Transcript – Storm Clouds

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Twenty: Storm Clouds

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Corporal Cassian SinLeop. Human, aged thirty-four, identified as male. Memory regards his journey home across Sangland, and was donated on the seventeenth of the month of Bloomingtine in the year 723. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the fifth of Highmoon, 730.

We Begin.

It’s hard being so far from home.

I don’t even have it the hardest. There are some in my unit from the Wind Islands. You have to wonder, sometimes, what’s so bad at home that they’d want to be stationed at the very other end of the Federation?

I mean, I know that the regiment gets sent where it’s needed, you have no control over that. But you know where that regiment is deployed from when you send in your applications so you should be able to tell roughly where you’ll be spending most of your time. You apply to the Wind Coast Rangers, for example, you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time in Winmouth. You sign up with the Forty-Second, South Doldr, you’re going to be seeing a lot of Dullworth.

And if, like me, you sign up with the Tor of Seraan’s Own Volunteers, the Bold Eighty Second, it’s pretty obvious you’re going to be operating in Northern Sangland. And when hostilities start bubbling with Coopia, you can pretty much guarantee that we’re going to be among those sent to the border for a bit of flint-cocking.

There was never any doubt of me joining the army. I’ve known it’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid. My mother and her father served in the forces and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. They both talked about the honour of serving the Federation, protecting our people from those who mean us harm.

My mother even fought during the Pacification of Vivvok. She told me and my sisters all these stories about her time there, in the south lands, about the big battles she saw; the Siege of Eszebes, the Battle of Oren Dunes. It was enough to convince me that that was what I wanted to do.

I didn’t get the grades I needed to go to the officers’ academy but that was fine. My mother had been an NCO and if that was good enough for her then it was good enough for me.

I didn’t join up straight away though. My mother insisted I get a full education before I signed my life away. Said I should have something to fall back on. I wasn’t convinced but she is the voice of experience so I enlisted at Brana University, on the Military Scholarship, studying geography. And thank the Three that I did because that was where I met Elbas Alidi, the love of my life.

We met at an evening party set up for new students of the Philosophy department, my hall mate was one of the new students and he invited me along. I’ve never had any trouble being around new people but even so, it’s difficult when you only know one person at a party and that person quickly abandons you when he finds his friends.

So I was just kind of wandering around the room and then, I just looked over at the bar and saw him there. He was looking at me and smiling this crooked kind of smile that just drew me in. He bought me a drink. That was the first time anyone had done that for me. And we got to talking. He told me he was there studying Ethics, focussing mainly on Aquillian Theory.

That kept us talking for a good long time. I don’t know how long, if I’m honest, but I don’t think either of us said much to anyone else there. When the party ended, we both said we’d like to see each other again, soon. And that was pretty much that. Elbas and I were never much out of each other’s company.

After a year or so, we got a place together in the city. I won’t pretend it was all smooth sailing. Along with the usual bumps in the road of any relationship, we had a pretty major sticking point in the form of a blue coat. Elbas was never really that keen on my choice of career. I don’t know if I’d call him a pacifist but he was definitely very vocal about his disapproval of a lot of what we’re doing along our eastern border and we had a few… discussions on that subject.

That’s not to say he wasn’t supportive. Any time I had to go in for an aptitude test or a physical exam, they were part of the price for the scholarship, he always came with me to give words of encouragement or help with any last minute revision.

What with the regular testing for the army on top of my university studies, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep going with it all if it hadn’t been for Elbas. I told him he was the reason I’d graduated with as high a grade as I did. He gave me that smile of his and told me I would have done just fine. We both knew he was lying and we laughed about it.

I ended up passing in the second degree. Not the best but it was good enough for my purposes. Elbas, naturally, passed in the first degree with honours. I couldn’t have been more proud of him when he walked up onto that stage to receive his certificate from the Director of Education himself.

The next few months were a little straining on our relationship. I was in Whitburgh, going through training. Meanwhile Elbas got a job at a higher education school in the northern Sangland Marches. So, needless to say, we didn’t see each other much and though we tried to call each other on the apovox as often as we could, it’s really no substitute for the real thing.

It actually got pretty unbearable.

But, I got through it, finished my training and, when the time came to put in my applications, I went for as many barracks as I could that were based on or near the marches.

I got lucky and was assigned to the Eighty Second Infantry Regiment, the Tor of Seraan’s Own Volunteers. Which meant, while the barracks were in Almari, we were close enough to Elbas’s new home that I was able to take the coach into the city.

First time I did that, Elbas came to meet me at the station. He’d rented a cart so he could drive me to his house… or our house now, technically. And, a few miles later, I got my first sight of Thakilton. A decent sized town in the shadow of a more than decent sized mountain.

