This story was inspired by a prompt supplied by Anvil Magazine.
Standing amidst the jungles of Java, Herman wiped the sweat off his brow as the chirping of excited finches resounded among the palm trees.
Whilst standing in front of a Rift resembling little more than a mirage that twirled in mid-air like candle smoke, he held the clockwork device with both hands. To amuse himself, Herman inspected the corroded surface one last time. Ignoring the corrosion that resembled fossilized mud that covered the brass plate of about twenty-five centimeters in diameter, he followed the dots interconnected with lines like an arcane map that time had deprived of meaning.
Three weeks before, a fixer in Batavia who was an eccentric totok told him: “They call it a Hydra Mechanism, after the first one that was recovered on a shipwreck. It will take you to untold treasure,” he promised. “You may have to evade the Bupati’s guards as you enter the bush. But they won’t follow you in as the place is believed to be inhabited by wicked spirits. But once you located the Rift, simply head through with this artifact on your person, and you’ll be sent to a destination only known to the mechanism’s creator.”
And today was the day Herman would test these claims and step through the Rift that would lead him to another world. On contact with the anomaly, his mind got cleansed to the point he wouldn’t be able to recall his own name if asked. It used to be a liberating experience, but this time something wasn’t right.
Images and recollections not of his own appeared before his eyes like in a fever dream. Impressions of alien buildings and strangers flashed by until he got spat out on the other side.
Overwhelmed, Herman fell face-first into the ferns. Covered in brown seeds and cod webs, he got up while distant animal shrieks pierced his ears while coming to his senses in the unfamiliar jungle. As reality sunk in, the air with thick, and his skin was covered in sweat. At first, Herman just looked around for any hint of a treasure site he was promised. Then the realization dawned on him, there was no sign of the Rift.
In a flurry, he searched his immediate surroundings. Then Herman scoured the dense foliage for any signs of the Rift, but the anomaly alluded him. Moving deeper into the jungle, it dawned on him the fixer had never mentioned how he could find my way back.
But then he forced palm leaves out of his way and froze. The top of a tower ruin caught his eye. Through past the vines and leaves, Herman saw the angular spire like a ziggurat. Its blackened surface was covered with lavish carvings that had been weathered down to smooth stalactites as if they had molten in the tropic sun. But he could feel the weight of its history and significance on his shoulders, even when eroded decorations were covered in vines and the droppings of birds nesting atop its terraces.
Whatever malfunction the Hydra Mechanism suffered, it led Herman here. A coincidence? Did that tower contain the treasures he was promised?
Through the ferns and bamboo, he forced his way closer to the walls that had been broken apart by the jungle as it reclaimed its rightful soil and climbed into the courtyard.
Beneath a roof of palm leaves lay the remains of stone buildings scattered among the city’s ruins. Some were small abodes, while others were the size of villas, each constructed with uneven slabs of stone with a peculiar turquoise color. Whatever had happened, these buildings had been cleared of their valuables.
From atop an overgrown pile of rubble, he scanned the broken brick streets up to the city's interior gates that likely protected the towers. Through a hole in the wall, he crawled into the interior courtyard. When looking up, his mouth dropped.
A flock of birds flew overhead as he rose to his feet. In awe, he followed the avians as they returned to one of the five towers rising above the trees like proud mountains that had weathered the test of time. His imagination ran wild as he looked up at the spires that reached into the clouds.
Grinning, he imaged the treasures that awaited him. “Just think of the wealth. And it will be mine. All mine.”
He raced up the steps leading up to the temple at the center of the square and entered through one of the massive gates decorated with faded reliefs of armies, animals, and monsters. But all the decayed splendor mattered not to him as he was on the lookout for any signs of precious metals and artifacts.
The halls he entered had already been reclaimed by the jungle. To reach the interior room, he had to climb up the vines covering the wall and force himself past the tree that sprouted through the floor. But eventually, he cut his way through the foliage.
Beams of light falling through the holes in walls cut through the dark, revealing the shape of a massive statue dominating the room. He reached for his electric lantern and shone the light up at the effigy.
Herman stepped back and beheld a sight that would haunt his dreams – the colossal skeleton of a giant standing upright inside a decorative alcove surrounded by imagery and hieroglyphs. At his feet lay massive jars and the remains of other objects. Immediately, he stepped up to the mounds of goods to scrounge for golden artifacts. But there was nothing of value but rotten wood and pottery. But then he got a sigh of something reflecting the light of his lantern and continued to retrieve it. Swiping away the shards, he reached for the object. But once he held the metallic device, it was just some strange clockwork animal falling apart.
