So this is an identification card.
It doesn’t look like much. And it’s filled with incorrect information. I’m not 29 years old. And I’m not an oni. And I’m not a 5th-rank warrior.
And this ‘Mercenary rank: F’ written on it…
Jasper tried to explain it to me, but I’m still not sure I understand. Apparently, fulfilling tasks for the High-Sea Verse mercenary group will increase my rank. Things like escorting people from one city to another, or hunting dangerous wild beasts or mutated monsters from the Frontline, or gathering alchemical ingredients in the wilderness…
Which is all well and good, but from my perspective, all of this shouldn’t concern me at all. What do I care if some random person can move safely to another city? What do I care if dangerous wild beasts are killed? I very much doubt they pose any threat to me. What do I care if an alchemist has enough ingredients to craft medicinal pills? I already have some in my space ring – and such things are completely ineffective on this body of mine, anyway.
In any case, I have more important things to do.
Even though I’m not exactly in a hurry, that doesn’t mean I’m going to waste my time.
I store the card in my space ring and direct my steps toward the train station.
There are quite a lot of guards patrolling the city, and they all seem quite agitated, for some reason, so I stick to small alleys in order to avoid attracting attention. Only sometimes do I emerge into larger streets to check if I’m not heading in the wrong direction. There are signs marking the way, fortunately, so the place is easy to find.
It takes some time, but eventually, I reach my destination.
It’s a very large building standing on the border of the city, even larger than the headquarters of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group. The walls stretch up high, reaching up to a vast dome that serves as a roof. An enormous clock is hung up on the front wall, above six wide-open gates spread over the entire width of the building. The two sticks pointing to the hours and the minutes look very sharp and very heavy. They might serve adequately as weapons, in case the city is attacked by a giant demon – that might be their actual purpose, in fact, and they’re only used on that clock as camouflage. Despite all the gates being open, there are only a few scattered people going through them.
Perhaps traveling by train isn’t popular?
Ignoring the gazes of the passers-by, which even now, still gather on me wherever I go, I enter the station.
It looks even larger from inside. The entire building seems to be composed of only a single room, which the domed roof covers completely. There are no pillars anywhere to support it, but it doesn’t collapse under its own weight, strangely enough. I’m not sure how they’ve managed that – maybe with magic. The entire floor is clean and smooth and made of marble. It’s solid enough that I don’t even need to care about distributing my weight over it. The far wall of the room has a large opening cut into it, starting from which a long trench surrounded by guardrails thrusts into the station. I imagine that’s where the train enters and comes to rest so that the passengers may board it. At the moment, however, a strong, heavy grating hangs over that opening, cutting off access into the building from there.
And there is no train in the station, right now.
…Do I just wait for one to arrive?
Now that I think about it, that might be why there are so few people here. They all know when the train comes, so they don’t need to arrive ahead of time and wait for it.
I look around the station. I notice several people wearing identical clothes walking about, here and there. It’s not armor, but they might be guards nonetheless, or the equivalent. The guard in front of the headquarters of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group gave me information, earlier, so those people might also be able to help me.
I approach the one closest to me, a man with shallow wrinkles on his face and streaks of grey in his hair sitting at the window of what looks like a small cabin built off to the side of the front gates, reading the contents of a long sheet of paper. The word ‘Tickets’ is written on the wall of the cabin, above the man’s window. I don’t know what it means. There are other identical cabins lined up next to this one, but the others are all empty.
Even when I reach the counter, the man doesn’t notice my presence and keeps on reading.
…How sloppy. I could kill him so easily, and he wouldn’t even realize what happened.
And why is that window set so high on the wall?
What are chil– What are people who look like children supposed to do?
Leaning on the cabin’s wall, I stretch up on the tip of my toes and grab the windowsill to pull myself up, so that I can at least see inside.
With a loud noise that makes the man inside jump out of his seat in fright, the windowsill breaks down the middle and a long, thin fissure splits down the wooden wall of the cabin, from where my hand is resting all the way to the floor.
Well, at least, that got his attention…
The man’s gaze flicks to me, his eyes a little wide. I can hear his heartbeat thundering in his chest. An instant later, he notices the broken windowsill under my hand and takes a quick step forward, waving his arms toward me. “Careful, girl! You’re going to get wood splinters in your hand!”
