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The Wheel – Michael Picco

Michael Picco

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The ones who screamed the longest were the first ones to die.

Silvea, the stone mason’s daughter, had been the first to go. Her desperate pleas had changed to cries as the wheel turned. Those cries steadily dissolved into ragged screams as she was lowered down, into the trough. Sebastian could still hear her even after she was plunged under the murky black waters. Even now, days later, he could still hear her gurgling screams as she had thrashed and strained against her lashings. He’d watched her go under that first time. Watched as she had closed her eyes, her tears running down, over her forehead, falling down into the basin. Sebastian remembered that part vividly. He wondered if he would be able to taste her tears when his time came in the trough. Her eyes were clenched like her fists as the wheel dipped ever downward. He remembered the slow methodical clop of the header tank as it filled, spilling the water into the buckets lining the wheel. Driving it forward — inexorably forward and down. Down toward the trough. Toward death.

Clop… splash… groan.

For three days Sebastian had listened and cried and cursed with his peers as one by one they had succumbed to the wheel. He had borne witness to their struggles and had wept when their torment has ceased. Cecil, he had been the last one. Yes, strong-willed Cecil. The older boy had finally surrendered to the wheel as dawn broke over the barren hills on the third day. His death came as no surprise to Sebastian. The talkative butcher’s son had stopped speaking in the dim cold hours just before dawn. Perhaps sleep finally claimed him as he neared the trough. Even as he tipped toward the kill trough, Sebastian had implored him to breathe, to prepare for his submersion. But, Cecil had simply dipped beneath the waters without a struggle and without a sound. Sebastian knew he was dead even before he himself was drawn under. The dead never gasped or coughed.

That’s how you knew.

The wooden panel of the sluice gate gently clopped back into place as the water spilled into the waiting paddle bucket. This was accompanied by a splash, as the water was simultaneously deposited into the basin below. The shift in weight propelled the wheel forward — ever forward. The timbers groaned and creaked as the wheel turned on its ancient iron axle. Clop… splash… groan. The process took about a minute to complete, perhaps a slightly less. Three buckets had to spill into the trough in order for it to propel the each of them through the trough. Lashed to the spokes, their feet bound toward the axle, their heads and necks dangling out beyond the edge of the wheel, all the children passed through the kill trough. That was the terrible genius of their torment: they had been lashed along the outer edge of the wheel in just such a way so that only their heads dipped into the trough. The surface of the water never made it past their shoulders — their tiny upside-down bodies thrashing against their bonds as they struggled to free themselves before they drowned.

Clop… splash… groan.

Before they all had died, the sounds of the wheel were interrupted by the gasps of those who survived their immersion: the gurgling coughs of those who were barely conscious as they finally emerged from beneath the water. And there were the cries and curses from those hanging suspended, facing downward, staring at the water’s surface. Their tangled hair hung down, cascading in sodden rivulets over their faces, merging into the dank turbulent waters, listening to those ahead of them fighting to remain conscious. Now they were all dreadfully still. All the children dipped into the trough without uttering a sound. All but Sebastian.

Of all of them, Sebastian was the last one left alive. But probably not for much longer. Sleep was as much of an enemy now as the fetid waters below. It threatened to pull him into oblivion as the wheel spun. Clop… splash… groan. Clop… splash… groan. The sound was soporific, a deadly lullaby. All that mattered now was the wheel — surviving the trough. That’s all his life had become: Surviving the wheel. Breathing. Waiting. Counting the buckets as they fell. Knowing that twice on the hour, he would be he would be plunged down, inexorably down, into the increasingly rancid waters. His field of vision would be cut off by the rusted edge of the trough. The dank runoff would flood into his sinuses. Even as he emerged, the taste of decomposition would linger in the back of his throat as he spit and coughed and gasped his way back to weary consciousness.

It was to him the taste of death.

He could always hear the first bucket spill into the trough behind him; and maybe even the second. But he never heard the third. By the time the third bucket spilled into the trough, Sebastian’s heart was thundering in his ears. His body involuntarily writhing and twisting against his bonds. The water pitched and splashed wildly around him. All that mattered then was getting to the surface. Fighting against the dull grey darkness that shrouded his vision, forcing all conscious thought from his mind. Twice an hour, for three long days: a battle against death.

There was a storm in the mountains to the west on the night they came. The man things that dwelled in caves. The long pale-limbed things that no one spoke of, but everyone feared. The memory of their unblinking ebon eyes sent a shudder through Sebastian. They had come right after dusk, as the villagers had turned from their labors at last and gone home to sup. They had poured from their dens like a wave of shadows spilling into the hot dry evening. There, at the edges of the village, as heat lightning lit the western skies, they had lain in wait — waiting for the sun to dissolve beneath the blackened clouds and violet hills. With them, they had brought the foul-smelling pitch that boiled out the deep parts of the earth. This they poured onto the doors and beneath the windows of the villagers — coating each and every home. Then, all at once, they ignited it.