Have you heard the story about Thakilton? How it got its name, I mean. It’s one of those stories that gets around.

The mountain shares the name of the town. The story goes that, when the old Senterians took over the region during the Dark Age, they asked the locals what the mountain was called. Now, the mountain didn’t have a name at that point so the locals just said it was called “ikil”, which is Ittilic for “mountain.”

So, the old Senterians called the place “Thain Ikil,” which translates as “Mount Ikil,” or “Mountain Mountain.”

Then, years later, when the region was annexed by Sangland, the mountain was named “Thanikil-atan”, literally: The Mountain Thanakil.”

And, finally, after Unification was done with, it was officially named Mount Thakilton. Which, if you’ve been keeping up, means “Mount Mountain-mountain-mountain.” Eventually, a town was built there and it was named after the mountain.

It’s a good story, right? It gets a good laugh out of historians and linguists up and down the Federation. Thing is, it’s not true.

It’s one heck of a coincidence, I’ll grant you, but if you ask any of the locals, they’ll tell you the truth. They’ve all heard the story, of course. But they’ll tell you that the town was there long before Unification, and it was actually the mountain that was named after the town, not the other way around.

And the name should actually pronounced “T-Haa-kil-tan.” It comes from the old Sentarian “Tha’anka ilitan,” which means, I’m told, “Dragon’s Rest.”

According to Haarold Strom, a man I met in the Grey Lion who claims to be an expert in local history, there’s a very old legend connected to the area which explains the name.

Supposedly, thousands of years ago, a dragon came to rest there, curled up and went to sleep. And, over time, a mountain formed around it. That dragon’s apparently still down there, at the heart of the mountain, waiting for… something. Strom wasn’t really sure on that point. It’s waiting for something. And that something will happen, apparently, at some point. And then the dragon will wake up again.

I mean, that’s the story anyway.

I realise that this might sound like rambling to you. You’re probably reading all this thinking how or why is this relevant?

Well, I promise, there is a reason for beginning this way. Dragons have been rather on my mind since all of this happened.

Anyway, I moved in to Elbas’s house and we’ve been living there about ten years now. Four years after I moved in, we proposed to each other and, a couple of years later, we were married. We decided against going on the adoption roles until I’d finished my service. I told Elbas, if we were going to have a child, I wanted to be there to help raise them. Elbas was a little disappointed but he understood. Aside from that, our home life was pretty amazing.

I’d have to leave for a few weeks or months every now and again, for training exercises or tours along the border lands, but I always came back eventually and there would be Elbas waiting for me.

It wasn’t all breezy. There were still aggressive insurrectionist cells in Vivvok that needed dealing with, and then there was that dispute with the Laohin Republic. They called it the Battle of the Temples but honestly it wasn’t much of a battle. Barely lasted half an hour before things got settled.

I must have impressed someone in that half hour though because it was shortly after that I was promoted Lance Corporal. And then a year or so later I was made full Corporal by our company’s new lieutenant, Szal Tchambers.

On the whole, life was pretty good. And then, well… then things got more complicated.

It all started six months ago, with the Eighty Second getting deployed to the eastern border. Things have been getting tense with Coopia for a while now and there had been reports that they were massing heavy armour along the Gira River. So, naturally, a few of the Sangland regiments, including the Eighty Second, get sent over to the border.

We weren’t expecting any action. Not at first, anyway. We just had to go there, make a show of force, maybe have the gunners send a few warning shots over the river. The important thing was to appear strong and not let the feather-heads think we look weak. Not too tall an order, we thought. They’d take one look at our cannons then they’d think twice about trying to push any further.

It was hard saying goodbye to Elbas again, I’d only just gotten back from a recent training exercise, but I promised I’d come back as soon as I could. Before I got on the train, he gave me a new pocket watch. Something to remember him by and count the minutes until we were back together, he said. I loved it and told him I’d keep it on me every minute.

We both had a little laugh at that, then I got on the train. As the train was leaving the station, I kept my eyes on him the whole time. I kept waving until I couldn’t see him anymore.

My company was stationed in Hed-Gir, under the command of Major Anaruk. As an infantry regiment, we didn’t really have much to do beside the daily drills.

I think we could all tell the Major was chafing at all the flint-cocking, saw it as a waste of time. I heard a couple of the lieutenants saying they’d heard him talking about how we should either advance over the river or go home, all this sitting around was good for nothing.

It was hard to argue. Especially after the first few months went past and we never even saw the Coopians. The officers kept claiming they were watching from across the river but I never saw any proof of that.

