From the journal of Alaric Clay:
I had hardly left my books and workshop in the few days since the demon shadow pronounced its curse on Chuton: the night of the Festival of Forgiveness, when the Town Hall burned down, the bells tolled for us, and our very shadows rose up against us.
On one of my few forays into the streets, I saw an unusual figure: a man in a battered straw boater, clearly not a local, heading towards the cemetery. I wouldn't normally worry about a stranger in town – I'm used to all manner of folk after years studying in Sixton – but after recent events…I made sure to mention it to others after the memorial, especially when it seemed he might be one of the suspicious folk Vert had spotted in the Rusty Crown over the last few weeks.
Roach had seen the same man, and I considered going with the goblin to look for him, but I've felt the need of late to keep an eye on Bzzzantine; I can't help but feel somewhat responsible for the little clockwork's actions since I reactivated it. It's one of the reasons I've made a study of technomancy; I need to understand better how clockworks function. Bzzzantine had discovered strange trail of maggots crawling from the earth in what looked like the tracks of small wheels, heading out of town past the Bailey's farm. The tracks headed towards Oldoak – home to the nearest train depot. Smelling a whiff of magic, and the chance to see some trains up close, I decided to accompany Bzzzantine and the others seeking to follow this lead. Along with Sister Hüvje, Branka the farrier dwarf, and Tonk the goblin – who it turns out has also been learning the magic of Time – we set off on foot following the tracks. Using my newly mastered ability to sense magic, I confirmed that the maggots were unnatural – most likely an unintended side effect of some other magical phenomenon.
Along the way we encountered a pair of city toffs headed to Sixton; despite our best efforts, the man of the pair insisted on heading in the wrong direction, towards Chuton. They were walking from Oldoak because the trains had stopped running, and indeed we hadn't heard their rumbling during the journey. They told us they'd encountering a woman in an elegant dress, dragging a large suitcase – likely the source of the tracks we were following. She gave them wrong directions, and we realised her description matched another of the suspicious customers of the Rusty Crown.
Further on we encountered an enormous boar in the middle of the road, wearing an iron collar but with its chain unlocked. While the rest of us wondered how best to get past it, Tonk fed it some biscuits and it took a shine to the goblin, following us for half an hour or so along the path. In truth I think Tonk had taken a shine to the boar as well, because when we met its owner, the boar breeder Giovanni, he seemed disappointed to hand it over. Giovanni was extremely grateful, and told us how a woman with a suitcase had frightened all his boars off to clear the road by firing a gun into the air. As thanks he told us to drop his name at the hotel in Oldoak so we could secure a room at no charge.
When we eventually arrived, the depot was a sight to behold – not least because of all the trains stood there, unmoving, filled with passengers growing more agitated by the minute. I've seen steam works before, of course, but even to a student of technomancy like myself the depot at Oldoak seemed something of a monstrosity: inefficient and poorly planned. We talked to the ticket clerk, discovering that the trains had stopped because the Controller had walked off the job and gone missing. With no-one to direct them, the conductors and engineers had grown restless and eventually started a strike, leaving the passengers stranded. Bzzzantine spotted an unusual robed and hooded figure walking through the station, and before I or Hüvje – who had a sense of foreboding about the figure – could stop him, flew off to pursue it. He tracked it as far as the striking purple VIP train, a private locomotive on a private track which the clerk had told us had been bought out by a single investor - the same woman we had been following. Before he could find out more, though, Bzzzantine was deactivated by a workman wielding an electrical technomantic device, though we were able to revive him before he was sold off.
Tonk meanwhile visited Oldoak's twelve-storey hotel, owned by the same company who ran the rail depot, and pretended to be a servant to the woman with the suitcase. He was convincing enough that the concierge revealed her room number – 66, on the sixth floor. When we went to check in – without Tonk, in case it was handy to have someone not obviously part of our group – we requested and got the rooms flanking hers.
Heading up in the lift, we could hear water running in the communal bathroom shared by our rooms, but were unsure how to proceed. Tonk and Bzzzantine decided to stay in the rooms upstairs, while the rest of us descended to investigate the Controller's room on the first floor. The lock had been broken, and the room itself ransacked; clearly he'd been the victim of foul play. We took a photo of the Controller, and I tried to detect magical influence, which was present – but drowned out but the much more powerful presence of the woman, which I could feel even five storeys below!
