Closing her eyes, Gale listened for a moment. There was the CLICK, CLACK of the train going over the tracks, and the puff of the engine, but otherwise it was silent. Wonderfully, gloriously devoid of others. She was ecstatic over being alone; although, she was unable to say why. Doesn't matter, Gale thought, as she got up from the window and crawled into the bed, where she closed her eyes and waited for sleep to come.
The sandman did not visit her quickly.
As soon as she started to doze an image formed on the back of her eyelids: Ts'ui, the great cat that had been as large as a bus and that had fur like a wolf, had been on the train one minute, alive and well. Then in the next second, his head had given an odd jerk as a bullet struck him in the eye. Just as quickly as the bullet traveled, Ts'ui fell over the side of the train. It was horrible. It was sickening, and it was all Gale saw whenever she tried to sleep.
Still. She was so tired that she could not force her eyes back open. Each lid was like a curtain of concrete, and even though she didn't want to sleep, her body craved the rest. For a while the same scene replayed again and again, but finally, mercifully, she slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Outside the door of the compartment where Gale had locked herself away, Ahmed sat in the corridor, listening. He knew that Gale was not sleeping. He was equally sure she did not want to talk, and he was not foolish enough to try and make her. Sometimes, there were things that had to be dealt with in their own time. For Gale, the loss of her friend would be one of them. Still, Ahmed worried. He had no children of his own, and even though Gale had a fierce spirit--something Ahmed greatly admired--she was still a child, incapable of truly defending herself from all the dangers she had faced. A fact that her sister, Samantha, had yet to fully grasp.
Ahmed touched the spear point embedded in his horn. As always, a white hot rage flashed through him as he felt the steel. The spear had come from a raider that he had found in his home. Ahmed did not know the vermin's name. He had been sent by the Ino, a tribe that was like Ahmed's Rho tribe by ancestry. Nevertheless, they remained far more enamored with glory and war than Ahmed's own people.
It had been a large raiding party--maybe three-hundred strong. They had come and cut a swath of destruction that extended for over forty leagues through Rho territory. When they arrived outside of Ahmed's village of Kubla, the inhabitants had done what they thought best to save themselves and turned over all of the town's food and wealth. It felt prudent, particularly as the fighters had been called away to try and find the very raiding party that was now at Kublas's gates.
It seemed to work. The Ino had taken their loot and marched away, their horns held high as they basked in their extortion. But instead of moving on and harassing a new town, they marched a day from the town and then returned and demanded twice as much tribute as before in order to spare the town again. With nothing to pay them with the women and children hid, while the old and inexperienced young men tried to mount a defense. The resistance only enraged the Ino and they quickly overwhelmed the defenses. After they broke into the city, the fiends went house-to-house looking for victims. They found nearly everyone, and when the orgy of looting, slaughtering, and pillaging was done, they razed most of the town.
At the time Ahmed dwelled in a great house built into the side of a cliff. It was immune to fire, and had been so richly furnished that for three days raiders had tramped in and out of his fine rooms, taking his leather bound books, silken rugs, and all his gold and silver. Of course, by the time he arrived, most of the raiding party had moved on. He instantly went to the wine cellar to see if his family had survived in the secret room that he had built inside one of the walls.
What he found changed him forever.
Two of the raiders were still in the cellar; they had obviously gotten drunk and passed out, but not before they had torn the room apart and consumed every drop of drink in the place. Somehow the entrance to the safe room Ahmed built had been discovered. Inside he found his wife, Sarah, and his daughter, Hannah, both dead. From the looks of it, they had made Sarah watch as they killed Hannah, and then turned the same spear on his wife.
It was that spear that he took. The first brute he stabbed in the eye while he snored in his drunken stupor. Ahmed recalled being so careful as he snuck up on the pair that he didn't make a sound, but when he drove the spear home, he used so much force that he broke the spear off inside the fiend's head. The sound of the spear breaking awoke his partner in crime. Not that it saved him. Bloodlust raging, Ahmed pulled the head of the spear out of the trooper he had just dispatched and shoved it through the neck of the shocked murderer.
He had then taken his beloved wife and daughter and buried them under a Boli tree on top of the cliff. The delicate, blue Boli blossoms only lasted for only a week out of every year and then blew away like bits of dried paper. That year they were in full bloom as he dug the graves. He washed the bodies of his beloved family and wrapped them in the finest linens he could find. After covering them, he walked back to his house, and took what little he could salvage to include the spear head as a reminder of what he had lost and of his revenge.
The Boli blossoms fell as he walked out of Kubla, leaving his home and the younger, naive version of himself behind.
That had been over fifteen years ago and the ache in his heart had not gone away. Ts'ui had not been as close to Gale as he had his wife, but a bond had formed. Ahmed could see that, and he knew that it was something that would not go away simply because he wished for it to be so. So he sat and he listened, knowing that at some point the dam would burst, and that when it did, Gale would need a rock to help her.
Yet even as these thoughts passed through Ahmed's brain and Gale finally drifted into her dreamless sleep, a different set of eyes watched the train.
