Matteo walks into the palace dance hall and scowls under his mask. He gets some satisfaction when he dulls the over-polished floor with his shoe. Columns line the outer edges of the room and support a vaulted ceiling. The painting on it gives the illusion that it rises into the heavens with angels circling the largest chandelier. Guards stand in pairs at various points with dead eyes. The noblemen and women gather in clusters, discussing politics.
He walks around the groups and straight to the pedestal housing a pocket watch at the other end of the hall. A circle surrounds the base with interconnecting geometric sigils weaving up and around it, slowly transitioning into disconnected glyphs. Sigils cover the glass case, only visible to adept and master magicians.
He fully circles the pedestal and gets as close as possible without agitating the circle. A stand props the open watch up. Artists carved the casing from ivory and added obsidian inlay and gold gilding. The dials consist of gold and silver. Its main face measures the hour, minute, and second with copper hands. Two faces keep track of the season and phase of the moon. A face smaller than the other two measures milliseconds.
“Do you think it can actually reverse time?”
Matteo turns to look at the woman standing next to him. In a way, she reminds him of his comatose wife. “I heard the king commissioned the best alchemists, magicians, and horologists to craft it.” He gestures in irritation at the display. “It seems a waste, though, to make something like this for a petty war.” As he begins to walk away, he says, “I suppose we’ll see if it works, won’t we?”
The attendees are careful to avoid bumping into anyone so that they don’t seem impolite, but he avoids it out of disgust towards them. A servant carrying glasses of wine on a silver tray stops in front of him. Matteo takes a glass and his claw rings clink against it. As he wanders throughout the hall and talks with specific groups of people, he hides small pouches of powder.
The woman he’d spoken to earlier waves him over, and he uses that as an excuse to trip and fall in front of the pedestal. He waves away the people trying to help him up. The guards don’t seem concerned. He pushes a clawed finger through the circle as he gets up, breaking it. A ripple of magic spreads and charges the pouches of powder. They explode and fill the entire hall with a thick, black smoke. The crowd screams in panic as they try to find an exit.
He scratches his own hasty sigils into the glass and mutters incantations over them. The glass shatters, and he takes the watch. At the same time, a magician spells the smoke from the room. Matteo raises his hands with his thumb resting on the winding crown. Four guards are in front of him with their flintlock pistols pointing at him. The rest surround him from behind; the court magician is likely blocking the entrance.
“Drop the watch!” A guard yells.
“I don’t think you understand how dangerous that could be.”
“Does it look like I care, thief?!” The guard marches up to him and reaches out to wrench the watch from his hand.
Matteo presses the crown in and holds it. The watch hands stop, and so does everything else. “I suppose not,” He replies. He slides a stiletto dagger out of his sleeve and stabs the guard through the vena cava and into his throat. There isn’t a need to wipe the blade off since the blood doesn’t cling to it. As he expects, the court magician blocks the exit, ready to cast. Matteo knocks him over, but the magician stops mid-fall. He snorts and kicks the man’s legs out of his way.
When he leaves the palace, he takes his cloak off and twirls it around himself. The mask turns into a cloud of smoke and his clothing changes into something a middle-class merchant would wear. He lets the cloak go and it settles in the air. Avoiding the crowd gathered in front of the palace, he walks to the other side of the street. He takes his finger off of the winding crown and closes the lid, time resumes. A carriage stops and he pays the coachman to take him home.
Matteo carelessly opens the door to his atelier and knocks a stack of books over. Candles sit on every available surface, the ones held in the sconces are useless stubs. With a wave of his hand, the candlewicks spark and catch fire. He slams the door shut.
A desk sits under a shelf holding alchemy equipment. Books on various subjects, broken mechanical devices, and loose paper takes up most of the worn wood flooring. A dense layer of dust coats the books still sitting on their bookshelf. Diagrams and anatomical drawings cover the walls, along with various framed moths. Sketches of a beautiful woman stand out amongst them.
He kicks a book on witchcraft and demons out of his way as he walks to the arcane circle carved and burned into the floorboards. Taking the watch out of his pocket, he opens it, and tries to turn the crown clockwise. It doesn’t budge. He twists it counterclockwise, and the hands turn backwards. The door opens and as it closes again, the books restack themselves.
“It could use a few improvements,” He mutters.
