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42. Welcome to the Vaults

On the back of very scant evidence, the group have travelled to Ardeyn to find Dona Ilsa’s five missing eggs.  Purported to be hidden in the Mouth of Swords, a forbidding place out on the plains of Ardeyn.  The party don’t know what to expect from the Mouth of Swords, but its name and appearance do not strike them as encouraging.


On the plains of Ardeyn, far from the highlands, was a plateau the size of a small town.  On its southern side lay an entrance to a cavern decorated with broken and rusty swords.  The Mouth of Swords is well named.  Standing before it, the cave looks like the mouth of a giant predatory worm frozen in mid-attack.  Nothing could be seen beyond the points of the blades beckoning adventurers in.

Bruce pulled a log of the breakfast fire and threw it past the blades to light a corridor.  The sword blades continued further down the corridor to a set of stairs shrouded in darkness.

“Why has no one knocked off all these pointy bits?  They’re a hazard, aren’t they?” He said, looking around the group.   

Peggy examined a headless statue by the mouth of the cave while Algernon tried to scan the plateau’s top from the ground. Tobias was off to one side. His slender Qephilim arms wrapped tightly around his torso, seemingly in his own world.

“I would have thought that was the point,” He said suddenly and without his usual good humour. 

“Can anyone see this statue’s head? I want to see what he looked like,” Peggy asked, and Bruce found it behind a bush not far from the statue’s feet.  

Lifting the heavy marble into place, the statue began to speak,

“Enter here and die!

The swords that adorn the mouth

Were taken from those who failed

To heed my prophecy.”

“But we don’t have swords,” Tobias replied absently, flicking on his mythlight and passing it beyond the first rows of swords into the cavern. 

“Is that so,” Bruce said to the statue.  

It didn’t reply.  

“So, are we suppose to knock his head off again?”

Still, no reply. 

He tried taking the head off. It was now stuck in place.

Tobias sighed and sidled past the blades and into the cavern.

“Oi!  Dammit, Rain!” Bruce called as he realised the sorcerer had gone ahead.  Inside he could see Tobias at the foot of the steps brushing his hands across a set of engravings.

“Careful when you come it,” He said, not looking up from the carvings, “The path through the blades narrows.”

“What have you got there?” Bruce followed in after Tobias and looked over his shoulder at the faintly glowing runes lining the steps.

“They form a barrier to unclothed spirits from reaching further into the complex.”

“Unclothed?” Bruce was not enjoying Tobias’ newfound fascination with soul magic.  Spirit possession and magic did not sit well with his southern baptist upbringing.

“Like Avel,” Tobias replied, “But inside me, she’s safe.” 


Outside, Algernon walked past the statue, and the statue spoke a second time. He made a blindfold from an old rag and tied it across the statues face before walking past once more. It remained mute.

Peggy walked in front of the statue, and again the figure spoke.“Maybe it detects that it has already given you the message,” 

Bored of the statue, Algernon refocused his attention on the top of the plateau. Approximately forty metres above them, he could just see the tops of trees.  With a thought, he pushed off the ground and levitated himself into the air.  As he breached the lip of the cliff, he saw a large winged creature basking itself on a low flat rock in a clearing of trees.  His movement drew the creature’s attention to him as it swivelled its huge Qephilim head in his direction. Its lion’s body responded to the new stimuli flying towards it.  With the chance of a meal hovering nearby, the creature leapt into the air and charged. 

“I evoke the Armour of Atrocity!” Algernon called and his gambeson frosted over as the creature’s claws struck.  The blow knocked the wind out of Algernon and sent a blast of cold damage through the monster’s claws.  The beast roared and dived back towards the plateau, throwing Algernon into a tree.  The armour took the blow this time.  He was on his feet when the beast landed not far away and stared at the intruder.

“I’m sure I’ve seen a documentary about creatures like you,” Algernon said to the beast before bowing formally, “Do you understand my talk?”  

Surprised, the creature’s head shot up, tilting to one side as it tried to get a better view of Algernon.  When the bow wasn’t received as he expected, Algernon read the creature’s mind.

Odd food.  How hurt me when touched? Touch again?

Before the beast could make good its last thought, Algernon brought around his crossbow and shot. The shot went wide, the creature sprung on Algernon, claws this time not making it through the armour, though the cold seeped into the creature’s limbs.  From point-blank range, Algernon shot once more, and this time the bolt flew true, straight for the creature’s heart.  A claw poised to strike fell.  The whole beast collapsed into a heap of fur and feathers.

Algernon withdrew his hunting knife, a souvenir from the group’s first recursion into the Wastelands. He hacked and slashed at the muscle tendons and bone that held the large qephilim’s head to the lion’s body.  Once free, he smeared its blood in lines down his face, warpaint for the victor. The wild space on the plateau was now quiet.  Algernon took no more notice of it, he picked up his trophy and levitated back to the ground in front of the Mouth of Swords.  

Bruce had been busy breaking away swordpoints from one side of the passage when Algernon arrived back battered and covered in blood.

“Are you all right?  Is that your blood?” He said, dropping his crowbar to check Algernon for wounds. 

“Some of it,” Algernon replied, pointing out areas where the creature’s claws had broken through his armour.

“But what happened?  Last time I saw you, you were fooling with the statue.”

“It just attacked me,” Algernon replied, holding up the head without the less noble details of flying off without letting anyone know.

Bruce sat Algernon down and soon had all the small punctures and scrapes cleaned up. 

“Hey, you can heal!” Algernon said as he got up, feeling better for the first aid treatment, “Thanks, Mr Bruce.”

“Now go clean up. You’re going to stink after a while with all that blood on you.”

“But I like it,” Algernon pouted, revelling in the gore of his victory.

“You can keep your warpaint, just clean off the other mess from your butchering job.”

“No,” Algernon replied and entered the cavern.  The head of the creature floating along behind him.

“Urgh! I can’t look at you!” Tobias had been sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting for the others.  When Algernon walked through the gloom of the passageway covered in blood, the sharp metallic tang rose in Tobias’ mouth, and he had to turn away.  Avel moved to soothe him, and he leaned back into her embrace, his arms once more wrapped tightly around himself.

“So you can take the rat mauler out of Railsea, but you can’t take Railsea out of the rat mauler,” He said dryly as Algernon stepped past him and up the stairs.

“Seems like it,” Algernon glowed and led the way up to the next chamber. 

A large open plaza-like chamber lit by a single fire burning in a copper vessel lay at the top of the stairs. The flame flickered and guttered but never went out and without a breath of wind to disturb it. Around the outside of the plaza, seven massive stone doors stood, all decorated with the images of Qephilim in different poses and scenes. A mosaic tiled floor spiralled out from the copper vessel that held a flickering flame.   Standing alone and out of place among all the opulence was the figure of a man in tattered robes. As the group approached, he spoke in a low monotone,

“What treasure have you brought for me to keep?”

Tobias scrambled to find a treasure to offer.  This was a depository, a place for keeping valuable items safe.  With a treasured item, they could follow the keeper and see what else the vaults had stored. Unfortunately, he’d handed his cards to Dona Ilsa and his very last possession, the puzzlebox, to Algernon. Algernon had a solution, though, and held up the creature’s severed head, still dripping blood.

The figure looked at the head, “Fifty gold,” It said and held out its hand.  Algernon paid, and the man also took the head.  

“Can we go and see where it will be placed?” Tobias asked.

“I will see that it is stored carefully,” The figure replied in its monotone voice.  Tobias looked closely at the figure and noted a transparency to its outer edges, a lack of spark in its voice.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t alive and may never have been.

Opening his robes, he cast a spell and somehow pushed the head and gold through himself into another space.  Certainly, the head was gone, and in its place, a small stone statue of a Qephilim was presented to Algernon.  Over Algernon’s shoulder, Peggy examined the statue.

“It’s not magical, no matter how it was made,” She confirmed.

“Is there something else you wish for me to keep?” The figure asked again. This time Algernon tried to read its mind. All he heard were whispers and the voice of the figure coming over clearly through what it had for a mind.

“We’re here for eggs,” Tobias confronted the keeper, “About this big, blue with white speckles. We want to make sure they’re safe.”

The keeper held out his hand for the token.  The group looked at each other and wondered if they’d left Crow Hollow a little too soon.

“Do you think we’re meant to fight through?” Algernon asked the group.

“Do I ever try to fight through?” Replied Tobias, stumped for ideas.  There was no persuading a construct.

Algernon wandered over and watched the fire.  Flames roared out of a copper vessel as if battered by unseen gusts, but the air wasn’t stirring.  The flame seemed to be pointing towards the first of the seven doors, clockwise from the staircase.

“What if the treasure did not belong to those who brought it?” Bruce said to the keeper.  The keeper did not answer.  Such a morally ambiguous question was beyond its bounds of understanding.  Instead, Bruce tried a simpler question, “Who brought the eggs?”

“A creature shaped of man, but never was.  Robes like mine stained with blue dust.”

“Well done, Bruce.  The one behind the kidnapping was also linked to Spiral Dust.” Shame it doesn’t get us any further with this thing.” Tobias dismissed the keeper from his thought and concentrated on Avel and what she could do to help.

“I’d like to withdraw the eggs.” Bruce persisted though, and the keeper focused their attention on him.

“You have the token?”


“Nothing can be withdrawn without a token.”

Bruce changed the subject, “What’s behind the doors?”

“The many vaults.”

“But, what’s behind that door?” Algernon asked from across the room, pointing at the door the flame was indicating.  

Now drawn to his attention, Bruce could see a stone door maybe eight times his height with the relief of a Qephilim surrounded by wispy spirits. He started towards it when Peggy turned abruptly to the Keeper.

“I need protection,” Peggy and all eyes turned to her.

“No, Peggy…” Tobias said.  She touched his shoulder, and he understood her plan.  Bowing his head, he remained silent.

“You wish to be kept?” The keeper asked, now focusing its attention on her.

“Yes, I don’t feel safe…or I certainly won’t until you come and find me,” She said the latter to the group with a nervous smirk.

The keeper thought for a moment, “One hundred and fifty crowns,” It finally said and held out its hand for the payment.

“I’ll pay it,” Tobias offered the requested coins, and the keeper opened his robes for Peggy to walk through.

“I’m going to need that token ahead of time to ensure I can be properly returned…if need be,” Peggy said, no sign of fear or trepidation.  The token was provided, and without another look back, Peggy walked into the keeper and disappeared.

Tobias noticed the Keeper was getting agitated at the group’s attempts to get past their security.  So was he.  With Peggy trapped, who knew where Algernon’s suggestion was sounding better every minute.

“I think it is time for you to leave,” The keeper said to no one in particular.

“No,” Tobias rounded on the keeper, determined to get Peggy back as soon as possible.

“What is your purpose here?” The keeper asked in their insistent monotone.  

Tobias wasn’t one to lose patience with bureaucracy.  The grinding pedantic nature of systems were usually something he enjoyed subverting.  But, something about the location, his current mental state, and Peggy’s loss all had their effect.

“We’re here for the eggs, and we won’t leave without them,” He said more directly than he meant to.  

The keeper flicked out their tattered robes with an arcane gesture, attacked.  Their mouth and eyes filled with a bright white light.  Tobias and Algernon were able to look aside in time to avoid looking at the light. Bruce, who was setting up his first attack on the Keeper, was staring at his target’s eyes.  The light bore into his soul, draining life and energy from his very being.  The attack staggered him and gave Tobias a moment to reach out and touch his bigger companion. The Strange flowed through Bruce’s body and mind, reinvigorating his attack.  Bruce went for the head and hit!  The Keeper’s light faded to a pilot light, ready to strike again if the group let it.  Algernon moved around behind the Keeper, putting them between him and Bruce.  Concentrating on the Keeper, he twisted reality in that spot and Warped world, making it harder for the Keeper to attack. 

The keeper would not be intimidated.  A skeletal hand wreathed in cold smoking vapour reached out from under the robes and towards Bruce. He batted away the hand with his crowbar, sensing the intense cold of the attack as it brushed past.

“Cool!” He punned, pleased with himself.

Peggy was in the dark.  Her mythlight showed a stone surface right in front of her face, and she could feel the cold stone to her sides and back.  She was in a sarcophagus deep in the vaults. She reached out to Tobias, who she had created a mind link before stepping through.

Rain, I’m in a coffin.  Feel free to come and find me now. 

Oh god, He swore, unusually for him, We will find you, Peggy.  I may have started a fight with the Keeper, though, so we may be a little while.


“Well, I guess I’ll have to save myself,” She said out loud in the enclosed space of the stone box and thought back to the spells she had learnt so far from her book. There was one, she was sure, that would be very useful in this situation.  Recalling the words and gestures required for the summoning, she cast the spell.  A tiny dragon head the size of a large fist appeared in the sarcophagus above her.  With a thought, it pushed up and popped the stone lid away as if it were made of cardboard.  It crashed and smashed to one side and onto the ground beside her resting place, giving her the first view inside a vault. 

In the main chamber, Bruce received another boost from Tobias before smashing his crowbar into the Keeper’s body. Algernon shot the keeper in the back, and the tattered robes dissipated, a plain gold ring dropping to the mosaic floor. At the door marked by the cauldron fire across the room, a metallic clang could be heard. 

Was that you, Peggy? Tobias asked as all three looked towards the door.

The room was opulent.  Ivory carvings decorated marble walls that intersected with rock crystal tiled floors.  The room held five sarcophagi, including Peggy’s own. To one side, an iron urn stood that constantly issuing smoke into the atmosphere of the enclosed space.  On the side of the urn, the words Breath of Lotan were engraved. 

The oddest feature was the ceiling.  It rippled and quaked like the surface of a pond.  The more Peggy looked at it, the more she realised it was a layer of water somehow defying gravity across the ceiling.  Nearby there was a clang as a huge metal plate crashed down in front of the door to the room, followed by the sound of water trickling.  She could see it now, making rivulets down the walls. The water from the ceiling was filling the room. 

Ah, I’m going to need finding before I drown. She thought and climbed out of her sarcophagus. Oh, and any thoughts about Lotan?  I seem to remember that name.

“Drowning?” Tobias repeated to the others, “We have to find Peggy now!  Anyone remember Lotan?”

“Lotan, I remember that name from the mythology of Ardeyn,” Algernon said out loud, “I’m sure he was some good guy, a hero…”  He didn’t sound very sure to Tobias, who relayed that information back to Peggy.

Peggy had had a moment while climbing up onto her sarcophagus to remember that Lotan was the enemy of the Maker and had been imprisoned in Ardeyn for all eternity.  There was no way she was getting closer to the fumes from the urn than she had to.  Still, the water was getting closer to her and was already spilling into her empty sarcophagus.

Bruce had been contemplating how heavy a stone eight times taller than he would weigh.  He then decided that knowing would not help to get it open, so he just pushed against it instead.  Dust shifted out of the cracks around the door as it ground against the floor. Algernon and Tobias came to help, but by that time, a decent gap was made, and they could all squeeze through into the next room.

 Ahead, the statue of a horse with a single horn on its head reared up in front of them.  The statue was worn and looked like it had been the victim of some vandalism in its time. Beside it, a doorway leading to a hallway lined with twelve alcoves of marble and bronze greeted them. In each of the alcoves stoppered ceramic urns rested.  

“Tell Peggy to make a noise,” Algernon said as they entered the silent hallway.  Tobias repeated the message and they waited until they heard a crash from the other end of the hall. 

Okay, we hear you.  We’re on our way. Tobias sent more confidently than he felt.

The water was now up to Peggy’s waist and rising.  She had been amusing herself by lifting the lids on the other four sarcophaguses with her Dragon maw conjuration. She had so far found a beautiful statue of a woman, a set of mouldy leather bags, two small pots and many intriguing cyphers that she had yet to put her mind to identifying.  

We’re past the first door.  Algernon suggested you make a noise for us to hone in on. She received from Tobias.

“Nothing simpler, “ She said out loud and commanded the Dragon Maw to pick up the lid of her sarcophagus and throw it at the metal door.  The clang that resulted made the floor and ceiling water ripple, and Peggy clutching her ears.

Okay, we hear you.  We’re on our way.

“I should hope you do!” She replied to herself and continued her tomb raiding while she waited.

Algernon was first to the door at the other end of the hall.  It looked very much like the first, with an engraved Qephilim surrounded by spirits.  Touching the stone, he sent the energy of the Strange between the particles and molecules of the stone.  The dense material disintegrated into sand, then dust and eventually nothing.  Water started pouring out the hole he’d made and then, reverse, withdrawing again. 

Inside, Peggy was surprised to see not just the metal plate in front of the door but also the water start receding up the walls and back to the ceiling. She collected the items she’d discovered so far and prepared to leave her tomb as the door itself opened.  On the other side, the smugly pleased Algernon, stoic Bruce, and relieved Tobias stood looking back at her.

“Don’t just stand there. Help me with this stuff,” She said, handing out the pouches and pots while keeping the cyphers for herself.  Two green potions seemed to be for healing, a condition remover for addictive substances and a speed boost amongst the cyphers.  Algernon found a small gold statue in the first pouch, a work of art but nothing more.  It meant nothing to him, so he opened the second thoughtlessly. Inside, though, a large round egg the size of a small melon rolled out, blue with white speckles. The first of the Cro eggs.

“So, they’re scattered all over the vaults?  Great!” Bruce exclaimed, “We’ll be here for years!”

“The keeper will probably spawn before then, and we’ll have to fight him again,” Algernon added as Peggy flipped open the last of the sarcophagus.  Suddenly the door and the water started falling once more.  She put the lid back on, and the door rose back into the ceiling.  She took the hint and left the room for the relative safety of the hallway.

“Say, we can put those ominous pots from the hall in here and try opening one,” Algernon suggested, “If something happens, we can trip a sarcophagus lid and shut whatever in.

“I don’t think I want to play with the pots,” Tobias said, drawn toward the unicorn statue down the hallway.  He could see something curious about the horn and went to check it out.

Algernon disregarded Tobias’ words and picked up the nearest pot with his levitate.  It wasn’t like Algernon to drop an item he levitated.  Maybe he’d got cocky from his victories that day.  Maybe there was something about the pot that wasn’t meant to stay still. Certainly, when it hit the marble tiles, instead of cracking, the cork popped out, and a flickering green light spilled out.  Moaning wails echoed down the hall as, one by one, each of the other eleven pots started popping their corks.


The group raced the pots to the door and slammed it shut as something started coiling from each of the unstoppered lips.

“Messing with things you shouldn’t touch,” Murmured Tobias as he climbed the statue. He was sure the horn was made of another substance than the statue.  He twisted the horn and found it was loose in its socket.  There was also an audible click, and something other than the statue was now connected to the horn.  Something not altogether alive and breathing.  A spectral horse made of the same ghost stuff as the keeper reared up and charged.  It plunging the horn through Tobias before pinning him to the opposite wall.

Peggy acted first, throwing her Dragon Maw at the unicorn, hoping to push it off Tobias and get him free.  The unicorn held its ground as the Dragon Maw missed.  Circling the creature, Bruce created a distraction as Algernon cried.

“It’s a unicorn, and I’m a virgin!” He placed a calming hand on its flanks in the hopes of stopping the fight.  A hoof in the chest sent him flying backwards, winded and wary.

Let me help you, Avel said to Tobias through the fog of pain and shock,  I can make you strong.

Strong…? How? Avel? His thoughts were disjointed, and he found it hard to focus, If you think you can help…

As soon as he said those words, he felt her take over.  She was strong, stronger than him. She soon found the link to Peggy and also took possession of her as well.  A wail of despair, pain and rage echoed through the halls.  Lost in the raw emotion that was Avel, Tobias flicked out a dagger and stabbed the unicorn’s neck, and  Peggy pulled out a hand crossbow and pointed it towards Bruce. 

The sudden shift in the battle put Bruce off his attack, and his feint failed.  Sprawled behind the spectral unicorn after being kicked, Algernon caught his breath and stood up.  This creature was more dangerous than he realised and would need a new strategy.  He stepped back out of the way of the flailing hooves as the beast returned its attentions to Tobias.  A fire burned in Tobias’ eyes as the front hooves gored at him again and again. He lashed out with the dagger and missed, the second wind of Avel starting to wain.  

“NO!” Peggy said out loud and shook her head, surprised to find her crossbow out.  She quickly put it away and sent the Dragon maw once more to hit the unicorn. Right behind, Bruce charged in, his crowbar ready!  He struck the creature’s side, and the crowbar went straight through, the spectral unicorn dissipating at the final blow.  A set of saddlebags appeared out of nowhere, and the horn remained, embedded in Tobias’ shoulder. He dropped to the ground, his knife still firmly held in his hand.

“Come on, let’s get that thing out of you…” Bruce said, moving to help Tobias up.  The Qephilim turned on him, the eyes menacing, their colour now hazel instead of Tobias’ usual violet.  The knife hand moved into an attacking position before the Qephilim swayed and blinked.  The eyes returned to their regular colour, and Tobias cringed as he realised the knife was in his hand.  With a clatter of steel, the knife dropped to the marble floor, soon followed by its owner.

“What was that?” Bruce asked, his crowbar still poised to defend against a surprise attack, “What happened?”

“I…I let Avel take control…” Tobias panted as he took hold of the horn still lodged in his shoulder and braced yanking it free. Algernon stood silently by, holding out one of the healing potions they’d only just acquired. Tobias took it thankfully in shaking hands.

“Next time, check that someone else isn’t already linked to your crazy head!” Peggy roared, ”I nearly shot Bruce!”

“Next time…I’m attacked by a unicorn…I’ll remember…” The words were jesting, but his expression was contrite, “I’m sorry,  I couldn’t…I’m sorry.”

As Tobias threaded the unicorn horn through his Qephilim belt, the others examined the saddlebags and found even more cyphers.  They were reaching the limit on cyphers each of them could carry.  Tobias used a displacement cypher he’d been carrying for a while to make room for something else.  His form now shimmered, making it hard to focus on him.  Beaten but not defeated, the group left the first vault behind and returned to the main chamber.  

Looking grey and tired, Algernon sat down near the copper urn, the fire roaring above his head.  He pulled out the ring he’d collected off the keeper and now took the time to examine it carefully. The rest collected around Algernon in the light of the fire and took stock.  No one was in the mood to jump into the next round of whatever this madhouse had to offer, but if the five eggs were scattered throughout the complex, they would have to scour each vault for hidden secrets if they hoped to find them all.   

Algernon was still revealing secrets. The ring, cold when he first picked it up, was still cold to the touch.  As he rested against the warm side of the copper urn, he noted the images on the ring matched those that encircled his resting place.  

Seven symbols, seven different Qephilim on seven doors.  

He put it on.  The fire moved to the next door along, and a heavy ‘clunk’ rang through the chamber.  This door was decorated with the lovely form of a female Qephilim in a provocative pose.  

When they felt rested enough to continue, Bruce pushed open the second door to reveal a circular chamber built around a statue of the Qephilim from the door.  She was a piece of fine art, a sculpture of stone that somehow captured its subject’s movement and life.  As they walked in, Peggy and Algernon noticed three figures sitting in the shadow at the back of the room.  

“Hello?” Peggy called into the room, hoping to catch one of the figure’s attention.

Tobias and Bruce could see nothing but the wonder of the statue.  It was as if neither had recognised true beauty before that moment.  As they neared, all they could do was to gaze in awe of the lady.  Peggy and Algernon also edged into the room with a lot more caution.  As Peggy brought her mythlight within range of the three figures, it was clear that none of them would answer their greeting.  In rusted chain mail, sitting slumped against each other, three mummified humans sat, their backs against the wall, their last actions to fix their dead eyes on the statue.

Peggy didn’t hesitate, swung a hand back and slapped Tobias in the face.

“Ooow!  I guess I deserved that, somehow…” He said, coming to his senses.  

Algernon, a wicked little grin forming on his face, jumped up and whacked Bruce in the back of the head.

“Oomph!  Oh, how embarrassing,” Bruce quickly turned from the statue, now the fascination had lifted.

“You think?” Tobias asked, rubbing where Peggy had hit him, “At least you don’t have your mother watching.”

Amongst the dead adventurers of times past, a partial map of the vaults was found.  Unfortunately, it was mostly the parts they had already explored, but did show that the vaults were occasionally sacked by others and reset themselves over time. 

“For them to be here, they must have fought and defeated the keeper, “Bruce surmised, “Algernon was right. We may yet face the Keeper again.”

“I hope so,” Algernon said, pulling out his stone token, “I want my griffin head back.” The thought gave him an idea, and he walked back out into the main hall and threw the figure into the fire. Nothing happened.  That experiment done, he plucked it out of the flames with his levitate and returned it to his pocket for later.

While he was gone, the others opened a small door off the lady’s alcove.  Inside were three statues.  One, muscles rippling, was throwing a hammer.  The second was of a lighter build and was athletically leaping out of the way to dodge a pendulum.  The third was bent over a hefty tome.  The three characteristics of humanoid life: Might, Speed and Intellect.

Peggy moved up to the statue for Intellect, and the stone of the arm moved, reaching out as in offering, a gesture of good faith.  Peggy took the hand and was rocked by a bolt of energy that left her mind and senses reeling.  As she yanked her hand away, a small chest filled the open hand—a gift for a gift.  