I release the windowsill and take a step back as the man leans through the window to take a look at the broken wall of his cabin. “What on earth happened?” he mumbles to himself.
After a few seconds, he looks back up at me with a kind gaze. “Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself?”
[…No. How do I board the train?]
The man flinches as the sound of my voice suddenly appears in his mind and rubs his forehead. It takes a few seconds for his surprise to fade enough that he asks, “The… The train? You want to board the next train?”
“I see.” He nods. “Well, you simply need to purchase a ticket, then you can enter the train by showing that ticket to the inspector. That’s it. Simple, right?”
[…Yes. How do I purchase a ticket?]
“You can do that right here,” the man replies with a smile. “It’s a bit expensive, though. Did your parents give you enough money?”
I don’t have any money…
I spent every silver Sif gave me on those magic cores I fed to Sanae, back in Islandis Fortress, more than a week ago now. How am I supposed to get more of it? Silver is a metal, so maybe I could find some buried in the ground, somewhere. But then I’d need to carve all the little texts and pictures on each piece of silver, too. It would all take a very long time.
What to do…
Maybe I could give the man something else, in exchange for the ticket I need. But I don’t want to lose my books, and I kept the medicinal pills in order to give them to Nerys. I don’t really own anything else, either.
[…Is the ticket only necessary to get inside the train?]
The man blinks and hesitates, as if he’s not sure how to interpret the meaning of my question. “Well, yes… As I said, you need to show your ticket to the inspector in order to enter the train. That’s, uh…”
[…What about not entering the train?]
[…Is the ticket necessary if I sit on the outside of the train?]
“Oh, hahaha! You can’t do that, little girl. That’s impossible. The train is a lot faster than you think. If you stood on the outside of the train, the wind would push you off, and you would fall and hurt yourself.”
I very much doubt that.
But he still hasn’t answered my question.
[…Is the ticket necessary if I sit on the outside of the train?]
The man shakes his head, a smile still on his lips. “Child, as I said, riding on the outside is forbidden. So no. There might be second-class tickets and first-class tickets, but there is indeed no outside-the-train tickets.”
Second class? First class?
I don’t get it…
Anyway, good. I got the answer I wanted.
I’m not a child, though.
[…When does the next train arrive?]
“Tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock. There will be another one early in the afternoon, after that. Same for the next day, and the next, and the next again. Two trains a day, everyday.”
I nod to the man and turn away, heading toward the exit.
The man calls out after me. “Don’t you want to buy a ticket?”
I leave the train station without turning back. Once outside, I circle around the building, looking for a place without too many witnesses. Unfortunately, the streets surrounding the station are open and unobstructed and frequented by quite a lot of people. Few enter the station itself, but they loiter around it, preventing me from acting as freely as I would wish. There are even horse-drawn carriages rolling up and down the streets, their wooden wheels clattering noisily on the paving. Some are only transporting cargo, but others are filled with soldiers in armor sitting face to face on small benches built into the carriage’s bed.
It would be easy for someone to notice me, if I try to jump onto the train directly from the street.
I’m not entirely sure being noticed would actually be a problem, but considering the way the people of this city look at me when I only do something as benign as walking alongside them in the street, I’d rather be careful. Even if no one in this city can threaten me, it would still be annoying if they suddenly decided to attack. That man in the cabin seemed pretty adamant about preventing from riding on the outside of the train, too, so they might even go so far as to prevent me from leaving Aldenfell if I try to do so anyway.
Best to be discreet, then.
I examine the walls and roof of the train station. After a few moments of thought, I turn away and walk toward the block of houses on the other side of the street. The buildings there are tall, each of them with several floors, and they stand close to each other, casting deep shadows down on the small alleyways between them. I sneak into one such alleyway and settle down against a wall to wait, behind a row of abandoned crates. A thick layer of ice spreads over me like a cocoon to protect me.
I close my eyes.
Like yesterday, my soul floats down toward the revolving beads of blood-qi in my dantian and once more fuses with them.
I wake up some hours later, in the middle of the night.
Again, the cracks in my soul have closed by just the tiniest of increments.
I open my eyes – well, my eye, singular; I’m technically opening both, but for one of them, it doesn’t actually change anything, especially with the eyepatch covering it – and the cocoon of ice dissolves around me. Recycling some of the blood-qi dissipating through the air, I stand up and walk out of the alley.
