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Den of Shadows
By Christopher Byford
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Christopher Byford
All rights reserved.
Everyone in Surenth deserved one fine time regardless of their status.
Not that any who lived in the region would confess to expecting such a thing.
The lush green kingdom of Eifera was a paradise compared to other nations. Rolling hills were peppered with mountain ranges, bountiful forests harboured lakes and rivers, with abundant wildlife that ascended to the fabulous. Everything was plentiful and living was joyous.
This delight all came at a cost.
Rather than allow the beautiful landscape to be scarred with quarries and pits, the nation decided to source its raw materials in a place already awash with natural ruin. Far southwards, past the mountain range that served as a natural partition, where the climate grew drier and the living much harder, was the region of Surenth, home to the Sand Sea.
The moniker came about from the expanse of desert that ran through the lands from top to bottom. It was enclosed by numerous natural deficits: canyons that dipped and rose, forcing the shifting sands to be contained in a natural, mountain-flanked basin. The Sand Sea was the first thing anybody saw when venturing into the region and also undoubtedly the last.
The only people who ventured to Surenth did so with the intent of making their fortune or with the intent of never being seen again. Its grizzly reputation as a dangerous, lawless place did plenty to encourage fireside stories and children's tales, used mainly to scare and rarely to entertain. It was difficult to venture to or from the terrain, even more inhospitable to live in. It was a blank space on many a map and remained that way for quite some time, until the settlers formed a route, establishing the frontier.
The prospect of money to be made encouraged rushes for every ore imaginable, coaxing scores in convoy to the most prosperous locations to begin building settlements. Mines followed soon after, using the concept of blasting out the rock with dynamite to reach any metals the land harboured. Whilst dead on the surface, Surenth was found to be concealing an abundance of riches beneath. Seams of ores, metals, and minerals were corpulent. To collect, all one had to do was survive the land, which was a hardship in itself.
Outposts became settlements, settlements ballooned to villages, and villages to towns. This was not always the case, of course, but those depending on accompanying trade routes seemed to swell the quickest. This in turn brought all manner of problems, mainly transportation – which is why the First Grand Surenth Railroad threaded itself as best it could between points.
The Sand Sea itself was served by routes when possible, but its expanse and inhospitably restricted plenty. Where the locomotives couldn't haul, sand ships – colossal steam vehicles clad with caterpillar tracks – ventured through the expanses. Trade became testament to survival, though with the exchange of money came the greed of those unwilling to earn it in the conventional sense.
Lawlessness was rife. Those who ran the towns had little regard for the common folk or were as corrupt as they came. These were open secrets and ones nobody dared address in the open – lest they found themselves sharing the desert with the sun-bleached bones of the locals. Disillusioned, people simply carried out their work as intended, drinking away sobriety at the end of each hard shift and repeating the process until death. Even then, new hands were not hard to come by. There was always someone so blinkered by the goal of making wealth that they would take to the mines for a pittance.
Fortune was fickle in Surenth. It gave bounty with one hand and stole it with the other, interchanging as it so pleased.
Rustec was one of these places that fortune had seemingly shunned for good. Hardship after hardship fell upon it with no sign of stopping. The wells were infested with some sort of sickness. Then the livestock was stricken with illness. Some lawless folk decided to cause an inconvenience by relieving the local bank of its money and two tellers of their lives.
And all of this in the space of a month.
The latest blight to hit Rustec was being announced with a volley from the town whistle. It had blown shrill for the last three minutes and showed no sign of stopping. As it had the time before this, the time before that, and no doubt many more that would come after today. Factory workers rushed to secure their workplaces. People ran through the streets to their homes and shuttered their windows, fastening them tightly with hammers and nails. Some felt comfort in prayer. There wasn't enough time to fully prepare, of course – there never was. All they could do was hunker down and hope for the best.
Sandstorms that were brewed in the Sand Sea were devilish affairs. They moved quicker than any others ever known and had a curious tendency to make one feel that the world was coming to an end. When it finally passed in large drifts, it congregated in alleyways, making some nigh on impassable. Doorways collected their share, forcing emerging residents to either heave them aside or resort to leaving via windows.
Immediately everyone fell into routine. Shovels were retrieved and the digging began, clearing roads and pathways, whilst freeing anybody who had become trapped in their houses. Horses were attached to carts and loads of sand were hauled out to the outskirts and dumped back from whence it came.
