Transcript – Across the Tracks
[The Pensive Tower theme plays]
Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Seven: Across the Tracks
[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]
This is the memory of Julian Tallen. Human, aged twenty, identified as gender-fluid. Memory regards sightings and experiences around a Level Crossing just outside of Apenton, and was donated on the Fourteenth of Kalla, in the year 724. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the Fourteenth of Trevall, 729.
Thank you for letting me come in and do this. I’m sure you have a hundred more important things to do than sit there writing down what I’m saying. Problem is, I don’t really have anywhere else to go. I think if I went to the lawkeepers or a doctor I’d likely end up in the Asylum.
Thing is, I’m not entirely sure they’d be wrong to put me in there. The things I saw, the things that happened to me, they were impossible. I know that. Surely that proves I’m not crazy, if I know that what happened was impossible. But they did happen. I’m sure of it.
I should start at the beginning.
My father was a cab driver for pretty much all his life. He inherited the business from his uncle when he was a little older than I am now, and has been running it pretty much since that day.
Now, he’s well known all around Wetherford as one of the best cab drivers in town.
When I was younger, I’d help him feed the horses and muck out the stables. I know that’s not how a lot of kids spend their weekends but I enjoyed it. When I got a bit older, after we’d finished the morning work, my father would take me out with him and I’d act as his assistant. I would tend the horses, check the harnessing and feed them, that sort of thing.
I never went to school. Didn’t seem like there was much point. I was going to enter my father’s trade and I was learning everything I needed by just being with him. And it wasn’t all just horse handling. I learned basic carpentry and wagon maintenance. I learned how to handle money and deal with merchants and customers. That was my schooling. And it was more than enough for me.
At least it was until my eighteenth birthday. My father decided that the time had come for me to go out and make my own way in the world without relying on him and his business. He sent me to Apenton, another town about five miles from Wetherford, to apprentice with an old friend of his from years ago.
Goodman Dalwick had built his own cab business up from nothing. He wasn’t as well regarded in Apenton as my father was in Wetherford, but he got steady business, helped in no small part by the goods trains that would stop to refuel there.
The engineers and passengers would often employ him to drive them into the town to purchase some supplies or visit a café while the train was refuelling.
Business had been good enough for him to afford a fourth cart, which was the one I was to drive. I didn’t think it would be too difficult, after all I’d been working with my father for years by that time and had had a good amount of practice with the reins.
What I hadn’t thought of was that the horses pulling this wagon were not the two mares my father had been using on his cart for the past three years, the team that I’d grown used to and comfortable with.
Some folks think horses are basically interchangeable, just dumb animals. Well, anyone who’s actually spent time with them can tell you that isn’t the truth at all. Horses are living, breathing creatures and can be as docile or as vicious as any person. And let me tell you, there was one gelding hitched to my new cart that was as vicious a beast as I’ve ever come across.
Before I’d even seen him, I’d heard stories from the stable boys about narrow misses and one not-so-narrow miss when one of them hadn’t moved his hand away from the food bowl quick enough.
That was actually what had gotten him the name “Tip”, after the fingertip that the poor lad lost.
The other was a gelding too, thankfully Haybale had a much softer temperament. Think I would have been terrified of getting into that cart if they’d both been like Tip.
When I first met him, I could tell this horse did not care for me. I’ve never seen a horse stare at anyone with such venom. I nearly turned around and went home right then and there, but Dalwick said Tip would be fine once he was hitched, he just needed a bit of breaking in.
I decided against pointing out that, if breaking in Tip would be no big thing, surely it would make more sense for him to do it. I was staying in his hayloft while working through my apprenticeship and didn’t want risk him taking offence and chucking me out on my ear.
Still, when the wagons were hitched up the next morning and I climbed up to my seat, Tip looked back at me and suddenly getting thrown out to wander the streets didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
I wasn’t on my own for that first day, thank the Witness. Dalwick’s son, Dermit, came out with me to supervise. He’s a few years older than me and had, like me, been sent away from home to live with strangers while he’d finished his apprenticeship, so he was sympathetic and was actually good company. He even called me Calnia when I asked – I was trying something out which I now realise was me having a femme day – and he was really good at guiding me around the streets of the town and showing me the roads that would likely be my more common routes.
I just wish those routes hadn’t included that crossing.
See, there’s this lane that you have to follow if you want to get from the main road to the train station. The only other route leads you pretty much all the way around the residential districts which adds another forty minutes onto your journey.
The lane itself wasn’t too bad, a little bumpy and probably in need of a bit of tending but on the whole, it was fine. The problem with it was that it crossed the train line which meant going over a level crossing.
