As the bomb dissolved into a flutter of falling autumn leaves, James instinctively reached out to grab one. It burned so familiar and so foreign. Half-placed memories flooded through his mind.
The cramped space filled with the acrid smell of burning leaves, heady incense, and hydraulic fluid. The rest of the group felt a drop and fluttering in their stomach akin to stage fright. Before them, James had been … replaced.
The Ash Monarch stood tall and impossibly still, his back to the others. The broken and exposed porcelain automaton revealed a confusing maze of whirling ropes, spinning pulleys and sandbags moving up and down inside. Their movement seemed to defy space and logic and it felt like you’d fall in if you looked too hard. Another wave of fear washed over them.
On his head sat a crown, a thing of dull metal gears, woven with dead vines and leaves and bits of sharp and broken metal. Moths made their perch at the highest points. Slowly, and with great precision, the Ash Monarch reached up to place the smoldering leaf into the crown.
Turning his head to face the others, the broken edge of the creature reformed from new fragments grinding into place, keeping in line with the figure’s face. The sounds of cracking and shattering ceramics behind the figure answered the origin of these new pieces. He seemed to build and break as he moved. He looked almost like James, but bland and terrifying.
The moment seems to stretch into eternity before the shards of porcelain fell to the floor, shattering. Underneath stood James, looking confused and unwell. The smells and fear fades, but he still held the slightly singed leaf in his hand.