I don’t know why the silly little proverbs that I used to read in my aunt’s almanac keep coming into my mind. Shallow platitudes for the most part, and I haven’t read them in nigh on twenty years, but somehow they creep into the back of my mind when I’m distracted.
It was that accursed town that planted that silly adage about darkness breeding darkness in my thoughts. Even in the middle of the day, its sky was like slate, and the dim streets seemed drained of all colour. It was a strange ghost of a town, like the remnant of something that had died years before.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Izzy, our kind and good mayor, spent two days after the horrors of the night of the Forgiveness Festival talking to everybody in town and piecing together what had happened. I don’t know how he separated those rare nuggets of fact from the piles of rumour and gossip, but he finally felt he had some answers and called the town together for a meeting.
First, though, there needed to be a funeral and, with me now being the village priest, it was my job to conduct it. I wish I could have run away, hidden under my bedclothes like a child frightened by the thunder, anything but see all those pale faces looking to me for hope. I wanted to scream at them that I was just as frightened and exhausted as they all were, but somehow the duties of a priest kept me centred. My mouth remained clenched shut and its corners pointed resolutely upward in a frozen smile. My cheeks ache, sometimes, from keeping that stupid smile on my face.
Summoning all my calm resolve, I spoke about the Baileys, of Stenk and Terry, of poor Father Bert, and the two dozen other innocents who perished that night. I was about to speak about the dead halflings when Vert piped up and said I’d forgotten Rusty. I nearly shouted at him. We don’t know how much blame we may place on the late publican, but there is no doubt that he was deep into those evil goings-on, right up to his grimy neck. To utter that villain’s name during our solemn memorial… No, I simply ignored him and moved on.
Finally I pleaded with the townsfolk to display unity in this terrible time. It is far too easy to fall into squabbling and suspicion and discord, but if we should turn on each other we will be doing the demons’ work for them. We have followers of gods new and old in our town, but we are more alike than different. I told the congregation just that, and thankfully I saw more nods than scowls.
Izzy then explained that five different strangers had been seen about the town. Five. Of course it was five. Five demonic summoning charms, five sites of evil and murder, and now five strangers of dark aspect. Some malign power is playing with us, I am certain.
Only one caught my interest: a well-dressed but sour-tempered woman who had been seen dragging a large wheeled trunk from the Rusty Crown the day before the attack. Weird, arcane maggots crawled in the earth wherever she dragged it, which would make tracking her movements easy but unnerving.
She had been heading south from the inn, toward the Bailey Farm, and I wondered if she had been responsible for the unholy slaughter that had occurred there. I decided to find this woman and ask her myself.
I joined a group made up of Tonk the farmer, who is an odd but generally agreeable goblin, Bzzzantine the erratic little flying machine, the earnest young inventor Alaric Clay, and a companion from my previous expedition: Branka the Farrier. I made a point to return her borrowed hammer to her, since she had obviously been so reluctant to lend it out in the first place. Not that I was fool enough to go unarmed: I had purchased a sturdy fighting staff from the general store.
The sickening trail of eldritch maggots passed the Baileys and turned east, following the road to Oldoak. I was surprised when Alaric told me Oldoak has a depot for the steam-powered rail – I had no idea the trains came out this far. When I first came to Chuton I had walked the entire way.
As we made our way to Oldoak I became glad that I had fortuitously bought a walking staff. As we walked, the young artificer explained that the town had been on the brink of financial ruin and its leadership had taken on the rail depot as an act of desperation. The money from travellers would pour in, they were assured, and the town would thrive again. I would soon discover that the reality was altogether different.
We met only a few others during our long, slow trudge to Oldoak. A foolish dandy was heading to Chuton, believing himself to be on the road to the city. Luckily for his wife and small child I convinced him to turn around. Weirdly, he had been given the wrong directions by a well-dressed woman with a wheeled case not an hour before. Clearly our quarry had a vicious sense of humour, and also was not far ahead. The dandy also mentioned something very strange: the reason he and his family were walking was because the trains were not running, and in fact had stopped abruptly on the night all the bells had tolled. Hearing that made my heart flutter weirdly, though I am not sure why.
