“Who has eaten my bread?”
“Those are my vegetables, wench!”
Odc picked up his displaced brass mug. “Boys,” he said to the rabble stomping around the room. When no one heeded his words, he bellowed, “boys!”
His six companions looked to their leader. “The oracle has foretold this moment.” Odc looked to the young woman peeking out from behind an immense wardrobe. “Come out, girl.”
Seven pairs of eyes followed Snow as she stepped away from the wardrobe. She smoothed the front of her dress and curtseyed to the gathered faithful. The silence was palatable, and could’ve used a side dish. Unfortunately, Snow ate the hoarded bread and vegetables.
“Master dwarf,” Snow knelt at Odc’s feet.
“The Tenyks are advancing on us, Highness.”
Snow blinked at the words that didn’t belong. “Master dwarf?” she asked.
“Snow,” an urgent voice penetrated her dream.
Snow woke with a start, and her grip tightened on the lance that lay across her lap.
“They’re almost upon us,” Sky hissed in her ear.
Snow peeked out from her hidden vantage, the dream faded into the recesses of her memory. “Now!” shouted Sky as the roof of their hiding spot sprang open and the sisters followed.
Sky rebounded off the hatch, her twin brass scimitars brandished with the tips brushing her elegant elbows. Her strike with the pommel missed her first target, only to have the scimitar slash across the throat of the missed target as her fist struck home against the Tenyk beside. A fountain of blood erupted from the first Tenyk, and it drenched the tips of Sky’s blond hair strawberry.
Willow rose high enough for her clockwork crossbow to clear the blind. The twang of the brass line was a language only she knew. Recoiling, the stock reset and a brass cylinder rotated another bolt, knocked into position. Steam hissed from her matching brass forearm braces as each bow loosed death into the advancing horde. She waded into the bodies, her braided hair swung to and fro with each duck and weave.
Snow’s gaze shifted. Where is Daisy? she thought, surveying the battlefield. An explosion of noise and steam flung the mindless Tenyks as Daisy’s gauntleted hands swung a Tenyk, and the body bludgeoned all obstacles in her path. When her brilliant gauntlets were dripping in Tenyk blood, and her weapon was pulverized into a boneless lump, she discarded it and seized another member of the horde. Daisy’s close-cropped red hair didn’t show the blood of her enemies, but white teeth brandished through a mask of blood and gore formed a smile as she spat globs of blood over her shoulder.
Snow watched as Sky’s blade erupted from the chest of a hapless Tenyk, her knee striking the body to slide it from her weapon. Sky met Snow’s eyes, and she exchanged a look and a wink. Snow spun her lance, wedged the handle into a crevasse and vaulted into the fray. She ran the bladed edge through three Tenyks, before the twisted the handle, and steam forced the shaft to collapse on itself. Another twist, and the lance returned to it’s original position. Again she planted the handle, and once more she leapt into a group of Tenyks, pushed back by Daisy.
The Quartet dispatched the mindless Tenyks, using the walls and ceilings of the tunnel to outmaneuver the pitiful men. Snow witnessed each death, and it weighed on her heart. These men and boys she once called her subjects, had had their souls stolen by an evil that knew no bounds; no limitation. Ceridwen was a blight on the world, and she moved from kingdom to kingdom consuming everything in her quest for something as arbitrary as beauty.
Even with all her dark magic, Ceridwen couldn’t match the beauty of a young Snow White. What did her envy get her? A broken magic mirror, and a body of brass. Snow was certain Ceridwen was now more machine than human as her unattainable quest for perfection and beauty consumed her twisted mind.
Snow stood over the fallen Tenyks, tears etching gullies into the dirt and blood that caked her face. Her three sisters didn’t echo her sadness. To them, the Tenyks were an enemy army to be defeated. To Snow they were brothers, uncles, and children. Sky, Willow, and Daisy congratulated each other and slapped each other on the shoulder. None of them would know the sorrow of killing her own people.
* * *
Ceridwen bounded into the throne room antechamber. “Where is it?” she asked of a elegiac King John.
John looked up and sneered, the mirrored fragment that had ruled him for so long clouded over. “I’ll never help you!” he shouted. “Your hold over me is finished!”
Ceridwen kicked him in the stomach, and picked him up by his throat, the clockwork and steam forcing her artificial limbs to her command. John beat his fists against her magnificent gleaming arm as his vision faded. “You have failed,” he whispered as his sight faded to black.
Ceridwen screamed, and tossed John’s body against the throne. She didn’t even listen for the telltale sound of broken bones. Turning toward the false wall, she cocked her arm and let loose a brass fist against the stone. Each impact broke brick and dented her fingers a little more. Her fingers would need to be replaced, but she was almost through the stone wall.
As the hole widened enough to grant her ingress, Ceridwen saw her creation stomping up the stairs. She stood aside as pressure built up and the Brass Automaton crushed the stone that lie between them.
The Automaton seized Ceridwen by her metal waist, and leapt through the roof of the throne room. She saw Jarvis limp up the steps and prostrate himself at the site that mechanical beast launched from. Ceridwen cocked her head slightly, and the Automaton set her down before dropping back into the throne room, and retrieving Jarvis. A leap back to the roof, and her creation held them both in its arms and thundered into the sky.
Ceridwen looked back as Snow and her warrior sisters clamored into the throne room. They could only watch helplessly as the greatest menace their kingdom had ever seen disappeared into a cloudless pristine azure sky.
Next: The Many of One