Bruce bounded up to the Statue of Strength which offered out a burly arm.  He took it and felt weakened by a draining force through the touch.  In return, a present materialised on the statue’s hand, the severed head of Algernon’s monster.  Tobias stepped up to the statue of Speed.  Before the statue could respond to him, however, Bruce pushed him out of the way and received the shock and the gift of the second Cro egg.

“Why did you push me aside?” Tobias asked as Bruce put the egg away in their cushioned box.

“Because I could take it?”

“What?  But I could clearly do that one too.  I was there. You didn’t have to push me out of the way?”

“Look, face it, I heal quicker than you.  Say thanks, build and bridge and move on.”

While the other bickered, Algernon searched the first room and found a small secret door made of crystal tile.  Behind it was an old stone token, just like the one he’s received for his monster head, though older and cruder.  “Algernon, help me with this?” Peggy called, and he quickly tucked away his new-old token and went to see what Peggy had found.

Her little box was locked, and after a brief examination by Algernon, he confirmed trapped. Bypassing the trap with a stimulate for Tobias, they opened the box to reveal and an artifact, the Spellbook of the Amber Mage. Peggy snapped up the tome greedily and started pawing over its pages.

When traps were cleared, rooms checked, and the last statue grappled, the group returned once more to the main room, and Algernon advanced the fire to the next door. 

Bruce looked at his young charge warily. Though they had taken a short break , Algernon was still grey and favouring his side.

“You don’t look so good, maybe you should take a break before opening another door.”

“Something will happen. The Keeper or something else,” Algernon fussed with a bag he kept his cyphers in. He’d also used one to make room for the new acquisitions and Bruce wondered if the cypher’s timer was a deciding factor.

 “Not if you stop fiddling with everything,” Bruce replied gruffly. Algernon had always been curious, but had he been so cavalier with himself before now? Regardless, Algernon turned back to the door as if to open it himself and Bruce grimaced silently and stood beside him as they pushed the door.

This one was a Qephilim with a tome.  Inside, another statue awaited the group. As soon as it detected movement, it opened its mouth and started telling a story:

A spirit wished to escape the court of sleep but did not know the rules to the trials for that day.  It hid in the shadows and listened to a few other spirits answers as the Umber Judge questioned them.

“The judge said, “Twelve,” and the first soul answered, “six.”  They were granted their leave.

The judge said, “Six,” and the second soul answered, “three.” They, too, were released.

The lost spirit, sensing a pattern, approached the Umber Judge and asked for their freedom.

The judge said, “Ten, “ and the lost soul replied, “five”, for it believed the answer was half the original number.  It was incorrect.  The judge was furious that the spirit would try to escape and instead consigned the lost spirit to the Umber wolves where the soul was torn to pieces.”

“Now,” The statue said, and the group felt its attention shift to them, “What was the correct answer?”

A knife appeared in Tobias’ hand, and he quickly scratched the clues into a nearby tile.

“Okay, so it has nothing to do with halving the numbers.  Is there any other pattern 12, 6 and 3 fit?” 

“They’re all on a clock, “ Algernon suggested, and Tobias quickly sketched a clock face with 12, 6 and 3, adding the 10 and shared it with the others.

“A line from 12 to 6 is half a clock face, and 6 to 3 is a quarter of a clock face,”

“So, from ten an eighth of a clock face takes us to eight?  Does that sound right?”

“Seems too complicated to me,”Bruce said over Algernon and Tobias’ shoulders, “Usually the answer to a puzzle is simple, just hidden or said differently to how you expect. Maybe you should look at the puzzle another way. This is a word puzzle. Look at the numbers as words and see what you get.”

“So, for a third time, Tobias found a clean tile and scratch,”

This time the answer was clear to everyone.

“Six letters in the word ‘twelve’, three letters in the word ‘six’ three is the correct answer as there are only three letters in the word ‘ten’.  Three!” They sais together, and a door at the far end of the room unlocked.

In the next room, a silver altar with a deep green jade leaver on the front stood before them.  To either side stood deep alcoves with shallow metallic dishes embedded in the floor.

Algernon, who had been pleased to get his head back, levitated it over to the left-hand plate and flicked the switch to the right.  The switch clicked, but nothing more.  

“Maybe you need something on both plates, something that approximately balances,” Peggy offered as a suggestion. As Algernon wasn’t keen to put himself on the machine and all three of the others would be needed to balance out Bruce, it was decided that Peggy and Tobias would stand on a plate each while the lever was flipped.

“This is insane,” Tobias grumbled, then thought of the eggs and gritted his teeth.

Algernon flipped the jade switch, and both of them felt a tidal pull, their minds being drawn away.  By force of will, they held onto the consciousnesses and behind them heard a click.  

“Did you pass a test, or was something supposed to happen?” Algernon asked.

“Yes,”  Both Peggy and Tobias answered together.  Whatever it was, it was better than teleported into sarcophaguses or being skewered by a horn, and both were happy when the next door was opened.

In this seemingly forgotten room, a tableau was unfolding.  A stone golem swung a huge mallet left and right, trying to force away a group of spirits haunting him.  So caught up in his ghost-busting, he failed to notice the small group sneak through one door and into another at the far end of the room. 

Like the last, this was a forgotten room.  Either past raiders had failed to get this far or never thought it worth their while.  The only thing waiting on dusty shelves was a thick wad of paper documents inside a small metallic box.  The documents were line drawings of different races native to Ardeyn, including a Qephilim and human.  Along with the drawings was another piece of paper with one question written on it.

Seven Soul gems?

No egg.

Bitterly disappointed and knowing they weren’t even halfway through the vaults, the group headed back to the main room to try their luck on another door.

To be continued…

Musings 15: Ghosts

It may surprise you to know I do believe in ghosts.  

But believing and knowing what they are are two different things.  Belief does not mean I understand what ghosts are, the motivations and desires. It’s like saying you believe in God.  How many of us can say the really understand them?

What are they?  Are they really the spirits of the dead somehow trapped, unable to move on?  Are they manifestations of our own minds, parts of ourselves that break away under trauma or stress? Or maybe something else, something as unknowable as a distant god.

Regardless of who they came to be, one this is clear.  They are the image of a person at the time of their death, an interactive piece of mourning.  Never changing,  forever fixed at that one moment in time.  In this we have the advantage. 

Whatever traumas, whatever hardships, we live on. We move past that moment and find that bad times do not last.  We find endurance and resilience in our struggles making us stronger.  We can….”boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces one, and one does not disappoint us…” Romans 5:3-5

I say this because I wonder if the dead can?  Fixed at the moment of death with no way of ‘living though’ the trauma, how can they get to that moment of acceptance and reflection?

Is this why they haunt the living?  They need us to help them through?  To finish the unfinished business?  To find justice, retribution, revenge?  

If that is true, shouldn’t our response be, not fear and loathing for their state, but empathy and acceptance?  Like learning first aid, should we all learn afterlife counselling?

My problem is…once we’ve worked out why they are still with us and what they need to move on…do I want them to?  Do I want to live without their presence?

I believe in ghosts all right. I just don’t know what to do about it.

41. An interview with the Dona

The group had finally made it to Crow Hollow to follow up the Spiral Dust trail.  Having made a contact in a local called Paco Derois, they were attacked by henchmen of Don Wycliff and the Drood family.  Out of thankfulness, Paco promises to make an appointment with Dona Ilsa as soon as he could.  But the goons have found them again.  This time the party are ready.


At the table, all eyes focused on the bolt quivering in front of them until the two words resolved themselves into one clear message.

Will Robinson!

“Will Robinson!” Tobias yelled, “Avel, quick! Do your shout!” And out of the tattoo, a wisp of something flew across the cupola at the four Cro goons.  From inside the bar, they could see very little of the attack.  A terrifying scream of anguish and terror was all they could hear. The Cro goons, they’d come to call Pushkin and Mauley, and a third looked disturbed and thoroughly spooked.  Algernon witnessed Avel’s true form from behind the goons, that of a very familiar-looking human woman, her face distorted in fury, screaming and spitting in a language he couldn’t understand.  

Back in the bar, Tobias cringed at the foul language and ducked under the table as Bruce pulled out his guns.  Three rapid shots at Mauley, and the two as yet unnamed Cro.  Their guns flew from their hands and into the crowd of shoppers desperately tried to escape the violence. Algernon spotted his favourite, Pushkin, closer to the end of the branch than the others. Pushkin sailed out away from the market with a sudden and violent push, leaving his gun behind.  Now all four Cro goons were disarmed. It was Peggy’s turn.  With a word from her book and a flick of a wrist, she sent a ball of fire at Mauley, singeing what was left of the feathers on his shoulders, neck and chest.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce spotted the movement as three more thickset Cro rose from their seats around a table in the bar.  Ready for more trouble from a new quarter, Bruce spun his pistols on his fingers.  Once the group had their say, however the new goons looked at each other and sat back down and returned to their drinks. It seemed they weren’t fussed that four of Don Wycliffe’s boys were being roughed up. 

It was the goons’ turn.  The three remaining didn’t hesitate.  They picked up their guns and ran back the way they’d come, leaving Pushkin’s gun behind.  Algernon picked it as he followed their disturbance through the market.

“That was amazing!” Came Tobias’ voice from under the table.

“Yes, well, that worked,” Bruce said more to himself as he turned back to the table and looked underneath.  Tobias’ eyes closed, was patting his chest tattoo cheerfully, “Thanks, Avel!”

“Did you do that?” Bruce asked, and Tobias’ eyes flicked open and found Bruce’s.


“The…spooky fear thing?”

“That was Avel,” Tobias’ replied proudly, “She’s amazing.  Terrible potty mouth though, did you hear her?”

“Didn’t understand it, but I don’t hold with no cussin’”, Bruce drawled as Tobias crawled out from under the table.  Spotting the bolt, he pulled it from the wooden support and took it out to Algernon, still watching the goons.

“Great idea,” He handed the bolt back to Algernon, who accepted it and the praise with a nod of his head.  

“The sneaking around thing, also good.  But, I think I have something that might help,” And Tobias reached into a hidden pocket and produced his puzzle box.

“While this is on you, I can hear and see everything around you.  So, while I concentrate, we can still keep in touch…at least one way,” Tobias went to hand the puzzle box to Algernon before pulling back, “Now this is precious to me, more so now as…I think my soul is in it.  Nice to know I have one.” He laughed nervously at the thought and offered the box to Algernon, “Just keep it safe. I know you will.”

“Are you saying that you possess that box?” Bruce said, trying to make sense of what was going on.

“Yes. Avel possessed me, and I guess you can say, I possess the box,”

“What if it breaks or is lost?”

“Lost…?” Tobias thought, concentrated on the box.  He could see them all standing around it, “I think I could find it.  If it’s broken?” At that thought, his whole being seemed to pale, and he shivered, “Bad things for me.”

“Thanks, Rain,” Algernon tucked the puzzlebox away carefully.  “I’m going to follow those guys. I’ll be right back.”  With that, Algernon slipping into the crowd and disappeared.  

Tobias focused on his box and could see Algernon gliding through the shoppers, always keeping contact with the goons ahead.  He watched them head towards a hollow in the next branch up, guarded by Cro goons with guns.  Words exchanged, they disappeared inside.

“I’ve just seen them enter a hollow.  I’ll head back now,” Algernon murmured, and Tobias passed on the message to Bruce standing beside him.

Bruce scowled, unhappy with the whole possession situation. He looked from Tobias beside him up into the market where Algernon had disappeared.  

“Tobias, you may want to talk to those three big guys back in the bar,” He bent down and murmured to the distracted con man.

“Hmm?” Tobias glanced around, not letting his eyes stop at the table groaning with feathered muscle,” Hmmm…good pick.” Sauntering back into the bar, he went straight back to Paco, quietly still drinking his drink as nothing had happened.

“See, you’re in good hands,” He smirked, patting his chest where Avel had returned, warm and reassuring.

“It seems so,”

“Say, what do you know of the three heavies across the way?” Tobias leaned out of the way to allow Paco to see around him at the goons.

“I’ve seen at least one of them around.  They work for Dona Ilsa, I think,” Paco replied, and Tobias’ grin broadened.  A quick word to the barman and the exchange of two crow coins later, and he was standing in front of the three Cro offering fresh drinks.

“Gentlemen, it seems we have a mutual friend,” Tobias gestured to Paco, “As you witnessed, we helped him out of a spot of trouble.”

“What, so is he yours now?” Asked the centre goon who by size alone seemed to be their leader.
The thought of running a protection racket in Crow Hollow made Tobias shiver, and he ruffled his feathers dramatically.

“On the contrary,” He stepped back, allowing the three of them a view of the bar and what they had just witnessed, “ I want a word with the Dona, at her earliest convenience.”

The three goons look at each other once more, downed their new drinks in one and stood.

“Wait here,”

“Wouldn’t think of being anywhere else.”

“Who should we say you are?”

“Tobias Cudo and associates,” Tobias nodded and watch the Cro’s leave the bar and head back up the tree.

Algernon had arrived back by that time and joined the others at their table.  A fluttering sound and the shimmer of golden wings caught his eye.  A moment later, there was a plop! And something landed in his drink. Slowly, without drawing attention to the glass, he slipped it under the table and fished out of the liquor a set of keys.  Motorbike keys.

The Motobike’s keys.

The keys carefully stowed away into his pocket, he smiled in remembrance of the tiny fairies and their desire to pay back a favour.

Now, how was he going to get that bike back to Earth?

“Um…I’ll be back in a bit,” He said, suddenly remembering something else he’d seen on a stall.

“Where ya going, kid?” Bruce asked, casually sipping his drink. Algernon was a highly competent agent with many wins behind him, but to Bruce, he always looked suspicious when up to no good.

“I saw something in the markets. I won’t be long,” Algernon replied as casually he could and rose from the table.

“Well, don’t be. We don’t know when those goons will be back,” Bruce admonished, and Algernon nodded his agreement before disappearing once more into the crowds of shoppers.  

Without a word, Tobias focused on his puzzlebox. He watched as Algernon made his way back to the stalls they had visited earlier that day, particularly one with several weapons on display, including a bound stack of dynamite. Just from the way Algernon’s eyes kept darting to the pile and away showed Tobias that the dynamite was the aim of this expedition.

At the stall, Algernon allowed his eyes to fall on a number of interesting items.  A glove that seemed to be some sort of Strange touched artefact, a brain bug cypher and of course, the dynamite.  There were fourteen sticks of nitroglycerin and clay, all with inserted detonation chords.  He was trying to work out how much damage that sizable stack would do when he was interrupted by the stall owner.

“Interested in the dynamite, then?” Asked the Cro without interest.

“Possibly,” He replied, “How much is it?”

“Twenty crow coin.”

Algernon nearly choked.  That was twice as much as he had.

“So, what’s it good for?” He asked as if only remotely interested.

“Mining,” The Cro replied tersely.  

“I have ten coins for half?” 

But the Cro was only interested in selling the whole bundle and not parts.

“I think I need more?  Where can I get more?”

“You were just talking about half a moment ago. Now you want more?”

“Miscalculation, can you get more?”

“This is all I have and it for twenty,” The Cro repeated, sticking out his feathered hand to complete the sale.

“I don’t have enough, but I do want it.” Algernon waivered.  If only he’d thought to ask for a little extra cash from Rain.

The Cro looked him over, “You look like your good for it, shake my hand, and the dynamite is your,” He said in a tone that suggested that more than just the few coins he had would be part of the transaction.

“Urr…no, thank you,” Algernon kept his hands to himself and walked away from the stall.

At another stall, he found a group of Earth tech and went over to examine them.  With the shopkeeper’s keen eye on him, he started up an old laptop, and a primary coloured black-bordered window on a cloudy blue sky filled the screen.  Passworded, he figured he could get around the security…until he couldn’t and locked the computer instead.

“What did you do? You’ve broken it!  That’s worth fourteen crow coins. Hand them over!” The owner cawed sharply.

“I assure you, I can fix this.  Please, let me try again,” Algernon said, sure if he could bypass Ni’Challan’s systems he could get passed this machine’s security.  Grudgingly, the shopkeeper allowed him to try and within a few keystrokes, he had returned the computer to its former state. With that little excitement under his belt, he started back for the bar where the other waited. 

It was odd for Tobias to see himself from Algernon’s point of view as his friend stopped a hundred metres out from the bar and watched the crowd.  Tobias waived and saw himself waive.  Algernon nodded back, a small gesture of acknowledgement.

“He’s back, watching,” Tobias told the others, still sitting around the table, “ What are you all up to?”

Paco seemed to be drinking himself into a quiet stupor. Peggy was working out complicated mathematics related to the Angels by the images she sketched on the back of a napkin.  Bruce was just people watching, keeping an eye out for anyone who was taking a little too much interest in them.  Avel was a comfortable warmth on Tobias’ chest and he held his hand there for a moment enjoying the feeling when a movement from Algernon alerted him to the goon’s return.

“Where’s the other one?  Weren’t there four of you?” Said the big goon, he certainly thought himself the boss of this trio.

“Just there, didn’t you see him as you came in?” Tobias asked politely of the goon while giving a wink as Algernon stepped out of the crowd and stood behind the Dona’s heavies.  With a start, the realised the young Cro had snuck up on them.

“Ur…The Dona will see you now,” Said the leader. 

Giving their farewells to the now inebriated Paco, the group followed the goons through three levels of the tree.  As each level passed, the markets and stalls slowly gave way to buildings of more prominent and grander proportions.  Eventually, they reached a branch reinforced with massive metal bands. Cables as thick as Algernon or Tobias around connected the bands to other branches further around the tree, creating a latticework of support.  In the centre of the spider’s web was a mansion, suspended in thin air.  A white spiral staircase led up from the branch to a roof garden, complete with a gazebo. 

In the shade of a white flowering climbing rose, the lady sat like a Queen at court.  Dressed in an elegant black evening dress, rings, and jewellery flashing in the bright sunlight, only found this high in the canopy.  As they walked up Tobias paid close attention to her posture (rigidly upright), her arm and legs (quiet and seemingly relaxed in a studied way) how the light flashed off the gems on her jewelled fingers (they fidgeted and moved to show agitation that the rest of the body didn’t) and he watched her eyes (flicking between each of the group trying to gauge them as well).  She was hiding it well, but there was something very wrong with the Lady’s world, and she was wondering if these were the ones to help.  

Tobias lifted his head, did his best to smile with a beak, and gave the lady a short bow.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this meeting, Dona,” He said respectfully, not just for her rank but because he found her a woman worthy of respect.

“Oh, how so?” She asked imperiously.

“It has been almost a year since we met your mutual friend, Lydia Lance.”

It had been during the Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland when the party had almost caught the Dona making a delivery of Spiral Dust Rock to Lydia Lance’s store, The Dreaming Crystal. 

“Oh yeah, the basement,” Peggy said, remembering how long they’d fought and planned to create a trap only to have it fail because of their own stupidity.

“What the hell, Peggy?” Tobias turned on Peggy, his standard London accent slipping to a rough cockney. This was his moment to make an impression on the Dona, and Peggy reminded her that she was dealing with a group of thugs and pranksters.

“That was your doing?” Dona Ilsa asked, her beak in the air as if she could once more spell the bitter smell of spider parts and alkaloids.  

“It wasn’t how I would have wanted it, but there it is.  Even then I knew we were dealing with someone who wasn’t afraid of the dirty work, who didn’t palm it off to underlings but saw them through themselves.  I knew I wanted to meet that person.” 

“And now?”

Tobias thought for a moment.  He looked around the garden and noted several of her henchmen, possibly loyal but who knew. With a thought his card appeared in his hands and he shuffled them absently, “Can I tell you a small story?” He fanned the deck revealing all the cards faces to the Dona, “Do you know Earth playing cards?”

Her head dipped and something within her expression relaxed, “I’ve counted a few,” 

“A woman of my own heart, “He replied, drawing the cards back into a deck to then fan them out again, this time only revealing the Kings and Queens of every suit.

“Four noble couples, eight powerful people throughout history, mythology and religion.  King David from ancient Judea, Charlemagne who united Europe under Rome, Pallas, a goddess and queen, Judith and Rachel saviours to their people,” Each time he mentioned a name the card would rise out of the fanned deck before sinking back into the whole. He went through the spades, hearts and diamonds before folding the deck back on itself again,

“All except one.  One who stands out, “ He gestured to a wine glass that sat on a small table by the Dona’s chair. In the glass was a card, the Queen of clubs, “She is sometimes called Regina, which only means Queen, “She alone is nameless, she alone rules alone.”  Tobias tapped his cards and made an apologetic gesture.

“Of course, this is where my story falls apart because “He once more gestured to the glass.  Tucked in behind the Queen of clubs was the King of clubs, only just peeking over the edge of the card,” There is a King, but I can’t see him.  He manipulates the Queen to do his bidding, but how?  For what purpose? I can’t tell.  It is, for this reason, I am here today.  Good Dona, do you have the answers I seek?”

What Dona Ilsa thought of the story, she didn’t say, but something in it made an impression. Her imperious self-control slipped, and she revealed the worried woman below her facade.

“To save my children,” She said quietly and instantly Tobias took a knee before the Dona.

“Dona, in this, we are engaged in your service.  You have heard of our power? Our deeds today have gone ahead of us to you?  Your children will be found,” He bowed his head and smirked a small victory smirk.  She was who he thought she was, “Only tell us how this all came to be?”

“A year ago, my five eggs were stolen.  Cro eggs are viable for years unincubated, so I held out hope for their safe retrieval.  But, money was demanded, money I had to find. Then a business proposal was offered, sell the blue dust to the humans, it seemed an answer I hadn’t dare hope for.”

Now that the story was out and the diplomacy had done its best, the others started to ask questions.

“Do you know who would have your eggs, how they got access?” 

“No.  All I have were the vague recollections from a traveller from Ardeyn.  They seemed to think that Cro eggs were taken to the Mouth of Swords.”

She gestured to one of her guards and spoke to them in a voice too low to hear. The guard left and returned sometime later with a hand-drawn map of Ardeyn with the Mouth of Swords circled.

“No more details?  Could we speak to this traveller?”

“Long gone, but I believe their story, I have to.”

“What do the eggs look like?  Is there any special treatment?”

“Each fits within your hands thus,” She held out her feathered hands and made a cup with both indicating the size of a small melon or grapefruit, “They are blue with white speckles. As to care, they are eggs and are fragile, but if you are gentle…?”
“We go through ungentle places, do you have something in which to keep them safe?”

Again, the guard was ushered over and they returned with a handled box, padded with cushions to keep the eggs safe.  This was handed to Tobias, who quickly indicated that Bruce was the best to keep the little ones from harm.

“Do you have any aids, ciphers and artefacts that could help?”

A third time the guard was sent. This time they returned with three ciphers, a force screen projector, friction reduction gel and a psychic communicator that could speak across recursions.

“Do you know what we are likely to meet in this Mouth of Swords?  What being holds sway or claims ownership?”
“I do not know.  I have had no one who can go there, no one who I could turn to for this.” She looked around the group and returned back to Tobias, still kneeling in front of her.

“For my children, I will tell you what you want to know.” 

“It will be done.” He replied, with such finality, it was like she had spoken a prayer, and he’d given his Amen. 

 He stood and joined the group.  Beside Dona Ilsa on the small table was a stack of playing cards.

“One last thing, Dona?  You do not think that Don Wycliffe would be behind the kidnapping of your children?”
“Why?  Of what purpose would they be to the Droods?” She replied in all sincerity.

“You compete with him over the Spiral Dust?”

“The Don was only angry with our house after we started the trade into Spiral dust.” The Dona acknowledged the feud between the great houses.

“Thank you, Dona.  We will not take up any more of your time.” Tobias bowed his head, never dropping his eyes from hers until he turned to leave with the others.

“I could have got to the point of our visit more hygienically,” Peggy grumbled as the group walked away from the mansion and back into the Glittering market. 

“ A little diplomacy costs nothing,” Tobias replied, “We don’t know the politics.  That the Droods and Cornaro’s have only had issues since the Spiral Dust was news.”

“So, Ardeyn.  Do we know how to get there?” Algernon asked.  It seemed that in The Estate Orientation sessions he had been the only one to pay attention to the history of Ardeyn and knew how to get there.  Bruce had listened, but it had lacked practical application and had slipped out the way it had slipped in.  Peggy had been far more interested in The Strange’s science than the actual locations, and Tobias had bunked off the classes as soon as he’d been able. 

“So are we going now?”

“Sure, I guess…” Tobias said before stopping mid-walk and clutching his chest, “No, I can’t leave yet.  Oh no, this is bad.  I can’t leave her behind.”

“What? Who?” Bruce asked, everyone was there.  For a moment, he thought maybe Ish-Ma-El, but it didn’t seem likely and said nothing.

“Avel!  She’s been wonderful.  She was all alone before we came, I couldn’t leave her behind now.”

“Ah, Rain…” Algernon tried to interject, but Tobias was too caught up in his thoughts to listen.

“Avel,” He said out loud for the group to hear, “ You are part of us now and I won’t leave you behind.”

Behind?  I don’t understand, She replied and hugged Tobias.  The embrace that seemed so warm, so familiar… Tobias’ heart sank in his chest.

“She doesn’t understand about us leaving.  She doesn’t know.  She’s a manikin,” 

“Rain, I don’t think she’s a manikin.” Algernon said, and Tobias clutched hold of the lifeline he offered.

“Of course, she isn’t!  She’s special, we all saw it! That’s why she had to go with us!” He prattled on, hoping someone could make sense of what was going on. 