Our next encounter was with a terrifyingly huge wild boar that sat snorting and rumbling in the middle of the road. It was fearsome-looking, but turned out to be completely tame and very friendly, behaving more like a dog than a wild pig. Tonk befriended it with some dry biscuits, and later seemed genuinely sad when we gave it back to the swineherd we met a little further down the road. He was a pleasant man who clearly doted on his animals, and he was greatly relieved to have the boar returned to him. He repaid the favour by instructing us to mention his name – Giovanni – at the hotel in Oldoak in order to secure a night of free accommodation. He also confirmed the fop’s earlier story about the stopped trains, saying that a town-wide strike had brought the system to a standstill, stranding hundreds of passengers.
One part of his story shocked me more than anything else, however. The reason he and his boars had become separated was that a now very familiar woman had passed him on the road. Perhaps she had been frightened by his admittedly intimidating animals – or maybe on intuition she was trying to cause trouble for any who might be following her from Chuton – but she had pulled a pistol from the folds of her dress and fired it wildly. Imagine having so much wealth that you could afford to waste gunpowder like that! None of the pigs had been hurt, but the sudden noise had startled and scattered them. Poor Giovanni had spent hours rounding them up, though thankfully our biscuit-loving friend was the last of them.
After that there was nothing between us and Oldoak, except for rather a lot of road, and we arrived an hour after sunset. The town itself was very small, barely more than one street, but what little there was of it was impressive at a distance. The hotel we had been recommended by the swineherd was enormous, easily the tallest I have seen outside the big cities. When I first saw it on the horizon I took it for an oddly blocky church steeple.
The railway was everywhere. Sprawling across the landscape was a plethora of mechanical wonders – elevated bridges made from vast amounts of cast iron, cavernous storage and maintenance buildings that could have swallowed up my little church in Chuton, complex hoppers and cargo interchanges, and things whose function I couldn’t even guess at.
I turned to my companions to share my wonder, but I found them scowling. “So inefficient,” Alaric said, shaking his head.
Branka agreed. “I’m hardly a rail engineer, but even I can see they’ve made a complete cabbage of this place.” She pointed a stubby finger. “See here? This roundhouse is right between the main rail interchange and the car storage. Bloody fools have to run the locomotives from the roundhouse, get their cars connected, then either pass back through the roundhouse or go all the way around.” She shook her shaggy head. “Designed by a bunch of puddings, this place.”
The dwarf and the artificer exchanged mocking shouts of surprise and disparaging jokes as we trudged through town. I understood little of their jibes, and Tonk and I exchanged bemused expressions while our companions ranted about poorly-designed rail infrastructure.
Gradually, I began to get an inkling of just how much trouble Oldoak was in. The final leg of our journey was up the main street to the hotel, and even in the darkness I could see how decrepit the shopfronts were. Clearly they had once been gleaming modern constructions of steel and copper, fitted with enormously expensive glass windows and electric lighting. Now, however, everything was in decay. All of the metal I could see was mottled brown and green, and the few functional lights were flickering and buzzing. At least a quarter of the shops were boarded up, many with hastily painted “out of business” signs on them.
Even the hotel looked worse close up. The ridiculously extravagant “HOTEL” sign in electrically-lit wrought iron, which had clearly once cost a king’s ransom, was spotted with rust. The H was hanging at a dramatic angle and swung lazily with the breeze, emitting an alarming metallic screech every time it moved. I started to imagine the harm it would cause when it inevitably fell, but the horrible mental images made me shake my head and try to think of something else.
We disagreed on what to do next: I felt that we should hurry to the rail yard in case the woman we sought was trying to make her escape, but Tonk was sure she would be in the hotel since it was already so late. We agreed to split up, with the goblin going to see if she’d checked in while the rest of us investigated the trains.
As we approached the passenger station, we saw just how desperate things had become. No fewer than four trains were stranded, each of them packed with desperate passengers. The air inside those cars must have been unbearably stale, but most stayed put, bloody-mindedly assuming that everything would be back to normal soon. Never underestimate the human ability to assume someone else will fix everything.
