Thirty years ago
The workshop is long and narrow, each wall lined with benches, which are covered with body-shells, boxes of gears of various sizes, springs, screws, and much smaller boxes of tiny gemstones. Tools, sized perhaps for children, are gathered together in soft leather pouches, each held separate from its neighbours so that they don't damage each other. There are anglepoise lamps at regular intervals along the benches, and natural light comes into the room through skylights. There are no windows in the walls, instead there are corkboards mounted on which are pinned schematics, delivery invoices, and other paperwork. There is a metallic smell in the air that you can taste if you spend long enough in the room, with notes of old wood and hot oil forming a background.
At one of the benches sits a young man wearing a long white button-up coat with no collar over a grey shirt and matching trousers. A nearby lamp is angled over the part of the bench where he is working, and its bright, actinic light casts his face into harsh relief. He is using the tiny tools to bend and hammer a strip of glistening bronze into shape, making a repair to the body-shell just in front of him. This shell is that of a turtle, its eyes glinting rubies and its open body revealing detailed clockwork within. Surprisingly the clockwork is functioning, springs winding and unwinding against each other, gears whirring and ratchets ticking away counting time in a steady, if alien, chronology.
Another man comes into the workshop from a door at the far end which leads out to the shop. He is older, his hair is white at the temples and the sides, and there are deep lines etched into his face. He too wears a white, collarless, button-up coat, but there is no clue as to what he wears beneath it. As he walks the length of the workshop to his apprentice, the clockwork in the turtle sudden stops, and the only sound in the workshop now are his footsteps.
The apprentice turns and looks at the older man, his face pale with shock, and the hand holding the tiny pliers shaking.
"I never-" he begins, but the older man shakes his head and the apprentice shuts up.
"You didn't," says the older man. "Mr. Ethward was struck by a falling tree this morning and has been with the doctor since. It is no fault of yours."
The apprentice starts to put the pliers down, the relief on his face as visible as his nose, but the master stops him.
"You must still complete the repairs," he says. "Burying Mr. Ethward without that would be like taking out his organs and burying his without them."
Twenty-four years ago
The workshop has not changed much in six years, but the apprentice is now a journeyman, and has in front of him on his bench his first commissioned piece. A clockwork raccoon crouches, waiting to be started. Small yellow gemstones create the eyes of the raccoon, and a line of even smaller gemstones run down its belly and catch the light oddly, seeming almost to flicker independently of where the light is. A tiny hole in the back of the head is where the key would go to wind the clockwork, but there is no sign on the key.
Footsteps again, and the master walks up the workshop carrying an infant in his arms. When he reaches the bench, he gently pulls the child's arm up and holds out its hand, and the journeyman quickly pricks the child's finger with a bradawl kept sharp for just this purpose. The child is too startled to cry at first, and the droplet of blood that wells up is quickly wiped over the keyhole of the raccoon. As the child starts crying, the clockwork inside the raccoon starts ticking, and the raccoon turns its head, almost as if it trying to look at the child.
The journeyman picks the raccoon up and places it on the child's chest, who stops crying and seizes it in both hands. The master turns to leave with both child and artefact, but the journeyman asks a question:
"When will I learn how to make the keys?"
"When the need is greatest," replies the master, and walks away.
Fourteen years ago
The journeyman, a talented craftsman now, has been away from the workshop for four days exhibiting the clockwork that the workshop produces at a regional fair, and now he returns. He enters the shop, which is locked and quiet at this early hour of the morning, and walks through past shelves of clockwork. All that is sold in the shop are toys for children, and the occasional labour-saving gadget for busy people, though these are most often commissioned. He goes into the workshop, and stops still in the doorway. A bird, disturbed, flutters noisily up through an open skylight.
His master is slumped across a bench, unmoving, with his neck at an unnatural angle. When the journeyman can bring himself to approach, he checks for a pulse, but the coldness of the skin tells him before he has given up trying to find one that the master is dead. A little way along the bench is the master's clockwork familiar, an elaborately beautiful dragonfly, and held loosely in his dead hand, is the key to the winding mechanism.
The journeyman's hand tremble as he fits the key into the dragonfly and turns it. The mechanism is smooth and turns easily as though it had been made and oiled only yesterday. When the key has made its fourth turn the dragonfly quivers and the clockwork starts ticking.
"Every craftsman must see this for themselves," says a voice, and the journeyman turns, knowing the voice as that of the master. The master is sat up again, pushed now away from the bench. His face is almost as the journeyman remembers it, but his eyes have been pecked out by the bird that fled when the journeyman entered. Foetor spills from the master's mouth, and the journeyman knows that he has probably been dead since he left.
"This is why the key is only made when there is great need," says the master. "This is not a life for the living, this is only undeath. The mind rots away, and though the key will animate whatever remains, it will not last long, and it will be a most imperfect tool."
The dragonfly shudders and the clockwork stops, and the master's corpse falls heavily back to the bench. The journeyman takes the key from the dragonfly and locks it in the safe beneath his workbench. He knows that he has been granted mastership, but somehow it is not the joyous occasion he had hoped it would be.
The master looks up as a short woman enters his shop and smiles at him broadly. Her teeth are mostly yellow, though a few are black and possibly rotting.
"I want you to make a clockwork penguin," she says. "One of the special ones."