And we were out often enough. There were the drills, of course, but we also had weapon practice and kit maintenance, all out in the open, whatever the weather was doing.

Not to mention we’d also be sent out from time to time to patrol the riverbank, make sure no one was trying to sneak across. We never saw a soul but apparently it was necessary.

The days were long, and hard and, on the whole, very dull.

So, when the major said our company would be able to take two months’ leave, I don’t think any of us were sorry to see the back of the place.

We were all there to do our duty, of course, defend the Federation and all that but it’s a little hard to keep up the patriotic spirit when you’ve not seen the people you’re defending against.

I was going home to Thakilton, obviously, but before I went back, I wanted to get something for Elbas. He’d gotten me the watch to help me think of home and I wanted to get him a memento of somewhere I had been.

So, before I caught my train back, I went to the Hed-Gir market district to see what I could find.

The place was a hive of activity. From one side of the street to the other, wall to wall, there were stalls and booths selling almost anything a person could imagine. Never mind that all-out war might break out tomorrow, on this day there was peace and so commerce would continue going ahead.

I moved through the throng as gently as I could, though once or twice I did have to shove my way through a press of people.

I was wearing my full uniform which got a bit of attention and got some people moving out of the way but with so many people, and a lot of them tauroxen, I don’t think I was very easily seen.

But, I was finally able to make my way to a line of stores that I knew from a previous trip into the city, sold locally made jewellery.

Elbas likes rings so I was looking through the trays they had on display. I wanted something that wouldn’t be ostentatious but still something impressive. Simple yet elegant, that was what he liked.

I wasn’t alone there. There were several others pouring over the trays. Most of them were humans but there were a few others. They didn’t look local, but they definitely weren’t military either.

I thought for a moment they might be Coopian spies but I rejected that idea almost immediately. There were no humans in Coopia and, even if there were, why would they be wasting time looking at rings in the local market?

I quickly forgot about all that when I spotted what looked like the perfect gift for Elbas.

The band was tarnished yellow with a twisting vine pattern worked into the metal. At the point where a stone might be set in another ring, a circle of tiny garnets was instead inlaid into the ring in the shape of a rosebud. It was simple but stylish and undeniably elegant, exactly Elbas’s style.

I bought the ring and turned to leave. And that’s when I saw him.

He was an orklin, about average height with red hair and one broken tusk. I thought at first he was a soldier from my unit, he looked a lot like Private Armak Dowell, and I was about to go over to say hello when I realised my mistake which is why I was looking at him when he turned to face me.

I knew then that this definitely wasn’t Private Dowell. For one thing, Private Dowell doesn’t have two different coloured eyes. And for another, Private Dowell doesn’t have a large tattoo across half his face.

I’d never seen a design like it. It looked like a serpentine creature, coiled up upon itself. I might have thought it was a snake except that it had arms and legs. From its body jutted shapes that I think were supposed to be lightning bolts. A memory came to me then, of a picture I’d once seen in a storybook I’d had as a child. Qu’in the monster slayer, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. And I realised that the tattoo looked very much like the dragon in that book.

A vivid blue eye stared out from the middle of the creature’s coils. His other eye was dark brown. Both eyes were fixed on me. He didn’t seem angry, didn’t look like he intended me any harm. His expression was actually rather tranquil.

I didn’t know what this guy’s problem was but I had no interest in making it my problem. I had what I needed and I had a train to catch.

I turned, thanked the store-owner again and began making my way back through Hed-Gir. I looked back only once.

The orklin hadn’t moved. Hadn’t come after me. But he was still staring at me. And as I looked I could see others, more strangers, turning to look at me. All of them had that same emotionless face. I turned back and quickened my pace.

The station, thankfully, wasn’t far to go, and I had booked my ticket in advance so all I had to do was get in, find the Trans-Biressa line, board the train and sit down.

I think it’s fair to say that the encounter had rattled me a little. I mean, I had my side sword on me so I knew I could defend myself if things got nasty but I wasn’t really keen to draw it on a Federal citizen. You know, unless I really had to.

I’m not sure why I was so affected. I’ve had people give me much scarier looks than that and with weaponry to back it up.

But, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I was on the train, heading back west to see my husband. All was well… or, so I thought.

We were just passing the Giran mountains and, like they do on long train journeys, attendants were coming along the train offering refreshments.

It was a raekn girl who reached me, her bald tail wrapped around her waist like a belt. She was pushing a cart loaded with different drinks. She asked me, in a friendly voice, if I wanted anything.

I was about to ask for a mug of beer when I noticed the hand that was resting on the trolley.

