He awoke with a splitting headache and a gun in his hand. The cylinder of the revolver was freed, revealing one round already spent. He lay slumped between two large wooden crates. He could see shelves against the other wall, not far away. They were filled with metal boxes and various tools scattered about. He was stuffed between the crates like a dirty rag someone had tried to hide instead of washing. There was a light rattling, a constant noise that seemed to repeat on an endless loop. It did his head no favors. He latched the cylinder back into place.
He crawled out from between them and fell back, his hand reaching up to steady the hat atop his head. His jacket flapped against him, and he felt the weight of something in a pocket bump against him.
The something turned out to be a lighter. Brass, once. It had developed a shiny, silver patina from regular use. Faded and worn initials were engraved on one side.
Well… that told him a few things. But it was far from everything he wanted to know.
Why did the floor feel unsteady?
What was that noise?
What was that? Lying on the floor between the two crates. It was small, with a flat surface save where the edges had curled. The air still carried the faint odor of burnt metal. He reached out and grabbed it, pulling it to him to better inspect in this dim light.
It was a patch, made to be readily applied to any garment with ease. The writing on its surface said it was a 1-hr invisibility charm. It had burnt out quite some time ago.
He stood up and reached into a pocket. He pulled out a cigar, cut the tip with the slicer built into the lighter, and lit up the end of it.
He had it to his lips, when he saw that there was a note wrapped around the middle of it. He sighed and gently pressed out his cigar against the rough steel wall. The note came off easily and smelled ever so slightly of vanilla.
This train belongs to a madman. He’s going to do something unthinkable. There’s not enough time to explain it all. You must stop the train, no matter what.
There’s an anti-magic field on that train. You won’t be able to rely on the usual methods. I know you hate using it, so I expect to get that revolver I loaned to you back with all six rounds still in it. If you can’t do that, make them count.
P.S. The password is “Mirabel”
That told him two things.
1: He had a friend named Jean, and she called him Tommy.
2: He had already failed to return her revolver without firing it.
It wasn’t much to work on. He sighed and took stock of what little he had. It was a quick task.
He was Tommy, and Jean was counting on him to stop a madman from doing something unimaginable that involved this train.
That just brought up more questions.
Where was this train heading?
And who was Mirabel?
Tommy replaced the small fedora atop his head and relit his cigar. It felt so good to pull it into his lungs. He’d been needing this. The headache diminished notably, and his memories began to swim at the edges of his mind.
He opened the door, pulling it in, and found himself stepping into the small linkage between train cars. Accordion walls kept the space sealed from the open air, maintaining a pleasant pressure. The platform between them was hovering, relatively stable against the other two, held in place by magnetics. It was almost comparable to the levitation charms one would expect. Right. No magic on this train. Well, he’d just need to question people without his silver tongue.
The door to the next car revealed a scene of carnage and destruction. It was so gruesome, even, that he paused mid-stride. His eyes widened in shock, and the cigar came dangerously close to falling from his opening mouth.
Blood. Massive amounts of blood decorated the walls of the cramped hallway, pooled on the floor, and dripped from the broken light fixture above. The macabre scene seemed to extend the entire length of the train car. Interspersed with the red-brown-black masses of mortal remains were the yellow-gold-orange messes of the interdimensional invaders. There was demon blood mixed with mortal blood.
He kept his revolver ready, absently puffing on his cigar as he moved slowly through the gore. Whatever had happened, it hadn’t been one-sided. More than just the people involved had suffered from whatever fighting had taken place. The car itself was in a state.
Broken windows let in the whistling wind, and scattered shards of glass complemented the grisly décor. Entire walls between passenger compartments were missing, or doors clung pathetically to their hinges. There was a large hole in the floor near the middle of the car. It extended into the passenger compartment to the side, having taken the plush velvet seats, and half the wall, with it. Through the massive aperture, Tommy could see the sapphire blue of the open ocean stretch out expansively. The sky met the water in a blue-white gradient that seemed almost unreal.
He wasn’t on the Light Rail, was he?
Aside from the rattling of the train along its tracks and the whistle of wind, it was deathly quiet. The endless blue of open sky filled the view through the windows, what could be seen past the streaks of red smeared across the glass. A pain in his leg twinged at the eerie feeling, memories of being stabbed just below the knee coming back to him. It had been quiet that night, as well.