“She’s not from around here,” Algernon persisted, and somehow, his words got through.

“No?”  Tobias stopped and thought, “ Of course, she spoke Slavic. She must be from Earth.  But now I’m confused…” Tobias sank onto his haunches, sitting on the branch in a very bird-like way.

“She’s not from here, because you brought her.  I…I think you’ve been dragging her around.”

“Dragging…wha…?” Reaching up to where he could feel Avel’s hand on his cheek, “What do you mean?  How do you know?”

“Well, she may not be related…?” Algernon said, trying to be helpful without saying what he thought he saw during the attack.

“Related…what do you know?”

Algernon squirmed under the cross examination, ” I saw her. There’s a resemblance…to you…not that looking like someone means anything.”

That wasn’t true.  Tobias knew it.  She was too familiar, her touch too comforting, her presence too calming.

“Well, are we going?” Bruce asked again, not unkindly.

“We have to go. You’ll have to translate us,” Finally Tobias said in monotone before drawing his arms around himself (and her).  He had no concept of the others adding him to their circle or the travel through the Strange. 

The first thing he was aware of was Avel, settling herself back into her tattoo on his chest.  He looked down not to see the white scarred Cro feathers or even his new yellow suit and shirt but a dark violet coloured exoskeleton and the tattoo now an inlaid crystalline design in the carapace.  He breathed out, thankful Avel had not been lost in the translation and looked around.

Bruce and Algernon looked as usual, though Bruce’s crowbar was still made of some fine-grained hardwood. His armour was heavy fabric with hundred of metal plates riveted into scaled brigandine. Algernon still had his crossbow on his back over the top of a thick gabeson, all in natural colours.  On top, they both wore heavy woolen cloaks and where Algeron wore a close-fitting hood around his head and shoulders, Bruce has a shiny metal bascinet over a chainmail coif.

Peggy and Tobias were something else again.  Thin and dark-skinned, the creatures seemed to be based on someone’s idea of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god.  Unlike Algernon and Bruce, these creatures didn’t seem to need a lot of clothing, decorating themselves in tinkling crystals and the barest essentials for modesty.  

On her dog-like face, Peggy had a curious look aimed at Tobias.  A slender dark hand reached out and touched the tattoo mark on Tobias’s chest.  

She screamed as her mind was swamped by anguish and terror that she had no defence for.  She was blind, deaf and dumb to everything except the mind-numbing grief and loss.  For a moment, Peggy strained against the emotion and felt too, underpinning it all, the terrible strength of protective love.  Eventually, when she felt she could take no more, she disconnected the link and slid ungracefully to the ground. Her first breath was a scream, and it didn’t abate until there was no breath left.  Her next breaths were uncontrollable sobs, the grief was too much, and it poured out of her like an overfilled vessel.  Tobias sat down next to her and reached out a hand in comfort.


“Don’t…touch! Not…just yet.” Was all she could say as she pulled away.

She wept unrestrainedly until either by exhaustion or the last remnant of the link disappeared, and she was able to gain a little control of herself again.

“I can’t describe that, not yet,” She said in a husky whisper, her throat now hoarse from screaming.

“I don’t think you need to, not with me,” Tobias replied just as quietly, his throat tight with emotion.  She had heard the screaming, but she had not connected to him.

Silently Bruce wandered off and came back sometime later with a large steaming teapot and mugs.

“Here, I think you both need a good strong cup of tea,” He handed each of the Peggy and Tobias creatures hot mugs and they all stood or sat drinking the bitter brew as reality reasserted itself.

They were in Ardeyn.

It was early morning, and the air was chill and damp.

It was market day in Citadel Hazurrium and people were staring.

They were not human.

Peggy had heard the voices… and not from Tobias.

Avel was…

“You live with that?” She finally asked, the practical Peggy reinforced by the hot bitter brew.

“It’s not always so…unrelenting, not for me, not since…well, not for a while,” Tobias stumbled over his words.  He felt numb and stupid and just wanted to curl up in a corner and sleep.  To sleep and dream of Avel.

“How long for?” 

“As… far back as I remember,”

“She’s…very aware of you…and protective.”

“And I’ve been dragging….her…? She’s been with me…” It was just too much to comprehend.

“Well, if you two are ready we need to purchase equipment and get moving,” It was Bruce. His words were enough to get the two creatures on their feet again.

“What are we?” Tobias finally asked Algernon who looked relieved to have an answer to that question.

“Qephilim, the original inhabitants of Ardeyn and the servants to the Maker.”
“Avel is here,” Tobias wrapped his arms around his chest and felt her warmth there, “So, there’s that.”

“Yes, what are we going to do about this parasite on Rain?” Peggy asked the group.  Tobias winced and shied away protectively.

“It’s not a parasite,” Bruce replied gently as neither Peggy nor Tobias looked up for much at that time, “It’s Rain’s Mama.”

“What?” She asked, stunned.

“It’s my m…” Tobias started to say but the word caught and eventually, he just gave up. 

“Come on, let’s start moving and see what we can find, hey?” Urged Bruce and the group  trudged together through the market, stopping every now and then for supplies, camping equipment, horses, tack and fodder.  Algernon remembered to buy a decent map and was given a detailed one of the whole of Ardeyn.  With it and the horses he worked out, the Mouth of Swords was a two days trip.

Horses were a revelation.  Tobias had never grown up around animals of any sort especially nothing as large and imposing as a horse. While the others put away their kits and saddled their horses, he stood and watched his, paying attention as he did a human he wanted to understand.  The horse looked back warily, a one-eyed stare over its big lippy face.  It spoke of fearfulness of the strangers and a tentative acceptance of new members of the herd.  The ideas were simple and appealed to Tobias at that moment.  He stood beside his beast and leaned into its warm side.  It turned its huge head and huffed in his face.  He breathed in its horsiness and breathed it out again for the horse to accept in return.  A handful of oats from the travel rations and a sprinkle of Spinner’s ideal and the horse soon relaxed and was resting its head on his shoulder.

“Calliope, that’s your name, isn’t it?” He asked her quietly and there was a tension of recognition. He soaked in its warmth and smell until the others asked if he was ready to go.

The day warmed as they travelled through the rolling hills of Ardeyn.  Very little was said, and soon, Algernon got bored of the constantly dull scenery.  He pulled out the puzzlebox and started fiddling with it, pushing sections this way and that, trying to find the part that moved to reveal the next step.  He wasn’t having a lot of luck when Bruce’s eagle eyes spotted what he was doing.

“Should you be doing that?” Bruce asked quietly so Tobias especially wouldn’t hear.

“Nobody said not to,” Algernon replied innocently.

“Which usually means you don’t,” 

“I guess,” Algernon signed and put the puzzlebox safely away.

They rode throughout the day until they found a suitable camping site. By the light of the fire, Algernon bound pieces of goose feather to a  thin sapling trimmed down to size.  On the other end, he glued a bodkin head of cast iron bought from the market  and checked it’s straightness by lining the whole arrow up with his eye.  Bruce watched until he was too tired and asked Algernon to keep an eye out while he slept. Across the campfire, both Peggy and Tobias has collapsed into bedrolls too exhausted to even eat.  As Tobias lay looking out into the darkness beyond the campfire, the sound of a lullaby drifted through the air around him.  Bruce and Algernon looked up from what they were doing and listened to the gentle song, in a language they could not understand.  Over the dark mound that was Tobias, a feint figure hovered.

Algernon didn’t understand the purpose or benefit of the song and worried that it might draw enemies to their camp. In the end he recognised the music itself was not maliciously intended and at such a low volume was not going to draw anything dangerous.

“That’s a mighty lovely tune.  Where’s that from?” Bruce said conversationally remembering it from their trip through the caverns under Dreamland.  Tobias himself had hummed the tune to his echo in the cavern and then sung harmony with himself.  It was as eerily beautiful as it had been back then.

Avel ignored the question.  Avel sung in Bosnia for only one and stroked his cheek.  

“Hush my little one, close your eyes,

The tears of day have all ceased.

Your cries are stilled and your tears have dried,

Hush, my darling one, sleep.”

The tune and the gentle hand were so exceedingly comforting to the restless Tobias that all pretence of sleep was soon given up for the real thing. 

The following day Bruce and Algernon went out hunting, testing out Algernon’s new arrow. They returned to companions refreshed and ready for the days travel and ready too for the feast of wild foods and game the foragers had found.  That day’s travel was as uneventful as the previous days and they made it to the Mouth of Swords before nightfall.   The camp was located and made a little way off from the foreboding portal.

Musings 15: Missplaced parents

I lost my parents at an early age.  


I’ve never actually written that down before. 

It’s a simple phrase, said like you would mention losing your wisdom teeth or appendix.  And I guess the analogy is not unfair, I always felt like a part of me was missing. 

The losing was so far back in time that I tend to think of them as another son’s parents, and that too is not an unfair analogy.  We are shaped by the events of our lives.  The boy they gave birth and raised to be a good muslim bosniak was not the same child that grew up in foster care under the christian faith.  At least, I can only assume.

Of course, it’s not true.  I know what happened.  What I learnt many years after the fact lead me to believe that my father is dead.  Not lost, or mislaid.  Not waiting somewhere to be reunited with his son. Dead.

But can the same be said for my mother?

This is ridiculous thinking that will get me nowhere.  How do I even start looking for a woman who I knew only as Mama. 

As I said, that boy is gone, just as dead as a dead father.

Nothing can come of this.  

40. The Glittering Markets

Having freed the mining town of Omoko from destruction by the Manihiki Ferro Navy, the group returned to Seattle.  Ish-Ma-El experienced a small part of the multiverse, realising that a world could have seas and lakes of water, and millions of people can live in one of thousands of glittering city. The wake celebrated, Ish-ma-El returned to the sands of Railsea as Bruce returned home to New Orleans with his Father.



The old wooden flyscreen rattled in its frame as a heavy hand knocked at Yvette front door.  The day was unseasonable hot, and Yvette had welcomed the moisture-laden breeze off the Mississippi down the hallway to the kitchen where she sat.  The knock startled her, and she looked at the starburst clock on the wall.  Where had the time gone? She’d taken a break from her chores at ten, and it was almost twelve.  She swirled the remains of her now cold, chicory coffee and tried to remember what had startled her.


“Oh!  Who could that be?” She said aloud to herself and then to the stranger at the door, “Coming!”  

She emptied the remains of her coffee down the sink, washed the cup, placed it on the sideboard to dry, and then looked around the kitchen.  Spotless as ever.

“It’s me, Ma,” Came her Bruce’s voice from the front door, “I’ve got a present for ya.”

“Bruce?”  What a surprise!  His job in Seattle kept him busy, but he did try to sneak down to see her when he could.  But why was he standing at the door? “Come in, boy, no need to stand on ceremony at your own door.”

She walked out the kitchen into the hallway, the breeze gently flipping her hair away from her face as it used to when she was a girl.  Bruce (was that boy still growing?) stood in the door looking…expectant? Concerned? She couldn’t tell. As she gestured for him to step inside, he instead leaned to the left, revealing the gravel path and front lawn behind him.

Yvette’s breath caught as her heart leapt into her throat. She reached out for the wall beside her, sure she’d soon run, faint or be sick.  It was the very last thing she expected to see, and like seeing a ghost, she found it hard to make sense of what her eyes were telling her.  

Standing in a patch of sunlight, enjoying the same breeze she had only a moment before, was Jimmy. Jimmy, her sweetheart, her love, her husband and the malignant shadow over her life.  He was older. The hair was greying at the temples in that way, they say, gives men more gravitas.  He was also thinner, unhealthily so.  But as he turned away from the breeze and fixed his steel-blue eyes on her, she knew.

“Now, Ma…Ma?” Bruce said from the other side of the screen door.  She felt her slippered feet shuffle back towards the safety of the kitchen, her refuge (outside of church, that was). Behind her, a murmur of low voices and the screen door hinges squealed .

“No…no Bruce, no..” She said as her hand moved from the wall to the vinyl backed kitchen chair, “Please, we’ve had enough ghosts in this household.”

“Ma…it’s not how you think.  It’s not how any of us thought…”

“When that…” She could taste the foul words on her lips and denied their expression.  Instead, she licked her lips, their saltiness adding a sting to her thoughts, “When he left that last time, I knew it was for good. I shut that part of my life down.  He was dead to me…and so was I. All that mattered was you and Johnny. “

She could feel the tears welling in her eyes and knew they weren’t for the her wayward man, “Even then, I saw how the loss of him affected you both.  John went wild, just like his daddy and you…oh, Bruce, I thought I’d lost you too when poor Chris died.  Such a big boy, you shrunk into yourself and almost disappeared, do you remember?”

 He winced, and he nodded, able to say nothing.

“And when you came back, you were…different.  There was no more talk of college or the future, just making sure that John and me were alright.”

Bruce stood silent, head bowed.

“But that was never your job.  That was…his!” She pointed a finger down the hall, past the flyscreen into the sunlight with a bitterness she never knew she had inside her,” He never saw his boy torn apart and have to put himself back together, never saw the sacrifices he made.  He never felt…” The words stuck in her throat.  She leaned into her son’s broad chest and cried.

They stood there in the cool of the kitchen as the clock ticked away the time.  

“Ma,” Bruce whispered after her sobbing ceased, and they stood in the easy comfort they had learned to share over the years, “He was taken away by some bad people, to a place he…he never hoped of escaping…”

“He chose that life, the one that had those people.  He chose!  For what he did to you boys… I will never forgive him.”

“Maybe so. But for your boy’s sake, will you give him a hearing?  He has a strange story. Trapped in a strange place.  My group went there, found him, brought him home.  He’s done strange and wonderful things, things you’d be proud of if you heard them,” He placed his large hand on either side of his mother’s face and lifted it until she was looking him in the eyes, “I am.”

Yvette stood and searched her son’s face for signs of falsehood or dissembling.  She could always read him like a book and was surprised to find none. All she saw was the kind of peace she knew from church—the peace of forgiveness.

“You’re proud?  You forgive him?”

“For my part,” Bruce nodded and gave a weak smile, ”I can’t hold him accountable for all the terrible things that happened to us after he left. For John or Chris.  And for the terrible things he did before…yeah, I forgive him.  Not to say I didn’t give him a hard time about it.”

Yvette snorted a laugh, imagining that first encounter between father and grown son, “I bet you did.”

“Ma, you have to at least listen to him.  I think…I think he’s now the man you saw in him.  I hope so…”

Yvette lifted her chin defiantly and pushed her son away.  She crossed the kitchen to sink.  After a few splashes of water, Yvette felt better equipped to deal with whatever happened next. She turned back to her son, who looked like he was holding his breath.

“Alright.  But out on the porch, I won’t have him in the house.”

“You’ll listen and believe what he says?”

“I won’t promise to believe anything that comes out his mouth,” She retorted, a spark of her former self returning, “I will listen as is my duty…I don’t promise anything else.”

Bruce held out his strong hand, and his mother placed her worn one in it.  Together they walked down the hall to the screen door.

He was still standing in the sun as they came out of the dark of the house.  His eyes closed, a small smile on his lips.  As the door creaked open, he turned once more to face them, the look of contentment melting under Yvette’s glare.

“I never thought I’d miss the smell of the Mississippi,” Were his first words, “But there was never a day I didn’t miss you, Evie.”

Yvette’s sniffed at the sloppy compliment, and she let go of Bruce’s hand.  She walked up to Jimmy and looked him square in the face.  

“You look well,”  She said cooly as he raised his left hand to touch her face.  She pulled away and glanced at a gold band that still wrapped his finger.  She shoved her own left hand quickly into the pocket of her apron and walked around him. Gripping his arm she felt the hard muscle like that of Bruce, brought on by physical labour.  She allowed her hands to slip across his back, broader than she remembered and felt a roughness to the skin under the thin homespun shirt.  She traced lines crossing and recrossing his back as he turned his head to look at her,

“They’re lash scars,”

She pulled her hand away as if burnt, “Lashes?”

“For insubordination.”

“Ah, so that’s what I did wrong, didn’t beat the sense into you.”

Jimmy turned away, and she could hear his voice was strained, “It was never anything you did or did not do, love.”

Yvette placed her hand gently on her husband’s back, “Bruce, could you please fetch the pitcher of lemonade from the fridge and two glasses?”

“Right, Ma,”  And Bruce was gone. He could certainly move when it called for. 

“I hear you have a story to tell?” She walked around to face Jimmy as he brushed away a revelaing tear falling down his face. It was more telling than anything he had to say.

“Yes, Mam.”

“It better be a good one.”

“Yes, Mam.”

Later that evening, as Bruce waited for his flight back to Seattle, he received a call from his mother.

“Ma, how are you?”

“What do you mean, how am I?  What am I supposed to think?”  Over the phone, he could hear her strength, her practical level-headedness had reinstated itself, “He comes back after twenty years, and the best you two can come up with was this story of kidnap and high adventure?  Who do you think I am? Robert Louis Stevenson?”  

He smiled. ”Does it make a difference if I say I was there? I saw what those people were capable of and fought the same fight.”

“And this is the Seattle job?  You said that was security.  I asked John about it, and he went and found excuses to be somewhere else.”

Bruce grimaced. He never told her about the work. He’d said he worked for the Estate, a well known philanthropic institution, as a member of their security department.  When talk of work came up, he always mentioned the personalities, Algernon the wunderkind, Peggy, the nutty professor and…Tobias. Rain. Never their exploits.  

“It is security, Ma.  We’re like police, keeping the world safe,” He finally admitted.

“And here I thought you were the one person I could trust to tell me the truth,”  She said heavily like the idea was almost too much for her to carry, “What a fool am I.”

“You’re never a fool, Ma.  I couldn’t tell you. These things are secret for a reason.”

After a long pause, she sighed, “Yeah, I get that, I suppose,” And Bruce knew that somehow his dad had got through.

“So, you catch the people who do things like what happened to your dad?”

“Yeah, we do.” He confirmed and was pleased to be finally honest with her, “So, does this mean you’ve given Dad another chance?”

“Oh honey, we’re very different people now,” She cooed in a manner he was very used to and realised she was trying to let him down gently, “We don’t fit those moulds anymore.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“People change,” She said casually enough before,” He is taking me out to Old Town tomorrow night.”


“You know, I don’t remember the last time I went out, just for fun.”

“Good for you, Ma.” Bruce beamed. The sign for his flight flicked to “boarding”, and the announcements began.  He ignored it all, “You deserve a little happiness.”

“If you call scouring my wardrobe for something decent to wear happy, I’m delirious!” She chirped, and he laughed out loud in the near-empty gate, “Did I hear your flight called?  You better go.”

“Yeah, love you, Ma.”

“Keep safe out there.”

Tobias left the Estate early that morning, saying he had to go shopping.  It wasn’t until early afternoon when he finally went hunting for Algernon in the library.  Now free of the fear the tabooed subjects forced on him, Algernon was now spending his time researching information on an individual, entity or organisation called, Nakarand.  He was not having a lot of luck.  Even with a whole day’s work on the subject, he found himself covering ground that Rain had covered months before.  As he pulled over another report with the ubiquitous R.B. initials last on the check-out slip, something yellow caught his eye. 

He glanced up and saw nothing amiss but felt the weight of eyes on him.  He lowered his head, paying no attention to the words in front of him.  Instead, he focused all his thought on sound, smell and peripheral vision. A faint smell of the gunk Rain put in his hair each morning wafted through. Algernon found it a regular feature for people in this society and disregarded it.  He could hear someone walking behind the shelving beside him. The Librarians were omnipresent as always, it could be one of them? A splash of colour caught his eye, but peripheral vision is blurry, and when he tilted his head to look, the colour was gone. 

 He had no weapon with him and felt exposed.  Spotting a pair of scissors last used by the librarian who opened the files for him. He covered the scissors with his arm with a simple stretch and pulled them back into his lap.  Algernon had just swapped it to his main hand when a soft voice whispered over his shoulder.

“Studying on such a lovely day?” 

“If you want to sneak up on people, you should refrain from wearing yellow,” Algernon said without lifting his head from his reading.

“Why?  I snuck up on you, didn’t I?” The voice said as Algernon tapped the tip of the very sharp scissors against the fine yellow material of the new suit trousers.

“Ah.  I’ll remind you I was born Muslim and am circumcised,” Tobias gingerly moved around the scissor point and took a seat beside his friend, “A new look for the new me, like it?”

Algernon now raised his head and took in his friend’s new clothes.  A finely cut three-piece suit in egg-yolk yellow, a white-collar shirt and a dark blue tie spangled with stars.

“Not good for infiltration missions. You’d stand out too much,” Was Algernon’s honest assessment.  

“Standing out is what I do best,” Tobias sifted through the physical reports on the table between them, “I’ve read these… when looking up Nakarand.”

“Yes, I have been woefully remiss in my research of our enemies,” Algernon admitted, and Tobias’ eyes grew wide in realisation.

“No more verboten topics!  How is it to have a mind of your own?”

Algernon had to stop and think.  In one way, there had been no change.  The relationship between his senses and his body was as usual.  He had no memory difficulties or issues with cognitive abilities. 

“About the same,” He finally said, and Tobias shook his head.

“I noticed differences.  You don’t seem so afraid.  When did you last ask,’ was it safe?’”

Algernon frowned.  Fear had kept him alive all his short life. To not fear couldn’t be a change for the better, could it?

“I don’t know if I like that,” He admitted, and Tobias laughed low so as not to attract the librarians’ attention.

“There are other things.  The first time we were in Railsea, you tore apart a giant rat with your bare hands and a knife in a sort of frenzy,” Tobias started looking at little green at the thought of Algernon covered in the creature’s blood and shook it off, “This time, you were cool and calm.  Sabotaging trains, taking long-range shots from on top of moving carriages and sailing into combat, a serene force of nature.”

Not used to such effusive compliments, even from Tobias, Algernon blushed, embarrassed.  

“And now….Crow Hollow,” Tobias said expectantly, watching for Algernon’s response.

“And planetovores.”


“I’m scared of planetovores,” He admitted, and to this, Tobias nodded his head.

“And for good reason. They eat planets.  How do you reason with them?  How do you fight them?” He agreed, flicking absently through the files in front of him, “ Fear is not a bad thing, but we can’t live a life of fear anymore.”

Tobias caught Algernon’s eye at this point.  It was always a topic they had in common, even if their response to fear was different.

“And how about you, Rain?”

Tobias’s usual gentle companionable smile faltered, and his eyes darted away and down as if checking behind him.

“Ah, seriously?  About the same.  You studied psychology for a while, didn’t you, ever heard of closure?”

“It was neurology, but I’ve seen it mentioned in the documentaries.”

“It’s overrated.  I guess you’re meant to walk away with a little peace, a little wisdom,” He raked a hand through his hair nervously and sighed,  “Well, at least Tobias is a good guy. It will be good to be him again.” He said, talking about himself as another person.  It would have sounded odd to anyone else, but Algernon was well used to his friend’s idiosyncrasies.  In fact, without them, Algernon would have thought him strange.

They spend the rest of the libraries open hours in research.  Algernon, continuing to find out what he could about Narkarand, Tobias on their next destination, Crow Hollow,  its social structure and culture.

…Though one of the more established recursions, Crow Hollow is not a large place, really only encompassing the Great tree (30 miles in diameter) that holds the Glittering Market, residence and industry of Crow Hollow.  

The people call themselves Cro and are sentient crow-humanoids.  Though flying is almost impossible at their size, gliding is available to all Cro and can be very effective with the help of thermals.  

The Cro industry is “acquiring” items from other recursions for sale at the Glittering Market.  The Glittering Market is the centre of Cro life and culture. 

There is no seeming governing body.  Instead, a set of families all related and allied to each other in a complicated web keep control of the Glittering market and therefore Cro society.  Two families are most prominent, the Drood family led by Don Wyclef and the Cornaro family, led by Dona Ilsa Conaro.  Most other families are either directly linked to one of the two ruling families or stay independent and pay protection money….

At the same time, Peggy was busy putting the knowledge she gained from their last trip to Railsea to practical use.  Seeing into the Angel’s mind had been a revelation. Though the Angels’ energy system eluded her, she was able to created a prototype of their propulsion system.  Still only small scale (a disc the size of a large plate), with more research, she was sure one could make one to carry a vehicle through the air.

At Bruce’s return to The Estate, they all gathered, as usual, to translate out from Peggy’s lab.  From her desk drawer, she pulled out a coin with a crow’s head on it.  It reminded Tobias of the small chest of such coins taken from Eldin Lightfeather in Celephais, but this one was a key, a direct route to Crow Hollow.  

“Who is leading the translation?” She asked, holding it out.  No one replied.

“Fine,” She replied tiredly.

“I just assumed you or Algernon would,” Tobias said, “I can. I did with the triplets.”
“We all can. They just do it better,” Bruce added, looking back at Peggy, who rolled her eyes.

“It’s fine. I’ll do it” They all stood in their accustomed places in the circle, holding hands, and she concentrated on the coin.  Minutes past, and nothing.  Finally, Peggy gave up and handed the coin to Algernon.

“I’ve just got my floating disc working, and all I can think about is that,” She sighed as Algernon flipped the coin over in his hand before closing his fist over it.

“You can do it. Just breath and focus,” Tobias said as a shot of the Strange tingled Algernon’s hand. 

“Oh,” He complained good-naturedly, “I wanted to do it myself,” Tobias just shrugged.