At around that time Tonk and Bzzzantine came running down the stairs to tell us they'd seen the woman – she had jumped out the window of her room and transformed into a bat, flying to the depot! What's more, Bzzzantine had flown in through her window and let Tonk in, and they'd discovered not only her bag, full of alchemical materials, but a body hanging upside down in the bathroom, its throat cut and its blood drained into the bath.
Realising our quarry was making her escape, Tonk and I used Time magic to speed up Branka and myself so we could reach the VIP train before it left. We were successful, arriving in time to see the woman on the engine, disengaging the carriages by snapping the coupling with her bare hands. Three cloaked figures like the one Bzzzantine had already seen stood in the carriage, and begged her not to leave them behind; a quick thinking Branka encouraged them not to let her do that, and they grabbed her, slowing her escape, though she used Air magic to try and break their grip. Their hoods blew back, revealing not faces but crystal orbs, filled with mysterious liquid – these were magical constructs of some kind!
The woman used her gusts of foul wind to try and smash the automatons, but they held fast as Branka and I neared the train. I tried to wound her with my newly learned magic dart spell, but she suffered barely a scratch. She finally broke free of the creatures, only one of which survived, but I hit upon a plan. Knowing my friends were counting on me, and bolstered by their faith in my engineering knowledge, I concentrated and quickly worked out which was the break lever; I then constructed a magic wrench, one of the basic tools of technomancy, and used its magic to throw it into the mechanism, jamming on the brake.
As Branka drew near and readied to smite the woman with her hammer, Hüvje commanded her to stay, brandishing her symbol of the New God – and to all of our surprise, a beam of shining bright light shot from it, seeming to sear the woman's arm! Though she seemed mostly unhurt, the experience seemed to strike fear into her heart, and she enacted some kind of foul ritual; I didn't hear the words she spoke, but she removed a glove, revealing that she was missing a finger, and before our eyes cut off another digit, summoning somehow a black portal which enveloped her. We had stopped the train, but our quarry had still escaped.
The remaining automaton appealed to us for help in an uncertain voice. We followed it onto the train, where we discovered an astounding sight: an advanced alchemical laboratory, fully mobile, along with detailed notes making it clear that the woman and other occupants of the train had been deeply involved in the events of the Festival of Forgiveness! But weirder things were in store: concealed in the train was a large basin, filled with unusual purple liquid, and submerged within was a wizened old man, barely alive but clearly possessed of great magical power. It seemed the automatons served him, and spoke on his behalf; he had used his alchemical prowess to make concoctions for the woman, including some which could bend others to her will, controlling their actions. It was this she carried in her case, and which caused maggots to sprout from the earth in its wake. The automaton and the notes also revealed to us that we would find the answers we seek in Crossings – and that this was where the woman was headed, "when the stars were bright".
The wizened old man and his servants feared for their lives, but he could not be moved with the train system in deadlock. He instead extracted a promise from Branka that she, still vital a century from now, would return to this spot – and it became clear the old man was a time wizard of much more advanced skill than Tonk or I! Before our eyes, he and his servant vanished into the future, and only the passage of a century will reveal his fate. I gathered up the evidence from the train, and at Hüvje's request also procured some of the more expensive alchemical equipment to help replenish the town's coffers – though I confess I am finding it far too fascinating to sell immediately…
We spent the night in the hotel after cutting down the man in the bathroom – who was of course the Controller – and laying him to rest as best we could. We stayed in one room and kept a watch, however, because by now the frustrated passengers, rail workers and hotel staff had fallen in to anarchy and looting. As we left the next day to return home, taking the woman's case along with our other spoils, we were left with the depressing certainty that Oldoak was no longer a civilized place – and that soon it would probably vanish from the map altogether.
Since then, Tonk and I have been trying to make sense of the alchemical notes, supplies and equipment, and with his help I believe I have grasped the basics of the art. Perhaps this will prove useful when we confront the woman and he co-conspirators in Crossings – for surely that is where we must go next. I pray to the Maiden in the Moon that the sign will be obvious when the time is right, because I fear to take up the art of astrology again…