Thirteen years on the force, five of which had been on the beat, and he’d never been seriously injured. All that ended around three months ago, when a kid with a pocketknife thought she had been caught shoplifting. Tommy hadn’t even noticed her until the blade was in his leg. He had been too busy tailing a local gangster, hoping to catch him in some illicit business. The girl had disappeared just as quickly as she had struck.
He held onto the memory, trying to see if he could take it further to explore the foggy depths of his mind. Did he have a partner? He should. Most detectives did. There had been a few, over the years. None of them had worked out to last longer than a month. Until a year ago, when he’d met Jean.
She wasn’t a partner so much as a prostitute that he had a working relationship with. Her abilities as a shifter were just too valuable to pass up. Besides, when she saved his life from walking into that ambush of a drug bust gone bad, he felt like he owed her. She made for a great partner, never asking questions about his personal life or the rationale behind his decisions. He extended her the same courtesies. They each had their own areas of expertise; and too many skeletons lurking in their respective closets.
He wished she were there with him on that train. Not that her ability to transform into any person she had ever seen would be notably helpful as he appeared to be alone on this train, but because she was reliable and capable. Hell, it would help to have her around just to ease the tension.
“It can’t work that way, Tommy” she had told him, placing the invisibility patch in his palm, “They’d see me for what I really am once they activated that anti-magic field. It’ll be hard enough for you, getting your memory wiped. I don’t know how you can stand it” she had reminded him. He knew the stakes, and she had no place getting on that train. She’d never killed anyone before, that was his job.
“Yeah, that’s a comforting thought” he had scoffed, “What’s going to stop them from finding me when I suddenly turn visible, wandering around with no idea who I am?” he wanted a smoke. She hated it when he smoked around her, said it took forever to get out of her hair. She pushed his shoulder playfully.
“Just stash yourself somewhere no one will look once the train starts rolling. Pretend it’s a work event, and the captain is drunk again, you’ll do just fine. Your memories will come back before you know it” she said, patting his shoulders. She’d been wrong about that; he knew his memories were gone, and he did not appreciate it. She glowed softly in her natural form, translucent and only vaguely humanoid in shape. Her personality, however, that never changed.
“I regret telling you that story” Tommy winced, wishing she would forget the tale. Jean shrugged off the comment like an unwelcome housefly landed on her.
“A little burn ointment, and you’d have been fine. Besides, I doubt she would have scorched you on purpose” she smiled, a gesture that had taken him months to learn and recognize on her shapeless features. It was beautiful, in its own subtle way.
“It’s more the scales, claws, and horns I objected to” he said, remembering the roughness his dragonkin captain sported. It’s not that she wasn’t beautiful; it was that he wasn’t interested in dragonkin women.
“Yeah, you like your women soft and feathery” she said, turning into a harpy in the space of a single breath. Tommy inhaled sharply through the nose, and pulled away a little, taken aback by her sudden shift. Painful memories of blood and feathers, cradled desperately in his arms, flooded through him. He recoiled and swore.
“Knock it off, would you? You know I hate it when you shift like that” he spat, looking away. She’d crossed the line. He’d given away too much, that time. Soft feathers caressed his face, shifting into translucent blue fingers partway through the motion.
“You’re just nervous, Thomas Berkely” she scoffed, having returned to her true self, “Just make sure you do us all proud. If he goes through with this, he’ll take everyone with him” she said, a frown visibly forming on her face. It took something strong for her to express an emotion this clearly.
“Now who’s nervous?”
“Shut up and make sure you come back in one piece. You still owe me that dinner, you know” she said, punching him lightly on the shoulder.
He wondered how she was holding up back in the streets of Industria. Well, she could handle herself well enough. He usually needed her help more often than she needed his. She would be just fine.
Tommy grabbed the handle to the door leading to the next compartment, grimacing at the slick sensation of wet blood on his fingers. He inched the door open, slicing the next area into manageable sections with his revolver at the ready. If anything was waiting for him, he would not be caught off-guard.
Like the compartment he was leaving, this one was empty as well; save for the excessive blood smeared everywhere. Someone had had a very bad day. Several someones, in fact. It was starting to stink.