This time the translation went through, and the group were once more sailing through the Strange.  Once more, Tobias’ sped them through the inky blackness only punctuated by the fractal starscape.  Once more, Bruce’s ability lessened the shock of impact of translation into their new selves.

And new selves they were.  All four were now Cro.  Algernon was gangly and thin but otherwise unremarkable in his black feathers and wings.  Peggy also looked herself , with her lab coat over the scruffy dark feathers.  She had appeared with a book under her wing and was now beak deep in its pages.  Bruce looked most like himself, a huge Cro covered in a thick layer of black with his crowbar now in heavy wood, strapped between his wings. Initially, Tobias looked much you’d expect, a small Cro with a yellow suit, the slick metal Ruk wings folded behind his back.  Warmth from the pocket he kept the puzzle box made him examine the item. It looked the same as it ever did, but he felt a strong connection to it, a binding of sorts as if he himself were protected within its wooden mechanics.

“Ah, now that’s interesting,” He said, more to himself than anyone, ”I’ll have to keep this close, it seems.”

Simultaneously, he was aware of a voice speaking to him as if from a long way off.

Are you a magic user, a soul sorcerer? Said the female voice. It echoed as if they were a long way off, but he could almost feel a gentle breath against his ear. He turned to look around them, but though the place was full of Cro, no one paid them any attention.

“I imagine you could say that. Who are you?” He asked out loud.

Avel, I’ve been so long for this chance.  I know soul sorcerers can shelter ones like me.  In return, I can do things for you.

“O-kay,” He replied, more as an acknowledgement of what Avel had said than anything.  It seemed she took it as a sign of acceptance as there was a rushing of wind and burning heat on his chest.  Quickly pulling back his new tie and unbuttoning the collared shirt, Tobias revealed the feathers down his keel bone marked in a white pattern, like a tattoo.

“What is that?” Bruce asked as Tobias quickly redressed.

“More she than it,” He clacked, surprised to find smiling difficult with a solid beak, “I have a new friend, and her name is Avel.”

“And she’s a tattoo,” Bruce asked doubtfully.

“She manifests as such,” Tobias acknowledged with a shrug, “ I think I’m going to have fun in Crow Hollow.”

“Cool!” Algernon nodded as together they turned and took in their surroundings for the first time.

They stood, as much of this place did, in the shade of a massive tree.  The lowest branches swept the ground, making a path that climbed up the tree and through the canopy.  The higher branches were lost to leaves, but occasional rooftops or chimney stacks could be seen poking out.  The whole tree swarmed with black bodies, either Cro, walking on two legs and wearing clothing or actual crows, flying in small groups through the branches.  Beyond the shadow created by the tree, a thick cloud obscured everything.  Peggy could feel the Strange’s electrical buzz beyond those clouds and surmised that if one were to fly through them, they would end up floating physically in the Strange.

Cro glided from higher branches down to lower ones, and both Bruce and Tobias started testing their wings, jumping and letting the air drift them back down to the ground.  It was a revelation, and they acted like naughty schoolboys with a new toy.  Algernon casually scanned the crowds around them.  They’re antics were getting looks from the locals.

“You’re drawing attention to us,” Using his levitate he picked up
Bruce just as he leaped into the air to attempt a glide.  Bruce complained as he watched Tobias swoop around effortlessly, but had to admit they were making a scene.  With a shrug to Algernon’s carefulness, Bruce dragged Tobias back himself.

“We’re at the market, we’re going to want these,” Tobias remembered the chest of coins and started sharing them out. Though fifty crow coins sounded a lot at the time, it came to only twelve each with a couple of remainders, but it was better than having to use your resources to dabble in the market.

“It’s the magic of this place.  You can buy whatever you like. However, once you run out the payment in crow coins is made from your lifeforce,” Tobias explained, “Keep your purchases to these twelve, and you should be fine.  After that, I don’t know how it will affect you.”

“Okay.  We’re here, and we have money.  Where are we going, and who do we kill?” Algernon asked, his crossbow sleeky hidden under ruffled black wing feathers.

“No one, just yet, I hope.  I’d like to set up an interview with Dona Ilsa, we owe her an interview, and I feel she may be the most amenable of the two Beak Mafia bosses,” Rain suggested looking to others for ideas.

“ We don’t even know where their place of business is. Why don’t we walk through the markets and get a feel for the place first,” Said Bruce, and it was decided, at least until their coins ran, that they’d check out the markets.

The legend of the Glittering Market did not convey its scope.  Taking up most of the thirty-mile-wide tree, the Glittering market held anything that would fit on a stall and many things that didn’t.  Peggy eyed a stall full of handguns and lamented her steampunked pistol from 1890s London.  Then, on the stall was what she was looking for sitting amongst other odds and ends.  

“Fifteen crow coins, “ The Cro owning the stall said to her enquiries, far more than she had on hand.

“I do have this Beretta M9. Can I use this for trade?” She asked, and the Cro’s eyes flicked between his stock and the offered gun.

“Deal, “ The feathered hand extended over the stall.  As Peggy reached out and completed the handshake, two crow coins and the flintlock pistol left the stall owner, and the Beretta  replaced it on the stall, “Thank you for your patronage.” Peggy was now slightly richer than she had been at the start of the markets.

At another stall, Algernon and Bruce were going through the assortment of odd products of offer.  A sachet of powered pet, “…just add water!”  A third arm that grafts directly into its owner’s body.  A globe of glowing winged humanoids that was as bright as a torch.  Bruce watched as the little fairies tapped on the glass, begging to be let out. As they walked away, he sidled up to Algernon and whispered so the stall owner couldn’t hear, “Hey kid, levitate the globe and knock it off the stall.”

“Why?” Algernon asked, perplexed that Bruce would be a party to vandalism.

“I want it to break and let the fairies out,” He replied as they joined the other two at the next stall.

“Then how will they pay off their debt?” 

“Debt?  How do you know they have a debt?”

“They were obviously captured during some criminal activity and are now serving time.  What you’re asking is to aid in the escape of criminals. That’s very unlawful of you, Bruce.”
“That’s why I’m asking you to do it?” Bruce replied with a grim smile on his face.

“Oh, in that case,” Algernon looked back at the globe.  With a flick of his fingers, the globe rolled off the stall, bounced off the branch, down through the canopy of the tree and disappeared.  Bruce leaned over to watch as the globe shattered on the ground, fairies flying away in all directions.  

The stallkeeper rounded on a customer who happened to be the closest at the time.  A fight broke out, and the group quietly just left the area.

Further up the tree, Algernon saw something that made him stop in his tracks. Besides a stall was a low-riding red motorcycle.  Decorated in various company logos, the swept-back style was unique and unmistakable as the Akira bike.  

“How much is it?” He asked the stall owner without preamble.

“Five hundred crow coins,” The stall owner replied cooly.  It was more crow coin than all the party combined were likely ever to see.   Even pooling all their resources, they would have been lucky to make more than two hundred crow coins.  On top of that, there was the issue of getting the bike back to Earth without it translating into a standard Earth road bike.

“Five hundred,” Algernon scoffed at the man, “Does it even work?”

The stall owner turned the key in the ignition.  The thing purred like it had found its master.

“Sure, it turns over, but does it actually work?  I could take it for a test drive. Check it out?”  He tried for nonchalant and failed.  The Cro stall owner turned off the bike and pocketed the keys.

Slipping into the Cro’s mind, Algernon asked, “Where did it come from?”

“Bought it off another traveller,” He replied. The image of another Cro with spikey head feathers in a red leather jacket suspiciously like the one Algernon had back in Seattle appeared. The bike was genuine and out of their league.

“What get’s me is, if that’s the actual Akira bike, what’s the one at Ni-Challan’s?” Tobias asked as they began to walk away.  A bright something flitted through his view, and he turned to watch a group of fairies flitting around the stall owner.

“We should ask him-”  Algernon started before Tobias dragged him across to a nearby stall.

“Let’s look what this one has,” He said aloud before commenting in a much quieter tone, “Don’t look now, but there’s a group of those fairies you help escape flitting around the bike owner.”

Algernon made a casual glance back at the bike stall but didn’t see the fairies.

“You think they may want to help?”  He asked, turning to the new stall’s wares.

“Possibly, you did free them.  I just wanted to see what they’d do.”  

Algernon pulled out a few items from the new stall that looked Strangely interesting: a repellent for spore worms, a speed boost and a cloak that made you look ten years old.  Tobias was interested in the speed boost, but at ten crow, coins balked at spending all his coins on one purchase.  All thoughts of fairies disappeared as the old con-man awoke and made his play.

“It’s a one-use item, too rich for me. I could be interested in purchasing the cloak and the speed boost for five crow coins.”  

Tobias and the merchant haggled for a moment or two, and in the end, he walked away with all three items for the ten coins.  The speed boost went to Bruce and the repellent to Peggy, who thought it would make a good stink bomb. That left the cloak with Tobias.

“Why do you want to look ten years old?” Peggy asked suspiciously.

“I don’t, but it could be a good disguise, or maybe we can just resell it.  Buying and selling it seems the way this place works.” 

Peggy rummaged around in her bag with the suggestion of reselling and pulled out a well-worn but intact packet of hygiene pads.

“Here, see what you can do with these?”

Tobias laughed as he gratefully took the packet.  It was the exact same one Algernon had purchased for Peggy while investigating the Spiral Dust trail in Seattle more than a year before.  At the time Algernon had, had no idea what he’d bought, only knowing it was for Peggy.  Now Tobias looked at it with the critical eye of a seller.

“Hmmm, original packaging, good but not mint condition.  An intact, complete set of multi-use, high absorbent adhesive pads.”

Now the spiel was established, he found another stall and started chatting to the seller.  Building a rapport was easy.  Tobias had picked the Cro because he looked bored and ready to chat with a stranger to past the time. 

“The names Paco Derois,” He replied to Tobias’ query.

“Derois, so not of one of the great families?” Tobias noted, “But you would be in with either the Conaro or the Drood?”

“We’re independent mostly, though I do pay protection to Dona Ilsa. You can’t run a business in Crow Hollow without protection.”

As he chatted, Tobias wove his spinner’s ideal into the conversation, making the merchant feel at ease.  

Tobias is trustworthy

The hygiene pads were presented for sale, and the price of ten crow coins suggested.  They were something new and unexpected, and Paco accepted the deal without question.  A small silent cheer filled Tobias’ soul as he and Algernon turned to follow a murmur of upset voices coming through the crowd.  

Pushing their way through the throng were four large well-dressed Cro, all in black suits making a beeline for Paco’s stall.  As they cleared the crowd, each of the four pulled out automatic weapons and fired.

At the sight and sound of guns, Tobias leapt the trestle table that made up the stall and dragged Paco down to the branch.  Algernon took the opportunity to slip into the crowd behind the four goons unseen by anyone.  In comparison, Peggy lifted her head from the book she’d been reading and spoke a word that held more power than the force she gave it. From the word, a human-like creature made of smoke and shadow rose and formed from the branch’s dark places. Sensing its mistresses intented it launched itself at the first of the goons. Flying feathers turned into coin shreds as the umber wolf torn at the Cro. The crowds watching in horror now turned and flocked in to pick them up. Two of the goon’s companions came to his rescue as the third stepped forward to finish what they started.  

Bullet flew over Tobias’ head, and he knew nothing but flight, literally.  Dragging Paco with him, he fell off the branch and down through the canopy of the tree.  Stretching our their wings, they glided out away from the tree and away from cover. The goon taking his chance, shot after the fleeing merchant and Tobias.  He could hear the sizzle of bullets as they flew passed and he could feel his panic rising.  Pulling his wings back, he dove to the ground, outflying the bullets and Paco still carefully gliding away.  With a flip practised over the sand of  Railsea, Tobias used his diving momentum to curve back up towards the tree and catch up with Paco. He grabbed paco and sent them both diving into the markets lower levels around the trunk of the tree from the machine gun goon. 

Algernon watched the goon shot at the disappearing Tobias.  From the anonymity of the crowd,  he gave a small gesture, a sudden hard thrust forward, and the third goon was sent flailing off the branch.  Three goons left, and one wasn’t doing so well. Peggy checked her book and found a page that gave details about the umber wolf she’s summoned.  Realising the strength and ferocity of the beast, she closed her book and, like Algernon, disappeared into the crowd.  

Bruce alone was taken by surprise by the goons.  Watching from the edge of the crowd, he could see Peggy’s handiwork and her curly feathered head slipping away.  Algernon was nowhere to be seen, as was Tobias and the merchant.  There seemed little reason to get involved in the squabble with the mobsters and the shadow monster. He too stood back and watched the two goons struggle to keep the umber wolf off their friend.

Below, Tobias pulled Paco into the relative cover of a sunshade.  With the sounds and smells of gunfire still ringing in his head, Tobias was finding it hard not to curl up into a ball.  But, he needed to focus if he was going to make something out of this mess.  He was alone with a complete stranger. His friends left with four gun-wielding thugs.

Suddenly he was less alone than he imagined as the voice of Avel piped up, insisting she could help.

I can manifest for a short while and use my scream, She suggested, Or if you prefer, I can take control and make you strong…?

No, right now, I…I just need you to be quiet. I need to t…think.

I’m sorry, He could feel her agtitation and a desire to be of help to him.

No, it’s fine. He sucked in a shuddering breath and found the distraction of Avel’s conversation soothing. You’ve already been a help. We’ll need to have a chat very soon, I promise.

 He turned to Paco, a shaking hand checking for injuries.

“Are you okay?  Did they hit you at all?” He asked Paco, who checked himself and shook his large beaked head.

“No, I’m fine,” 

“Ah, what was that about?”

“I don’t know, looked like Drood’s boys.”

“But they attacked your stall. Why come down so heavy on you?”

Paco turned away, seemingly to check the crowd around them. Tobias got the feeling he was stalling.

“Um..I…I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink,” He said, and the shaking of his feathered hand set off sympathetic shivers to the rest of his body, “Do you know a place we can hold up for a bit?”

Paco nodded and led the way to a copula open on four sides with a bar in the middle.  Buying them both drinks, Tobias directed Paco to a table at the far end, facing the entrance.

Above their heads, the umber wolf ripped the last few feathers off its victim and disappeared in a puff of black smoke.  Algernon, Bruce and Peggy watched the goons help their companion back to his feet. They looked around the crowd menacingly before starting the walk back down the branch to the lower reaches of the market.  In the crowd picking up the last coins, Algernon pocketed what he had and turned to watch the goons leave.  Recognised him through the thining crowd Peggy joined him.  Soon Bruce made three, following Peggy’s lead.

“Well, come on, we have to go find Tobias,” Bruce said and started for the edge of the branch.

“You go on, I’ve got something I want to follow up on,” Algernon said, not taking his eyes off the disappearing goons.  Without another word, he moved off through the crowd in pursuit and was soon lost to them.

Peggy tapped Bruce on the shoulder, creating a link.

He’ll be right. Let’s find Rain.  She thought and leapt off the branch into the clear air.  Bruce silently followed.

It wasn’t hard to find Tobias in the end. As soon as they landed on the lower level, Bruce started asking the local stallholders,  “You see a wannabe peacock in a yellow suit?”  Spreading out they covered more territory. Peggy found him first and directed Bruce via their link to the pub where Tobias and Paco were talking over their drinks.  As soon as Tobias spotted his companions, he introduced Paco formally and ordered drinks for the table.

“I was terrified, Paco. We must do something about this! I won’t rest easy knowing you’ll be facing those goons again sometime soon,” Tobias cajoled Paco, one time leaning on their new friendship, another moment making the most of his still shaken state.  As Tobias kept pushing the subject of why the Drood’s would be after him, he could see the Ideal at work and Paco seemed to accept his desire to help.

“I did help Dona Ilsa store a shipment of blue powdery stuff for a discount on protection this month,” Paco confessed after a few drinks.

“This month, as recent as that?” Tobias looked at the other two, who had already made the connection.  Don Ilsa was still trading in Spiral Dust, “Well, that must be it.  Please, let me talk to her. Let me sort this out. You shouldn’t be a target for any of her schemes.”

Paco hung his head, a forlorn look on a Cro whose large beak nearly reached his lap, “I’m not important enough to get an interview with the Dona, but I can tell you where she lives, and I’ll ask if she’ll see you.”

“Well, you tell her what happened here, and you tell her that Tobias Cudo wishes a word with her.” Tobias took Paco hand companionably.

“Why?  Why are you doing all this?  For me?”

Tobias snorted, an unusual sound through a beak,” Of course, we’re friends now, and like pads, we stick together!”

It was all Paco needed to hear.  His shoulders sagged in relief, “Okay, I’ll see if I can set up an interview with the Dona.” 

Tobias sighed and smiled inwardly, knowing they were on the next step of this mission.

Now Avel, you were saying?

Algernon walked a few metres behind the three goon, completely unremarked and unnoticed.  The goons followed the path through the markets down to where they saw Tobias and the store holder go.  Along the way, the fallen one rejoined his friends with a clatter of feather.  Taking advantage of the momentary disturbance, Algernon moved in closer to pick up their conversation.

“What happened to you?” Asked the umber wolf savaged one.

“I was pushed! “ Replied the clumsy one, affronted.
“Yeah, right…” A third spoke up.
“I was. You must have seen them…”
“There was no one near you!” The first grumbled, dabbing at his wounds.
“Yeah, stop making excuses for being clumsy.”

He followed them down to the lower market where Tobias and the merchant were sitting in an open pub with Peggy and Bruce.  Algernon saw them first, and stepping aside, he took a knee and pulled out a crossbow bolt. He wrote two words on the shaft before carefully loadin the bolt into his crossbow. The asked a stall owner and were directed to the copula and the group sitting together. As a wedge, they cleaved their way through the crowd.  Algernon brought the crossbow up and aimed through the sights at Tobias.  Squeezing the trigger, the limbs jumped and threw the bolt forward, past the goons across the pub and into a wooden beam by Tobias’ head.  

At the table, all eyes focused on the bolt quivering in front of them until the two words resolved themselves into one clear message.

Will Robinson!

39. The fear of the gods

The planning complete, materials hastily collected, the group and volunteers were on their way to the ambush point.  As The Molly and the old diesel travel away from Omoko, preparations wre being made.


“Hold still.  The train is rocking enough without you adding to the wonkiness of these lines,” Rain complained, pulling Bruce’s head roughly to the front.  Bruce said nothing and continued to sit patiently as Rain first painted his face and neck in Silver Frost paint.  Following Bruce’s angular features, he created the illusion of metal plates outlined and riveted in charcoal. Lastly, he adding smears and drops of red paint like blood from Bruce’s eyes and mouth.  The whole look on Bruce was of a murderous robot, and with everything else they were planning, Rain hoped it would help tip the balance in their favour.

But right now, he had other things on his mind.

“You gave your dad a pretty hard time when we arrived,” Rain said conversationally.


“You didn’t think how that would make us look?”

“You weren’t in the conversation,” 

“My point exactly, it was a private conversation, and you aired it in public.” 

 When Bruce didn’t respond, Rain put down the paintbrush and looked Bruce in the eye, for once on the same physical level.

“He’s the hero of the town, their saviour.  To them, he can do nothing wrong.  And then you show up, an unknown quantity, a possible enemy even, and abuse the hell out of him. Who do you think that looks poorly on?  Him?”

“We shook hands,” Bruce replied, nonplussed.

“Look, I can only do my job when we’re at least neutrally accepted.  Unknown is fine, though I was hoping that the rumours of you and the Dreaming Sable would have preceded us.  But to make us look bad out of spite…”

“Hey, doesn’t it look better if from a tense moment we came together in the end?”

“Don’t go all Shakespearian on me,” Grumbled Rain, picking up his brush and continuing to working on Bruce’s face.  It was obvious he wasn’t convinced, and moments of silence hung heavy between them.

“Ish-Ma-El is going to make an excellent Avenging Angel,” Rain started again, conversationally in tone.

“Wouldn’t have them come into combat with me if they weren’t good.” Added Bruce, pleased at how the scruffy salver they’d found in the old theatre had turned out to be a first-rate fighter, planner and Captain.

“Yeah, really great.” Rain agreed with a bitter edge.  


 “I can’t do that, right?”

“Because you don’t want to,” Bruce replied, and before Rain retorted that Bruce was just making it his fault, he added, “And we like that about you.”

Rain’s self-righteous posturing deflated—all pretence of painting forgotten.

“Really?” He asked doubtfully.

“Yes, really.”

“Then why am I being pushed out?”

Bruce shook his head, unsure he’d heard correctly, “What?”

“At the planning meeting.  It was all you were going to do and then the assumption I wouldn’t be in the fight.”

“You’ve never wanted to fight.”

“No, but when we’ve needed to, have I ever sat on the side-lines?”

“No, but who said you would?”

“You have your new fighting buddy, “ Rain sighed, “It just felt like it.”

Bruce scowled, making his murder robot makeup look even more menacing.  Rain was many things Bruce appreciated, but his emotional outbursts and neediness were not some of them. 

“Do my makeup!” Bruce said, and in silence, Rain complied.

“Your talents are needed and irreplaceable,” Bruce said a few minutes later as he examined Rain’s work in one of two large circular concave mirrors Rain had insisted they bring, “I look like a harbinger of death!”

“You worry me,” Rain replied as he packed up the paints and brushes, “The theatrics, the larger than life Bruce is fine, I can use that…but you give the impression you can do all on your own.”

“No, he can’t do it on his own,” Ish-Ma-El walked in, already painted from head to foot in silver paint, charcoal outlining their eyes and shadowing their features.  The wings, also painted silver, were already strapped to their back with Peggy’s homemade fountain fireworks bound to their leading edges. The twin hilts of Ish-Ma-El’s swords stuck out up above their head.  Even casually walking around the train, Ish-Ma-El looked every inch the terrifying avenging avatar of railway gods they portrayed.

Rain, whose back was to the door when they entered, stiffened, then turned to smile at Ish-ma-el.

“Thank you, my angel, of death,” He turned back to Bruce, who was strapping his armour back in place, “I’m just worried that you may…do a Halloween.”

The cryptic phrasing baffled Ish-Ma-El, but Bruce paused in his dressing.

“I’m worried that your ego will drive so far ahead of us that we won’t be there to help.”

Without looking up or making eye contact with Rain, Bruce shrugged on his coat and walked out the carriage door Ish-Ma-El had just come in.

“Well, he can’t.  Not without me!” Ish-Ma-El smile back maliciously.  Ish-Ma-El was looking forward to murdering the Ironside Roar crew for what they did to their train.  With their natural confidence, Ish-Ma-El exuded an air of righteous malevolence. 

Rain went back to cleaning up the brushes in turpentine and stowing the paints,

“I wanted to ask, what are we doing with the Ironside Roar when this is all over?” Ish-Ma-El asked, changing the subject.

“Nothing.  It can be blown up or given to the resistance.  We certainly have no use for it,” Rain replied, thinking that Railsea was interesting to visit, but it was a little too small to live there.

“Fair enough,” Ish-Ma-El replied, deep in their own thoughts.

“Ish,  as a citizen of this world, I stand behind you in determining what happens to the train and the weapon.  Whatever you and the leaders of Omoko decide,”  Rain suddenly said, seemingly out of the blue.

“I…appreciate that,” They acknowledged and inclined their head back the way Bruce had gone, “What does Bruce think of that?”

Rain went back to cleaning up, now only an exercise in keeping his hands busy, “Ah, you’d have to ask him.”

Busy with the last minute preparations, it wasn’t long before the old diesel from the Omoko and The Molly were at the pinch point and unloading equipment and personnel.  Most of the crews of the Molly and the Almighty Bruce were there, setting up more of Peggy’s detonators (these a little less explosive than the first batch) moving the old diesel and carriages on the tracks as planned. When completed they took to the mesa around the ambush point with the catapult, piles of rocks and concave mirrors.

The switch’s lever was removed, and wedges inserted to force the Ironside Roar from one track to the other.  Once in the trap the Ironside Roar would need to slow down or ram into the back of the old diesel.  As soon as the Ferro-navy were in range, both Ish-Ma-El and Bruce (with Algernon’s help for the later)would swoop down from the mesa and attack.  Rain would come up behind supporting the fighters. Peggy and Algernon would deal with the weapon and disconnect it from the rest of the train.

Bruce derailed the lone carriage with the help of his formidable strength.  The old diesel’s brakes were firmly on.  The ambush was set.

At least that was the plan.

Hiding around the old diesel with Rain and Algernon, Peggy asked the Strange what the Ironside Roar had prepared for them.  Instead of the usual reply made in her own voice, she saw an image of two trains, the larger Ironside Roar and a smaller steam train. Ish-Ma-El’s old engine and remaining carriages.  

“Oh!  They have two trains now,” She told Rain and Algernon, who thought a moment.  It could mean more marines.  But, forced into a single file at the pinch point, the trains could only attack one at a time.  Going around was not an option.

“There’s smoke.  I think the Ironside Roar is here,” Algernon pointed out the tell-tale black oily cloud of diesel smoke floating above the mesa.  He unslung his crossbow and notched a bolt.  Peggy hefted the grappling hook and rope she’d acquired, and Rain checked his pockets for the remainder of Peggy’s fireworks and gently blew on the burning end of a cord in his hand.