The ticket vendor was an ancient crone, mostly blind with maybe three teeth left in her head, but she was a garrulous sort and gave us lots of good information. We learned that the rail controller had walked off the job without any explanation when the bells had tolled, and even now was locked inside his room at the hotel, refusing to come out. Without him there to keep things working, the staff beneath him had gone on strike. Almost everyone in the entire complex had stopped work, from the drivers and engineers right down to the luggage handlers and dining car waiters. The old woman was frightened for her town, and worried that even another day or two of rail strike could finish it for good.
All thought was suddenly gone from my head as a sense of overwhelming wrongness rushed over me. The whole world became icy cold and utterly silent, and I knew that something terribly alien was nearby. I turned, and there was a cloaked and hooded figure shuffling past us, hunched down almost double, its proportions strange and the fabric of its clothing sticking out in odd places. I got the weirdest impression that I was seeing a pile of dismembered body parts covered with a blanket, moving under its own power.
It vanished into the railyard, and the paralysing fear it had caused in me subsided. “Did you see that thing?” I muttered to the group, and they said they had. Somebody suggested we follow it, but I was filled with panic at the idea. At that moment I would rather have kicked a sleeping bear.
We spent a few minutes discussing what to do next, and we were about to turn back and head to the hotel when I saw something startling. A rail worker – evidently one of very few who was still on duty – had emerged from between two trains carrying a large metal object. He called out happily to a friend, saying he was going to sell it and get rich, and I realised with horror that he was carrying a motionless Bzzzantine. I hadn’t even seen the little clockwork troublemaker go, but he must have decided to follow the robed figure on his own and got knocked out for his trouble.
I’m not proud to say it, but I know how to manipulate men. A pretty face and a shapely body, even when hidden in a priest’s robes, can make a slow-witted man do silly things, and the man carrying my friend’s motionless body did not look like a genius. I put in place by biggest, sweetest smile and stepped forward.
“Oooh, what’s that!” I said, trying to sound friendly.
The rail worker grinned back. “I found it! Must be worth a fortune!”
“Wonderful! May I see?” I leaned in without asking permission and tilted my head so that my hair would fall back and expose my neck. The man’s breath audibly caught in his throat, and I knew I had a moment of distraction to act. “What does this do?” I said in a sugary, girlish voice, and I gave the key in Bzzzantine’s back a hard twist.
Immediately the little creature leapt to life and buzzed into the air. “Wait!” the man shouted dumbly, trying to grab the buzzing clockwork, but it was too late. Bzzzantine’s little wings carried it up, over the roof of the ticket office, and out of sight.
“Whoops!” I said, and tittered like a schoolgirl, but I was forgotten: the worker was staring up into the sky, looking bereft. “Sorry!” I added, patting him on the arm, then I turned and left. It was hardly my most dignified moment, but our companion was safe.
We caught up with the little metal troublemaker halfway to the hotel, and coincidentally found Tonk coming to meet us. We all compared notes. Before he had been captured and forcibly unwound, Bzzzantine had seen a sumptuous-looking train car up the back of the yard, connected to a gleaming, state of the art locomotive. Tonk said this must be the private train of the woman we were chasing, and I was again startled by our quarry’s apparently great wealth. Tonk had learned that she was staying in room 66, on the sixth floor, and her key was not on the rack behind the counter. She was almost certainly inside.
Thinking quickly, we returned to the hotel and introduced ourselves to the pimply youth behind the counter. He smiled when we mentioned Giovanni and made a joke about pigs, but to his credit he offered us two rooms. We asked for 65 and 67, and he handed the keys over. We rode the mechanical lift up to the sixth floor and I’m told I had a funny turn in the cramped carriage, but I have no recollection of it.
In room 65 we could hear water running in the bathroom it shared with room 66, and unsurprisingly the door between the two rooms was firmly locked. We had a brief conference and decided to split up: Bzzzantine and Tonk would stay upstairs, one in each of our rented rooms, while I along with the other two of us would pay a visit to the controller of the railway station, who we had been told held lodgings on the first floor.
In retrospect, I am certain we were overheard. Perhaps the woman we had come to find had been sitting with her ear to the bathroom door, listening to our every word. It would certainly explain what happened next.
