The room is drab and gray and cold. Uneven floorboards speak of age and disuse. The corners are empty: not even spiders come here. The only light comes through a window at the room's center, filtered yellow through curtains that had not been drawn open since they were put in place. In the center of the room, there is a chair. Atop it sits a girl, wearing a severe gray dress, white stockings, and hard, black shoes. Her skin is very pale, the tone of one who rarely sees the sun. She is almost perfectly still, her knees drawn up to her chest. The only motion is her fingers, toying with her wispy red hair. And her lips, whispering something to herself.
There is a scratching sound at the door.
The girl's lips pause for a moment, and then continue their rhythmic workings. The sound comes again, from down low, but she does not stir. Silence reigns for a while.
And then the scratching returns, multiplied, insistent. Something--several somethings--bump and claw at the door, rattling the handle. The girl's blue eyes go wide, fingers twirling more insistently through her hair, but she does not move from her perch. There is a clattering commotion from beyond the portal, and the door jumps again and again.
The handle turns.
She hears the click of the latch, and her eyes jam shut, knees go tighter into her chest. Her fingers twist themselves into her locks, and she curls up into a ball atop the chair.
Into the room spill an assortment of oddities. There is a teapot with a doll's head and wheels made of old gears, with a pair of tin forks that click together in a pincer motion behind it. An old boot rides atop a quartet of saucers, each attached to a spindly leg made of knitting needles, clock parts, and twine; it makes a high, tinkling sound as it walks. A child's ball rolls to and fro of its own accord, starting and stopping and changing direction, as if there were something inside it, running up the walls.
Altogether there are almost a dozen of these little creations, cobbled from clockwork and children's toys and objects pilfered from kitchen and garden. They are led by a little homunculus of a man-thing, with legs made of a hand-rake and a salad tong, and two arms crafted from long keys affixed together. The head is a hairbrush, with a face made from buttons and string locked in an eternal smile.
Slowly, awkwardly, the little bits of animate detritus form a circle around the girl and her chair. As they approach, a ring of symbols on the floor, nearly invisible before, begins to glow a faint blue, limning the strange creatures from beneath. She opens her eyes, then crams them shut once more, and her tightening fingers suddenly snap in half a worn-down piece of chalk in her left hand. The animates do not cross the symbols, but surround her chair with careful insistence.
There is another sound from outside the room, like something man-sized hitting the floor. Then there is a heavy footfall, and the sound of grinding metal begins to grow in the girl's ears.
The assembled creations fidget as the footfalls clank closer. Her lips still moving, the little girl's eyes shoot open again, and her head whips around toward the door. It is now open, but has fallen back so that only a crack is visible, leaving obscured her view of the hallway beyond.
She turns back to face front, and can feel the little homunculus staring at her. Its button eyes do not blink, nor does its hairbrush head incline in the least, but she knows it is watching, waiting.
She shuts her eyes and chants harder.
CLOMP. Whirr... hiss. The sounds grow louder as the thing takes the stairs. The ring of symbols around the girl's chair has begun to pulse now, in time with the rhythm of her whispered words. The little creatures that surround her have stopped their small movements, and seem to wait for what is about to arrive.
When the footfalls stop just outside the door, her chant falters. When the slow creak of the door stabs through her, she draws a sharp intake of breath, and the chant stops.
The thing that comes through the door is metal and gears and pistons and blood. Its torso is built from an old boiler; its arms are long iron bars with fully-actuated joints, ending in hands that have long, clever fingers comprised of painstaking clockwork and bits of metal hand-crafted to their purpose. Its head is an antique armored helm, like a knight would wear. The face shield obscures whatever lies beneath, but there is a pair of flickering green lights from within. The thing looks like an armored man, and it moves like one: slowly, with murderous purpose.
Blood coats its knuckles, and the girl can see a reddish smear where a hand slid down the thing's chest. From one hand dangles a man's belt, its buckle wet. In the other is a scrap of a flowered nightgown.
The girl chokes back a sob, but only just; her eyes sparkle with tears and anger. The thing doesn't move, watching her. Carefully, she stands up atop the chair, bringing her close to level with the slit in the thing's visor where its eyes should be. Her arms end in clenched fists, and now that they are not clutched to her, the welts on the inside of her forearms show clearly. They are the same width as the belt in the thing's hand.
"Why, Mister Nice-Man?" she croaks, pointing an accusing finger.
The thing holds up the belt. The smaller creations that surround the girl all stir at the movement.
The girl points again, emphatically, at the thing's other hand. "Why?"
It lowers the belt hand. Cocks its head. Shrugs. Takes a step forward.
In an instant, it is swarmed with lesser creations. There is no battle cry, no sound except the clatter of footfalls of the improvised detritus that forms the other mechanical beings. They crash into it like a wave, clambering over one another to claw and beat at it with whatever limbs they have been given. The girl gasps as the little hairbrush homunculus makes a tottering leap off of the back of the boot-thing, sailing through the air to land on the larger creation's shoulder, where it starts trying to pry off the helmet with its little key-hands.
The man-sized creation staggers for a moment under the assault. It takes a step back, and one more, trying to right its balance while dolls and teapots and childrens' toys hang from its limbs and fling their weight about, trying to bring it down. It totters... and catches itself on the door frame.
For a second, it stands there, unmoving, while the other things batter it. Then, regaining its balance, it stands erect, and takes the hand that held the scrap of nightgown across its body to grab the doll-faced creation, crushing it with a clench of its fist. Bits of teapot tinkle to the floor as the thing carries on, flinging the boot across the room so hard that its knitting needle legs snap apart when it hits the wall. Where the small constructs are just toys and scraps, it is solid metal, crafted with patience and genius and fury.
Just as it finishes, the homunculus finds a chink, wedges one of its key-arms into the neck, and pries hard. The helmet stays on, but the faceplate springs open. And then, with two quick movements, a hairbrush and a hand rake and a salad tong and a set of keys falls, inert, at the edge of the circle around the girl's chair.
She stares. "You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she gasps.
The thing makes no answer, just strides through the refuse at her. Suddenly, it comes up short, as if it had run into an invisible wall. The runes on the floor pulse brighter. The girl does not flinch.
"You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she continues evenly, "but you're in him. I made him... and I can un-make him."
The thing gives out a silent howl now, and its fists beat at the air, pounding at the invisible barrier that separates it from the girl. They make no sound, aside from the whirring of its motors and gears, but its posture is one of frenzied anger. Or panic.
The girl begins to speak again, in a strong, clear voice. Her words seem to vibrate the very air around her, and with every syllable, the thing's fists work faster. The runes on the floor dim, strength draining as blows rain down, but the girl does not hurry. She chants on, until a tiny spark of light appears on her outstretched fingertip.
And then the runes give way, and a heavy metal hand lashes out, wrapping around her throat and picking her up off of the chair. The thing peers into her face, the strange apparition behind the visor seeming to relish the thought of choking the life from her. It draws her closer.
She reaches out her finger, and touches it on the forehead. In an instant, all life goes out of it, and it drops to the ground, inert once more.
The little girl rubs her throat, and stands shakily to her feet. She looks around at all of the components scattered across the room, bends down, and picks one up.
"I'm sorry," she whispers to the hairbrush. "Thank you."
And then she walks out into the house, head heavy, alone again.