Tommy made his way through the empty train, car by car, wondering just how much carnage there was to wander through. Each of them told a unique, yet eerily similar, tale of furious battle. He couldn’t fully remember how he knew what it was, but he could never forget the look of demon skin, or blood.
The dining car was a gruesome change of scene. Whatever had happened on the train, it had ended here. He stopped, put the revolver in its holster, and snuffed out his cigar. Tommy closed it back in the case he had retrieved it from and drew his weapon again.
Bodies, or what remained of them, littered the floor of the compartment. The blood was nearly black, it was so thick where it had pooled. The harsh tang of iron, mingled with the sharp stink of bile, filled his nostrils and Tommy fought against the urge to heave.
Shimmering gloriously upon the floor, a sprawling puddle of golden blood dazzled in the light coming in through the windows. It stank like sewage though it gleamed. A pungent reminder not to judge something’s contents by its appearance alone.
Half of the Clockwork Bartender remained behind the bar, pouring out an empty bottle over a nonexistent glass, reaching with a missing arm to deliver the drink to a patron that wasn’t there. It was stuck in a loop, damaged beyond function or repair. It whirred and buzzed as it tended to its duties, sparking occasionally. The worst part was that the damage was clean. The metal had not been ripped, torn, or sheared off. It had been sliced as neatly as factory-cut wood.
Tommy stepped gingerly over a disembodied foot that had once belonged to, presumably, a goblin. Judging by the quality of the shoe, that goblin had been quite wealthy. Fat load of good it had done them.
There, at the end of the dining car, was a door unlike those he had passed through. Where the others had been elegant, richly stained redwood with fanciful embellishments and extravagant embossing, this door was plain, flat, stainless steel. The only notable feature of it was that it had a keyboard embedded into the surface. There was no handle.
While he may not know who, exactly, Mirabel was, he knew that she would help him bypass this obstacle. How Jean had come by the knowledge of this password was beyond him, but he sent her a silent thanks. Hopefully, she was in a better position than he was.
Something wet tickled his lip, and Tommy brushed his hand against it. It came away red. His nose was bleeding. What had caused that?
His ears were ringing. Or was there a ringing in the car with him? There was a high-pitch whine, coming from behind him. Tommy whirled around and staggered back in surprise. He knew where the noise, and the nosebleed, had come from.
Perched on one of the dining booths, sat a creature too complicated to properly exist in his reality. How he had missed it, Tommy could not fathom. He would have remembered seeing one of these. They weren’t exactly something one could just forget.
The demon seemed surprised to see him, that was the only conclusion he could draw. It should have torn him apart by now, but the two of them were staring at one another in shocked silence. Maybe it had eaten its fill?
The ringing in his ears stopped. The demon took an awkward step towards him, treating the booths as a pathway. Parts of it seemed to blur out of existence only to reappear again, as though it had partial invisibility. Gore dripped from its too-large mouth, teeth like meat hooks stained with ichor. Tommy slowly brought his revolver to bear.
It took another step toward him, and the table crumpled under its weight. It crashed to the floor of the car. He aimed at the monstrosity and fired two shots directly into it. The demon was unfazed and found its feet quickly. It opened its toothy maw, rows of razor-sharp fangs lining it, and let out an unearthly noise.
It was not the howl he would have expected. It was that horrible ringing again, that terrible whine that destroyed his concentration. His vision blurred as his eyes began to water, blood poured freely from his nose, and he felt the thumping of its feet pounding toward him.
Tommy fired off another desperate shot and then rolled to the side, away from the charging demon. It slammed into the wall behind where he had been, and the noise stopped. He blinked away the tears and shook his head.
The demon was dazed, and he had precious little time to waste. It didn’t seem to mind his bullets in the slightest, a worrying sign as he had only so many of them. Tommy slid over the top of the bar, knocking several glasses to the floor where they shattered, stashed his revolver in his jacket, and began frantically grabbing for materials.
A bottle of spirits, the good stuff, and a small dish towel. He tore the cap off the bottle and desperately stuffed the towel into its neck. The demon was back on its feet now, turning toward him. How it managed to see without eyes, he could not guess.
Tommy flipped the bottle upside down and back upright several times, soaking the towel in liquor, grateful for the solid bar that stood between him and the nightmare creature that threatened him. Why was it taking so long for the towel to absorb the alcohol?