As the men emerged from their burning homes, the man things fell on them. The man things struck with such savagery and in such numbers that the men of the village never even had a chance. Limbs were torn from the men’s sockets. Sebastian had watched helplessly as his father’s lifeless body had been pitched headlong into the flames. The women fared worse, though. Far, far worse. Those who were of child bearing age were dragged away — broodmares for the man things and their hateful kin. Those who weren’t raped to death lived to bear their monstrosities, but they never saw the sunlight again. Those children who weren’t killed in the fires were taken here — to the water wheel. One by one they had been lashed to the spokes, tied so that their heads and shoulders would be immersed in the collection trough at its base. An endless cycle of torment around the water wheel.

From the high mountain peaks, the water flowed down into the barrens. The mountain storms had bolstered the stream’s otherwise meager flow. During that first day and night, the children could receive as many as three immersions per hour. Commensurate with the faster cycle, immersion into the basin itself had been relatively brief; although admittedly, Sebastian and the others hardly thought about it that way at the time. But after the rains ceased, the flow of water from beyond the canyons had diminished and the wheel had slowed considerably. Now it took nearly half an hour between for the wheel to spin full circle. And as the wheel slowed, the time submerged increased. Sebastian estimated that it took nearly three minutes now from submersion to immersion from the trough’s deadly waters. But it seemed to take much, much longer. Every time.

Clop… splash… groan.

The wheel lurched forward. Sebastian could no longer feel his feet or hands but only the shift in gravity as his body pivoted around the wheel. His numbed limbs seemed like so much carrion meat. The damp fruiting bodies of his friends had drawn the desert flies down into the canyon. They hateful, biting things swarmed around his face, crawling into his eyes and nose. He thrashed weakly against his bonds, trying to conserve his strength, even as the flies drew fresh blood. Over the course of the last twelve hours, the fiends frenzied buzzing had overwhelmed even the dull groan of the axle. But not the clop as the header emptied. And not the tinkling splash of the buckets as they tumbled into the trough. Sebastian looked toward Silvea. Her clouded eyes stared lifelessly out from beneath a mask of flies. Sebastian felt his stomach turn as they crawled over her face, pouring into her gaping mouth.

Clop… splash… groan.

He was upright, near the header box again and could look out over the valley below. The late afternoon sun burned his sun scorched face and hands, but he was long past caring about such trivial things. He gazed out over the vast rocky hills. Heat waves shimmered over the abandoned derricks — the rusted hulks whose pointed beaks once drew out the pitch from the ground like pus; like corruption; like cancer. As a child, his grandfather had seen the last one of these machines at work — although what purpose the pitch served, nobody was entirely clear. But, they had ceased their pumping long ago. None had moved in a generation or more. Their time had passed. That world had passed. A dust devil stirred over the tangles of rusted wire and pipes. How many times had he gone ‘round? How many times had he been dunked into the kill trough below? How many more could he endure?

Did he see a figure there amongst the striated violet hills? A trick of the light, no doubt… or simply wishful thinking. It wouldn’t be one of the man things. They hated the sunlight. Perhaps it was Death himself finally come to claim him. He would be a welcome companion. A line of carrion crows perched high atop a bent and girdered tower. Their numbers grew day by day. Sebastian wondered why they hadn’t tried to light on the wheel, and then it occurred to him that they already had a ready feast in the village in the canyon below. They had been well fed and had simply come there to roost.

Clop… splash… groan.

Sebastian turned to his right. Araan’s tongue had become black, bloated and protruded from his split and flaking lips. The teen had died coughing and cursing sometime during the second night. The straps that bound him to the wheel gouged deep into his bruised and distended throat. Sebastian could only see one of Araan’s eyes. It hung half open, swollen near closed from a blow he had received before he was bound. Of all the children, Araan had been beaten the worst. But then, it had been Araan who had brought this evil fate down upon them. He deserved far worse than what he had received for his crime.

But instead, they had all paid.

The severed heads of five dogs had appeared on the outskirts of the village the morning of the attack — spiked atop twisted forked pikes. The sort of jagged metal spears that the man things used. It was a grisly notice that the uneasy truce with the man things had been violated. The elders believed that the decapitated animals were simply a warning. But what none of them realized was that this was in fact, a declaration of war.