Now, this was a new experience for me. Wetherford doesn’t have a train station. Since we live next to the River Aeah, everything that can be carried by train is usually brought there by river barge or on the roads by way of wagons. So, I’d never needed to go over a level crossing before coming to Apenton and I really didn’t like it.
A train moves a lot faster than a pair of horses pulling a wagon can and just looking at that thing as we approached it that first time was nearly enough to give me a panic attack.
Sure, there was a signalman there to lower barriers when a train was coming, but people can make mistakes.
I think I held my breath the whole time we crossed the first time. Dermit laughed, not unkindly, when we made it to the other side and I heaved a relieved breath. To his credit he did tell me they made him nervous too, sometimes, but eventually you did get used to them.
I was extremely sceptical of that but decided to take his word for it. We carried on and the rest of the day was pretty normal.
It was the next day when things got strange.
It was going to be my first day driving for passengers. Dermit was with me, but only to make sure that I didn’t get lost. Other than that, he was happy for me to take the reins and he chatted away, quite happily, as we followed the road out of town and towards the level crossing. Our first job was going to be picking up some engineers from the train yard.
All was well and good, both horses were even behaving, until we drew closer to the crossing. That’s when Tip let out this bellowing noise and tried to rear up but the hitchings stopped him from getting too high. It was so sudden that Haybale started and began shaking his head in fear. I fought to get them both back under control but two horses at once can be a struggle. Dermit had to give me a hand.
Eventually we got them both calmed down and we began looking around for anything that might have scared Tip. We couldn’t see anything so we decided to carry on but keep a close eye on him, to make sure he didn’t take fright again.
The barriers were coming down as we drew up to the crossing. In a way, that made crossing better. If I knew if a train had just gone past, it was unlikely another was going to come along right afterwards, and it meant the signalman was on the ball, though I do remember not being able to see anyone.
We waited a while and finally the train came past, the huge engine puffing up a pillar of smoke from the chimney, surrounded by a cloud of steam, pulling what must have been ten goods cars.
It took a while for the cloud to clear and when it had, I saw that the barriers had been lifted. But the other side of the crossing had changed.
Before the train went past, the other side of the crossing looked much as it did on our side. A wide, dusty road with a thick hedgerow on either side. Behind the hedges there had been wheat fields stretching out in either direction.
Well, those were all still there on the other side of the crossing. But they were now covered in snow.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I turned to Dermit to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, but he looked as perplexed as I felt so, I knew he was seeing the same thing I was. He made this kind of gurgled, gasping noise. Honestly, if I had been able to make any kind of noise, it probably wouldn’t have been far off that one.
I was about to suggest that we turn the cart around, maybe unhitch the horses and tether them to the back so they could pull us back the way we’d come. But in that second, both Tip and Haybale took off at a sudden gallop, straight ahead, pulling us along behind them.
Both me and Dermit were thrown back in our seat and by the time either one of us could right ourselves and grab at the reins to bring those horses to a stop, they had already pulled us over the crossing and onto the other side, onto that snowy lane.
It was the middle of Bloomingtine when this happened, so it wasn’t exactly summer weather but still that cold hit us like a wall. If nothing else, that convinced us that we weren’t just seeing things.
I looked around. There was no one in sight. What’s more, the sky was darker than it had been moments, seconds, ago. I was shivering, and not just from the cold. I was about to ask Dermit what he thought we should do when, suddenly, it was gone.
There wasn’t any flash of light or puff of smoke or anything, nothing like those old children’s tales, one second we were on that lane in the middle of winter, the next the snow was just gone, and it was back to normal. Both me and Dermit were taken aback.
I don’t think either of us wanted to say anything. I think maybe we didn’t want to acknowledge that that had just happened? Either way, I picked up the reins and coaxed the horses to carry on, heading towards the train yard. What else could I do?
Neither me or Dermit mentioned what had happened, not to each other and certainly not to anyone else. I think if nothing had ever happened again, we would have let it fade from our memories, just a weird little adventure that went nowhere.
But that’s not what happened.
It was about a week later when it happened again. I’d been wary of the level crossing for the days after that bizarre vision of winter but, as I say, nothing had happened again so I had started to relax. I was driving the wagon myself now, having been cleared by Dermit and his father, so I was on my way to the train yard to pick up some passengers who would be wanting to take a trip into town.
Both horses were behaving, even Tip had started to mellow towards me. I don’t think I could call it friendly, but it was at least tolerant.
