You will recognise the following, and if you don’t you will recognise it in another. I, somewhat naively and being the ball of dyslexic hilariousness that I am, didn’t see this challenge coming when asked “if you were a comic book hero what would you cast yourself as. Instead I answered immediately and truthfully; Spire. She does not yet exist as a comic book or novel, born only of a handful of these challenges thus far by the ever-talented Matt Beames, but I have been drawn to her from the very start. Out of respect for the yet-to-be-written world of Clockwork City I asked Matt if he would be willing to collaborate on a story and, thankfully, he accepted. Know that the intricacies of this tale are his; I have merely borrowed his stunning imagination for a moment.
Spire crouched on the roof of her home in the Artists Quarter, the wind whipping at her coat and her cropped, white hair darting about her face. She was aware she was dreaming in that strange way you sometimes do, largely because there was nothing clockwork about her; both her arm and her eye were her own. Relishing in this, she set off, leaping between buildings, savouring the clink of tiles versus the soft thud of thatch beneath her feet, drawn for some reason towards the High District.
For even someone with a poor sense of direction, the High District is not hard to find. As the name suggests, every building sat above the rest of Clockwork City, so regardless of whether you were in the Green District or Lowgrime Quarter you could always orientate yourself easily. Spire never struggled with direction, probably because she had grown up on and above these streets so knew her way just as well over roofs as she did on the ground.
At the centre of the High District, and of the City itself, sat the Mayor’s Palace, its upper-most turret towering over the districts, a watchful eye. From the ground this was all you could see of the buildings of the High District as all around it stood a high wall, itself taller than any building among the other districts. From up here Spire could see smoke coming from the chimneys of the barracks of the City Guard and the higher levels of Steamgate Prison. Despite how fast she ran, the towering turret of the Palace seemed to move further and further away until, exhausted, she collapsed, staring up at the changing sky.
She watched the clouds pass, something she rarely had time for now but in the early days of her recovery she would lay on the soft thatch of the craftsman’s roof and practice with her new eye, testing how sharply she could see the water droplets. The familiar soft click and whirr of her eye began and she glanced down to see her arm had returned also. Breathing steadily she sat up to find the roof beneath her had changed to scorched ground and before her lay a heavy wooden door.
Spire glanced about her cautiously but couldn’t shake this need to go through the door. She bent down to inspect the lock, her eye twisting to focus on the mechanism inside. Quite standard, easy enough. She retrieved her tools and made light work of it, feeling the satisfying click, then gently grasped the handle and pulled it wide. The door revealed a corridor. Spire took a step inside and the door swung closed behind her. No sooner had it slammed shut as the walls began to move, not shrinking the space as one might expect, but twisting around some axis, changing the route ahead of her.
She ran, desperate to ensure she wasn’t trapped in a dead end but now feeling the pull of something…something important at the heart of this maze. Door after door, some wooden, some metal, each different to the last and no clearer as to whether it was the right path she was taking, and each time she got through a door the path twisted and changed. Eventually she came to a fork in the path and she paused breathless. “Which was the right path to take?” she thought, weighing up each direction before darting to the right. This time she was presented with two doors, both of shining copper, apparently identical.
Spire stopped and sighed. “So which one do I go through?” she said to herself, trying to see any sign of wear in the face of the door.
“That depends upon what it is you are seeking, Spire.”
Spire spun, leaping towards the doors and away from the voice that had appeared behind her, ready to attack if necessary. Before her stood a tall man with hair as white as her own and the robes of the city elders, but he was certainly not an elder she had seen before. He wasn’t old enough for a start. The most perplexing thing of all was what she saw with her right eye. She was used to seeing a slightly different picture with her mechanical eye, more detailed, clear images in the dark, that sort of thing, but this… Where the man stood in the vision of her left eye, her right saw a swirling nebular of stars, like a galaxy suspended in the air.
“Where did you come from?” she demanded. The galaxy gestured down the corridor she had just come from. “I didn’t hear you.” The man shrugged slightly and said nothing. Spire had never seen a galaxy gesture or shrug before and was struggling to reconcile the two things she was seeing. She ran it over in her mind, trying to find sense, before realising it was a dream so sense was not essential. He had, however, said her name.
“You know me, it seems. Who are you?”
“I have many names,” replied the galaxy rather matter-of-factly, “some of which might be familiar… But simplicity can often be the best path. I am Dream.”
“Dream? Like in the story, ‘Kelis and the Dreaming King’? I heard that once, long ago…” The title conjured a feeling of sharp warmth; of love tainted with sadness. She vaguely remembered it being one of the tales the watchmaker would tell her to get her to sleep, a tale she had not heard in a very long time.
“I am Dream.”
Spire pushed the memory away before looking to the galaxy again. “And is that what this place is, then? Just a dream?”
