is the final straw, do you hear me?’
It was then that Carvolian realised what had so unnerved him.
Every single one of the timepieces lining the walls of his workshop had stopped. In the dim, flickering light, Carvolian saw that thousands of hands, dials and levers were pointing directly to the midnight hour.
‘What is this trickery?’ he whispered, and though the shadows gave no answer he knew that he was watched.
There was a single, ominous boom, as Carvolian’s timepieces tolled as one. Then another, and another, and with gathering speed the hands of each clock began to whir forwards. As Carvolian watched in mounting terror, sand as black as the space between stars began to pour from the facings of each clock, spilling across the floor in trickling rivers. The clockmaker felt a sudden and terrible pain seize his body, running up his arms and lancing through his chest.
Faster and faster the clock-hands spun, and downpour of obsidian sand was whipped into the air by a sudden gust of freezing wind. Carvolian raised one arm high to fend off the choking dust and saw that his flesh had withered and greyed. His fingers were bony claws, his bones visible through paper-like skin. Clumps of grey-white hair fell from his scalp, and his panicked breathing grew strained and reedy. He no longer had the strength to stand and fell to his knees, gasping for breath that would not come. In the reflection of his lamp’s crystal casing, Carvolian saw his own face. It was the visage of a risen corpse – skeletally thin, eyes sunken and lifeless. He began to scream.
The lamp spilled from his trembling fingers and smashed upon the floor.
The rising gale now filled the workshop with an impenetrable sandstorm. As his teeth fell from his jaws and his vision blurred, the clockmaker thought he saw a shape emerge within that surging blackness – a grinning skull, its jaws opening wide to devour his very soul.
It was the last thing Carvolian saw before his body crumbled into dust.