On the mesa itself, Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were ready.  From their vantage, they’d seen the Ironside Roar and the smaller steam train coming.  As Bruce turned to tell the others on the ground, a cylindrical silver something floating through the sky caught his attention.  The thing had wings of sorts, but unlike a bird, the stubby wing-like appendages did not flap.  As it moved closer, it was clear the item was made of metal, cigar-shaped and smooth, but unlike an aircraft or missile, the thing moved standing on end, a thin metal slit in the sky.  As Bruce and Ish-Ma-El watched, it descended to the damaged rail switch in the middle of the ambush.

“That’s an Angel…an actual Angel!” Rain cried out as the cigar-shape craft slowed to land near the jammed switch. Spindly metal limbs extended and the Angel settled balancing on one end as other limbs extended to work.  No one saw Peggy run down the length of the carriage behind the old diesel until the grappling hook flew through the air, catching hold of the Angel around its cylindrical body.

“Wha…!” From on top of the coupling between the old diesel and the carriage, Algernon could barely believe what he was seeing as Peggy was pulled out onto the open sand as the Angel fought its bindings.  She quickly wrapped the end of the rope around a railing on the carriage and pulled.  The rope tightened even further around the Angel, it stopped fighting the restraint.  Now its attention was torn away from the repair job to the rope binding its limbs.

“Peggy!  What the hell!” Shrieked Rain, his eyes flicking between the Angel, the oncoming cloud of diesel smoke and Peggy, eyes-wide and gleeful.

“I want…I want to learn about it!” She replied manically, her whole focus on the machine that now withdrew its repair tools and extended a sharp blade.

“In the middle of an ambush!  It’s an Angel! Railsea myths are full of how they run down and destroy the wicked!”

Seeing the Angel cutting itself free , Peggy quickly tied off the rope and ran across the tracks towards the machine.

“Peggy!”  Both boys screamed as the Ironside Roar turned the corner into the ambush, heading straight for the switch.

Shaking his head at Peggy’s lunacy, Rain turns to the crews on the mesa. “Light it up!” He yelled, pointing to the Angel on the tracks.  To himself, he mumbles, “Maybe something can be salvaged out of this,” As he broke cover and ran after Peggy .

Bruce and Ish-Ma-El were waiting their moment to leap as the Ironside Roar turned the corner .  Seeing the old diesel and the Angel on the tracks, the Ironside Roar instead squealed, applying its brakes.  Behind them, a small steam engine also started braking.  The crews on the mesa maneuvered the large mirrors they brought from the mines of Omoko.  Usually used to move sunlight down into the mines as free safe light, the reflections moved across the sand like giant spotlights to find the Angel.  It glowed and sparkled like its namesake in the shadows of the ravine.

Seeing Peggy dash across the ambush, Bruce called down to the old diesel, “Algernon, can you lift her out of there?”

Peggy, a look of sheer joy on her face, dashed up to the Angel just as it broke free its ropes.  

“You are so beautiful…” She said, stretching out a hand to the machine as its cutting blade pulled back and plunged into her shoulder. Blind to everything, including the pain, she mentally grabbed hold of the physical link to create a mental one.  

Awe! She projected, soothing the Angel, Excitement!  Curiosity!

Something like a mind stated its imperatives, FIX RAIL. ALARM!  CALLING ASSISTANCE!

Allowance for repair.  Danger Ahead! She answered physically and mentally, pointing out the Ironside Roar screeching to a halt only metres away. The Angel seemed to accept her response, and the alarm ceased.  Peggy cooed and smiled as you would to a baby, embracing it while still impaled on its blade.

The Ironside Roar was finally in jumping distance.  Bruce went to go first when Ish-Ma-El put out an arm to stop him.

“You may be the harbinger, but I’m the freaking Angel of Death!” They said, lighting the two fireworks attached to their wings and leaping off.  Wings fully extended, silver paint glowing warmly in the late afternoon light, a shower of golden sparks cascading from the end of each wing, Ish-Ma-El descended on the officers of the Ironside Roar.  Caught in a knot on the command deck, the group of officers could do nothing but watch as the Angel hovered overhead and pronounced its judgement.

“Foolish mortals!  Your time is up!  For services rendered, I have come for payment with your souls!” The figure reached up and extracted two wicked blades from behind its back and flourished them, ready for the kill.

Stunned at Peggy’s insanity, Algernon had not moved from his spot on the old diesel.  Bruce’s call snapped him back to the present.

“Which she?” He said to himself, knowing full well there was only one ‘she’ that needed saving at that moment.  He focused his levitate on the real Angel and pushed it back into the Ironside Roar.  The blade in Peggy’s shoulder wrenched free as the Angel was thrown backwards by an invisible force.  Crying in pain and loss, Peggy screamed, “Don’t hurt it!  We’re communicating!” The Angel’s polished metal skin hit the heavy metal body of the Ironside Roar.  The engine buckled in,  but no real damage marked the Angel. With a whimper of concern, Peggy ran to its side once more.

Running along the tracks, Rain pulled out a number of the fireworks and lit them.  Using the canyon’s natural acoustics, he projected in his street performer’s voice to the Ironside Roar crew.

“See the… Angels of Vengence here to collect the souls of those who murdered the crew of the G.V.!  They will take you all to Beeching’s firebox where your souls will stoke his engine forever!

“Repent now, and the Angel may yet spare your lives!  Those forced into this life of pillage and murder, kneel and confess, and the Angel will pass over you!”

Coming after the crash with the Angel, his voice echoing off the ravine walls, gained every crew member’s attention.  Many looked up to see the Avenging Angel swoop down on their officers.  Others saw another figure leap down from the mesa and roar in their direction.

The Angel extracted itself from the damaged engine as Peggy rushed up to soothe the machine.

This is danger! She relayed to the Angel.  As the engine had just crashed into it, the Angel was inclined to agree.  Turning to face the Ironside Roar, the Angel clamped its legs to the sleepers and lifted the train’s front end.  Having come to a complete stop, the engineers were busy trying to put the Ironside Roar in reverse only to find their drive wheels spinning in mid-air. 

With a childish giggle, Peggy started asking questions of the Angel, how it was able to lift such weight and its nature as a mechanical being.

Bruce pulled out his crowbar, “I’m coming, kid!” He yelled down to Algernon before stepping back and running off the mesa.  Algernon caught Bruce part-way through his fall, bounced him off the carriage of the old diesel and sailed him across the sands in a backflip to land squarely in front of the officers, astonished by the angel.

“Fear the Champion of the Angels, the harbinger of death.  Surrender and live!”  Rain preached to the well converted.  He glanced at Peggy as he ran past as she stared lovingly up at the mechanical monster holding up the front end of the engine.  With a shiver he put her out of his mind and started climbing up the Ironside Roar after the fighters.  As he reached the top, he saw Bruce swing his crowbar up. 

“If you hold fast to the Ferro-Navy, Die!” Bruce roared in his  best preacher’s southern accent, bringing the crowbar in a jarring attack that sent the Captain to his knees, “If you were conscripted, made a slave to this foul life, flee and live today!”

The officers fled, leaving their crumpled and wounded Captain behind. The Captain was terrified. He tried scrambling away on all fours, but it was the Angel of Vengence’s turn, and with a precision snicker of twin blades, his head flipped up into the air and over the side.  His body soon followed to be lost to the sand.

Behind Rain, the engineers saw their Captain’s demise and leapt from the cab onto the sand.  Better the molerats and other monsters of the sandy depths than these terrible creatures from faith and myth.  Rain quickly changed direction and climbed down into the cab and shut it down.  The Ironside Roar was theirs!

“Peggy, we’ve got the engine!” 

Power down, less threat,  Peggy praised and soothed the Angel.  Her direct link and clear instructions accepted, the Angel dropped the train back onto its wheels. 

Algernon flew past the spectacle that was the Ironside Roar. The crew were fleeing the train from all carriages, many running for the reversing steam train, the G.V. that had once been Ish-Ma-El’s home.  Others just ran blinding into the sands, ocassionally being snapped up by opportunist predators drawn by the commotion.  He sailed smoothly above the chaos to the coupler behind the first carriage, the one carrying the weapon.  Now, seeing a real-life Angel of the Railsea hold up the engine, he recognised the resemblance to the salvage Ish-Ma-El’s crew had been unlucky enough to find.  This, however, was a weapon of war; something meant to destroy, not repair.  Well, so was he.  Touching the coupler, he forced the Strange between its molecules, and the solid cast metal coupler disintegrated into dust under his fingers.  

A movement in the sky caught his attention.  Two more of the Angels floated above the battle. Disinterested in the quarrels between the flesh-creatures they’d been drawn to the cries of alarm from their friend.  Algernon acknowledged the sentiment. With his job now done, he flew back along the train to where Rain was fussing with the controls.

“The weapon is free. We’re ready to move forward,” He said and headed to the cab of the old diesel.  His job done, he looked back at the Ironside Roar, Peggy now climbing up the Angel, Rain restarting the diesel, Bruce clubbing another defender off the train, and even Ish-Ma-El swooping up and diving on their next prey.  They were fine.  He faced the controls of the old diesel and started it up.

“Stand and face your death, you creatures of the Ferro-Navy, or flee and save your lives!”  Bruce continued his speech as officers and railmen alike fled before him.  Bruce found this a little frustrating.  He’d turned on an armour cypher specifically for the purpose of ploughing through and getting face to face with some Ferro-Navy scrubs.  Revelling in the power of the moment, but with no apparent outlet for his energy, he clambered over the engine and jumped down onto the next carriage where the weapon lay.  

Up close, it looked like a big, thin tin can, nothing as terrifying as the Avenging Angel beside him.  He thought it was something like the two hovering over their heads at that moment. It was something that no one should have.  He swung his crowbar back and forward as he walked the length of the carriage, intent on at least doing some damage to the thing.  But, when he reached the end without touching it, he found more resistance in the form of a big muscled Ferro-Navy man wielding a sword.  Without a second thought for the weapon, a manic grin plastered on his metal-painted face. He lunged for the defender.  The crowbar found the man’s head, and he fell from the train and into the sand.  The moment gone, Bruce continued his climb through the train looking for more opposition.

Ish-Ma-El was also looking for prey.  Most fled before them, some even killing themselves in their panic.  They rose above the Ironside Roar to get a better view and spotted two daring Ferro-Navy crew preparing the ballista.  

“Spare the innocent, Oh Angel!  Strike the wicked!” They heard Rain from behind and felt the tingle of the Strange.  Sliding their blades carefully back in place, Ish-Ma-el pulled out their hand crossbows and shot both.  The bolts hit true but didn’t stop the crew members from firing the ballista in return, straight for the Angel of Vengence.  In a moment’s thought, Ish-Ma-El dropped one of their hand crossbows and caught the shaft of the ballista.  Pirouetting in the air, they sent the bolt flying back.  It bounced off the frame of the ballista and spooked the already terrified railers into running…straight into the crowbar of Bruce.

Permission to climb you?  Respect. Curiosity, Peggy projected to the Angel still at the head of the Ironside Roar.  The Angel gave her the impression that it didn’t know why she would but agreed to her request.  Using its legs as ladder rungs, she clambered onto the body and shimmied up to the top.   There she could see over the engine and into what was left of the battleground.  Ish-Ma-El had just thrown a ballista bolt at a couple of rail crew before she and Bruce descended on them both.  Bruce sent one flying off the carriage in one direction before dropping out of sight. The other’s head and body were both flung back by Ish-Ma-El’s twin blades in two distinct pieces.  She heard Algernon talking to Rain about the weapon being free, and it was time to move.  

Threat nullified!  Good work!  She told the Angel before slipping back down to the rails.  The Angel acknowledged her message and returned to its original purpose, fixing the switch.

Looking for new enemies, Bruce had spotted the two on top of the third carriage, working on the ballista.  Inside the third carriage, he could just see the ladder leading to the roof. Jumping across the gap where the coupler had been, he worked his way through and up the ladder.  As he reached the top, Ish-Ma-El let go of a ballista bolt in his general direction.  The rectangular frame of the ballista caught the bolt before it could reach either of the operators who now took their opportunity to flee…straight into him.  

“The Ferr-navy will no longer be tolerated!” He roared once more, swinging up his crowbar.

In the one-sided struggle that followed, Bruce bashed one off the carriage roof and into the sand while the other had to face Ish-Ma-El and their terrible twin blades.  He left them to it, dropping down to the next carriage still hunting more resistance.  As he did, first a head and then the rest of the body fell on top of him, nearly sending him over the edge into the sand.  

It was the last enemy any of the group were to face. The battle was over and with it the beginning of the end of the Ferro-Navy’s stranglehold on Railsea. With a signal from Algernon, the crews left their posts on the mesa and made their way to the three trains, the hidden Molly, the old diesel and the newly acquired Ironside Roar.  Peggy stayed by the Angel’s side, asking it questions about its design (for which it had no information) to maps of Railsea (supplied as an image in Peggy’s mind) and where it went for repairs (Upsky, the poisonous altitudes above Railsea).  Once the switch was cleared, it left behind the two other cylinders that had watched from above the whole fight.

Later, no could say what had really happened.  Early in the trip back, one of the crew replaced Algernon in the drivers’ cab of the old diesel.  It is supposed he flew back to the Ironside Roar as twilight fell as he was seen later with the group astounded at what had happened.  What is not in dispute is the large chunk of a mesa that went missing in a flash of yellow light.  There was no explosion, no flying rubble or scorched remains.  A plateau that had weathered the winds and sands of Railsea for countless centuries lost a third of its mass in seconds.  Later, people would say that before the gods’ light stuck, a voice was heard calling an unusual cry.


A great victory had been won, and the gods proved to be on the side of the rebels.  Omoko settlement celebrated and lauded the victors, the strangers from the yellow train, the son of Captain Johnson,  the Avenging Angel and their peerless crew.  What was not clear to all,  was that there had been a cultural and political shift in Railsea that would have effects for years to come.  The Angels were on the free-traders’ side, and they had left their weapon to protect the faithful.  

 The signal flags had told the community of the victory as it happened, so when the trains arrived in town, the party was already in full swing. Bruce wound his way through the crowds of miners, railers and civilians, all celebrating their freedom from the Ferro-Navy.    Celebrating, Bruce would do later, but at that moment, he wanted to speak to his father.  He found him talking with his crew from the Almighty Bruce and quietly pulled him aside.  

“You need to know what happened,” Bruce said as Jimmy led both of them to a side room out of the noise and bustle of the celebrations.  He gave a detailed debrief on how the ambush had gone, the Angel’s role in the fight and what it meant to Railsea as a whole.

“Now that you have your freedom, the protection of the gods no less, I want to talk to you about the weapon,” Bruce said, and his father sat back, ready to listen.

“I’m not comfortable giving you this weapon.  It’s a gamechanger. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, ” Jimmy acknowledged, not giving anything away.

“Do you have the guts to destroy it?”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes and sipped on a drink someone had handed him earlier, “Are you kidding? I didn’t fight the Ferro-Navy for my amusement.  That thing will keep us safe long after you and your troop of miracle workers are gone.”

“Look, you scored a big win here today.  If you follow this up, get out there and start rallying more trains to the cause, you won’t need this thing of destruction.”

“You said they were planning a big push before you arrived. Your group worked in thwarting those plans, and for that, I am thankful, but who says the Ferro-navy won’t try again?  We can never be sure.”

Bruce leaned over his folded hands.  It would be so easy to beat this man into submission.  Only two things stop Bruce; this was his father, and that when he left Railsea, he wanted the job done.  Jimmy had to believe it was the best way if it was ever to happen.   Bruce took a deep breath and tried again.

“And when the balance shifts and the Ferro-Navy are no longer a threat?”

Jimmy sat back and looked up at the ceiling.  His eyes flicked as his mind moved from scenario to scenario.  Eventually, they came back to settle on Bruce’s. The same eyes as his.

“We will destroy it,” Jimmy replied simply.

Bruce held his father’s gaze daring the man to renege, but Jimmy returned his gaze steady and sure. Bruce had to admit that this was not the same man who had left his mother alone twenty years ago.

Bruce broke the contact first, looking out a nearby window and to the view of the Railsea to the horizon.

“Pa.  Ma’s never stopped loving you,” He said without returning his gaze to the man sitting opposite.

He heard his father’s intake of breath, the sudden reminder of what he’d left behind.

“A fine woman,” He replied, and his voice held a tension, as if holding something back, “I never planned to leave her. I just never knew how to get back.  I guess I can go home.”

“Oh, she’ll slap you in the face,” Bruce qualified as they both envisioned the strong, loving woman who had held her family together and both smiled, “But, then welcome you back with open arms.”

Jimmy nodded, and they sat in silence a moment, thinking over what everyday life would look like after Railsea.

“You know Pa, you’ve manned-up. I think you’re the man she always saw in you,” Bruce said, and Jimmy’s eye’s narrowed again at the backhanded compliment.

“I mean it.  You were in a pickle, but you didn’t just weasel your way out of it and leave someone else to fix things.  You stepped up, led people and kept them safe.  Can you leave it behind?”

“I can find a replacement.  I didn’t do this alone,” Jimmy replied, and the phrase so like Rain’s rebuke from that afternoon made Bruce think for a moment.

“Find people you can trust.” 

Down at the docks, the rest of the group gathered around the weapon.  As Rain fielded questions from the joyous crowds, Peggy was hip-deep inside the cylinder as Algernon looked on anxiously.

“It’s no good. I can’t see the reactor for all the propulsion system in the way.  I’ll have to dismantle it if I’m to have any hope of understanding how this thing is powered.”  Peggy climbed out from under the cylinder and pushed her curls away from her face. 

“Rain, don’t let Peggy pull apart the Pew-Pew,” Algenon called to Rain. Seeing his friend distress, Rain left the crowds to find out what was going on.

“I don’t think you realise how important this is to science… life as we know it.  If I can only understand how the reactor works, I may find that elusive power supply that has been holding back Hertzfeld. It could be a small fusion reaction. Imagine that!  All the power a city would need in a package the size of a suitcase!” Peggy exclaimed, patting the metal skin of the broken Angel.

“Yes, but when you talk about it to Bruce, you may want to refer to the dangerous reactor you don’t understand as a battery,”  Algernon suggested innocently as usual, and Rain smiled.

“Yes, you know Bruce, any thought that it could be dangerous, and he’ll throw that reactor into an antlion pit out in the wastes,” 

“Ohh, so wasteful!” She complained and sulked off find a quiet spot to contemplate humanities loss.

“Now, now, picking on the Angel Speaker,” Ish-Ma-El, still wearing most of the Silver Frost paint, but now back in their regular Captain’s coat and hat, “We should make her a priestess of a new religious sect, not pick on her for her love of their innards.”

Rain let them in on Peggy’s plans as  Algernon went off and found a small pot of paint and brush from inside the Molly. By the time he’d told the story, Algernon had finished writing PEW-PEW on one side of the weapon, and Bruce had just strolled up. 

“Surely, we’re all men and women of science. Can’t we all share in Peggy’s excitement over her discovery?” Ish-Ma-El said and with an impish grin, added, “Besides, what’s a fusion reactor?”

“What…?” Bruce said.

Rain left the others trying to talk themselves out of the hole Ish-Ma-El had purposely drop them in.   As Peggy complained about the whole lot of them being Philistines, a man Rain had been waiting to talk to was waving him over into the crowd.

“Sul-E-Mun, I presume?  So good of you to drop by tonight,” Rain welcomed the man and drew him to one side. 

“They say you want a stone carved, though as far as I know, you and people won the day without loss,” Said the middle-aged miner looking confused.

“Yes, a good day all round.  This is a memorial. There will be no body.  Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all.  I’d dare say that if you wanted to fill a grave with that broken Angel of yours, no one’s likely to say no,” He glanced over Rain’s head back at the weapon.  Peggy had spotted Algernon’s graffiti and added a touch of her own.  It now read:


“I doubt that, sir, “ Rain laughed gently at the man’s joke and pulled out a scrap of paper.  Suddenly his expression was serious, and he was surprised to see his hands shake as he handed the instructions across.

“It…it should read as follows, just as written if you don’t mind. I know it doesn’t follow the usual format for names, but this person lived a long way from here, and they’re customs were not the same as your own.”

“Nevermind that. I put on what the family wants and just what the family wants…er they were family, weren’t they?”

Rain paused for a moment, “We were very close once,” He said and smiled weakly at the man, “when can you expect to have it ready?”

“Oh, a few days.  The mines on holidays on account of your victory.”

“We will be in town for at least that long. Please let me know as soon as it’s ready.”

The man tipped his cap and rejoined the crowds of happy villagers, miners and railers.

The next few days were full for the group.  Besides chatting or avoiding well-wishers, each seemed busy with their own tasks.  Ish-Ma-El was getting ready to leave with their crew on the Molly.  They would have left for the open sands sooner, but a promise to Rain held them in port at least a few more days.  Their crew certainly appreciated it, and several had already come to their Captain with reasonable offers from the miners to ship ore to friendly cities.  The wings had yet to be returned to the group, and Bruce took the opportunity one morning over chicory to bring up the subject.

“While I remember… the wings, hand them back,” He said to Ish-Ma-El, who bridled at his rough tone.

“Why should I?  In fact, no!” They retorted, leaning across the table to push their face into his.

“Ah, Ish, I’d appreciate it if we could have the wings back,” Rain asked quietly from beside them, and they sat heavily back in their seat, “  I know it’s a wrench, but we’ll to need them.”

“Oh, okay,” Ish replied sweetly with a smile and drank their drink.

“I will miss you Ish, how can we get in contact if we ever need you?” 

“A red smoke signal over Omoko, I intended to stay local for the time being,” They said.

“Remember, you are not just a clever Railsea Captain and brilliant salver,” Rain leaned in close, “You are a  citizen of the multiverse, and you’re future doesn’t have to be in this desert world.”

“Railing between the stars?” Ish-Ma-El said, the hint of their old cynicism showing, “You talk in dreams, Rain.”

“Well, I, for one, would like to say it’s been a privilege, “Bruce put one of his meaty hands-on Ish-Ma-El’s thin shoulders.

“Don’t touch me!” Ish-Ma-El rounded on Bruce, who was now standing and had the advantage of height and leverage.  Out of spite, Bruce placed the other hand on the remaining shoulder and Ish-Ma-El visibly shrunk away from the touch.  Their eyes went distant as Ish-Ma-El’s mind drifted away from the moment to read Bruce’s.

Don’t make this uncomfortable for both of us. He thought back, and Ish-Ma-El quickly released the link.

“Say, how come I don’t get the wings?” Peggy asked, breaking the tension building between the two scrappers.

“You’d only pull them apart,” Algernon replied, quickly adding another tablespoon of sugar to his already sweetened chicory, “It’s why we can’t have nice things.”

Algernon also has his own ideas about the weapon and its uses.  He sought out Jimmy as their one contact who knew about the mines and Le Pew-Pew’s capabilities.

“Sir, I was wondering if you thought about the weapon as a tool to aid in mining.  In the right circumstances, it could be very beneficial at removing unwanted tailings in a single flash.  If you like me to set up a demonstration…”

“Oh, I want in on that,” Said Peggy interrupting the spiel Algernon had rehearsed, “A Pew-Pew fo science!”

Dusk, their third day in town, Rain gathered the group together and led them out to the small graveyard beside the mine.  There, a white stone neatly engraved and embossed with the Silver Frost paint read:

Amir Ademovich

??? – 11 July 1995

One of the 8,372.

From Allah, you came, and to Allah, you return.

Ish-Ma-El went to ask about the dates on the stone but was quickly hushed by the other. 

Rain had no flowers to place on the grave.  He’d spent the last few days asking everyone in town for white flowers with green centres.  He even asked outgoing trains to keep a lookout. The best the town could do was a stem of plastic daisies, faded and worn.  He’d thanked the villager, offered to pay them for the stem and hid it as soon as possible. 

He now reached up to his neck and broke the leather thong that held the transparent piece of resin containing a small embroidered daisy with eleven petals.  He looked at it for a moment before bending down to bury the piece of resin in the turned earth.   A wave of vertigo hit, and he let himself sink to the ground on one knee.

Hands shaking, he combed his fingers through his hair, catching on the scar well hidden all these years.  He’d always tried to hide his scars, but it hadn’t done him much good.  Hounded by terrors he couldn’t put words to, he had run his whole life. If there was ever to be peace, the dead needed burying.  Taking a shuddering breath, he spoke his eulogy.

“I never knew you.  It seems odd to say.  You lived, grew, learned and explored your world for seven years, and I never existed.  All we have in common is one moment, one morning in a dirty patch of waste ground outside Srebrenica.  At that moment, you ceased to be, and I began, Tobias Cudo.”

“For many years, I wondered, who you were? What had happened? And who I was?  For many more, I tried to forget, decorated it in the colours of a story I told myself.  That changed the moment I heard your name spoken. 

“Goodbye, Amir Ademovich,  return to Allah and find peace.”

Still from the ground, as he didn’t trust his legs to hold him, he turned back to the others.

“Since coming back to Railsea, I’ve been a little confused. Here I was, Havel, but a simple mistake meant I had to reevaluate a certain practice of mine.   I have been many people in my life. Still more since meeting you and travelling the Strange.  But, hiding behind a name doesn’t make any sense when surrounded by people that know me better than I know myself.”

“So, I’m reclaiming the name, Tobias Cudo.  From now on, that’s who I will be.”

Rain looked to Algernon, who he knew wrote down each name as he adopted a new persona, “No need for your list anymore, “ He smiled wistfully, “Though my friends can always call me Rain.”

Bruce was first to move.  His heavy hand resting on the thin man’s shoulder, making his start.