He sets the watch down in the center of the circle. An enchanted quill lying on his desk sweeps scraps of research and notes onto the floor and hovers over a stack of paper. With two spells, the watch levitates and disassembles itself into an exploded view. The quill fills several pages within a minute, and it sweeps them onto the desk and floor.
Matteo pokes at a still-bloody lump of flesh and frowns when it makes an irritated noise. “Demon flesh. That’s why the fools that made this are either dead, insane, or both. Serves them right,” He mumbles.
A deep red gem embedded in the back of the case catches his eye. “A blood crystal condensed from human blood. It’ll work for now, but I’ll have to find phoenix blood before I can cross into other worlds.”
He takes a moment to examine the faces. The metal isn’t pure and there is a distinct lack of enchantments and sigils. “They didn’t add the outer ring. Did they not think it was necessary?” He pulls a gear out and moves it over another circle. Enlarged projections of the sigils and glyphs appear. The lines are scratchy with an uneven thickness. “Pitiful. The acid used to etch these was of poor quality and an untrained magician made the etchings. They’re also on the wrong gear.”
He looks up at a sketch of the woman and sighs. The quill sweeps another sheet off of the stack does its best to scratch holes in the next sheet. “I’ll need unenchanted metal to recast the gears and make a new spring. They must have forgotten to grab those notes and made up their own.” He removes the gear from the circle and it flies back to its rightful place.
The quill flops down on the desk, leaving the last page on the stack. Matteo reassembles the watch and it floats down into his hand. He sets it down on the desk and gathers the scattered papers. Most of them contain neatly labeled diagrams of the watch and its components. Notes fill the others. The last sheet on the stack is another sketch of the woman. He pins it to the shelves above the desk.
He spends hours at his desk going over the diagrams and notes. With another quill he writes his own notes and lists in his loose chicken scratch. Most of the materials he needs to make the parts are either in the workshop or he can buy them easily. He’ll have to buy the phoenix blood from the black market.
Over the course of a few months, he gathers everything he needs to improve the watch. Phoenix blood was hard to find in the black market, and it would have been expensive if he didn’t steal it. At least phoenix owners are eager to make coin from the birds’ ashes.
Matteo disassembles the broken watches lying around and sorts the parts into piles of gold, silver, and copper. He melts the piles separately and dumps premeasured containers of phoenix ash into the molten metals. The enchantments he mixes in lays the magical groundwork; he pours the metals into their molds. While the pieces are cooling, he focuses on condensing the phoenix blood into a glowing orange gem. By the time he finishes the blood gem, the parts are cool.
He starts with the watch dials and outer ring. Acid softens the pieces, and with a steady hand, he etches sigils on the faces and glyphs on the outer ring with a fine blade. He assembles the faces, puts them in a silk-lined box, and does the same with every single gear.
The case is a work of art, free of magic. Matteo carves a glamor spell on the back and enchants it to compel others to ignore it. He makes a tempered crystal covering and an ash grey lens that can snap over the covering. Again, he goes through the etching process. He alters the case to store the lens and adds an exposed gear to turn the outer ring of the face.
It takes him a week to reassemble the watch. He slots the lens over the glass, geometric and organic shapes overlap to create new, complex sigils. The glyphs glow as he stops to turn the outer ring in opposite directions. When he finishes, the color fades from the room, the temperature drops, and the air stagnates and thickens.
The woman from the sketches, his wife, stands at his desk, looking at the diagrams and notes laid out. “You could’ve blown yourself up doing that.” She looks at him and the corners of her mouth tick upward. “I thought we agreed to continue the never-ending search for immortality and the philosophers’ stone if one of us died.”
“Ophelia.” Matteo walks through the clutter and wraps her in a tight hug. “You’re in a coma,” He mumbles into her loose hair, “there’s a difference. None of it matters without you anyway.”
She pushes him away and grins. “Get on with it then. Neither of us will live forever if you keep up with this sentimentality!”
Matteo huffs and turns the winding crown counterclockwise until she disappears. He then turns the outer ring in a different combination. Color blooms from the grey and the clutter fades, leaving the atelier clean and organized.
Ophelia sits at the desk, sifting through diagrams and notes while writing her own with the enchanted quill. She smiles warmly at him and gestures to a stack of journals and paper. “Thank you for keeping these. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep my memories of purgatory, so I’ve been catching up for the past year and a half. Now hand me that watch so I can fix it. We won’t be able to do anything without it.”
With a grin, he hands her the pocket watch and they begin.