The demon reared its limbs, or whatever it was that passed for them, and swung long tentacles that disappeared and reappeared along their lengths. Where the invisible portions of those limbs touched anything, the object was shorn just as cleanly as though a diamond blade had cut it. That explained what had happened to the bartender.
Tommy ducked as one of them lashed toward him and felt liquor drip onto his hand. Finally. He grabbed his lighter as he stood up, flicking open the top. His eyes widened in horror.
Where was it? The demon was gone. Simply disappeared entirely. Could it turn itself invisible? Why, then, had it revealed itself to him at all?
A flicker of motion caught his attention, and he snapped his gaze toward it. At first, he saw nothing. Then it happened again, and he understood what he was seeing. Or, rather, not seeing.
Footprints. Large, three-clawed, wide footprints were appearing in the pool of golden blood. It was moving slowly and silently, trying to sneak around the bar and surprise him. Well, two could play at that game.
Tommy flicked his lighter to life, catching the alcohol-soaked towel aflame, and threw the bottle at the horrible thing. It flew straight and true, and then separated cleanly in two unexpectedly. The flames jumped from the towel and spread across the open mass of flammable liquid instantly, immolating the entire back half of the dining car. A whistling filled the car, a noise that seemed both deeper and lower than anything as well as so high-pitched that his eardrums might burst, and Tommy jumped back over the bar. His chin was getting sticky.
Whether it was angry or dying, he knew not. He was concerned only with getting as far away from it as possible. He bolted towards the steel door and slipped in a puddle of gore.
Tommy cursed and struggled back to his feet, not daring to look at the source of the horrid stench that was filling the train car. He steadied himself and looked at the keyboard. He typed in the password. A small light flashed red, and the door made a noise of error. He wiped his bloody hands on his pants and moved his head back from the keyboard. His nose was dripping again, and he didn't want to bleed all over the keys. Something dark and flowing was swirling above his head. He tried the password again, this time in all capital letters. Again, he was denied. A high-pitched ringing filled his ears. The cramped space was getting hotter with every passing second and sweat began to drip from the tip of his nose. Thomas cursed and wiped his brow with his jacket sleeve, succeeding only in adding blood to the mix of liquids running down his face. Again, he typed the name in, capitalizing only the first letter this time. The little light flashed green, the door chimed happily, and he opened it. He practically dove into the linkage, slamming the door behind him just in the nick of time. Something heavy smashed against the other side, but the door did not budge.
Tommy sighed in relief and chuckled to himself, taking off his hat. The thing slammed against the door again, and he moved back into action. There was no time to rest. Tommy donned his fedora yet again and reached up to the coupling link that attached the train cars. It would not budge.
He looked at it closer and saw that there was a pin locking it in place. The pin was secured by a magnetic lock powered by a keypad. This one had only numbers. He didn’t have a code for it.
The door slammed again, ringing loudly, the metal warping from the barrage. Tommy entered a random four-digit code to the pad. It beeped angrily at him.
“Forget this” he said, pulling out his revolver and put a bullet through it. The keypad fizzed out and the pin fell from its position.
Well, that’s a design flaw. He thought. Still, it was working to his advantage. He unlatched the coupler, causing the accordion walls to unseal, and his hat jumped from his head as a rush of wind filled the cramped space. It flew off and away into the endless blue. The other train cars slowly fell back, the demon still crashing against the door in its desperation to reach him. Smoke was billowing out of the windows of the dining car, a murky stain on the pristine sky they soared through.
The tracks that the train was suspended from were themselves suspended in the air by permanent levitation charms. There were no buildings in sight, nothing but the endless blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the ocean far below.
The steel door of the dining car finally gave way and burst from its frame, revealing an exceedingly enraged demon that was still smoking in several places. Its charred flesh made it even less visually appealing, if such a thing were possible. His nose began to bleed again as it opened its maw, and he fired his last shot into it. One of the tentacles lashed out at him, an invisible portion catching his extended arm.
Searing pain in his right wrist flashed through him. The revolver, still held in his severed hand, fell away towards the ocean below. The demon, seemingly unaware of its surroundings other than Tommy and anything that might obstruct access to him, took a clumsy step forward and fell from the open doorway.