“Proud to know you, Tobias.”

Tobias nodded and, using Bruce’s hand, got shaking to his feet.

“Now, Ish-Ma-El, let’s try out that hangover cure of yours.” Bruce turned to the Railsea Captain with a grin, “And I know just the place, in Seattle.”

“Seattle for the wake?” Peggy added, wiping her face with the back of her oil and grit stained sleeve, “Thank god, I don’t think I could stand another drop of the local moonshine.”

“Seattle?” Ish-Ma-El asked, “I don’t know where that is, but if there’s booze and a story that explains all this, then I’m in.”

“Good,” Bruce replied as they headed down the hill, “Be prepared to have your mind blown!”

38. Vigilantes

Out on the docks of Manihiki, after a clever sabotage plan was successfully staged and completed, the group gathered at The Molly for their next move.  It seemed obvious to most that the Ironside Roar is out on the rail with a deadly new weapon and needed to be stopped.


“Nice goggles,” Bruce said as he saw Rain and Peggy strolled down the dock to The Molly later that evening, “All the better to see you.”

Rain couldn’t resist a little last-minute shopping and had found a pair of leather and brass-framed goggles with glass lenses.  Eating bugs was an occupational risk of flying the wings, but being able to see while speeding fifty metres above the ground was beneficial to sustaining life. 

“Well actually, they’re all the better for me to see you,” Rain acknowledged the compliment, “I agree they do look dashing.”

Just behind Bruce, Algernon and Ish-Ma-el were having what looked like a staring competition.  At the same time, they blinked, turning away simultaneously to frown in confusion and disappointment.

“Don’t look now, but I think our two savants have mind-swapped again.” Rain pointed out the two as the Captain ( now piloted by Algernon), climbed into the engineer’s cabin beside Peggy and the stoker.

“Don’t look now, but I think the Ferro Navy has come to get Peggy back,” Bruce pointed over Rain’s shoulder. Rain turned to see a group of Manihiki Ferro Navy officers marching towards the dock The Molly now stood.

 “All Aboard!” Bruce yelled, and the crew snapped to, taking up mooring-lines and locking carriages for the trip out.  

“All Aboard!” Captain Ish-Ma-El repeated, unlocking the brake and releasing the steam.  The train started reversing from the dock.

Algernon, (with Ish-Ma-el now in control) stormed towards the cab, “Get out of my body!” He roared leaping to the side of the cab and throwing a clenched fist at The Captain’s face.

“Deckhands takes this disreputable young man down to his quarters and lock him in!” The Captain cooly ordered as a deckhand sprang into action. 

“Let go of me, you idiots!” Algernon glowered, as another two crew stepped into help and started dragging him away.

As they passed Rain, he shrugged apologetically, “I’ll make sure he’s not left alone with it.” He said before leaping into the cabin doorway and holding onto a hand rail.

“Goodbye, gentleman! “ He waved to the navy officers that were already running back up the jetty.  On the navy wharves, wreathed in steam, the two engines stood ready to depart.  Rain turned back to his companion, occupying the Captain’s body, “You know I won’t be leaving your side until you give back that body.” 

From the Naval Dockyards, a bullroarer revved up, roaring out over the whole of lower Manihiki.  Crew and engineers swarmed to the two steam engines, the Red Myrmidon and The Slicing Raider.  Slowly they too reversed out of the dock and along tracks after The Molly.

“I’d be more useful in a battle than in my room!” Algernon yelled as he was pulled down into the train.  The Captain shrugged as if they didn’t think much of the young man’s argument.  As they continued to guide The Molly away from Manihiki however, both Peggy and Rain noticed the Captain’s eyes turn glassy and unfocused.  Their body slumped away from the controls, only to catch themselves before falling into the coal-filled tender.  

“What are you doing just standing around, I need you at the head of the train switching lines!” Ish-Ma-El turned to see where they were and barked at Rain.

“Aye Captain!” He smiled, extended the wings and jumped back into open air.  Grabbing a switching lever as he sped along, he flew off to the last carriage, currently the head of the train. Ish-Ma-El was right, as soon as he reached the last carriage, he could see the line they were on was leading them in a slow arc back to Manihiki.  Flying ahead of the reversing train, he found the next point and shifted the track.  

Peggy, working her magic in the engineers’ cab gleaned a little extra steam out of The Molly, and she shot forward onto the new rail, now heading away from town.  The little engine that had only a week before been nose down in a hole was outrunning the Ferro Navy!

“Smoooooke on the wa-ter…” Bruce sang from the top of the train as he watched the two navy train’s trying to keep pace.  The Red Myrmidon steaming up behind The Molly.  A movement along the boiler drew Bruce’s attention.  Two crew were climbing out to the front of the engine with a rope and grappling hook.  Loosening his crowbar in its scabbard, he too started climbing down from the carriage, across the tender to the engine.  Once at the front he held onto the boilerplate with one hand, withdrawing his crowbar with the other.  Looking past the two crew preparing themselves with the grapple, Bruce could just see the engineers in the cab behind frantically stoking the fire.   

“…fire in the sky!” He sang out again, gleefully anticipating the moment of destruction.

The Red Myrmidon crew swung the grappling hook back and forward, until the two engines were within range.  The hook flew across the intervening gap.   Bruce’s crowbar met the hook midair batting it away to fall uselessly into the sand.

“Ha-ha!” He laughed, allowing his reckless side, full expression.  He watched, holding onto The Molly’s rolling wild-eyed face as the Red Myrmidon sped closer and closer.  A flash of fire in the engineer’s cabin and the Myrmidon jutted on the tracks.  Then fire licked along under the engine, sparks and smoke sprayed out of the pistons instead of steam and the whole train shivered. 


The Red Myrmidon leapt from the tracks as steam and fire forced their way through weakened firebox and boiler.  The engine derailed, pulling the rest of the train around with it out into the deadly sands.

“Yeah!” Bruce screamed in triumph as the first of their pursers was left in their steam.  His job done, Bruce started climbing back, keeping his eye on the second engine, The Slicing Raider, coming up on their starboard.

Rain was flying out to switches and back to The Molly on the other end of the train, tacking in a north-easterly direction away from Manihiki.  He looked up scanning the track ahead for the next point when the sound of a foghorn bellowed out of the empty desert like a challenging monster bull. And monster it was, shimmering on the horizon and coming fast was a large diesel engine.  On a flatbed directly after the engine, a shining metal cigar-shaped something was strapped down at an angle, propped up on crates and the boards of carriage siding.

“Ironside Roar!” Rain yelled to a crewmember further down the train for passing back, “Six miles off the port bow!”

The message echoed down The Molly to the Captain.  Ish-Ma-El climbed nimbly up out of the cabin and onto the observation deck.  There, they and Bruce clearly made out the Ironside Roar and its new upgrade.  Ish-Ma-El seethed, pulling out their hand crossbow to fire on the train obviously well out of range.  Bruce pointed out the Slicing Raider coming up alongside, drawing the Captain’s attention back to the more immediate threat.

“What would happen if we shot their switcher?” He said, pointing out the specific crew member on the Slicing Raider.

Ish-Ma-El didn’t reply but sprinted for the ballista sitting empty and turned it around to face the Raider.

“Hard to port!” They cried, and Rain at the bow responded flying out to find the next switch to take them in that direction.  The Molly reversed into port, cutting ahead of the Slicing Raider and bringing the ballista within range.  Ish-Ma-El fired the massive bolt, the recoil rocking the carriage.  The more acute angle brought the target closer, but narrowed the field of fire, and the bolt skittered into the sand missing its mark.

Following a crewmember on the Slicing Raider with another grappling hook, Bruce positioned himself once more to knocked aside the projectile as it was flung across the dividing sand.  Now safe from being grappled for the moment, he pulled out his crossbow and fired on the switcher leaning out from the engineers’ cab.  His shot hit, taking the fast young crew member by surprise.  They fell from the train onto the sand and were soon left behind.

Inside his cabin, Algernon was getting fed up with being left out of the action.  One moment he’d been in control of The Molly, a moment of grey later and he’d found himself pacing the floor of the too tiny space.  Turning on his force shield, Algernon quickly bypassed the lock on the door and joined the others upstairs.  As his head breached the top of the carriage, he saw the Slicing Raider beside them shudder.  Sparks flew from under the engine, from the chimney and out the pistons.  It lept forward on the track, a last sudden burst of speed before…


The boiler finally exploded, sending the engine and the first carriage flying into the air.  With a sigh of satisfaction for a job well done, Algernon climbed the rest of the way onto the carriage. Behind them and gaining quick, he spied the Ironside Roar and it’s deadly cargo.

“Bruce, take this and shoot the engine!” Captain Ish-Ma-El ordered, and Bruce took their place on the ballista.

“I could have done that,” Algernon said as Ish-Ma-El stepped back to take in the new threat.

“You?  You’re nothing but trouble,” They complained, frustrated that their tormentor was back.

“Can I shoot the train then?” 

“Yes!” Ish-Ma-El agreed and Algernon pulled out his heavy crossbow.

Aiming down its length, Algernon lined up his shot.  Even at the distance, on the top of a rocking train, the bolt flew straight and hit a crew member operating the device.  As they fell from the train, two others took their place and the metal contraption stolen from Ish-Ma-El’s train was powered up.

“We need to take out that weapon, could Rain drop me on the Ironside?” Bruce asked joining the others on top

“I think that’s pretty reckless,” Said Algernon readying for another shot, “Can we spread detritus on the tracks?”

“Explosive detritus?” Bruce added before all three called out at the same time,


Leaving her job keeping The Molly steaming ahead to the other engineers, Peggy quickly pulled together an assortment of items leftover from the sabotage plan to create railway detonators.  Usually, coin-sized and meant to alert drivers and rail maintenance workers of each other, Peggy’s pressure-sensitive explosives were enough to take a wheel off a moving train.  At least that was the hope.  Once made, they were passed forward to Rain with instructions to lay them on all tracks following The Molly.  With the amount of crisscrossing tracks, the task would have been impossible for a crew-member on foot.  Flying from one track to another, Rain quickly placed the explosives and flew back to his position now at the train’s end.

Rain watched as the Ironside Roar slowed in anticipation. Sparks flew from the rails into the early morning light.  But no matter how they tried, the massive diesel engine couldn’t stop fast enough and eventually rolled inexorably onto a detonator.  Not as impressive as a Ferro-navy steam trains self-destruction, the flash did light the desert and bring the Ironside Roar to a screeching halt.  Soon the Ironside Roar was left behind in the gloom of the early morning, and The Molly continued her journey into the Railsea.

It was late morning by the time The Molly and her crew found themselves tacking through narrow canyons between steep-sided mesas.  The sand of the Railsea here was a distinctive rusted orange colour and coated everything that passed through it.

At a narrow passage between two monoliths of rock, Bruce, Algernon and Peggy all spotted people aiming a giant catapult in The Molly’s direction.  Algernon ran across the top of the train to get into position.  With a distant twang, the catapult’s payload was released, sailing over the distance from the mesa to The Molly. Once it was within range of his levitate Algernon pushed it aside, deflecting the boulder side projectile.  It bounced once off the mesa’s side before exploding, sending broken pieces of metal and rock raining down onto the sand.

“Get a white sheet or cloth!” Ordered the Captain and crew scrambled, looking for something to use as a flag. 

“What are we afraid of?” Rain asked until someone pointed out the people now working on the catapult again, “Is that all?” And launched himself into the air and over to the mesa.  In the meantime, both The Molly and the defenders found white flags.  When  Rain finally landed it was to a group of nervously curious individuals instead of aggressors.

“Greetings, from Captain Ish-Ma-El of The Molly to the Commander and people of Okamo, and the Captain of the Almighty Bruce,” He announced, as if in a royal court and courtiers rather than on a dusty mesa to a bunch of miners.

“What of the Almighty Bruce?” One defender, unsure what to make of this messenger tried playing dumb.

“Captain Ish-Ma-El wishes to align themselves with their fight,” Rain teased back.  Two could play this game.

“Against who?”

“The Ferro Navy, of course.  We only escaped three of their engines this very morning.  The Red Myrmidon, Slicing Raider, and the Ironside Roar.  Of the later we have vital information our Captain wishes to impart.”

“A message has already been sent of your arrival.  Tell your Captain that they will be given safe passage to Okamo.” The speaker pointed to a signal mast already being strung with a string of colourful flags.

True to their word, The Molly passed several more catapult emplacements.  No more shots were fired and within an hour they were in sight of Okamo.  Bruce, grandstanding on the top of the Molly, was drawing all attention.  Even from a distance, it was clear that people in the crowd were looking from the Mighty Bruce to a middle-aged man waiting for them on the dock.  They had found Jimmy Johnson.

While all attention was on The Molly and its surprise passenger, Ish-Ma-El took a moment to read the older man’s surface thoughts.  A profound sense of surprise dominated a relatively curious mind. It had been ready for anything from this odd little train, but not the fact that his son was aboard.

Before The Molly was properly berthed, Bruce jumped off and walked up to his father, ahead of the party’s Captain.

“Bruce!  Son!  How did you get here?” Jimmy said to his son, stepping forward.  It said something about both men that neither held out their arms to embrace.  Rain watched every moment in silence as Algernon found popcorn and offered it around to the others.

“Hi Pa,” Bruce casually said as if greeting his father for the first time that day, not the first time in more than two decades, “Watch ya doin’ here?”

The older man chuckled self-effacingly, “Leading a revolution, it seems.”

“Not leading a family,” Replied the younger man critically , “What happened?”

Jimmy looked around at the people gathered.  All of his crew were here and much of the mining community’s two hundred residents.  All had come to rely on him, most even trusted him. It was a shame his son was neither.

“A man I knew owed me money, “Jimmy sighed, dredging up a past he’d rather have forgotten, “When I confronted him, he knocked me out.  Next thing I knew I was in this place.  Without anyone to vouch for me, I was press-ganged into the Manihiki Ferro Navy.  I saw how the navy treated the people of Okamo and trains out on the Railsea.  The first chance I got, I decided to do something about it.  I escaped, made my way here and with what little knowledge I had I got an old train and diesel crane working.  Been giving the Ferro Navy a hard time since.”  The older man finished his story squaring up to the stranger that was his son.  The crowd stirred, unsure what was going on and not understanding the tension between their saviour and this young man that happened to look just like him.  

“You know what Pops, you taught me everything I know about duty and obligation.  You taught me by never showing any,” Bruce didn’t even acknowledge that he’d heard his father’s story, just continued as if reciting a long practiced speech.  

The crowd hushed and murmured at the ungrateful stranger before them.  On the train, the speech was like a physical slap, and the group all winced in response.

“Oh!  That’s some damage!” Ish-Ma-Eh exclaimed, grabbing a handful of popcorn from Algernon’s supply.

Each muttered their opinions—some that he deserved it, some that it was to be expected.  Only Rain held silent and still and horrified.

“I never had a chance to leave, to get back,” Jimmy explained as best he could.  Many in the crowd made approving sounds. Some though, could be heard to murmur that for family he should have tried harder.

“So, what’s the mission?” Asked Bruce after letting the murmuring of the crowd settle down once more.

“Stay free.  Help these people stay free.” 

Bruce nodded, “We might help you with that.”

With that one reply, the tension relaxed.  They were allies, of sorts, and had a common enemy.  Captain Ish-Ma-El saw it as their cue and climbed down from The Molly join the conversation.  The rest of the group followed behind, Rain last of all.

“You need to know the Ferro Navy have got themselves a laser cannon, it cuts trains in half,” Bruce informed his father who slumped where he stood.  The crowd looked on concerned but confused. In a world only recently introduced to gunpowder, what was a laser?

“From where?”

“Alt tech?  They stole it from our Captain’s first train. Captain Ish-Ma-El, this is my Father Jimmy.”  Bruce now introduced the group, “Rain…where are you…” He dragged the little man forward, “You are Rain today?”

“Ah…that will do for now,” Rain replied, turning to shake Jimmy Johnson’s hand, “Very pleased to meet you, sir, I heard a great deal.” Their eyes met, and Rain gave an apologetic expression.

“Algernon, our crack shot and master saboteur,” Bruce’s expression became more animated and cheerful now that he was introducing his crew,” He’s only three and a half years old, long story.  And Peggy, our resident genius and The Molly’s engineer.”

A movement at the signal mast as new flags fluttered into position.  The crowd murmured concern. Some cried as rail crew returned to their train,  miners their defendable positions.

“The Ironside Roar is on its way,” Captain Johnson informed the group turning back from the mast, “If you’re offering help, now is the time.”

“Great,” Bruce replied, ready for the battle, “Rain give me the wings.”
“Why?” Rain suddenly defensive clutched the harness to himself.

“I’m going to fly the Ironside Roar and drop bombs on the artefact.”

“Don’t let him break the Pew-Pew!” Algernon exclaimed, adding his thoughts to the argument.

“Do you have another solution?” Bruce retorted displeased that Algernon would want to keep such a deadly weapon.

“Is there a map of the area including the rails through the mesas?” Peggy asked, and Captain Johnson nodded, leading the way.

The group were ushered towards a warehouse on the docks used for strategy meetings.  On the wall a large map of the entire region. The mesas were small islands dotting the desert. The rails were like stitches holding the whole area together.

Rain and Peggy studied the map and found the narrow passage they had to come through that morning.  It was the only way to the mining town without going the long way around and seemed a perfect spot for an ambush.

“Why not set up an ambush at the pinch point, something to slow them down.  We can get in close and decouple the train from the engine, then attack the train with catapults.”

“I could disintegrate the coupling,” Algernon suggested, and more than a few heads turned at the surprising revelation.

“What, like crumble to dust?  How long would it take?” Ish-Ma-El asked incredulously.

“It’s pretty quick, a few seconds,” Algernon nodded, then rethought the idea, “Though I would have to be touching.  Peggy, what would be the vulnerable parts of a diesel engine?”

Peggy went through a few more sensitive areas, including the wheel and the vents where the engine cab metal plating was weakest.

“Do you have a busted up old engine and train we can use to block the tracks, maybe go head-on with the Ironside Roar?” Bruce suggested turning to Ish-Ma-El.

“What?  You want me to play a game of chicken with the Ironside Roar?”

“We have to stop that weapon from getting to town, “ Now he turned to his father, “I don’t think the weapon is safe in anyone’s hands, what do you say?”

The older man listened carefully to the question and nodded, “I understand your concern, but as someone who’s had to defend a town with just scrap metal, force of will and luck I can tell you that if I can get a hold of a decent weapon, I’d keep it.  Every weapon is a deterrent.  It will give them a reason to be afraid to come here.”

Bruce’s expression darkened, and he shook his head. Concerned for Bruce’s intentions for the weapon, Algernon started reading his surface thoughts. A list of Bruce’s inventory, showing Bruce was trying to work out what he had, but not necessarily what he wanted to do.

While Algernon’s attention was drawn to Bruce, Ish-Ma-El took the opportunity to do the same to Rain. Instantly they were plunged into chaos as a churning maelstrom of terror, crying, quietly pleading in a language they didn’t understand assaulted their mind.  Scrambling away from the madness, Ish-Ma-Eh found themselves staring back at Rain who until that moment had been carefully listening to the ideas go back and forward.  Ish-Ma-El stillness caught Rain’s eye, and he glanced in their direction. Tilting his head in an unspoken question, he watched as Ish-Ma-El blinked, shook their head and tried to return their focus on the discussion at hand.  A worried look passing over Rain’s face before he too returned to the planning.

“Rain, you won’t need the wings, why don’t you give them to someone who can make the best use of them,” Bruce asked again.

“Why won’t I need them?”

“Well,” Bruce scoffed, looking around the group for support, “It’s not like you’re going to go in with knives flying or something.”

“I help…” Rain replied defensively, but couldn’t finish the argument. It cut too close to the thought that he’d harboured since the party started finding their powers.

“You’re disregarding…” Peggy started, but Algernon interrupted her coming to Rain’s rescue.

“What about when he inspires and simulates…and then in dreamland he made a real dragon!” 

The defence was so unexpected and at the same time completely undermined itself that Bruce didn’t reply.

“We have to get Bruce out there in front of the train,” Ish-Ma-el offered as if nothing had happened, “He’s a distraction.”

“No, he’s the destruction, I’m the distraction.” Rain replied jokingly and turned to Bruce to see his response.  Bruce was too deep in his thoughts to respond.  Leaning in so only Bruce could hear, Rain said,  “Bruce, you need all of us. You can’t do this alone.” 

Bruce scowled and turned away disregarding Rain’s admonishment.  It wasn’t like Bruce to discount what Rain had to say.  The brush-off so soon after the unsettling moment with Ish-Ma-El, got Rain thinking about what was going on in his friend’s head. Bruce didn’t like the idea of the weapon in anyone’s hands.  Would he do something reckless to make sure it was destroyed once and for all?  Adamant he would have to stay close to Bruce, he vowed to make sure the wings did not go to him. 

“Ish, what if you used the wings.” Rain finally suggested to the group,” You’re fast and agile, you can bring down your two swords on an enemy then zoom off to another part of the battle,” He glanced up at Bruce and saw his expression sour even more, “I’m sorry Bruce, you’re pure melee, you need to stay on the ground, the wings would be wasted with your style of fighting.”

“Bashing away in the centre of the fight?  Sure, I see your point,” Bruce said lightly enough to allow the discussion to go onto other topics.  Rain was deeply agitated.  For the first time before Christmas, he wanted the peace of his puzzlebox.

“How long have we got until the Ironside Roar gets to our pinch point?”  He asked Captain Johnson as Bruce swung the discussion back to the fight.

“We have about two hours.”
“And how long to get back out to that spot from here?  An hour?”

“About forty minutes.” The elder Johnson confirmed.

“Well, whatever we’re going to do, we better get planning.” 

37. The rebellion begins

On their way to Manihiki to find Bruce’s father, the group found a new ally in a quickened native of Railsea, Ish-Ma-El, a Salver of extraordinary abilities.  They returned the Molly to the rails and are now only two days out from their destination, Manihiki.   They are hopeful of meeting up with the Captain of the Almighty Bruce.


Clear skies and empty sands had made The Molly’s journey smooth railing.  When not entertaining the crew with stories and songs, Rain was spending his downtime revisiting his Spiral Dust mind map excluding all details to do with Bywandine and that end of the drug trade.  The information left was sparse.  In Crow Hollow, two families traded in the raw product. One was initially through Railsea with an agent called Caw Ek Carve and one directly to Earth through Linda Lance.  The only other piece of information was the name Nakarand and this mysterious entity’s connection to the Spiral Dust users.  It seemed the being could see, hear and act through users creating the spiral-eyed zombies the group had encountered in Nederland.

Now it was clear Ish-Ma-El was quickened, Rain informed them of the group’s adventures in The Strange and what brought them to Railsea in the first place. He was also selling the idea of the new Captain joining them on their travels through recursions.

“Your ability to read minds is a sign you can travel The Strange like us,” Rain informed them one morning in the train’s mess, “Recursion mining is a real thing, and some places like Graveyard of the machine god would provide great salvage opportunities.”

“Besides being dangerous and the fact that anything you find translates to fit the world you return to,” Bruce said as he joined the duo at the trestle table.

Ish-Ma-El gave the two men their now-familiar suspicious glance, “Really?  I’m just supposed to believe that powerful beings just showed up out of space and offered me the chance to travel with them?”

“It seems ridiculous to believe it can all be a coincidence, I agree.  We didn’t come here looking for a quickened. We’re supposed to be rare, but here you are.” Rain turned to Bruce who sipped his chicory coffee in contemplation, “I’ve been saying this all along, something is guiding our path, bringing us together, and we don’t know what.”

“And when we find it, we’ll kill it!”  Algernon with a plate of roasted mole meat joined the group at the table.

“Do you think we could ask it a few questions first?” Rain asked with a smile.  

Previous to their latest adventures in Ruk, Algernon’s attitude to the subject of such powerful beings was to find a safer place to hide. The more aggressive attitude was new and proof that Algernon now had full control of his own mind.  Rain couldn’t be happier for his sociopathic friend.

“Smoke, smoke on the horizon!” Came the call from the lookout above their heads.  Captain Ish-Me-El, their black coat flapping, ran from the mess, the others following quickly after.

A thin stream of black smoke rose vertically into the sky on the horizon.  A train would create a long low cloud of white or grey smoke, at least a moving train would. Without a thought, Rain leapt up into the air, wings extended and started for the smoke.

“Not alone!  For God’s sake, how many times!” Bruce called out ready to drop onto the rails and chase after the flyers.

“Just a little look, there and back.” Rain waived and sped off across the sands.

The fire wasn’t a train, but three carriages still smouldering from a fire lit earlier.  The engine was nowhere, and the carriages looked like they’d been picked clean before setting alight.  As Rain swept over the wreck, the flames and smoke cleared from the middle carriage for a moment revealing a deep rectangular wedge cut out of the centre.  It was like someone had tried slicing the boxcar with a giant hot knife.  The cut did not go below the bogies, but all the wood above was still a chard and smoking mess.  As promised, he looped back over the wreck and returned to The Molly and Bruce’s scornful look.

“Do we need to see if we can help survivors?” Bruce asked the Captain and Ish-Ma-el nodded seriously calling for the Switcher to change their course for the wreck.  As The Molly moved in, all could see the damage done to the carriage.  Ish-Ma-El leaned out over the handrail of the lookout as if searching for something.