As expected, the surroundings of the train station are more deserted than they were during the day.
That’s something I noticed in the Planar Prison. Most people go back to their own houses during the night. I should be able to take advantage of this to move unnoticed.
I cross the street and approach the tall wall of the train station. Ten meters away from it, I leap up. I reach the edge of the roof without difficulty and step onto it as lightly and carefully as I can.
It seems pretty solid, as far as I can tell.
I walk all the way to the very top of the dome, its slanted tiles no threat to my sense of balance, then sit down, facing the direction from which the train will come.
Then, I close my eyes again and go back to sleep, a new layer of ice appearing to cover my body.
I wake up again when the rays of the sun first shine over the horizon.
Morning has come.
The train hasn’t.
I let the ice layer shielding me dissolve and stay seated there, waiting patiently.
This time, I don’t go back to sleep.
The sun is still pretty far from its zenith when I hear the first sound of it.
A deep rumble, with the high screech of scraping metal almost drowned beneath it.
Soon afterward, the train appears in the distance.
It’s huge, almost 7 or 8 meters in height, 5 meters in width. It’s 300 meters long and clearly split into several distinct boxes. Windows covered in thick glass are cut into the sides of each box, except for the frontmost box, whose form is different from the others. This one looks more elaborate, with complex machinery in evidence all over its surface, as if to denote its greater importance. A conical, streamlined grating is affixed to its front, low enough to almost scrape on the ground, ready to sweep away or pierce through any obstacle in the train’s way. Three wide tubes point toward the sky on each side and belch white smoke that trails above the train as it rushes forward.
Even from this distance, I can feel the solid wall of wind pushed along by its passage, but even then, it’s not as violent as I would have expected from such an enormous object moving at such a high speed.
And it is fast, though it’s clearly decelerating in anticipation of reaching the train station.
Below me, in the streets of Aldenfell, more and more people are entering the station, a confused hubbub of voices hanging over the crowd.
…Do all those people want to board the train?
Will there be enough room for everybody?
Well, I suppose it’s no concern of mine. I won’t be in there, squeezed in with all those humans. Just imagining the smell and the noise almost brings a shudder up my spine. If I really were stuck in that kind of environment, I might actually lose control and slaughter everything around me.
As I thought, it was indeed a good idea to ride on the outside, and not just because I don’t have a ticket.
Half an hour later, the train finally starts to leave the station again, but in the other direction, this time, as Aldenfell is the railroad’s last stop.
I’m not certain what happened within the station, how everything was organized so that the passengers could board and the train itself could turn around – I could hear what happened inside, but even my ears aren’t good enough to let me picture the precise motions of thousands of people at the same time.
And now, it’s my turn to get on the train, as well.
I stand up and walk down the domed roof’s curve, stopping at its edge. 30 meters below me, the black mass of the train is slowly accelerating, leaving the station through the opening cut into its wall.
…On the off-chance I’m actually detected when I jump atop it, I should try to make it as inconvenient as possible for the driver to stop the train.
So I wait for it to gain some speed.
When I judge that the time is right, when the last of the boxes is already rushing away, I finally jump after the train, my trajectory almost parallel to it, leaving two deep footprints into the wall of the station, where my feet struck to give me the impulse I needed. I accurately calculated the force I had to employ, so that when I soar above the train, my speed is roughly equal to it. I lightly fall onto its roof, almost as if the both of us are stationary, shallowly digging my claws into it to hold myself in place against the wind buffeting my body.
I press my body flat against the metal for a few minutes, in case someone in the city decides to throw a glance at the train and notices my silhouette there.
Until finally, the city disappears behind us, and I feel secure enough to sit up without risk of detection.
Solid tendrils of ice attach my body to the smooth metal beneath me, just in case. I’m heavy enough that the wind shouldn’t be able to blow me off the train, but it certainly makes every effort to, whipping my hood off my head and playing with my hair and making my cloak snap in its currents. It’s a bit too violent to make the trip perfectly comfortable, but I still have no doubt it’s much better than staying cooped up inside.
I sit there quietly, watching the landscape roll by as the train rushes westward and carries me deeper into human territory.