He was interrupted by a loud thud. He rose to his feet as he heard the roaring noise of a heavy object sliding across the tiles.
Two golden lights appeared in the dark, like the eyes like that of a cat staring at him from hiding.
Herman drew his revolver. “Who’s there!”
A shiver ran down his spine when a voice sounded like a recording from an old phonograph. *Don’t be alarmed.* His lantern revealed the pale face humanoid automaton dressed in the attire of a palace eunuch. Its wayang-esque head twitched as he leaned forward with its hands folded against each other as if it was about to make a groveling apology for the state of this place. The tattered remains of its faded robes and the gold leaf flaking of its crown testified to its ancient origins. Despite this, it greeted Herman in a Malaysian dialect. *Welcome to Keraton Kuningan, mortal.* It said softly in its cringe-inducing voice. *Where is dee-dee-dee mast-ter?*
Herman blinked. “My master? Why do you need to know my master’s whereabouts.”
The automaton twitched its head uncomfortably. *The master’s nexolabe shie-shie-shie-signature was recognized-reeh-kog-nized.*
“Nexolabe?” Herman reached for the Hydra mechanism on his hip. “He entrusted it to me,” Herman lied. “You see, I am here to see if… you are ready to receive him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid of the current state of the palace is in, I can not invite him. Not until Keraton Kuningan is restored to an acceptable condition.”
He backed away as the automaton stepped, swaying its skeletal arms as if performing in a wayang puppet show.
“Keraton Khu-khu-Kuningan could be restored by the Pembina. But its dormant for-for so looh-ng, we would need tho-to scryer the lay lines and inspect the mek-mechanisims.”
“Oh, good. Yes. Do that,” Herman reacted. “That said, I can not return to my master without a token of your goodwill. He’ll be greatly disappointed to hear about the state of this place. Have you managed to preserve anything of worth? Something that my master could respect.”
It bowed its head. *Understood. We have an appropriate gift for the master. Fa-fa-follow, please.*
Curious about what the automaton had to share, Herman followed it through the ancient halls of Keraton Kuningan. His heart swelled with excitement as the secured doors parted.
Then his enthusiasm faded.
To his horror, the next gate was guarded by two ape-like guardians with colorful eagle wings on their backs. Two pairs of bulging looked Herman up and down as they opened their dragon-like beaks with large pointed teeth.
Herman recognized these anthropomorphic giants standing upon their pedestals as Garudas, dressed in full royal regalia.
Cold sweat ran down his back as he approached the robotic sentinels, not knowing whether they would perceive him as a friend or foe, as their eyes glowed with an ethereal light. Motionless, he waited for the next gate open as the Guradas climbed down to join them.
Herman looked up as the chamber's secrets were revealed to him.
Followed by the two Garudas, Herman entered feeling insignificant as the automaton loomed over him like the carapace of a long-dead insect queen. “What is that?” he asked.
*The Pembina* the automaton explained. *The heart of Keraton Kuningan. But it stopped beating. But once activated, the palace will be restored, and the Masters may return.*
“How can you restore it?”
Suddenly the two automatons grabbed him with their claws and jumped a dozen feet into the air. The carapace shook and creaked as they landed upon its back and dragged the human toward an open hatch near the head of the machine.
“What are you doing?” he screamed as they tore away his clothing.
The human begged for mercy as the automaton caught the Hydra Mechanism. *The Pembina needs a new controller to restore Keraton Kuningan and the nexolabe for our master.*
“No, the master is dead, you idiot!” he screamed as they held his body in place as the Pembina’s internal mechanism rattled around him. “Don’t you see? They’re dead for millen-” he stopped when a mechanical snake crept up to him from within the mechanisms and wrapped itself around his chest. A drill pierced the back of his neck until he could stinger pierce his insides. His motor functions faded as more contraptions worked their way into his body and orifices. Cold things crept across his bones as reserved nerves got reconnected.
Undeterred by the tormented moaning of the mortal, the automaton caressed the mechanism’s surface as if it was a priceless piece of art. *The Masters are eternal.* the automaton said and continued while Herman’s vision shifted, seeing nothing but two points of light like a camera obscura. *The nexolabe will allow them to find their way home. Then we can serve and know our purpose once again.*
Fusing with the machinery, the mortal became aware of his new being. He saw ruins and overgrown streets. Ruined wall and the treasures they held. Libraries with forgotten knowledge and a hoard of artifacts containing wealth beyond his boldest dreams.
*And it’s mine. All mine!*
Hope you enjoyed this story and the new elements it adds to the series overall.