“I wonder what did that?” Algernon asked, pointing out the long clean slice, “I want one.”

“Pull up alongside,” Peggy ordered as she made her way up to the lookout, ignoring the presence of Captain Ish-Ma-El.  

“Captain?” Bruce said, fallstalling any mutinous movement the Switchers may feel they need to make.   The Switchers dutifully waited for Ish-Ma-El’s for confirmation.  

Ish-Ma-El nodded distractedly, “Tack in alongside.”

On top of the carriage with the ballistae, Rain and Algernon both saw something under the last carriage not burning wood and twisted metal.  A flutter of material and the exposed skin of an unconscious woman.

“Bruce, I’m going there!” Rain called before leaping into the sky and swooping down towards the woman.

“Godammit, Rain! Where?!  Bruce called in reply, leaving the Captain’s side to run across the top of the train.  Algernon pointed out the woman under the carriage to him as he unslung his crossbow.

“You spend so much time chasing after him. You should just tell him how you feel.” Algernon ignored Bruce’s outrage grumblings and looked back to the front carriage where the engine should be.  The coupling was there and in good order, showing no signs of wrenching or violence.  As Bruce dropped off the front of the Molly, Algernon’s attention went to the skies.  Experience taught that at least one giant owl loved snatching up engines and dropping them on unsuspecting theatres.  When nothing showed itself, Algernon busied himself, watching the unconscious form lying on the tracks through the sights of his crossbow.

Ish-Ma-el joined the chase behind Bruce, his three-sleeper-strides eating the ground. Ish-Ma-el moved quickly, long skinny arms and legs pistoning madly like their prized Molly.  A rumble under their feet and the sand below the ties shimmied away to form a 20-metre wide funnel.  Two massive pincers the size of Ish-Ma-El alone reached out of the sand and turned to the vibration of running feet.  The exposed rail sagged as sleepers started falling into the pit to be knocked aside by the eager claws.  Bruce leapt the last few metres to firm ground, but Ish-Ma-el was trapped on the now twisted rail above the hole.  The rail finally snapped with a jarring twang and knocked Ish-ma-el off their feet.  Pinwheeling, they caught the rail, safe for the moment from the jaws, but only while their grip held out.

“Algernon!” Yelled Bruce as Algernon ready with his crossbow let a bolt fly for between the jaws.  There was a squeal, and the antlion revealed its bristly flat head skewered with a bolt.

Peggy sent a plasma bolt at the antlion’s exposed head before hunting the equipment lockers for a rope and grappling hook. The antlion, now pierced and burnt, attempted to grab the hanging prey.  It pulled its bulbous body out of the sand and snapped at Ish-Ma-El’s flailing legs.  The jaws snapped shut on air, and it fell back to the safety of the sand once more.  

Reaching out with his levitate, Algernon lifted Ish-Ma-El, so it looked like the Captain was swinging themselves up onto the rail.  With a flip that would have had Olympic champions standing for an ovation, Ish-Ma-El found themselves balanced on the rail, their hands-free now to attack.  Without thought the hand crossbows were out and firing, one bolt following the other into the exposed folds of skin behind the antlions head.

Bruce’s yell made Rain turned to face him in the air.  By the time he stopped to see what had happened, Ish-Ma-el was back on the rail and shooting the giant antlion from a safe distance with Bruce beside them.  However, the woman was still under a smouldering carriage, and he didn’t spend any more thought on his Captain or friends.  Landing beside the wreck,  he pulled the woman out from under the carriage and onto an empty rail.  She was still breathing but looked to have been left for dead by whoever had destroyed the train.

“Medical aid, Bruce!” He yelled as Ish-Ma-El reloaded and fired once more into the antlion nest.  Once more the antlion tried to reach its prey.

Thock! Thock! Each bolt found it’s target.

It’s wounds now more than it could bear, the antlion slid down to the bottom of its hole and sunk into the sand.

The Molly slowed and stopped alongside the three carriages, and the crew started spilling out to see what they had found.  In the lookout, Peggy tried swinging the grappling hook onto the lead carriage of the wreck.  It landed on the roof but slid off, failing to catch hold.

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

As Bruce started first aid on his patient, Ish-Ma-El walked up behind him and stopped, recognising the woman.

“Ish?” Rain said, recognising the change in the captain, if not it’s origins. It was like they’d seen a ghost. Ish-Ma-El waved away his concerns as Bruce gave his assessment.

“Dehydrated and suffering exposure. Seems like she may have taken a hit when the carriage was attacked.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

He tended her in silence for twenty minutes until the woman’s eyelids fluttered open and saw her saviours for the first time.

“Ish-Ma-El?” Came a harsh reedy croak from the woman’s lips.  A little water helped soothed the parched throat, and her voice gained a bit of its strength.

“What are you doing here?” Ish-Ma-El asked unsettled by the sight of someone they knew.

“When the navy came, and they started rounding up the crew…well, I hid.  I could still hear the crew as they fed them to the antlion,”  She swallowed a little more water and continued, “I stayed hidden until the screaming stopped and then I stayed where I was.  I had some rations.  But then the navy came back.  They’d been tinkering with what they’d stolen from us.  They turned the things on,  and the carriage…I…I don’t remember anymore.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“The thing we found?  That’s what they had on their train?” Ish-Ma-El asked coolly, all the time their hands were clenching and unclenching

“Yeah, had it rigged to it somehow?”

“They took it?” 


Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“A mighty beefy weapon,” Bruce commented, looking back at the smouldering slice out of the middle carriage.

“Ish, maybe you can introduce us?” Rain said to Ish-Ma-El who ignored him, instead of returning to the woman.

“I…I’m pleased to see you again.” They said now with genuine feeling.

“Is the life of a Salver always like this?” The woman asked with a laugh that started a bout of coughing.

“Yeah, usually, maybe not so much of the murdering navy.”

“Hi, my name’s Rain,” Rain interrupted their conversation, frustrated at being ignored,” Can I ask yours?”

“Han, Han Fara Rung,” She replied automatically.

“Well Han, a friend of Ish-Ma-El is a friend of ours,” He assured her, and she relaxed a little.

“It’s nice to be among friends again.”

“Better than being among antlion.” Bruce joked.  No one found it funny.

Chink!  Twang! Peggy grappling line caught a low rail and caught fast. She tied it off to The Molly.

“Oh, did you want me to fly you over?” Algernon now said, and he felt the slap of Peggy’s hand against the back of his head.

“Well, we certainly have room for one more,” Bruce said helping Han Fara Rung carefully onto unsteady feet, “We’re only a day or two out of Manihiki so tight quarters won’t be too much of an issue.  Anyone else left alive, Han?”

“No,” Han Fara Rung replied shakily, “I think I was pretty lucky finding my hiding spot when I did.”

After making sure his patient was comfortable and had plenty of food and water, Bruce scoured what was left of the carriages.  The carriages by now were weak from the attack and fire, and parts were still alight.  Rain called across from the safety of The Molly.

“Bruce, you complain about me!  What are you doing risking your life for a few odds and ends?”

“I’m looking for people,” Bruce replied, doggedly.  If one person could survive this attack, then maybe there were more. He had found a stash of cyphers probably hidden by the Captain, but even he had to admit it, there was no one else left to save and returned to The Molly.  Algernon identified the cyphers Bruce had found:

A permanent bonding glue

Force armour projector

A Nutrition and Hydration kit

A Hangover cure.

The Molly slowly pulled away from what was left of the carriages. Algernon, Peggy and Rain quiz Han Fara Rung about the weapon.

“So, what sort of weapon made the hole?” Rain asked as the patient watched what was left of their first train disappear out of view.

“I don’t know, just something the salver’s found.  It was about a metre to metre and a half long.. Metallic… none of us had seen anything like it before.”

“It was a heat beam of some sort, but with such a strange square profile.  Very odd,” Peggy added her observations.

“Imagine if you could mount it on a ballista,” Algernon thought out loud.

“It cut through the carriage like a bread knife,” Rain shivered as Ish-Ma-El walked into the carriage,” Ish, you had more to do with the weapon that Han, what was it like?”

They stopped and considered their answer before speaking,” A device, we never got a chance to work out what it was.”

“ Certainly doesn’t seem like the type of device we want in the hands of the Ferro Navy,” Rain mulled over seriously, “Especially if they’re after the Almighty Bruce.” 

Almost simultaneouslyAlgernon and Bruce spoke up.

“Could we have it?”

“It should be destroyed.”  They eyed each other across the carriage as the discussion continued without them.

“Han, what direction was the Navy train heading?”

“Tacking around towards Manihiki.”
“And your engine, it was missing, where did it go?”

“The navy took it.”

“What engine did they have?” Peggy asked, now interested in the conversation.

“Deisel, a big one.” Han-Fara-Rung supplied 

“That would make sense,” She mused, “A heat ray would need a lot of energy, and a diesel could provide that if they found a way to connect it to the system.”

“Do you remember its name?”

“Yeah, the Ironside Roar.”

“Captain, would you like to go hunting?” Rain finally turned to look up at the Ish-Ma-El who had been standing, listening the whole time.

“Any monetary gain?” 

“Probably not, but we’d be hunting the Navy, not a bad recompense I’d suggest.”

The Captain pondered the idea a while as the group just watched.

“Knowing the crew’s indifference and my own love of the navy, I don’t think that’s a problem,” They finally said, turning to the group.

For the next two days, the stout-hearted Molly chugged across the wastes of Railsea, hardly stopping the whole way.  Everyone was busy with duties and discussing plans for Manihiki.  On top of that, the group was involved in getting the crew on-side for a push against the most powerful organisation Railsea had seen since the mythological builders.  The Captain took the crew aside and told them in general terms their story and what they had planned.  They said up-to-date letters weren’t even enough to save a train the navy wanted disappeared.  By this time the crew thought they knew the Captain’s story well enough that no one questioned their seemingly outlandish proposal to go against the Manihiki Navy. 

Rain also started telling new stories about the group and their scrapes against impossible odds.  If the crew believed the stories or not, it didn’t seem to matter as the message to perseverance against injustice was quickly picked up by all.  It also helped that he’d changed the wording and added another verse to the Song of Ishmael,

Song of Ish-Ma-El (Revision)

 (To the Tune: Do the “Loco-mo-tion”)

Last of their cr-ew their friends and family

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

They were left for dead by wicked Na-vy

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Now Railers everywhere, please take heed

“Never say, die!” Became their creed.

So, come on and follow.

Ish-Ma-El, Wand’er of the Railsea!

Three lonely we-eks, Alone but not lonely

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Followed by the dead crying, “Vengence only!”

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

A tiny flag of red, against the sand

Leads to ancient riches lost under land

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Captain Ish-Ma-El!

Fears no one!

Not mole!

Not man!

Not even Ferro-Navy Grand!

Wow oh wow oh!

Four days and nights, they worked on Molly.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Reclaimed her from the dust, the moles and the vermin

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

A hoard of giant rats came to cause havoc.

Crossbow and twin swo-rds

Flashed through the dark

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Following the sm-o-ke, they found their old train.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

The crew fed to an antlion, the navy to blame.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Now the Ferro Navy is their phil-oso-phy

And they won’t stop un-til all Railsea’s free!

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!


The largest city-state in all of Railsea was a smudge of the horizon. As quietly as a yellow steam train can, The Molly pulled up at a pier, paid its dock duties and started unloading.  Besides the original cargo, the Gliding Vulpine had been transporting, there was three or four tons of molemeat, and a massive quantity of silver-grey hide from the Dreaming Sable.  From the proceeds, The Molly resupplied and paid her crew handsomely, boosting their spirits even further. Once the business of running a train was sorted out, the group went out into town to hear the latest gossip and spread a little of their own.

“I feel like a target is painted on my back, “Bruce complained as they walked up through the city proper. Rain turned and looked at the group as a whole.  Though Bruce did stand taller than all of them and was twice as wide, Algernon walked around with a giant crossbow across his back, same too for Ish-Ma-El and their double blades.  Rain himself wouldn’t be part from the wings, and Peggy’s suspicious stares were enough to give anyone passing by a second glance.  In comparison, Bruce was almost invisible.

They listened to what the rumourmongers had to say about the Ironside Roar (sent to hunt the Almighty Bruce), the Almighty Bruce and the Onoka mining community.   In return, they shared their rumour of the Captain’s son searching for his father.

Rain made a discovery when he stumbled across a group of Ferro Navy Officers well into their cups in an inn he had inquired.  After a few more rounds of drinks and an appreciative audience, the officers started telling their new best friend, all they knew about events out of the Railsea.

“Of course the Ironside Roar is part of the hunt to find that Almighty Bruce, as is half the navy.  The big push is clear for a few days from now, that is if the Dread Baron doesn’t get it first.”

“The Dread Baron?”

“One of the most powerful trains in the whole Ferro navy.  Not the flagship by any means, but big!  They’re expected back any day, and then ….the hunt is on!”

“I think we need to sabotage some trains!” Algernon said as soon as Rain had informed the group what he’d learned.

“And I for one, think you should have the chance to do just that.” Rain beamed, “So how are we going to do it?”

“What?  Walk into the navy dockyards and demand to see the engines?” Ish-Ma-El said, their usual sarcastic nature getting the better of them.

“I was thinking more distraction and sabotage.  We still have a good supply of mole steaks and a Captain to mourn, a man who was a paid-up supporter of the Ferro Navy…” Rain suggested merrily.

“We have a BBQ…” Bruce added, “No engineer is going to pass up a free meal.”

“A free steak meal,” Algernon finished with pleasure, “ So, you guys put on a BBQ and distract everyone while Rain and I sneak in and disable the engines.” 

“Rain’s going to be needed at the BBQ to stir up the interest,” Bruce burst Algernon’s vision of the events.

“I’m afraid so,” Rain agreed, “I’d love to go with you, we can run our technician and boss routine, but I wouldn’t be much use to you if something technical came up.”  

Rain looked at Ish-Ma-El noting how well they dealt with the crew, and even with him and Bruce that first day at the theatre.  

Bruce was thinking the same thing it seemed, “Ish-Ma-El should go with Algernon. They’ve proven their quick on their feet and if things aren’t what you expect can probably jury-rig something on the spot.”

“Er…sure, I can do it.” Ish-Ma-El agreed reluctantly as Algernon pulled Rain aside.

“But I don’t want to do this with Ish-Ma-el. I don’t trust them,” 

Algernon’s suspicion of strangers had been a hindrance in the past, but usually, Rain saw it as the balance to his own more than generous acceptance.  Not everyone could be an ally, as hard as he worked at it.  Still, Ish-Ma-el was an exception. They’d prove their worth and had more than a few stakes in the game.

“I can’t see how we have much choice, “ Rain said in the end, “You know how to destroy things, and they can get you in, I’d only be in your way.”

“We could at least fly out if we needed to,” He brooded on the subject, “If I have to, I’ll just leave them behind.”

“It won’t come to that.  Look, I’ll give you a boost before you leave the gate, that will make the first engine easy.  If you have to, you can come back for another shot.”

“It feels a bit like cheating,” Algernon confessed, the first time the most power of Rain’s abilities had been discussed between them.  

“Now whose being silly,” Rain laughed, ”You know better than I do that it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught and I don’t intend for any of us to be caught.”

“Yeah,” Algernon agreed, as reluctantly as Ish-Ma-el had, “I guess.”

“So, tell me.” Rain asked with a mischievous grin, “How are you going to wreck these trains?”  

The rest of the day was spent acquiring and preparing materials.  Clothes, similar enough to the Ferro Navy greys, were purchased. Quantities of powdered aluminium and the worst of the rusty iron that could be found with salvers.  Several barrels of cheap naval rum were bought, and recently acquired supplies for The Molly were dipped into.  That evening in front of the iron gates to the naval shipyards, they set up and started their BBQ.  

Bruce was the cook and looked at home over the hot coals and sizzling fat of the meat. Peggy was in charge of the drinks and kept them flowing for as long as the rum lasted.  Rain gathered the crowds, at first talking to individuals and groups to encourage them to let others know.  He quickly found a stack of crates to stand on and excited the forming crowd for the feast about to begin.  Algernon and Ish-Ma-El stayed back until the mass of engineers vying for a free meal was thick at the entrance.  

“Engineers and brave heroes of the Manihiki Ferro Navy, “Rain started his ringmaster routine with the crowd, “We mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Captain Al-Ram-Kuno, late of the Gliding Vulpine.  As a loyal and fully paid supporter of the Ferro Navy, it is only fitting that we note his life and passing with this small tribute to you, courageous crews!”  The crowd cheered, some already into their cups.  The noise attracted more engineers from the docks, and a constant stream of rail crew now trickled out to the party at the gates.

Soon the steaks served on slabs of fresh bread, and a cup of rum quickly started moving through the crowd.  Two figures, seemingly ignoring the spectacle, walked calmly up to the gates. As they walked past his perch above the crowd, Rain clapped each on the shoulder verbally encouraging them to enjoy the meal as he sent them jolts of The Strange.  

“State your business?” Said the marine on duty more than a little harassed and put-out by the impromptu BBQ.

“Engineering specialist sent down to oversee the overalls for the…uh…big push,” Ish-Ma-El said the last just low enough for only the guard to hear.  

“Oh…er…right!” This was someone in the know, and he didn’t stand in their way a moment longer.

There were currently two steam trains in the docks, and the saboteurs had come prepared.  While Ish-Ma-El scattered handfuls of thermite pellets made to look like lumps of coal throughout the tender, Algernon set to work on the machinery itself.  Steam trains are brutally simple, especially compared to what Algernon was used to tinkering.  A few pins in pressure gauges to stop the needle from rising too far, wadding stuffed down the safety release valves, and they were good to go.  The idea was that the trains would leave, as usual, all systems working normally.  Then they would hit one of the thermite lumps taking the firebox temperatures from 1,300 degrees centigrade to 2,200 degrees.  It was hot enough to melt out the firebox and any other steel in the vicinity.  In the meantime the pressure in the boiler would rise to dangerous levels, but the engineers’ gauges and safety valves wouldn’t register a problem.  Enough pressure and the boiler could explode, possibly derailing the whole train. 

As Peggy has said during the planning session, “A pressurised explosion is nothing to sneeze at.”

Halfway through their sabotage and  Ish-Ma-El and Algernon were feeling pretty pleased with themselves.  Looking like they belonged, they left the first train and started for the second.

That’s when chaos descended onto the dockyards.

It had been limping in for a while, a dark smudge on the darker night sky. It wasn’t until the Dread Barron’s hulking wreck rolled into dock billowing black smoke from various locations that the naval dockyards burst into action.  Engineers ran from the BBQ, food and drinks still in hands sprinted for the dock where the engine released the last of its boiler pressure in a huge gout of steam, obscuring even the Barons’s massive bulk.

“Oi, you!” Came a call, and Algernon and Ish-Mae-El were confronted with the gate guard, “You said you were some specialist engineers, they need you at the Baron!”

“Unfortunately, my companion has hit his head in all the excitement of the Baron’s arrival,” Ish-Mae-El  lied convincingly as Algernon looked vaguely out to the distance with a strained look on his face, “I need to take him to the hospital.”

“Right, but hurry back,” The guard replied, clearing their path, his expression grim.

At the gates, Peggy was putting down the last of the cups she’d been pouring and pulled off her apron.

“I want a closer look at that thing,” She said as she stepped by Bruce and Rain.

“No, Peggy you’ll get shanghaied!” Rain moaned knowing as soon as they saw her talent she’d been taken.

“They can try,” She replied simply, slipping away amongst the crowds of other engineers swarming through the gates, just as Ish-Ma-El and Algernon appeared back at the BBQ.

“Going well?” Rain asked, handing Algernon a sandwich and zapping him once more.

“Yeah, all engineers are being called to help out of the Baron though, and we’ve only done one train.” Explained Algernon as Rain did the same for Ish-Ma-El.

“This is the perfect timing if you can swing it.  Peggy’s just gone to look at the Baron herself on the back of all this chaos.”

“We’re on it,” Ish-Ma-El nodded, and they headed back in amongst the crowd.

This time when guards tried to direct them to the Dread Baron, Ish-Ma-El rounded on them, ”I know better than you the state of the Dread Baron and don’t you think headquarters do too?  Now more than ever we need those two trains in top condition now that they’re all that’s left to protect us.”

“ Very well, “ The marine stepped aside, sure they had met another know-it-all with headquarters backing.  The second train sabotaged, they were soon walking out past the BBQ and out into the city streets to be lost in the crowds.

Peggy was another story.  The Dread Baron was a mess. Whole chunks had been smashed out of the engine and train.  Peggy stepped inside the diesel compartment to see the largest engine she’d had seen, certainly the largest she’d been able to work on and must have, at some time, come out of a ship. She already noted that a massive timing belt, many times longer than herself had been damaged in the fight and been jury-rigged to get the train back to port.  She helped pull off the old belt but didn’t give suggestions on improvement as she would normally.  These were the enemy.

“What caused all this?” Peggy asked conversationally of one of the navy engineers working alongside her.

“A fight with the Almighty Bruce, ” She replied, taking the opportunity of the chat to have a moment’s rest, “They have a cannon and a huge catapult that throws bombs.”

“The Almighty Bruce?  I thought that was a legend.”

“We don’t like to admit it, but it’s real, alright.”

Peggy estimated that the work required to get the Dread Baron back on the rail would take two or more weeks.  With any luck, the Baron would have to sit out the rest of the fight.  Having found out all she thought she could, Peggy climbed off the Dread Baron and started for the gates. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” As a marine watching over the engineers crawling all over the stricken train blocked her way.

“Food, I hear someones giving away steak sandwiches,” She replied, continuing to walk by only to be stopped by a spear across the body.

“The navy will supply you with all your needs now,” He replied and pointed out a barracks where a camp mess and rows of beds had been set up.

As feared, Peggy had been conscripted into the Manihiki Ferro Navy.

At the gates, Bruce and Rain were getting worried. Algernon and Ish-Ma-El were out and long gone, their task done.  The crowds of engineers were thinning, but Peggy was nowhere to be seen.  Taking the last of the sandwiches on a vast platter, Rain walked straight through the gates as if he belonged there and down the docks to the Dread Baron.  There he handed out sandwiches to the engineers who had come in on the stricken vessel and kept an eye out for Peggy.  It didn’t take long to spot her arguing with a marine.  

“Good food for a hero of Manihiki? “ He said, handing her a sandwich.  She took it, touching his hand in return and creating a mental link.

What’s up? He asked, continuing to hand out the food.

I can’t leave


Watch, Peggy said through the mind link and tried walking past the marine again.

“Come now. You belong to the Navy now, hop-it’” The marine said with no malice and shoved her back.

Just get ready to run, Rain said before turning to the guard himself and offering him a sandwich.

“I suggest this one is needed at the gate,” He pushed, gesturing to Peggy. 

The marine’s eyes glazed over for a moment before he realised Peggy was standing in front of him.

“You’re needed at the gate, better get moving.”

Peggy did just that, stepping past him she marched towards the gate, the marine guard in tow.  She made it to the gates as Bruce was packing up the BBQ.  Peggy made a gesture, pointing out her escort to Bruce as she inspected the well-oiled and maintained gate.  When Peggy felt the distance was enough, she bolted through the gate and down the dock.  The guard, surprised by the sudden movement, gave chase, only to collide into Bruce carrying crates of BBQ supplies.

By the time the marine stood up to looked after Peggy, she had melted into the crowds. He swore, probably having lost a commission for bringing in a new engineer.  He turned on Bruce.

“Didn’t see you there, sorry about that.  Here have a steak,” Bruce handed a sandwich to the marine who snatched it up belligerently.  Behind them, Rain walked nonchalantly through the gates and joined Bruce in the cleanup.

Where are you? He asked Peggy hidden somewhere in the city.

I don’t know, safe. 

Stay where you are and stay connected. Algernon and Ish-Ma-el are out, and Bruce and I are nearly finished here.  We’ll come and find you.

36. The raising of The Molly

Looking for information on Bruce’s father, the group are in Railsea chasing a train called ‘Almighty Bruce’. On their trip across the Railsea, Bruce himself has proven to be just as Mighty when taking down of the giant molerat, ‘The Dreaming Sable’. Unfortunately, the Gliding Vulpine, the train they were riding, was destroyed in the battle.


As dawn rose over the Railsea, a few of the group spotted a very familiar red rag flapping in the morning breeze.

“Hey, that’s my flag, we’re near the old theatre,” Rain said, and Peggy’s demeanour improved considerably.

“Molly!”  She cried and scrambled out of the wreckage that had once been the Gliding Vulpine

“Molly?” Rain asked, sure they’d seen no one in the lost theatre but a couple of giants rats and spiders.

“The engine.  I called her Molly.” Peggy replied self-consciously.  She looked over the desert to the flapping red rag, “I wonder if we wrap a good heavy chain around the drive wheel if we couldn’t pull her out onto the rails…”

“Only one way to find out,” Launching himself into the air on the wings he’d not managed to part with, he circled the stricken engine and Peggy, “ I’ll go out and see if she’s still there.”  Anything to get out of the menial work he’d been dodging all night.

The movement over the train caught Bruce’s attention who had been busy overseeing the rendering and breaking down of the molerat carcass.

“Hey!  Where are you off it?”

“The theatre, Peggy thinks she can use the old engine,” Rain pointed in the direction of the flag.

“Don’t go alone,” Said Bruce, “What if there’s someone with a crossbow?”