It quickly faded to little more than a speck, falling behind the still-moving train and disappearing from view. There was no love lost there, and Tommy turned around to open one last door. He reached out with a bloody stump, and his hand felt like it was on fire. Or, rather, the place where his hand should be felt like it was on fire. He grimaced through the agony and opened the simple brown door with his left hand.
The train engine was in here, in the conductor’s car. No sign of the conductor. Had there been a conductor? Had someone been running the train, only to fall prey to that awful creature? Or was the train supposed to be charging at full speed toward the Newsun?
The Newsun. Professor Clockwork’s greatest invention. He remembered now, everything coming back to him through the haze. Magic was in Thomas’ blood, in his very being.
The Newsun blazed brilliantly, shining in all her glory. The culmination of generations of magical research, technological advancement, and millions of lives of dedicated work; the Newsun was a source of infinite energy. Light, magic, and heat radiated from the surface, keeping the eternal night of the demon invasion at bay, and providing the world with prosperity and peace that had been long forgotten. Tommy remembered the day it had lit up. He was only a child then, but the world had gone from a place of nightmares, to one of relative peace and light. He had been granted his gift, along with the other mortals, and they had made a push to reclaim what had once been theirs.
General Clockwork, as he had been known back then, had waged war on the demons with his automatons, mechanical servants who knew neither pain nor fear. They warred in the dark ruins of civilization, leaving no section of land untouched by the brutality.
Volunteers from the survivors of the war had been brought to the Newsun, happy to aid in its construction. Those who had been broken, and could no longer fight, now found a new purpose in the war. It was the promise of a lifetime. A future where children could grow up without fear of being hunted by unseen terrors or things too horrible even for nightmares.
The day it had come to life had been the turning point in the war. The Newsun’s light spread across the world, burning the demons, and driving the bulk of their forces back to the unknown dimensions from which they had poured. Every person alive found themselves with new magic powers, and the old ‘super’ became ‘ordinary’. Society had cautiously rebuilt itself in the everlasting light of Clockwork’s success, praising him as a hero and their savior. He was practically a god.
How the demons had snuffed out the light of the true sun, no one knew. But Clockwork had saved the world with his replacement. Even at the cost of everyone living inside it being destroyed when it lit, it had been a price they had been willing to pay. They knew what they had signed up for. The loss of those heroes was nothing compared to the destruction of global civilization. What were 1 million lives, when compared to the weight of 5 billion? Less than .1%
So, why, was Clockwork’s train speeding toward the Newsun while carrying a demon? Tommy had less answers than he had hands. It made no sense.
His head was growing faint with the blood loss and the pain. Whatever Clockwork had been planning, it was over now. Something small and yellow caught his attention. It was a note. A note on the console with two words written on it.
Tommy sighed heavily, gazing at the growing puddle of his own blood forming on the floor. There was nothing he could do. The controls were locked. It would all be over soon. So much for saving the world. So much for taking Jean to dinner.
No. It would not end like this. Not while he was still breathing.
The controls might be locked, but that didn’t mean he was helpless to stop the situation. Clockwork’s grief over losing his daughter was not equal to the weight of the world; regardless of how the man might feel about it. There was just one thing Tommy could do.
He was getting colder with every moment that passed, but that hardly mattered. The blood was making the floor slick, but his motions were certain and steady. He opened the fuel compartment. The caustic scent of liquid petrol burned his nostrils. He had always hated that smell. Funny, that it would be the last one in his life.
Tommy flicked his lighter to flame and relit his cigar for the last time. He puffed on it, taking a deep drag. He picked up the lighter, the flame still burning, and let it drop from his hand. As it fell into the tank, he smiled again. Jean had gotten him that lighter, even though she was always begging him to quit. Well, she got her wish. He would never smoke again.
The explosion rocked the tracks, destabilizing them, and the uncoupled train fell from the sky. Though it had been slowed significantly by that point, it was not enough. The train cars crashed against the side of the Newsun as they fell, damaging its surface and causing the world-saving light within to falter and flicker.
The Light Rail, the suspended tracks that had carried the train there, the only reliable method of reaching the Newsun, fell away into the ocean below. Thomas Berkely had died an unlikely hero, saving the world from certain destruction but bringing about a new age of uncertainty and unpredictable nights in doing so. No one would ever even know just how close to destruction they had come; no one but Jeannette Nightingale… and Professor Clockwork.