Voda sensed the train as soon as it set out over the water. Her water. Ever closer it came, moving at a speed that puzzled her. Boats she knew. They were slow and cumbersome. Even the sloops that skimmed the waves and caught nearly all the wind seemed to only ever move at a glacial pace. But this new transport was quick. The leagues evaporated beneath it faster than a speeding shark. The one thing it was not, however, was quiet. The noise it made reverberated through the water, scaring away the fish for a mile on either side of the train.
For all its novelty, the train did not interest Voda. She could feel its cargo. Magic surrounded it. At the same time the magic confused Voda. There seemed to be two different types at work: one was propelling the train (although she did not know it was called a train), while the other focused on two creatures. They were definitely female and mammals. That much Voda could tell, but they were unlike anything she had seen on her ocean before. Thus, she rushed to meet the train just as fast it as it chugged across her ocean.
Aboard the train those passengers that were not already asleep turned in, and above them, the celestial spheres turned. Eventually, in the east, the sun cracked the horizon, and as it did, Voda caught her first glimpse of the thing that excited her curiosity to such a ferver.
It was huge and black and hissed steamed from two pistons that formed the rails the train ran over. The rails lasted just long enough to allow the last car to roll over them safely before evaporating away, like water dropped into a red hot skillet. It was unlike anything Voda had ever encountered, and as soon as she saw it in the distance she stopped just to watch it pass overhead. She marveled as the tracks formed and disappeared, and she delighted in the sounds the huge, metal wheels made as they passed over the spikes hammered into each rail.
Meanwhile Gale woke up. She didn't feel rested, but she was no longer tired. She was, however, ravenous. Unlocking the door to her room, she stepped out into the corridor, where Ahmed was snoring loudly. She smiled at that, and would have found it funny except he filled most of the corridor. Gale had to climb over his massive legs to get by, which much to her chagrin, woke him.
"Good morning," Gale said as his head gave a jerk, driving the spear point he had embedded in his horn into the wall just to the left and behind his head.
"Oh, Good morning little one. Did you sleep well?"
"Not really," Gale said as she said a quick prayer that nobody had been asleep on the other side of the wall.
Ahmed nodded at this but did not comment. Instead he said, "Are you going to get breakfast?" Gale nodded, and when she did, Ahmed added, "Then do you mind if I join you?"
Gale certainly did mind, but not wanting to be rude she forced herself to say, "No," but she tried to say it in a way indicated that she wished to be left alone.
Ahmed picked up on the tone but ignored it and replied, "Good. Eggs would be welcome. Come. I will cook for the both of us," and then he stood up, which was only slightly less dramatic than seeing a mountain grow legs and rise. Without a word more, he walked past Gale and set out for the dining car. As they walked the hairs on the back of Ahmed's neck stood on end, which made him nervous. The train was being watched, he was positive. Despite his certainty, a look out the windows confirmed they were still over the water, making that impossible. Nevertheless, Ahmed stopped between cars and looked around. For a fleeting instant, he thought he saw something in the water. A face perhaps. It vanished just as he looked though, so Ahmed said nothing and moved as Gale's stomach gave a mighty rumble.
Stepping into the dining car, Ahmed took in the sumptuous surrounding, while mentally acknowledging that Gale's people knew luxury. There were ten tables in the car, each set against one of the five windows on either side of the car. Each was covered with fine china and crystal glasses, and even though they should have long been dead, tulips bloomed in vases on every table. A deep, rich carpet of royal-blue with gold trimming was on the floor, and in the middle of the car was a skylight.
Ahmed left Gale at one of the tables and then walked one car forward, which was divided in half. One half held a galley kitchen with a working oven and stove, and the other half held an ice-room (in which the ice never melted) full of meats and an adjacent cool room full of eggs, milk and vegetables. There was also a pantry that had a large window cut into the outside wall that served as a small herb garden with plants that Ahmed could not identify but that included thyme, rosemary, and sage.
Ahmed took several oranges from the pantry and, not knowing what they were, sniffed them. He then bit into one, peel and all, but soon spit the rind out. A quick search of the kitchen revealed a juicing machine, which he used to make fresh orange juice. He also found eggs, which he fried up and served with bread from the pantry that he toasted.
He brought the food out and set it in front of Gale, who managed to say "Thank you," before attacking the food like a starved animal. Ahmed simply bowed his head in acknowledgement and then, gingerly, eased his massive frame onto two of the chairs, both of which squealed in protest at his weight. He waited a moment, and when the chairs did not break, he set to work eating his meal, which consisted of twelve eggs scrambled and six pieces of toast.
Below them Voda caught the smell of foods both familiar and strange all at the same time. She could tell that the creatures on the train were starting to stir and decided that it was time to investigate the magic that was traversing her ocean. Still, she had to be careful. She knew that most of the creatures on the ships that plied her ocean drowned in the first few minutes whenever she sunk one, and she had no reason to suspect these things were any different. Additionally, if they died, they couldn't talk, and Voda wanted to hear them talk. At least for a little while. The obvious problem was that if she destroyed the train, then the creatures would all die and probably take their magic with them. It was a problem that would require a softer touch.