There had been whispered rumors. Araan liked to brag after all, and his friends had loose tongues. Evidently these rumors had reached the ears of the village elders. They had brought Araan before them for questioning. But, Araan was sly. He told the elders a story that they would believe, not caring that in doing so, he had endangered us all. Murdered us all. In the light of the morning sun, standing before the elders themselves, he spun an elaborate tale: how his arrow had struck one of the giant monitor lizards that dwelled in the wastes beyond the canyons; how he had tracked the wounded creature for miles across the wastes; how the thing had scuttled between the rusted derricks and piles of broken pipe before slipping into one of the man thing’s caves. With tears in his eyes he acknowledged that he should have let the creature go. He told the elders that he should have just let it die in the caves rather than trespass into the dens of the man things. But, Araan explained tearfully, his father would beat him if he returned from hunting empty handed; so he had gone into the caves to retrieve the wounded beast. He was only there for a few moments. He didn’t intend any harm.

When he had finished, false tears had streaked down his cheeks. He shook and begged for the elder’s forgiveness. The elders believed Araan’s clever lies and took mercy upon him. They chastised him for his marksmanship and for his foolhardy behavior and hoped that his trespass into the caves would be forgiven. They bid him to slaughter one of his father’s lambs and take five loaves of his father’s unleavened bread to the entrance of lowlands, to the places where the man thing’s dwelled. These he would leave at the border of their territory, hoping that their offering would placate the man things. Had they known the truth, they would have sacrificed Araan instead. Stripped him and left him bound to a post at the entrance to the lowlands. They would have let the man things take their vengeance on him.

And spared the rest of us our torment.

Those of us who lived into the second night on the wheel, we learned the truth. As the wheel had spun, Araan confessed to those of us who remained that he had done more than simply trespass into the caves that day. He had not been chasing any game. He had ventured down to the lowlands to cultivate the devil weed that grew thick and rich along the stream bed. The weed had matured, you see, turning from pink to green. Araan had been eyeing this harvest all season and hoped to gather enough to smoke all winter. As he pinched the buds away from the weed, he heard a rustle in the caves behind him.

He turned to see a young female — an offspring of the man things — staring at him from within the entrance of the cave. She must have been borne of a village woman, as it retained many humanoid features. Araan’s loins had swelled at the sight of her bare breasts and naked thighs, her wide black eyes and innocent look. He had coaxed her out of the cave then, plying her with sweets and softly spoken words. Savage or not, the female was clearly naive in the ways of the world, unaware of the evil drives of young men like Araan. Once the girl was in reach, his lust overcame him, and he took her there on the banks of the stream bed.

Clop… splash… groan.

He didn’t consider it rape. ‘You can’t rape a beast,’ he’d said.

He had left the girl there, bloodied and curled in the weeds as he drew up his pants. But he said that he had seen something move then in the caves. Something pale gray and lanky. Something with long spindly limbs attached to bloated torso. Like a spider crossed with a man.

And he had fled.

Sebastian felt the blood rush to his head as he was tilted downward. Soon his hair would fall into the dreadful waters below. He could smell the stench coming from the tank, the basin the kill trough below. It smelled like death.

  • • •

Malsumis had emerged from the highland mountains and descended into the desert wastes, barely escaping the heat storm that sent jagged bolts of lightning across the hills. He had followed this road for months, traversing the chill mountain passes, cutting a bloody swath through the packs of wolves and wendigos that hunted weary travelers along the road. The road he had followed had been a great thoroughfare once, but now it laid in ruin. Landslides had scoured it from the mountainsides. And all along the way — everywhere — sat the rusted husks of machines that once used this road, their wheels caked in rust. They lay broken and abandoned like so much debris, clogging the road for miles in every direction. Inside, Malsumis could see the bones of their former occupants, some still strapped to their seats.

He forged eastward, headed for lands rumored to be green and lush, and free from the poison of the eastern world. There was a part of Malsumis that doubted such a place existed. That green world was gone — a relic of a world too rich and abundant for his ancestors to appreciate. He gazed out over the desert flats: a vast expanse of rock shimmering in the sun. He had followed a dry riverbed that meandered through the violet orange hills. There he had found pools of foul tasting and alkaline water. It was drinkable, but only barely. And certainly not palatable; but Malsumis suspected that water would be in short supply before his journey ended. He needed more — and lots of it — if he hoped to survive his journey westward.