When we arrived on the first floor, we immediately knew there was a problem: the door of room 11 was ajar. We knocked and announced ourselves, but as we feared there was no answer. Inside, the controller’s quarters were a shambles. Either somebody wanted desperately to find some small hidden object, or else they had simply wanted to destroy everything in the place. Honestly, I could believe either.
However, we did find an intact photograph of a smiling, moustachioed man in a uniform, lifting a laughing child in his arms. The background appeared to be some kind of funfair. I stared at it for a long time – the very concept of something as innocent as a funfair seemed utterly alien after the past few days. Still, I kept the photo.
Suddenly Alaric shouted. I turned to look, and he was recoiling in horror, doubling up and sinking to the floor. “Five floors below!” he croaked through quivering lips. “Five floors below and I CAN STILL FEEL HER!”
I knew the lad was sensitive to arcane energies, and I was filled with dread at his reaction. What kind of magic was so powerful that he could be overwhelmed by the power of it so far below? We had to get back upstairs!
As we rushed from the ransacked suite and approached the elevator, the door to the stairwell crashed open, and there was Tonk. “A bat!” the goblin shrieked. “She turned into a bat!” There was no time to wait for the elevator attendant to come to our floor, so we hurried back up the stairs. The door to room 66 stood wide open, and Bzzzantine hovered in the doorway.
“People don’t usually turn into bats, do they?” the inquisitive little machine asked. “It’s just that the lady we’re following did, and I don’t think that’s normal.” It had only been activated for a few weeks, after Alaric had found it lifeless in a ditch, and it had so far recovered almost none of its earlier memories. As such, some simple things were still puzzling to it.
“No,” I reassured it. “Most people are stuck with the one shape.” I slipped through the doorway and into room 66.
The little metal thing’s head bobbed enthusiastically as I passed. “Ha! I thought that was the case! Humans rarely fly, and NEVER turn into bats!”
A quick search told us everything we needed to know. A moustachioed man who may have had a kind face and a sweet smile when he had been alive was hung upside down over the bath, his throat cut and the porcelain tub filled to almost a foot deep with deep crimson blood. The woman’s wheeled case had been left behind, its lid open to reveal rows and rows of weird vials, jars, and alchemical tools. The window was wide open, and the wind whistled softly through it. Faintly, in the distance, we could hear the sound of a steam engine hissing.
“The train!” Tonk shouted, and the icy feeling in my belly told me the goblin was right. Our quarry had flown to her train, and within minutes she would be away and out of our reach for good.
Once again we were pelting down the metal stairs of the hotel. When we reached the street I heard Alaric and Tonk muttering incantations and, moments later, Alaric and Branka shot off into the growing darkness like corks from shaken-up beer bottles. Clearly it was some kind of magic that distorted space or time, but the rest of us were stuck running at non-magical speed toward the station.
Tonk, Bzzzantine and I darted between dark carriages and engines, toward the back of the train yard, listening to distant shouts that might have been our two hasty friends. As we rounded the last turn we were greeted by a bizarre sight. A tall woman with an imperious bearing and wearing a finely tailored dress – certainly the one we had come to find – was standing astride the disconnected coupling between the gleaming engine and the single luxuriously appointed carriage. Three of the robed figures were grappling with her, and I heard a faint voice shout something like “You can’t leave us!” It appeared that our enemies were engaged in a fortuitously-timed disagreement. (Later, on the walk home, I found out it was Branka’s doing. She had called out to the weird robed things, telling them the woman was betraying them and they should stop her leaving. Miraculously, it had worked.)
There was a deafening crack like a thunderbolt, and a visible globe of shimmering force expanded out from the woman’s hands. Two of the figures were thrown backwards, and I saw for the first time what was under the robes: instead of flesh, their bodies were strange mechanical contraptions, and in place of a head they had a glittering, smoky orb like the crystal ball of a tacky fortune teller. One landed clumsily and started staggering upright, but the other was smashed, whatever magic animating it dissipated. The third, however, hung on gamely, refusing to let go of her sleeve.