The trappers' market had been completely overturned with a number of animals unaccounted for whilst others lay dead in their cages. Their journeys would have to be written off as losses. The market square itself had escaped most of the damage, despite the stalls themselves being completely absent except for the tatters of some cloth overhangs.
Routes both by foot and rail in and out of the town had been completely blocked – a considerable inconvenience being that regular shipments of food were essential to the locals' survival. Without the trains delivering goods, Rustec, like many others in the region, would suffer greatly.
At the final count, four lost their lives – all morning drinkers who were comatose by the time the town whistle crowed.
Thankfully, as dust-storms go, this was one of the milder ones.
By mid-afternoon, most of the town was cleared and the large train tracks that came from the northern territories had been made accessible again, so the supply deliveries could resume, if a little later than planned.
Rustec's train station got away relatively unscathed. The gothic sand-lime brick assembly and deep platform awnings were complemented by iron columns with sturdy spandrels. The combination of these ensured that a good deal of the sand was deflected from the tracks themselves, making the clean-up reasonably painless. In fact, the only damage it suffered was when the station clock that was attached to one of these awnings was blown down, inflicting a crack upon its face. The stationmaster had set himself up a rickety ladder and proceeded to rehang the timepiece when he noticed the commotion out front.
With everyone so concerned with the damage, nobody had noticed the single addition that had been made to the front of the station house. Its attention was first gained by a passer-by who queried why a street urchin stood stock-still in the daytime instead of putting their hands to greater use. When they had noticed what the child was paying attention to, they immediately followed suit.
A crowd grew as word trickled out of the finding and by the time the stationmaster emerged to query the fuss, there was a fair congregation. Big news travelled rapidly in such a small community.
Hanging from the protruding iron gas lamp near the entrance, the subject of curiosity fluttered slowly.
It spanned four by ten hands' length of well-woven cloth and was tasselled with gold accents. The material itself was dyed in a royal blue with shimmering gold edging that harboured ornate decorative elements. For some, it was grandeur on a scale never witnessed before. None of this, however, took away from the brush-scripted proclamation. It had been completed by hand judging by the minor imperfections, but it was worded in the way one would write a dear friend an invite. Except this invitation was to the entire town.
I have the utmost pleasure in informing you that the dreary days of boredom will be a thing of the past! Let the streets ring in celebration and of joyous rapture once again!
Forget your woes, bring your purse and, on the first of the month, await my arrival at your station no later than 6 p.m.!
With regards and well wishes, Your Servant
When word got out of its presence, scores craned their necks upward to speculate as to the exact nature of its presence and who this 'F' individual was. Naturally a few claimed to have the answers and promised to provide them on payment of drink, though the only thing they earned was disdain from their peers.
The stationmaster was quite taken aback at the attention and had insisted they removed the addition on account of it being a hazard, but the outcry was so great he had no choice but to concede. There the invitation stayed and was scrutinized.
The first of the month was only five days away and this was an unfathomable time to fill with speculation, but somehow the people managed. Gossip was rife over factory floors, where even the chattering machines failed to drown out the latest guesswork. There was not a stallholder you could talk to or a drinking hole you could indulge in without the mysterious invitation becoming the main topic of conversation.
Even the most grizzled of labourers found themselves accommodating such talk. Rustec was abuzz with rumour. Just exactly where had that flyer come from, and who was this entertainer making such promises? More to the point, why would they visit this wind-ravaged dustbowl?
Things reached such a fervour that the town's own mayor had to issue a statement urging calm, but this did little. The people of Rustec had scant offerings to look forward to, so something so theatrical ensured a wildfire of excitement to blaze between households. Children had become frenzied, running around the streets in playful packs. The community was energized in a way it had never been before, brushing away years of toil with thrill.
The dawning of the day came and with that sunrise the expectations of the locals reached their height. Despite it being a day like any other, anticipation made time pass at a crawl. The heat remained scorching. Excitable rail station staff each conjectured whilst unloading deliveries, taking bets on whether the entire situation was an elaborate ruse.
The markets were heaving with people, experiencing a surge in popularity as word had spread to some of the minor settlements nearby. Trapping parties had returned in possession of the more unusual creatures that roamed the wastelands, sure to bring a good price upon their sale, all the more likely with the influx of curiosity seekers.
The town was filled with excitement and these high spirits had rubbed off on every aspect of the population's day-to-day routine. People worked hard to make the time pass faster, ignoring the chimes of clock bells until the afternoon waned. When the sun did begin to fall on the horizon, everyone gathered in the town station – a bustling and murmuring crowd. Bodies packed every platform, stared from every window, and even resorted to climbing onto the rooftop for a better view, though a view of what they still did not know.