Like the first time, as we drew close to the crossing, I could see the barriers were being lowered for an approaching train. That did put me a little on my guard, this was the first time that had happened since that first weird event, but even then, I wasn’t too worried. I mean, it was a level crossing, trains coming through was the most natural thing in the world, right?
Then the horse started snorting and stamping their hooves that something had happened again. I was prepared to grab the reins and pull them back. But as the smoke cleared, I saw that the road ahead looked the same as it had before the train had gone past. And the horses didn’t bolt. I thought then maybe I was just being jumpy. The horses were just reacting to the loud train, that was all. They seemed perfectly fine now. I had a little laugh at myself and picked up the reins, clicking at the horses to walk on.
It was only after we’d crossed the rails that I realised I’d been wrong.
It looked the same on the other side but it was different. The sky was just slightly darker and there was a different taste in the air, like smoke but not the smoke of the train that had just passed. Then I saw it. Over the hedge and out of eyeshot, but the sky in that direction was darkening and there was this orange haze in the air. Something, somewhere in that direction, was on fire.
That was when the horses bolted. I thought for a minute that they’d been scared by the smell of smoke, but then I saw we weren’t alone on the lane anymore. There was something behind us. A lot of somethings.
I’m not sure I have the right words to describe them. They were… wrong. They walked on two legs but they weren’t people, at least no kind of people I’ve ever met. They all looked different too. Some had fur and long claws while others had scales and fangs. Others had feathers and long, hooked beaks. Some had only one head, others had two, and two different heads at that. I saw one that had a wolf-like head with another more reptilian one looking out from its stomach. The thing they all had in common were the eyes. They all had yellow eyes that, even in the light of day, seemed to glow. They were carrying weapons, swords, axes and spears, and round shields painted black with this strange design at the centre. I thought it was an eye at first, but then, when they came closer, I saw my mistake. It wasn’t an eye at all. It was a white disk with what looked like a red teardrop at its centre.
I’d heard stories of khirrocs but I’ve never really believed them. I thought they were just something parents told their kids about to get them to go to bed. But there they were, right in front of me.
They rushed at us, fortunately Tip and Haybale were already moving into a gallop. I just had to hold on to the reins and watch out for potholes or anything that might upset the cart.
I glanced back and almost felt relieved. We were pulling away from those monsters. But that’s when I noticed something. Those creatures, the khirrocs, were changing. As they chased after us, their bodies were getting smaller, more streamlined, while their legs grew longer. Most of them had sheathed their weapons and dropped their shields so that they could run on all fours.
They were catching up. They were catching up quickly. And I’d heard enough stories about khirrocs to have a pretty good idea what they’d do to me if they caught us.
I panicked, started trying to goad the horses to pick up the pace but they were already going flat out and those things were still gaining.
I suppose I must have been thinking that if we could make it to the train yard, then we’d be safe. Whatever was going on, there’d be other people there who could help us.
We managed to get out past the hedgerows. After that, it’s possible to see the train yard, it would usually take only another five or ten minutes to reach it at our usual pace.
But when we emerged from the hedge lines and I looked for it, it wasn’t there. No sign at all, it was as if it had never been there.
What’s more, while I was looking around desperately for it, I saw that there were no train rails at all. There couldn’t have been, because there was a village sat right over where I knew the line usually ran. And it was on fire.
The whole thing, every house, was blazing, sending up a column of black smoke. So that was what I had seen and smelled when I’d gone over the crossing. I think, normally, I might have stopped out of shock if nothing else, but I hadn’t forgotten the khirrocs right behind me and neither had the horses.
I glanced back. They were so close now, close enough that they might soon start trying to jump onto the cart. Some were even starting to overtake us.
I closed my eyes. I knew it was hopeless, I didn’t want to see what happened next. And because of that, I can’t tell you exactly what happened.
All I know is there was a flash of red light that I saw through my closed eyes, a sudden blaze of extreme heat and this yowling, snarling noise.
I opened my eyes. The khirrocs that had been about to reach the cart were gone. I looked back and, even after all of this, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
There was someone there. I don’t know if they were human, diman or pencori but they were that sort of height. I couldn’t tell you anything else about them because they wore this long, hooded cloak.
What I can tell you is that they were holding fire. I don’t mean like a torch or anything like that, I mean they were literally holding a ball of flames in their hand. As I watched, this person threw the fireball at a group of the khirrocs. It exploded, sending the monsters flying, screaming through the air. The person in the cloak moved their arm and the flames returned to their hand, forming what looked like a long, double-edged sword that glowed a fiery red.
They looked back at me. I was already a fair distance away but I could still hear them shout at me to keep running, that they would hold off the creatures.