There, tattooed on her wrist was a design I recognised. The same coiling dragon, with thunderbolts spiking out from it.

The attendant must have caught me staring because she asked me if I was well.

I pulled myself together and said yes, yes, I was quite well.

I asked her about the tattoo, doing my best to sound casually interested.

She looked down as if unsure what I was talking about. It was as though she’d forgotten that she had it. Then her eyes seemed to brighten.

“Oh this?” she said, cheerily, “it’s just the symbol of my church.”

She looked at me with the enthusiasm of someone invited to speak on a subject they’re passionate about and I realised that I’d just opened myself up to an evangelical lecture. Obviously it was too late to claim not to be interested so I politely nodded my way through a very prepared sounding speech. I didn’t take much of it in but it sounded pretty standard fare for a fringe religion; something about a rejuvenated world and a restoration of the true natural order.

I’ve never been particularly religious. I mean I observe the holy days and I’m sure to visit the Trinlian on the Feast day of the Three but other than that, gods and higher powers don’t really feature much in my life.

Suffice to say, now that I knew the tattoo was just the symbol of some little nature cult, I wasn’t that worried about it. Those folk in the market were probably just members of the same group and finding another member on my train was just a weird coincidence, unlikely but not sinister.

Thankfully, the lecture only lasted a couple of minutes before she seemed to remember that she was supposed to be doing her job and she left me in peace.

But not before giving me a quick, mysterious smile and saying, “the storm will soon come.”

A fairly innocuous comment, right? Probably just something they say to each other in her church group. But for some reason, I felt a shiver of dread run through me at those words.

I didn’t know what to say but apparently nothing was expected because, without another word, she pushed her trolley up the car and out of sight.

I don’t think I moved or said another word for the rest of the journey. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, I know it’s nonsense but something about those words, from her, after seeing that tattoo, it really shook me up and I’m not easily shaken.

I saw the attendant a couple more times as our train carried on westward.

The first time, I thought I caught her looking at me but, when I looked again, she was deep in conversation with another attendant, a tall human girl.

Next time I saw her, a few hours later I think, she was making a call on the car’s apovox. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, she was too far away, but I could have sworn I caught her glancing in my direction more than once.

I’d pretty much made up my mind by the time we finally pulled into Zalatan Station. The train did go all the way to Almari but, by this point, I’d worked myself up quite a bit, my brain coming up with theory after theory each more terrifying than the last and I just wanted off that train.

I grabbed my bag and nearly jumped onto the platform.

Relief flooded me. I wasn’t sure what was going on, what had put me on edge but I now felt that I was safe. I could just wait here on the platform for the next train heading north, there was bound to be one soon enough. I’d be a little late, but it was worth it for my peace of mind.

I looked back at the train as it pulled out of the station. My eyes were immediately met by the raekn girl. There was no doubt about it now. She was staring right at me, through the window.

I couldn’t move, I could only stand there, staring right back at her. She gave me that same cheery smile she had used earlier and raised a hand in farewell, waving at me like I was an old friend.

Her sleeve slipped down a bit and I saw that tattoo again, the dragon showing up dark against her skin.

I didn’t move a muscle until the train had left the station and was out of sight, not until I could no longer hear the puffing of the engine or the sound of the heavy wheels on the tracks. Only after it had faded into silence did I begin walking, very calmly, to one of the benches.

Everyone there was giving me a funny look. Hardly surprising, I’d just been standing there like a statue for several minutes while everyone else moved around me.

But, it didn’t matter. I was safe. I was off the train and away from that weird girl, and whatever her problem had been didn’t matter now.

I closed my eyes, took a deep calming breath and opened them again. And that’s when I noticed, on the opposite platform, a man. Human, dark skinned but with pale hair, looking to be in his late twenties with the kind of scarred face that only comes from years of seeing heavy action. A sword and pistol hung on his belt.

He was looking straight at me. He raised a hand and waved it in a friendly manner, but I was looking at his neck where I could see the shape of a now all-too-familiar tattoo.

You know the old saying. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is time to run.

I wasted no time. I ran.

Final Notes. The memory cuts off there. I think this was the last one written in this book and they just ran out of pages. I asked the under-librarians to track down the rest of it but they weren’t able to find it in time and the High Librarian was getting impatient. I suppose this was to be expected. We all just returned to work after the New Year festival and everyone’s still a little… sensitive so no one’s performance is quite back up to standard yet.

I’ll have to attach a note to this mnimigraph to say it’s incomplete and, when the librarians track down the rest of it, I’ll add where the second part can be found. I’m hesitant to give my thoughts on it until I know the full story so, until we find the rest of it;

Inscription complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]