The station clock bell chimed six times, prompting total silence. The announcement seemed premature as the time ticked on. Thirty seconds reached sixty. A minute became five. Doubting whispers began.
Then, in unison, the people saw it.
Excited cheers emanated as those on the platform turned their sights down the tracks. On the horizon, a small shape hugged the railroad that carved through the canyon, a trail of white following with each contour before speeding out and into clear view. Plumes of thick steam belched into the fading sky. The locomotive's wheels pounded the rails in urgency, racing to its destination. Dust-storm or no, the train was never late. It had the most urgent of appointments to keep.
* * *
On board, the carriage's interiors were veiled in darkness. Lamps had been extinguished, leaving a line of silhouetted figures standing in well-rehearsed placements, patient and silent. As the man strode through, he flattened his jacket lapels, rechecked his cufflinks for the umpteenth time, and resisted the urge to view those he passed. They were perfect, down to the smallest detail. Of course they were perfect. They were employed to be nothing but and had been educated well to maintain this quality.
'We're landing in five minutes everyone.' He spoke firmly, with conviction. 'Let's give these nice folk something to talk about.'
The train's rhythmic puffing subsided on approach, slowing as the locomotive advanced to the station and began to crawl alongside the platform edges. It blew no whistle, instead announcing itself by presence alone.
The awe this vehicle inspired was borderline divine. Bright reds along each carriage emitted a vibrancy that many had forgotten out here in the desert. Paint normally became ruined by the extreme temperature changes, making it destined to crack and peel after its eventual submission. It was why any machinery in Rustec fell afoul of the environment and before long was thrown into a corroded heap. No such toil had taken this train though. One would have mistaken it to have rolled off the factory line that very day.
The boiler exhaled in a glorious hiss; pistons creaked and groaned as the locomotive brought itself to a halt. The lavishly decorated vehicle exhaled steam as if it was a proud, generous creature who blessed everyone with its presence. A large swathe of white stars and red flares whipped in large contours along the gilded carriages. Striking italic letters spelt out the vehicle's name.
The Gambler's Den
It would be easy to conclude that this was just another train despite the theatrics, if the revelers didn't take in those wonderful letters. The Gambler's Den was nothing more than a myth in these parts – one that nobody believed to actually carry truth. Those who had heard the name from far-travelled traders, or from a drunk who bragged he had actually seen it, held their collective breaths in astonishment. Some called it a circus. Some referred to it as a carnival. Both were incorrect, for it was something much more grandiose.
Each carriage, of which there were seven, held on to the front train and to one another in line. Each window was bestowed with gold leaf, extravagance oozing out of its structure and design. Shadows were witnessed moving inside but the low sun prevented any possible identification.
The locomotive yawned a blast of steam over the platform that took to the breeze and covered all onlookers. When the steam took it upon itself to drift away, spotlights snapped from the carriage rooftops, swinging skyward, outward, and then back in again to aim at a single point atop carriage three. The lights struck carefully placed mirrors, launching a bevy of prismatic beams that decorated station and spectator alike. Standing within a halo of white stood a man, tall in stature and very much delighted at being among these wonderful individuals.
His suit was that of regal finery, a formal decorated jacket with gold that chased lapel, pocket, and seam, clearly well tailored and thus of considerable expense. He was a man – mid-twenties from many guesses, though in truth in his late twenties – dressed smartly with a hint of eccentricity. He had a mane of auburn hair slicked back to a contour. A small, well- groomed goatee beard coupled with stubble caused the women in the crowd to fawn over his smouldering good looks, a feat encouraged by his charming smile that was frankly overkill.
As he surveyed the faces, the now silent people gazed on in anticipation. The warm night breeze carried their communal anticipation to the man and he relished every lingering moment.
He finally spoke. 'People of Rustec, we are lucky to have generated such attention from your fine selves. I must say this turnout warms my heart in a way you cannot possibly imagine. Why, might you ask? Because I am in the presence of greatness. Each and every one of you keeps this wonderful town full of merriment, with your devotion and your labour! Why, without you, the mayor would simply have to be content with sitting in the dirt on his lonesome.'
This drew a ripple of laughter, surprisingly so from the mayor himself, something that brought about a stunned raise of the brow from an aide.
Excerpted from Den of Shadows by Christopher Byford. Copyright © 2017 Christopher Byford. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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