“Basically,” he says, “there are four areas in the one, large room. Each has a fountain in its center and a potted palm in one corner. The gravel paths that separate the four areas into quarters are safe…”
I nod. I remember the fountains, the palms — I really wish I had known the paths were ‘safe’. We hunker together in a dark corner of a narrow corridor, my breath ragged in my throat, my pulse rapid and lungs heaving.
“…you have to collect as many coins and gears from the floor as possible…”
Nodding, listening, I tighten my fist over the few gears and coins I managed to gather, feel the bright, reassuring bite of their edges. My whole body aches from use and the blaze and wash of adrenalin. I roll my shoulders and hope my legs don’t cramp up as I squat beside him.
“The longer you stay in the rooms,” — shadows move over his haggard face as he continues — “the more likely you’ll activate the spheres.”
I expel a short, exasperated breath. That much, I know. When the dragon had unfolded from its metalworks sphere, it had left me momentarily stunned, incredulous. The flash of polished steel, the sections of flexible, pleated brass — all moving with such sudden and incomprehensible speed, propelled forward on fitted oiled joints, thick bolts, and whirring gears… I had barely escaped with my skin.
“There’s a sphere in each room – Dragon, Ninja, Phoenix, and,” he looks at me, holds my gaze, “the Woman.” He leans forward, his eyes widening so gray irises float within their whites. “Beware the Woman,” he says. The urgency in his voice is unnerving. “She’s deadly, and she’s cunning.”
This is all the advice he could grant. I stand, now, on the gravel path. The final test before me. I must face the Woman. Before I enter that area, I search for her. Rapidly, my eyes skim the quadrant – tiled, terra cotta floor; plum-washed walls; large, central cement fountain, gushing water; lovely green palm fronds in a glazed earthen vase. And there –there she is, near the palm. The Woman. Gleaming steel and brass folded into herself in an ovoid sphere. I creep as close as possible, lean over the edge where gravel gives way to tile. Her eyes are closed, her face tilted slightly toward me. Regardless of her metallic nature, she has a ruthless beauty.
The lobe of her gleaming ear is just visible beneath her sheet-metal hair. “Go easy on me,” I whisper.
The Woman emits unexpected noise, startles me when she moves. With a whir and click and rattle, her head swivels on its jointed neck so she faces me. Her eyelids flash open.
“If I go easy on you,” she says in a hollow monotone, “I will not perform my function as required. I will cease to exist.”
I had not expected her to hear me, nor to reply. I had only wished to calm my own nerves. “We must all leave this mortal coil at some point,” I say carefully, “what do you gain by killing me?”
For a long, long while, she stares at me, unblinking. With a whir and click of gears, she smoothly unfolds her arm and reaches out to lay her hand flat on my shoulder. The weight of her metal palm is cold and iron-hard. She blinks once at me. Then, all the internal hum of her systems stops. She retracts slightly into her joints and grows stiffen, her arm outthrust, her metallic eyes stuck open.
With immense relief, I realize the Woman has forfeited. I don’t have to fight her.