“Just?” Dream repeated, an edge of exclamation in his otherwise measured tone. “That is a dangerous enough word in the waking world, Spire. It is even more so, here.”
Dream paused as if expecting a response but Spire waited, poised; if she had offended him she should be ready. After a moment Dream smiled.
“But you are right enough. This place is the Maze of a Thousand Locks, and it is part of The Dreaming, which is my realm.”
“And what is in this maze?”
“What are you seeking?”
Spire thought a moment, her brow furrowing as she reached inside, “I don’t know. I knew it was a dream. I’ve been having it for a few nights. I’m looking for something, or someone… I don’t know what, but I know I can’t find it, and I have to…” Spire acknowledged this prickling fear in her chest, knowing that she had to keep going. “If I don’t, everything with fall apart. But every time I think I have moved forward, everything shifts and changes.”
She turned to look again at the doors. “But I’ve not reached this place before.” There must be something, some clue, a sign of which way was the right way. Of why she had reached these doors today… Why she had encountered Dream today. “Do you know which door I should take? Where each door goes?”
“I can answer the second question, Spire, but only you can answer the first.”
Spire deflated. She had heard talk like that many times before. “You sound like old Hedran. He likes to speak in riddles too…”
Something that might have been a smile passed over Dream’s lips.
“One door will lead you home, to dreamless sleep and then waking. The other door will lead you to the thing you seek.”
Spire looked up to Dream’s eyes for the first time. It was a strange sensation fighting her mechanical eye and its swirling stars. “And you can’t, or won’t tell me which door to take?”
The galaxy said nothing and Spire grinned, shaking her head.
“Just like Hedran,” she muttered. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, attempting to calm the prickling of urgency in her chest. If she wasn’t to be given the answers she would have to go with her gut. She opened her eyes and, seeing Dream still watching her, nodded with clarity and determination. “What does Kelis say to the Dreaming King…? ‘Thank you, my lord, for the answers you have given.’”
The galaxy nodded and Spire turned to the door on the left. She drew her picks from her belt and bent to the lock, working towards the firm click. Spire rested her hand on the smooth handle before turning to Dream.
“Wish me luck,” she said, and Dream murmured his reply softly.
Spire pushed hard against the heavy door and this time through it saw a soft orange glow. “I need to stop a minute,” she thought, “space to think.” She shielded her eyes as she let go of the handle and let the door swing closed behind her.
Spire blinked, adjusting to the dark, and recognised the room instantly; a hideout she held in Lowgrime, a stone’s throw from the wall. She lay on the floor shrouded in rough blankets. She looked up and caught sight of Dream.
“You…?” The galaxy nodded. “But this is no longer a dream?”
“This is the world you know. Is this your home?”
“This is just place I know… A bolt hole, somewhere for emergencies. Things are… I wanted to be somewhere different, where I could think.”
Spire looked up at Dream again, finding it harder to reconcile the two images in her mind in this familiar space. How is this possible? What is this creature?
“I have not visited Clockwork City before, Spire. Will you show it to me?”
She weighed her options a moment before conceding. “The roof will give the best view.”
Spire stepped towards the window behind Dream, reluctantly reaching for the hand she wasn’t sure was even there. As she did the galaxy gestured and Spire cried out in shock; they now stood seemingly on thin air, with the whole of Clockwork City laid out far below them.
Spire took in the city she knew so well from this very different angle before raising her eyes to meet Dream’s. “This is still the dream.”
Dream shrugged back. “I did not say it wasn’t.”
“You conniving…” Spire bit her tongue. Dream or not she didn’t fancy falling from this height. “Why are you showing me this?”
“You chose wisely. Now, look down.”
She did as she was told, turning her eyes downward, clutching more firmly to the hard of a galaxy at what she saw.
Below them Clockwork City lay, huge and sprawling; the canals and walls that separated the different quarters and districts giving it the appearance of a giant cog, with an inner and outer wheel divided by spokes into five sections… But at the same time, impossible though it was, it was also the Maze of a Thousand Locks. Even as they watched it began to move again, shifting and changing, each section rearranging within itself and within the whole.
“Your world is shifting and changing, Spire, even as you are trying to find your way through it. The way is difficult; other people are seeking their own way, and their paths, like yours, cause events to happen… There is never an easy path. But there is always a right one.”
Spire couldn’t look away. The city she knew so well shifted and moved and the path ahead seemed more daunting with each tick.
“But how am I supposed to find it? In all of that, how do I find the right way?”
She looked up at Dream and a softness crossed his face. He reached out and took her mechanical hand and stared intently into her eyes.
“Trust yourself, Spire. Follow your heart, do what you know you must. The right way is the one we truly believe in.”
As he spoke both his face and his galaxy-self began to fade.
Spire blinked awake, pulling the blankets away and sitting up to look about her. The loft was as she left it, but the morning felt very different from any before it.