The clockworks on display in the temple were the culmination of many years of hard work by the craftsman. Years of hard, diligent work, many prayers to the god of the forge, innumerable cuts and scratches that had almost made his hands worthless and numb, his fingerprints long since worn off.
And it hadn't been worth it.
These clockwork creatures and men were… imperfect. The sparrow could only sit on a branch, it could not take flight. The automated man could only stare blankly at passersby, making them unsettled. Even the clockwork Heracles he had made, depicted strangling the great lion, was unimpressive; it could only repeat its actions until the spring wound down. It was not enough.
And he feared it never would be.
The automata were taken down from the temple the next day; the craftsman would have them disassembled and their parts melted down for new works. Better works. More lifelike works.
The craftsman resolved that divine favor would be the only way to improve his works. Therefore, he resolved to go on a pilgrimage to Limnos, and visit the site most sacred to the god of metal, where he had been cast down from the godly kingdom, and crippled by his spiteful mother. The trip would be long, hard, and expensive, but he had many drachmae and much time.
The temple was magnificent. It stood on the very spot where the crippled god had fallen, glistening in the sun. It was entirely metal, but what metal, the craftsman did not know; it looked akin to bronze, but when he knocked on it, the density seemed wrong. The top of the temple had a facade depicting the fall of Hephaistos, his lecherous wife Aphrodite, and his second wife, the graceful Kharis. It depicted Ares and Aphrodite being discovered in bed by the gods, the treacherous Hera being trapped on a throne of Hephaistos' own design… surprisingly enough, this facade was uncolored; perhaps they were renovating it?
The inside was even more spectacular. Unlike most temples that were open to the air, this was enclosed, with a door that opened as if the gods themselves pushed it aside; he knew it was a simple trick, but he admired it nonetheless. There was a sacred forge in the center attended to by priests and smiths, who were creating mostly ceremonial pieces, such as ceremonial swords, jewelery, shields… and cogs. Automata were, by in large, inspired by Talon, the great bronze man that Hephaistos created to protect Europa on Crete; creating them was still a relatively uncommon practice, due to their complexity and relative lack of use beyond entertainment.
The craftsman approached one of the priests, when suddenly, a bird flew over his head, causing him to duck down. Cursing, he looked around, and saw the the bird was, to his surprise, an automaton, capable of flight. He inspected the small sparrow, which tweeted at him in response. He reached out to touch it…
"I would suggest that you do not do that, pilgrim." The craftsman turned to face a priest of Hephaistos, clad in a red tunic. "The Broken one does not favor those who tamper with his creations."
The craftsman knelt before the priest solemnly. "Forgive me. This is my first pilgrimage to this temple. I come to pray to Hephaistos for greater skill in the creation of automata and clockworks." He pointed to the bird. "Tell me, which one of your craftsmen created this? It is spectacular, I must learn his technique."
"That piece was untouched by human hands," replied the priest, smiling. "The Broken one himself created that piece, and several others in the temple. The Broken one is such a great craftsman, he can create complex pieces with only a single touch." He produced a pair of gloves, handing them to the craftsmen. "If you truly wish to inspect that piece, wear these, lest you be smote by the Broken one's touch."
The craftsman couldn't help but think that 'the Broken one' was an odd euphemism for Hephaistos, but he supposed it was apt; after all, Hephaistos was broken at birth, and broken again when he was cast down from the heavens. Regardless, he put on the gloves, and inspected the bird, which perched on his finger; the detail was remarkable. Every feather was visible, and they were not engraved, but actually individual metal plates. The eyes were small, unknown gems, the beak crafted of steel… and it was all incredibly light. He would have expected a piece this intricate to be so heavy, he could not hold it, let alone have it be able to fly. With a broad smile, he released the bird, and knelt before the priest again. "I beseech thee, tell me the secrets of Hephaistos."
"All in due time, friend. All in due time."
And so it was that the craftsman began to study at the temple, living among the priests, smiths, and craftsmen at the temple. He quickly began to notice several strange things about the people there. Firstly, several men, Sicilian by their look, spoke and wrote in a language unfamiliar to him. He also noticed that several of the walls of the temple, which had been crafted of an unknown metal, had been engraved with obscure, possibly pagan, symbols; had the temple been vandalized?
Illness was also startlingly common among those in the temple; several men were whisked away to the infirmary due to coughing and sudden bursts of pain; these men were never seen again by the craftsmen, and when he asked the priest, he was told that they had been taken to do work for Hephaistos elsewhere, and that they were quite alive.
Most disturbingly of all were the humanoid automata he had been seeing; they seemed to change position whenever he left the room. Granted, automata were meant to move their arms, head, legs, mouth, and perhaps even their eyes… but he had never heard of walking automata. Then again, he had also never heard of metal birds capable of flight.
Nonetheless, he continued his work on automata, his skill growing each day. He attended prayer and meditation daily, and always found it curious that, despite being a temple of Hephaistos, the only fire in it was that from the forge; no sacred fire was used for sacrifices. He simply thought that this temple was part of a cult dedicated to the smith aspect of Hephaistos, and thought nothing of it.
One night, after working at the temple for 11 months, the priest he had met almost a year ago came into the craftsman's chamber. "You have been here for long enough, I think. It is time."
The craftsman looked up from his blueprint, which was that of a sparrow that he theorized would be capable of flight. "…time for what, oh priest?"
"Time for you to see the true secrets of the Broken one." He extended a gloved hand to the craftsman. "Come." The craftsman stood from his desk, and followed the priest out, to the main room of the temple. There, the priest depressed a metal panel on the floor with his foot, which made an unusually loud thump noise as it did so. The floor slid away to reveal a staircase leading downward. "Here, you shall see the true temple." He took up a torch, and traveled down into the bowels of the temple, the craftsman following.
As they descended further down, the craftsman heard a chanting, in an unknown tongue. It made him feel uneasy, the hairs on his skin standing on end, as if affected by some unseen breeze from the underworld. The chanting grew louder as he descended deeper… and deeper… and deeper…
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of walking, the craftsman emerged in a large room, made of the same material as the temple above, and inscribed with the same symbols. Several members of this cult were bowing in reverence to a figure on a throne at the other end of the room, chanting in the same unknown language. The man was… not a man at all, but some form of automaton. Around his neck, he wore a metal pendant with several strange symbols engraved into it. The automaton stood, and pointed at the craftsman, beckoning him closer.
Nervously, the craftsman approached, the crowd parting for him. The automaton beckoned more sharply, his eyes taking on a bored look… it was then that the craftsman realized that the eyes were too perfect to belong to an automaton.
They were human. With a sudden look of fear in his eyes, he turned and stared at the priest. "By Styx, man, what madness is this?"
The priest laughed. "Madness? This is the touch of the Broken one. The one you believed was Hephaistos. The Broken One's touch reveals the true form of man and animal, for the whole world is a machine… and we are simply cogs, levers, and screws in it to serve his purpose."
"…you turn people into machines? But… that…"
"You've always aspired to create great work, oh craftsman." The automaton stepped off the throne behind him, approaching slowly, with carefully timed steps. "Now, you shall become part of the greatest work in the history of mankind." The automaton drew a knife and cut open the craftsman's palm, and leaned in, kissing the blood. The priest smiled. "It is done."
"…what is done? What have you done?" A great fear stirred in his heart, but his pulse refused to quicken. Instead of his beating heart, he heard a tick… tick… tick… tick… tick…
The craftsman felt as cold as the metal around him.