They didn’t have to tell me twice. A part of me did feel bad for leaving them but they seemed to have it handled and it wasn’t like I could be a massive help. So, we kept going, though I did rein the horses in a bit. You can’t keep horses galloping too long, especially after something like that.
And, again, just like the last time, it was suddenly over. I turned away from the fight behind us and the sky overhead was clear, there was no smoke in the air and I could see the train yard across the field.
You might think, after all of that, that I would refuse to go out on that cart again, refuse point blank to go anywhere near that crossing. Well, maybe you’d have handled it differently to me but all I knew was that this life was all I knew how to do, all I wanted to do, and it required me to finish my apprenticeship.
And that required me to keep following that route and doing my job.
It happened three more times before I finished my apprenticeship with Goodman Dalwick. I knew it would happen as soon as I drew near the crossing and I saw the barriers coming down.
The third time it happened wasn’t too bad really, and it lasted for only a moment. I didn’t even really become involved with it. It was still a shock to see though. As the train pulled away I saw the landscape on the other side of the crossing was completely changed. There were no hedgerows, even the lane was gone. Instead I could see a dull black road wide enough for three wagons with immensely tall buildings made of glass and stone rising up on either side. The road was full of people wearing clothes I’d never seen before. Short tunics and hooded coats with trousers made of canvas.
None of the people saw me, they all seemed too busy looking at the ground. They all looked so beaten down. But no sooner had it come into view than it was gone.
The same thing happened the fourth time, only then the vision was very different. There was no road or buildings on the other side of the crossing. Instead I saw a stone monument with burning braziers all around and about. And I saw people, humans I think, malnourished and wearing the barest of clothing. They were working in the fields, collecting something in baskets. Between them all walked creatures I didn’t recognise. They walked on two legs which ended in hooves, they had long, goat-like heads with curled horns sprouting from behind their ears. I might have thought they were pencori but they were too big, and too… bestial.
These creatures carried whips that they used on any human that seemed to be slacking off.
And again, this vision vanished as soon as it had appeared.
I half hoped that would be how any other visions went. If I must see these things, I didn’t mind as long as nothing like that second event happened again. I had no desire to see another khirroc.
But the last time was more than just a sighting.
It was the day before my apprenticeship was to end. I cursed my rotten luck when I saw the barriers coming down but hoped it would be just like the last two. I could just see whatever it was and then continue on.
But when the train was past, I saw something unlike anything I’d ever seen. Again, there was no lane and no hedge line, but… there wasn’t anything else either.
Tip and Haybale began moving without any command, gently walking towards this new world. I tried to stop them but no amount of reining in did anything. I guessed that this was just something they were going to do.
I could see the ground was stone, solid bedrock, but grass grew from it. At least, I think it was grass. It was dark and strangely… ethereal. The trees I could see were the same. They were black, but not like ebony trees. More like they were shadows made solid.
The light was different in this place too. It had been late morning, but here the light was near enough to the break of dawn.
I do not know where I was, but I was surer than I had been with any of the other visions I’d seen, that this place was not my world.
And then, like the others, the vision was gone and I just… carried on. I ended my apprenticeship and returned home. I haven’t told anyone about any of this until now. I haven’t seen anything else like it since. And I’m hoping I never will again. I don’t know why I was made to see these things or what they mean. What I do know is that I’ll certainly be staying away from trains for the foreseeable future.
Final Notes. Ah, unsupported tales of visions. One of those phrases that sends every eye in this place rolling. There’s obviously not much that can be done with this. No one apart from Mx Tallen witnessed any but the first of these events and Dermit Carter has refused to speak to us. We did manage to contact Mx Tallen. They are now working for their father’s business full time and are sticking to routes that run close to the rivers. They had nothing more to add.
As to the content of these visions; well, khirrocs are known to exist, though they haven’t been seen in large numbers within the Federation for many years. We’ve had no luck tracking down this symbol that Mx Tallen mentioned, the red drop on a white disk, at least, it does not match any known heraldries from recorded history. Like as not it was just a khirroc pack symbol. As for the rest, well, I’m sure that Mx Tallen believes that they saw what they say they saw, but buildings made of glass and people throwing fireballs are not claims I’m willing to waste time and resources on investigating.
There is one thing that doesn’t add up, however. I’ve had the chance to look at a roadmap of Apenton. I made sure that it was up to date, and it is, and as far as I can make out, there are no roads or lanes between the town and the trainyard that cross over the railway line.
[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]
Special thanks to Geoffrey Cadogan.
[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]