That was when I realised, with horror, that the locomotive was moving. It was still slow, but was picking up speed. I was about to cry out for someone to do something to stop it, but Alaric was way ahead of me. As he sprinted beside the huffing engine, I was startled to see a glittering, metallic object fly from his outstretched hand. Whatever it was, it worked: the engine’s brakes locked on and it immediately screamed to a halt, sparks jumping from its wheels. The woman matched the din from the engine, letting out an inhuman screech of fury.
The noise seemed to penetrate my bones, and in that moment of clarity I knew that this foe was beyond us. We were just idiot villagers, fighting against an immense evil force we could never have any hope of defeating. Branka had raised her warhammer above her head, bellowing some kind of dwarven battle cry, and I had a terrible premonition: her blow would miss, and then this terrible woman would strike her dead while I could do nothing but helplessly watch
I don’t know what made me do it, but I grasped my Ouroboros medallion hanging around my neck, the symbol of my faith, and held it up before me. There was no cunning plan, I just needed her to be distracted so she wouldn’t murder my dwarven friend.
“Stand down, you witch!” I screamed. “You’re not going anywhere! You will stay here and face divine justice!” I didn’t even think what I was saying – the words just tumbled out.
That’s when it happened. A dazzling beam of golden light, like a sliver of sunlight, leaped from my medallion and shot like an arrow at that evil woman. The sleeve of her dress immediately burst into flames, and I saw a flash of genuine fear in her dark eyes. Apparently she was just as shocked as I was that these idiot villagers had some tricks to teach her. For just a moment, my doubt vanished and hope pounded in my chest.
And then, she was gone. I struggle to describe it. She cried out something hideous, a grotesque mockery of a prayer, and the name of whatever being she prayed to hurt my ears and made my teeth ache. Then, I can’t be sure, but I think she bit off her own finger. I might be mistaken – it was dark and I was very shaken – but that is what I seemed to see. In the next instant there was a flash of fire, perhaps like a great mouth gaping open, and then… nothing. The woman we had come so far to apprehend was gone without a trace.
We were filled with conflicting emotions in the aftermath. We were frustrated that the murderer had escaped, but at the same time I felt that we had miraculously survived an encounter with something terribly dark and dangerous. Many others, such as the poor railway controller, had not bee as fortunate as us.
As we tried to make sense of what had happened, the lone surviving robed thing asked to parley. In a very strange voice, soft and high-pitched like a tin whistle, it reminded us that it had tried to stop the woman escaping and asked for our mercy. We swore it would come to no harm as long as it did not try to harm us, and it led us inside the luxurious carriage.
It had been a very strange day, but what we saw inside was stranger than anything I had seen before. In a large porcelain bath there lay an incredibly ancient man, completely submerged in a purple liquid that shimmered faintly with arcane energies. The old man never moved while the crystal-headed thing spoke to my companions, and I was completely baffled by the conversation. Alaric explained later that somehow the man in the bath was projecting his intelligence into the construct, and it was his voice we were hearing it speak with.
He was a powerful wizard who had mastered the mysteries of time itself, and he had reluctantly helped the witch prepare her spells and rituals. He suggested that she had forced him to aid her, but I suspected he was also curious, an eternal academic always keen to gain more knowledge, even if that knowledge were of things dark and forbidden. After a private conversation with Branka, the old man, along with the liquid and the bath, vanished in a crackling aura of purple light. The remaining artificial body lost its magic and smashed on the floor.
Meanwhile Alaric had been examining the papers and equipment in the carriage, and he reported something terrible but not unexpected: this woman was definitely responsible for the attack on Chuton. It was possible she’d had other accomplices, but the young artificer said that the evidence proved beyond a shadow of doubt that she was at the centre of it. Sadly, nothing indicated why she would do such a thing, only how. The mystery of why she would attack an innocent rural village was the remain just that, a mystery.
There is little else to tell. On our way out of town, it was clear that Oldoak was beyond saving, and within weeks it would be a ghost town. Some final thread had been severed, and around us folks were looting shops, loading their belongings onto carts and barrows, or simply indulging in petty vandalism. If I ever return to Oldoak, I expect to find it silent, empty, and dead.