“Then I’ll say, hello!” Rain flipped in the air for the sheer joy of it.

“Don’t make me come and save you!” Bruce yelled after the little man who had turned the wings towards the fluttering red streak.

“Ha! Since when!” He could just hear over the woosh of the steam-powered wings.

Forgetting the work on the mole, Bruce hefted his crowbar onto his back and raced along the tracks in Rain’s wake.  His training at the Estate had improved Bruce’s both strength and speed.  He bounded over three sleepers at a time keeping pace with the flying man though he tacked back and forwards keeping to the safety of the rails.  Rain landed lightly at the lip of the large hole where a steam engine had crashed down into the theatre.  Bruce could see  Rain scan the ground around the hole before calling.


“Too late for caution then,” Bruce came up behind Rain who did a double-take looking back over the rail Bruce had crossed to get there.

“What do you mean, I am being cautious,” Rain replied, pointing to the footprints, “There’s someone down there, and I don’t want to surprise them.”

“Hello down there, we don’t mean any harm.”

A figure stepped out of the shadows, clearly holding a hand crossbow up at Rain and Bruce silhouetted against the grey-green sky.

“Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot!” Said the figure stepping into the light so the boys could get a clearer view.  The person was slim dressed in working clothes of heavy cotton and wool.  Their scruffy blonde hair was pulled back roughly from an androgenous face that didn’t identify the person as either male or female.  What was clear was the person was well-armed.  Besides the hand crossbow now pointed at them, both Bruce and Rain could see two swords strapped to their backpack, another crossbow in a holster on their hip.

Ish-Ma-El the Salver

“I wouldn’t shoot if I were you,” Bruce said coolly, “You’ll just make me mad.”

“You don’t intimidate me!” The salver replied just as confidently with a gritty determination, “I saw all my friends and family die, what are you two to an entire train of murderers?”

Rain and Bruce glanced at each other.

“We’re sorry to hear that,” Bruce said seriously.

“Our sympathises,” Rain kneeling to see the person better.  

The figure in the hole slowly lowered their crossbow, “Thanks.”

“Look, do you think we could come down and have a chat?” Rain called, tiring of the yelling conversation so far.

“I supose, if you’re alone,”

“Ur…full transparency we are with a train, but at the moment it’s just us two,’ 

The figure shrugged giving up the fight for now as, first Bruce dropped the twenty feet to the stage and rolled to a stop, and Rain glided down and landed beside him.

The train looked a little different from the last time they’d seen it.  It now had a good coat of yellow paint, and many working parts shone in the dim light of the underground theatre.  

“How long have you been down here?” Rain asked, admiring the work already put into The Molly.

“Four days and four nights,” The salver replied matter of factly with an air that claimed ownership without actually stating it.  They were right too. They had the rights of salvage.  If the group were to use the engine to get to Manihiki, they would have to negotiate.

“Well, we came for The Molly, but we can see that you have a claim,” Said Rain.


“The engine,”

“It’s mine, what do you want it for?”

“A talpa destroyed out engine last night,” He pointed to the surface, “We need The Molly to get our train to Manihiki.”
“You fought a talpa?” They replied doubtfully.  Bruce brandished his bloodied crowbar.

“Well, he did anyway,” Rain replied, very aware of the tensions building between them and the lone figure.

So was the salver, as they shifted the conversation back to The Molly, “Strange name for a train.”

“Yes. Peggy, our engineer, named it. Though come to think of it she usually isn’t one to get sentimental and name things…” He trailed off realising they hadn’t introduced themselves, “Speaking of which, what’s your name?”

“Ish-Ma-El,” They replied.

“Bruce,” Said Bruce introducing himself.

“And I’m…” It was now that Rain remembered he was Havel Maximillian in Railsea, though he had signed on to the Gliding Vulpine as Rain.  The thought of trying to reestablish the Havel persona seemed a waste of time, and he stalled in his introduction.

“Rain?” Bruce asked, not sure what was going on with his friend.

“Yes, go with that for now,” Rain sighed, “I’m Rain.  Look, you’re going to need help getting The Molly out of this hole, and we need transport. If we respect your right to the engine, can we work together to get her to Manihiki?”

Ish-Ma-El stepped back and looked at the engine.  Nose down in the splintered wood of the stage. It would be a lot of work alone to get the engine out, maybe even impossible. They looked with distrust at the two strangers who literally flew in over the sand.  In the end, more pressing needs took precedent as their stomach rumbled and reminded them they hadn’t eaten in a few days.

“Do you have food?” Ish-Ma-El asked tentatively.

“We have a whole moldywarpe of food!” Rain exclaimed, “Thanks to our Mighty Bruce!”

“You’re the Almighty Bruce?” Ish-Ma-El  turned to Bruce who seemed to grow a few more inches on his already lofty height, “But, I thought it was a train.”

“Ah, what do you know about the Almighty Bruce?” Rain asked, still keen to find out all they could about the renegade train and its captain.

“Ur…it’s a legend.  Supposedly it’s defending a mining town somewhere north of Manihiki.”

“Hmmm, “ Rain replied, disappointed, “Well, the food’s on the surface. Unless you’d like me to bring you down something?”

“Err, no its alright, but don’t try anything or you’ll see that these swords aren’t just stylish,” Ish-Ma-El agreed grudgingly. 

“ I assure you that I would never do anything to make you draw your swords,” Rain replied with such honesty that Ish-Ma-El finally put away their hand crossbow.

The rope the group had placed months ago still hung from the rail above, and Bruce now grabbed it, holding it steady for Ish-Ma-El.

“Want a leg up?” Bruce asked the diminutive character and gained nothing by a scathing look.


“I’m sorry I can’t fly you up,” Rain admitted and gained the same defensive look in reply.

“I can get there myself.”

With the proposition of seeing the theatre and the engine again, Algernon and Peggy had also started travelling towards the flag.  Algernon taking the faster route levitated himself above the sand at speed.  When Ish-Ma-El made their appearance, Algernon came to a screeching halt, creating the sounds of skidding rubber himself, and quickly flipped his crossbow off his back.  Just as fast, Ish-Ma-El had their crossbow out and trained on Algernon.

“Who the hell are you!” Ish-Ma-El yelled.

Rain popped up over the lip of the hole to see his friend and Ish-Ma-El aiming very deadly weapons at each other.  Landing heavily between the two he turned to Algernon.

“No, no!  This is a friend.  Algernon, this is Ish-Ma-El.  Ish-Ma-El, my very dear friend Algernon.”

Distrustful of Rain’s latest find, Algernon reached out to listen to the new person’s surface thoughts and found himself…looking back up at himself down the jawbone crossbow.  He watched as his body wobbled uncertainly in the air before crashing to the ground with a heavy thud.  A streak of electrical pain shot straight up his back, and for a moment he could do nothing by stand there, a hand crossbow held loose in a numbed hand.  He watched as Rain ran and crouched beside his body.

“What the hell!” Algernon heard his body say, and Rain started.



Rain turned to look him in the eyes and groaned, “Uh, we’ve seen this before.”

“Did we Lang? Algernon asked, his voice sounding odd and shrill.  Bruce climbed to the surface behind him and tried to make sense of the scene.  

“Yeah, you Langed,” Rain replied, turning back to help Ish-Ma-El in his body up off the sand, “You’ve mind-swapped with our very talented Algernon.  It seems you have a gift in common.”

Algernon’s free hand started exploring the new body just as Bruce realised what all the shouting was about and grabbed Algernon, in Ish-Ma-El’s body, by the collar.

“What’s going on, who are you and why are you pointing a crossbow at Algernon?” Peggy stormed up, having walked the rails and got to the hole last of all.

“Let them go,” Bruce said low and quiet in a tone that allowed no argument, “Let them go, Algernon.”

“I can’t, it’s stuck,” He said in that odd little squeaky voice that wasn’t his.

“Well then try doing it again, maybe that will clear it,” Bruce suggested and lowered Ish-Ma-El’s body, so the feet touched the ground again.

“Yeah, but not yet…” Algernon murmured, but Bruce was having none of it. 

“Before Peggy shoots you,” Algernon flicked his eyes to Peggy, her hand crossbow pointed directly at his chest…Ish-Ma-El’s chest.

“Ok-ay…” He looked at his body slouched and defensive beside Rain and projected back.

It worked, his view resolved to behind Rain, looking back at Ish-Ma-El who was intently watching him.  Algernon gave the newcomer a grim little smile and started singing in his head.

“This is the song that doesn’t end….”

“Oh, gods!” Ish-Ma-El cried and lunged to strike him with their fist.  Rain was in between again, spoiling the fun.

“No, no!  Friends.” He said now to Ish-Ma-El who huffed a frustrated breath out and put down their hand, “Speaking of friends, Peggy, our illustrious Engineer and of course you’ve met Algernon.”

“Oh, supposedly the engineer,” Ish-Ma-El turned to look at Peggy, taller, dark with curly hair, Peggy was everything they weren’t.  

Except for the attitude.

“Supposedly?  I am the Engineer, and as I don’t know you, you don’t count.” Peggy bit back showing that she no longer saw Ish-Ma-El as a threat by putting away her hand crossbow.

“And we don’t take kindly to threatening violence,” Bruce added, threatening violence with every muscle twitch.

Ish-Ma-El stared up at Bruce, making him turn and examine the newcomer.  They impressed him with their courage, and he felt that it wasn’t misplaced foolhardiness. 

“Bruce!  Friend!” Rain exclaimed, and Bruce broke eye contact, “I’m sorry, It’s so hard to make friends these days.”

“Yeah, don’t I know it.,” Ish-Ma-El replied sullenly.

“Er…look I’m going to make up for everything with that food I promised, maybe a picnic while you and Peggy discuss how to get The Molly out of the hole?” Rain said as the metal wings on his back open themselves, “Please try not to kill each other while I’m gone, okay?” 

Ish-Ma-El quickly outlined what they’d done to the engine including replacing a cracked cylinder, straightening out boiler tubes bent in the fall and testing the boiler’s seals ready for use. All that and the natty yellow paint job.

“And you did all that just with salvage?” Peggy asked in her most matter of fact way that to the group meant she was impressed.

“That’s what I do.  That’s why I’m out of the rails,” Ish-Ma-El replied defensively, “Besides, the theatre was full of supplies for building and repairing the stage and scenery.”

Peggy, who’d had more time to think over the problem, outlined her plan for getting the engine out of the hole and back on the tracks. Using a heavy A-frame above the hole, the engine would winch itself out of the theatre.  From there, elbow grease from the ship’s crew would maneuver the engine onto the tracks.  Simple in theory, but it took the two of them, Peggy’s knowledge of engineering and Ish-Ma-El’s uncanny ability with salvage, to make it work.

Peggy and Bruce stayed on the surface, organising the A-frame construction with several crew members.  Ish-Ma-El and two others scavenged for parts and attached The Molly to the frame using heavy chains and ropes.  Algernon kept himself busy being the group’s elevator, lifting people and supplies up and down the hole.  Rain found himself doing the job he’d been avoiding all night, shuttling back and forward on menial tasks.  At least he got to fly. 

Even Captain Al-Ram-Kuno came over to provide…support in the way of unhelpful advice and yelling at the crew, which was his ways of boosting morale. It wasn’t required.  Under the competent eyes of both Peggy and Ish-Ma-El backed by a firm word from Bruce, the crew snapped too.  They knew raising The Molly was their best chance of escaping the Railsea alive.

And it was working.  The engine lifted from the stage in a groan of metal, a cloud of falling sand and broken floorboards and was soon ten foot off the ground and halfway to the top.  The stack and the engineer’s cabin were above the surface, and things were going well until a squeak from deep in the theatre caught Ish-Ma-El’s attention. 

“Oh, rats!” They growled, leaving what they were doing and pulling out both hand crossbows.

 Peggy, on the lip of the hole, heard it too and pulled out her crossbow.

“Incoming, rats in the hole, we need covering fire!”

Rain and the two crew members down in the hole ran to  Ish-Ma-El.  Each crew member had armed themselves, one with a sturdy crowbar, the other with a heavy club made from a points lever.  Rain’s hand’s were empty, the wings extended.

“What are you going to do, dance them to death?” Ish-Ma-El got out before four giant rat bodies leapt off the broken balcony’s above and down towards them.

Bruce threw down a pick he was using to enlarge the hole and leaped down to join the battle in melee as one rat caught a crew member by the leg and started pulling them away. Another missed his chance at easy meat, the crew member stepping out of range of the creature’s teeth.  One rat ran towards Ish-Ma-El, but Rain flared out the wings before it could reach them and did indeed seem to dance in front of the rat.  Keeping the rat’s attention, he flicked the wings back and forward so the rat was never sure where the next attack was coming from.  The third rat ran for Bruce as he landed amongst the thick of battle. He dodged around it and sprinted towards the crewman a rat had caught.  A firm crack across the head and the rat let go. The crew member crawled away flailing their club giving the rat a glancing blow. The crew member with the crowbar lashed out, but the rat caught the crowbar and wrenched it from their grip.  The fourth rat dove for Ish-Ma-el. They shot it twice with the hand crossbows before throwing the weapons aside and pulling out their duel swords with a snicker of sharpened steel.

The crew tied off the train on the surface and started grabbing rocks to cast down on the rats twenty feet below.  One was knocked in the head by a stone. It bounced away as if hitting concrete, the rocks did nothing to stop the rats’ advances. Seeing the battle joined, the Captain bravely stepped away from the hole, letting others do the fighting.  Peggy launched a plasma bolt at the rat Bruce had just smashed.  The rats sizzled and snapped, and the smell of burning fur filled the theatre.  When the smoke cleared, the rat was still, its brains boiled in its skull.

Rain continued to distract his rat, getting into the rhythm of the taunting moves.

“Rescuing?  I don’t need rescuing.” He laughed as the rat seemed completely confused about where to attack.

The rat Bruce dodged had better luck snagging itself a crew member.  The man screamed, drawing Bruce’s attention to that quarter.

On the surface, Peggy and the crew turned to a movement in the sand as two more rats breached and attacked.  One leapt at a crew member’s face sending them both back over the hole and down into the theatre.

There was no time for thinking about those in the hole as another two rats followed the first.  Peggy kicked one away as another rat missed their target, but a third caught a prized morsel. Before anyone knew what was going on, the Captain was screaming already knee-deep in the sand and disappearing fast.  The crew ran for the hole and pulled weapons, billhooks and long pieces of wood to poke down the rat hole after the Captain’s assailant.  Algernon picked up a rat from the surface and threw it down the hole, hoping to hit another fighting in the theatre.  Though the captured rat made a satisfying thud when it fell, it missed the one on Ish-Ma-El by inches and landed near Bruce.  Peggy sent a plasma arch to the rat dragging the Captain away.  It singed its head, forcing it to duck under the sand, the Captain sank in up to his waist.

In the hole, Bruce brought his crowbar down on the rat dragging the crew member away.  A crack and brain splattered across the dusty broken seating of the theatre.  

Splat Rat!

“NEXT!” Bruce yelled as the crew member and the rat fell from above onto Rain.

Focused on his rat, Rain was oblivious to the falling couple until they landed on squarely on him.  The injured crew member crawled off and found a piece of wood as their chosen weapon, leaving a stunned rat and Rain desperate to get up off the ground.

Another rat fell near Bruce, and he looked up, gave his thanks and went to work.

Ish-Ma-el prepared their stance and waited for the rat she’d shot previously to attack.  As it lunged, terrifying teeth extended, they brought the two swords down in a double attack, slashing through the thick hide of the beast to the bone. Muscle no longer propelling bones, the heart’s blood pumping on the sand, the rat died.  Ish-Ma-El swung her swords wide, clearing her weapons of the beast’s blood and readied for the next attack.

Rain rolled smartly away from the stunned rat.  The movement caught its attention, and it lunged without thought.  Almost as long as he was tall, the rat pinned Rain to the ground, its teeth snapping at his face.

“Okay, really need that rescuing now,” Rain called across the theatre to Bruce.

“Coming Rain!  Little busy!” Bruce replied, his crowbar finding the head of the rat dropped to him by Algernon. 

Splat Rat!

“Are you looking at teeth the size of your face?!”

The injured crewman who fell with the rat smashed it with his piece of stage. Another hit it with his crowbar.

Upstairs, the Captain’s screams suddenly silenced as he sunk beneath the sand. Peggy knocked another rat aside in an attempt to get to the Captain, but everywhere she and the crew dug, there was nothing but more sand.  Algernon, seeing Rain in trouble, went to levitate the rat off his friend.  Feeling the sensation, the rat dug its claws into the stage’s wood, and Algernon couldn’t lift it away.  The moment’s interaction did give Rain a chance.  Now the claws were busy, Rain flicked a knife into his hand.  When the rat opened it’s mouth he jammed the dagger in behind the giant incisors.  The point stuck into the roof of the mouth, the pommel pressing down on the tongue and held fast. The rat could not close its mouth to bite. Instead, it thrashed its head from side to side, trying to dislodge the knife.

Fighting beside him, Ish-Ma-El found a second rat.  Their first sword swing missed the fast-moving rodent, but the second found its mark and cut deep.  The rat stumbled as messages from its head no longer seemed to be followed by the limbs and it fell into a twitching heap.

“Someone drop a rat on me!” Ish-Ma-El yelled, and from high above, Algernon responded.

“Aye, Aye, Captain!”

A rat launched itself at Peggy but bounced off her shielding, sliding to the sand.  Algernon deftly picked it up with his levitate and dropped it down the hole to Ish-Ma-El.  The crew tried their billhooks in the hole, and Algernon even sent a crossbow bolt into the sand, but a bloodied epaulette off the Captain’s uniform was all they found.

The falling rat met sharpened steel down the hole as Ish-Ma-El sliced it in two before it had even hit the sand.  Bruce finally made it across to Rain and brought his crowbar down on the rat’s head.  The dagger lodged against the roof of its mouth shot straight through its skull, splattering Rain below with blood and brains.  

“You alright there, Rain?” Bruce asked, but no reply came.  He pushed the beast off his friend and found Rain frozen in place, his dagger still in his hand, his eyes wide and staring. “Come on, get up, you’re alright.”

Mutely Rain complied, the hand with the dagger still shaking.

“T-t-hanks!” the little man finally said, closing his eyes to the horror around him and cleaning his blade on a silk handkerchief. 

“See now,” Bruce said gently as if speaking to a child, “In the future, you’ll go with your friends.”

“I-In my d-defence,” Rain replied, glancing at Ish-Ma-El, as they swept the area for more enemies to slay,  “I didn’t need rescuing f-from people.”

Bruce shook his head and held Rain’s steady as he too turned to Ish-Ma-El.

“Nice moves, good work!” He said, “You managed to kill a couple.”

“Now do you believe me when I say I can kill anyone of you?” They panted in reply, cleaning off their swords before carefully returning them to sheaths.  The hand crossbows, too, were retrieved from the dusty ground and returned to their holsters.

Once the injured were treated, and the loss of the Captain noted, the work of raising The Molly continued.  The crew did as they were told as before, but there was no energy to their work. They were afraid. They’d lost their first mate and Captain all within twenty-four hours. From their perspective, there was no one now left in charge that could get them back to safety.  The mood got so bad that even Peggy noted it and called all the crew to her and Ish-Ma-El.

“This is Ish-Ma-El.  By right of salvage and by right of the work of their own hands they have claimed The Molly.  They are the Captain.  They have promised to get us to Manihiki.  From there you can decide what to do with your lives, but not before!” She barked in a way the crew were very familiar.  They looked at the slip of a creature that was Ish-Ma-El, doft their caps in respect and went back to work.

“Me, Captain?  But, I don’t know anything about being a Captain!” Ish-Ma-El said, starting to panic after the crew had gone back to their duties.

“Do you think that fool we had before did?” Replied Peggy and turned back to work herself.

“If it’s any consolation, “ Algernon said, the sweetest expression on his youthful face, “Captain’s don’t have a long life expectancy aboard our trains.”  He handed her the bloodied epaulette and walked away.

“If you want to be a Captain, you may want to think about a philosophy,” Rain suggested and was surprised at the violence of Ish-Ma-El’s response.

“Philosophies suck!  Love songs to mindless killing beasts! Idiots!” They spat, making them forget their panic, if only for a moment.

“I wouldn’t say that too loudly around the crew, they think highly of Captains with a passion,” He said quietly so only they could hear, “But there are other ways to win hearts and minds.” He winked and went off to ignore the pleas for food and water a while.

Several hundred tons of metal lifted vertically from the theatre and delicately placed on the rails was achieved over the next few hours.  The Molly was a vision in the dying light of the day, bright sunflower yellow with two giant eyes taken from stage props affixed to the boilerplate.  These so amused Peggy set to work creating a small geared motor to roll the irises back and forth. The Molly looked the part, but could not leave the track just in front of the hole.

“We’ve used all the water supplies we had to get The Molly up, “ Peggy said that afternoon, “How are we going to fill the tanks for the trip across the desert?”

“Wasn’t there water in the men’s toilets?” Bruce remembered from his fall into the washroom that had initiated their discovery of the theatre.

“A sluggish, muddy trickle,” Peggy agreed, “We’ll need pumps and a decent filtration system to make it clean enough to put through the boiler.

“Now if only we had someone good at salvaging useful parts and jury-rigging a pump and filtration system…” Bruce mused looking directly at Ish-Ma-El.

“Yes, yes not need to nag,” They replied prickly before happily scrounging through the theatre for the necessary parts.  A hand-cranked wind machine, several hundred metres of artificial rain pipes and an assortment of materials lining a giant megaphone cone and Ish-Ma-El had a working system for moving and filtering water.  The water supply gave out just as The Molly’s water tank gauge hit full. It was the best they could do.

“Which way to Manihiki?” Asked Rain whose knowledge of the town’s and cities of the Railsea didn’t extend to navigation. 

“I have a map,” Ish-Ma-El replied, pulling out a worn calfskin imprinted with the only pieces of hard land in the known world.

“Well, you tell us where to go, and I’ll switch the tracks,” Rain said, cheerily now that they were finally on their way.

Once The Molly and her new carriages were attached, and the course laid, Algernon slunk down below decks and made his way into the Captain’s quarters.  He didn’t find much there.  Captain Al-Ram-Kuno hadn’t had much to his name:  the Gliding Vulpine’s log including its manifest, a second uniform, a few coins, registration paper for the Ferro Navy (only for the Gliding Vulpine) and a large portrait of himself.  Algernon took a few coins, not all of them, he didn’t want it to look like a thief had been through, and scrawled a short note on the back of the painting.


When not on duty as a switcher, Rain spent his time below decks telling tales of Is-Ma-El.  The last survivor of their train, who’d trudged alone across the Railsea wastes on foot for weeks until they found the theatre and the final resting place of The Molly.  Four days and four nights they worked to get The Molly working, fighting off vermin with hand crossbow and sword.  They raised The Molly saving the crew from a long hard death on the open sands.  His most appreciated creation was the ‘Song of Ish-Ma-El’ which quickly caught on with the crew because of its catchy tune. The stories were mostly true. The crew were there to see some of it, some was gathered by Rain from the snippets that Ish-Ma-el themselves mentioned, other parts he wholly embellished.  It didn’t matter. It gave Captain Ish-Ma-El character and presence that the crew could understand and put their faith.  Slowly they began to rally behind their Savler Captain and heart was restored to the train.

“Peggy, if someone was to harness a steam-powered piston to propel a harpoon, how would they go about it?” Algernon asked one lazy afternoon only a few days out from Manihiki.

“I’d need parts, and it would have to be mounted to the engine for easy access to steam…”  Peggy mused, pulling her pencil from her hair and drawing a brief sketch on the roof of the carriage they sat on.

“Did someone say salvage?” Ish-Ma-El asked, striding by, now resplendent the Captain’s uniform.

“I’ll have a set of plans and a list of required parts ready for you tonight, Captain,” Peggy said, a small quirk to the side of her mouth showing how pleased she was.

“Could be useful where we’re going,” Rain said thoughtfully, “Captain, could I ask you your view on the Manihiki Ferro Navy?”

As usual, Ish-Ma-El’s dislike was violent and unambiguous.  Between the expletives and curses, Ish-Ma-El gave a ten-minute colourful tirade on the Navy and their devilry. It was enough to make a railman’s beard curl if any nearby had had a beard.

“Sure you’re not a spy for them?” Bruce laughed, as Ish-Ma-Ek had exhausted their collection of foul language, “Well, you’ve certainly found the right crew.”

“I think we can work with that.” Rain agreed with a nod.

Song of Ish-Ma-El

 (To the Tune: Do the “Loco-mo-tion”)

Last of their cr-ew their friends and family

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

They were left for dead by wicked ban’try

Ish-Ma-El,Wanderer of Railsea

Now Railers everywhere, please take heed

“Never say die!” Became their creed.

So, come on and follow.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Thr-ee lonely we-eks, Alone but not lone-ly

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

Followed by the dead crying, “Vengence only!”

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of Railsea

A tiny flag of red, against the sand

Leads to ancient riches lost under land

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Captain Ish-Ma-El!

Fears no one!

Not mole!

Not ma-n!

Not even Ferro-Navy Grand!

Wow oh wow oh!

F-our days and ni-ghts, they worked on Molly.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

Reclaimed her from the dust, the moles and the vermin

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!

A hoard of giant rats came to cause havoc.

Crossbow and twin swo-rds

Flashed through the dark

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of Railsea!