She felt the rumble of the train before she heard it, a crescendo of approaching power that penetrated her dreams. As the beast neared, the rhythmic beat of wheel pounding rail became audible. She was fully awake now, her every sense alert and filled with dread.
Although on the previous night, the iron monster had thundered through the town without pause, Azur Moonstorey steeled herself for the inevitable signal that it would stop tonight. After all, it was midnight marking the bridge between the twenty-second and twenty-third days in October, twenty-four hours before the train would take on passengers, twenty-four hours until she would board it and be carried off to an alien place to face the enemy.
And then it came, a long haunting whistle followed by two shorter ones. Azur listened as the train approached Prosper Station, bells clanging as it coasted to a brief taunting halt before heading off again into the darkness.
Shivering, she pulled the covers closer, searching vainly for warmth and sleep against the chill settling into her soul. I’ll be ready, damn you, she whispered. I will be ready
When dawn finally arrived, she donned jeans and sweater, brushed out her long, dark hair and slipped down the narrow back stairs leading to the kitchen. Mavis was already there, puttering about as she prepared coffee, toast and scrambled eggs.
“Morning, honey,” said the older woman, giving her granddaughter a searching look. “Looks like you didn’t sleep much.”
“It stopped at the station last night, Mavis. Did you hear it?”
“No. But I felt it.”
“The whistle was so eerie and the bells so…so…”
“Malignant?” offered Mavis.
“Yes, malignant. It’s hard to believe you couldn’t hear it.”
“One of the blessings for aging Sensos is that we can no longer hear that evil sound. But I remember it all too well. Have you decided what to do?”
“You know that I have no choice.”
“Oh, but you do,” said her grandfather, entering the room and taking his usual place at the table.
“Good morning, Bram.” Azur smiled bleakly at the man who had nurtured her since she was four.
“Go back to school before you fail your year.”
“I’m not going to fail my year. I’ll be back studying in no time.”
“University must be more lenient than it used to be,” commented the retired professor of ancient languages.
“I’ve taken a leave of absence. I’ll catch up once we have our lives back.”
“God help us,” sighed Bram. “It would kill me if I lost you too.”
“You’re not going to lose me,” insisted Azur, her words belying her own qualms. “And when I come back with Hilma, you’ll have us both again.”
“Ladies, gentleman, follow me, please!” announced the baggage man, exiting through the back door and placing the bags on a wheeled cart.
Azur, Dilly and XT followed him along a lengthy wooden platform stretching north behind the station. The agent moved the luggage from cart to platform a few feet from the steel railway tracks while the trio stood anxiously facing rails which had begun to hum and tremble.
Moments later, they turned their heads toward a rumbling sound coming from afar. Off in the distance, insistent blasts and long, eerie whistles caused the passengers to shiver and huddle more closely together. The rumbling crescendoed into a roar as Steam Engine 330 rushed toward the depot.
Anxiously, they peered northward into the blackness until they saw a pinpoint of light.
“Here it comes,” said Dilly.
The light grew larger and brighter before the train proclaimed its imminent arrival in long and short whistles. Then, with bells clanging, the black iron monster pulled noisily into the depot.
Scarcely had the train come to a full stop when steps were lowered from car to platform. A man smartly attired in navy blue vest, jacket and pants complimented with white shirt and black pill box hat appeared in the doorway of the coach. Polished brass buttons adorned vest and jacket while above the hat’s shiny leather bill were grey braid and a brass plate etched with the word, CONDUCTOR.
“All aboard,” shouted the conductor, snatching bags from the baggage man and tossing them up into the coach car.
“Watch your step,” he instructed Azur in a pleasant manner, taking her by the elbow to assist her up the steps.
Upon entering the coach, Azur noted rows of empty leather seats elegantly covered with lacy back cloths. She was about to take a seat near the front when she felt the train lurch forward, steam hissing and engine growling. Startled, she looked towards the entrance. The door was already closed and the steps retracted.
She tried to run to the door but was pushed firmly into her seat by the conductor.
“Let me out!” she screamed.
“Now, now,” he said calmly. “You don’t want to stumble and hurt yourself.”
Azur moved to the window to see Dillian Witherton and Xavier Tennyson Barkley running along the platform beside the departing train. When the iron beast picked up speed, she caught a final glance of her wildly waving companions, looks of horror upon their faces.
“Look what you’ve done!” she wailed, but her words were swallowed by the hiss of steam, the clanging bells and the rumbling of the train leaving Prosper Station.
Genre: historical fantasy, steampunk
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