For days he had followed the dry riverbed. For a while, it had snaked along the road, that is, until the desert had swallowed the highway entirely. In its place huge rusted hulks of metal dotted the landscape. Malsumis was reminded of the huge insatiable mosquitos that had plagued him when he had first entered the mountains late that spring. Something prismatic and oddly iridescent had spilled from the holes they plied, the blood of the earth glazing the ground around them with strange shimmering shellac. What were these things? What purpose did they serve? Like so many things the old ones made, these artifacts remained a poignant reminder of those who had murdered the world.

The wind carried smoke on the air, and with it, the scent of something else: carrion rot. Curious, Karia followed his nose. The crows had perched high atop a corroded metal tower. A ragged cable stretched down attached to the tower’s fallen companion. It layed collapsed into a deep ravine from which he could hear water flow. Water and something else. Malsumis unclipped his holster. Where there was water, there were people. Or something worse.

He crouched down along the canyon’s edge, staring into the tableau before him. A great wooden water wheel churned slow and methodical in the afternoon sun. Tied to its spokes were the bodies of at least a dozen children. On each side of the ravine the unmistakable mark of the Morlachs: an animal skull perched high atop a twisted metal pike. A clear warning to any who trespassed here. Whatever had occurred, the children were long dead.

Malsumis knew enough about the Morlachs to know that they preferred to keep to themselves… that is, unless they had been provoked. Malsumis had seen whole communities wiped out overnight from Morlach’s attacks. The creatures were subhuman — highly territorial and brutally aggressive. Malsumis thumbed the grips on his pistols. He listened intently to the slow, steady rhythm of the wheel as the water cascaded down into the trough at its base, staring at the lifeless bodies of the children as they descended into the trough. A dragonfly lit on the handle of Malsumis’ silver six-shot revolver, its wings twitching under the late afternoon sun.

The water in the basin would be undrinkable; but, whatever was being drawn out of the well, that would still be viable. Malsumis gazed across the desert waste. Heat waves shimmered over the rocky orange hills. He scanned the nearby cliffs and hills for caves. Despite the dangers of trespassing on Morlach’s ground, he could not afford to pass up this opportunity for fresh water.

He descended into the canyon.

  • • •

Sebastian’s heart pounded in his chest as he struggled to remain conscious. He had cursed and cried as he was lowered toward the waters again, and it had cost him. His vision had started to dim before he heard the second bucket fall, and now inky black spots danced before his eyes. Worse still, he had released his breath too soon, and now his lungs burned for air. He had tried to remain still, even as his body fought for air. He didn’t remember emerging from the kill trough. Only that as he sputtered and coughed, he saw a figure stood staring at him. He wore a hideous odd leather mask and a dusty black trench coat. Two huge pistols hung crossed at the figure’s waist. The thing’s eyes were painted black. Was this Death? Sebastian’s terror must have been apparent, as the figure’s eyes grew wide as Sebastian stirred.

Clop… splash… groan.

“Please… set… set me free,” a whisper was all that Sebastian could muster. The figure regarded him as he slowly pivoted upward. “You must…”

“Must I?” Death responded. His voice sounded oddly muffled beneath the mask. Hoarse and dry. Death didn’t sound very merciful.

“Dead… they’re all dead. All… save me.” Sebastian tried to reason with the figure. Trying to reason with Death! The notion was ludicrous! His brother would have boxed his ears for even considering it. But his brother was dead.

“The Morlachs do not take their revenge lightly,” the masked figure said. “To thwart their vengeance is to spill your own blood.” Death seemed to look around the canyon uneasily. “How long have you been here?”

“Three. Three days. Four… nights.” Sebastian wheezed.

“Have the Morlachs returned?”

Sebastian didn’t recognize the term, but assumed that Death meant the man things.

“No,” he said wearily. “They do not come during the day.”

“And at night?”

“No,” Sebastian coughed. “Only the crows…”

Death shook his head. He seemed to search the ground around the wheel. He watched another bucket spill into the kill trough before crouching down and kicking open a valve at the bottom of the basin. Thick muck belched from the holding bay. Death disappeared from view then, stepping behind the wheel, and leaned on a great rusted lever. The wheel screeched to a halt.

The afternoon sun dazzled Sebastian’s eyes as the masked figure cut him free from the wheel. He collapsed into Death’s arms, unable to hold himself upright. He couldn’t feel the straps being cut from his legs or his arms, but his head swam as Death placed him gently down in the soft reddish sand of the creek bed. The basin guttered and gurgled as the water spilled free from the trough. Sebastian gazed dully up at the gray sky. The canyon walls loomed over him like dreadful red sentinels. He felt as though he was falling. Falling down between the cliffs into lush green pastures. He heard Death say something, but his voice seemed very far away. Distant. Muffled. All that kept spinning through his mind like a wheel was: “Clop… splash… groan.

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