Then it hit her. Rushing through the water she soon outpaced the train by more than twenty leagues. A great distance normally, but still she would have to be quick. Diving to the bottom of the ocean, she quickly found what she wanted...a giant crack that spewed molten rock out of it and that pushed the floor of the ocean over outwards in a slow tedious process.
Rushing towards the crack she gathered all her power and then with a mighty burst of magic, she blasted the crack. The rock in its melted form was a liquid, and so it was forced to answer her summons. Billions of tons of lava rushed to where she pointed and erupted in a massive explosion that shock the sea floor and sent a tsunami wave blasting away from the crack in the ocean. It would go on to smash into several coastlines and pummel cities she had never even heard about, yet those on shore did not figure into Voda's reckoning. It was only the magic on the train that concerned her, and the need to know drove her to draw up more lava. Up and up it came, solidifying as soon as it touched the near freezing water of her ocean, creating a giant pyramid of basaltic rock.
It was exhausting work, and the whole time she pulled the lava up, Voda listened for the train. The noise of the engine came closer and closer, and still the island was not ready, and so she put even more of herself into the spell, causing the newly formed rock to rise faster, until suddenly, it broke the surface of the water. But it was not enough. Concentrating, she focused on the lava that was now flowing up uncountable fathoms in a huge tube from the ocean floor to the surface where it spread and hardened, like pancake batter being poured into a hot pan.
Soon, a medium-sized island formed. Satisfied, Voda let go of the magic, which
caused the lava to fall back down the lava tube, through the center of the
pryamid, and back down to the ocean floor. Still there was no time to lose or rest. The train was almost upon her, and so she reached into the air for the water that was trapped there, forming all the water that was evaperating off her ocean into clouds.
On the train the huge explosion on the bottom of the ocean was not felt, nor was the tsunami wave, even though it passed right under the train. However, Ahmed instantly noticed that the sky suddenly clouded over and that heavy curtains of rain starting pouring down. At the same time, the wind picked up to a hurricane force, blowing steam from the pistons about. Suddenly the train gave a nasty lurch as the tracks it was supposed to be running on did not form.
Below the train, Voda saw the wind blow the tracks away and the train start to plummet towards the water. She instantly dropped the wind speed, which allowed the train to get back on track. Shifting the wind so that it blew directly at the front of the train, she found that she could blow the steam just enough that tracks formed under the train, but that it did move nearly as fast. She then combined this with a slight cross-breeze and began to alter the locomotive’s course.
In the dinning car the door burst open and Samantha and Mr. Bristle came rocketing inside. "What's happened?" they said in unison.
"I'm not sure," Ahmed said, “but it is not natural. Everyone, come with me, and stay together. Do you understand?"
The group nodded and made their way forward to the end of the car. Ahmed opened the door, and was nearly thrown off his feet. Gale, who was much lighter and less sure-footed was unable to stay upright.
"We can't go out in that!" Samantha yelled, her voice almost inaudible over the wind.
Ahmed nodded his agreement and pushed with all of his might to close the door, going so far as to brace himself against the wall to get extra leverage. Begrudgingly, the door closed, blocking out the wind.
Outside the train continued its turn until it was pointed directly at the newly formed island in the middle of the ocean. Voda dropped the head wind enough to let it proceed with a little more speed, panting with the effort. She watched with the attentiveness of a new mother watching her newborn learning to walk until the train was completely over the newly formed land mass. Only then did she bring the head wind up to a roar and let the cross winds whip back and forth, which kept tracks from forming underneath the train.
Inside the dining car, everyone was thrown off their feet as the train landed with a jarring thud. China flew off the tables and shattered, while silverware clattered to the floor in a cacophonous avalanche. Outside wheels bent and axels snapped as the train fell out of the air and landed on the ground. "What infernal sorcery is this?" Mr. Bristle called out, the quills on his hedgehog body all standing straight up as he curled into a quivering ball. Nobody answered as they were all thrown against the wall of the car when a huge wave crested over the train and broke.
Voda used all her powers to control the massive wave that she sent over the train, while at the same time she pushing against the ocean's natural undertow as the water retreated. Even still, she was just barely able to keep the train on the land. More frustrating still was that the fire in the engine kept burning. Voda didn't hesitate. She sent a second wave at the engine and followed it right away with a third.
Inside the train, the occupants were drenched as the skylight shattered when the second wave hit. With the third wave, cold sea water finally reached the boiler, which caused it to rupture with a massive explosion that shook the whole train and caused everyone's ears to ring.
Voda looked at the train, and smiled. It was going nowhere. Ceasing her efforts, she let the storm abate just as quickly as it had come up. Exhausted, she sank deep into the ocean to rest.
Meanwhile Gale, Samantha, Ahmed, and Mr. Bristle picked their bruised and soaking bodies off the wrecked floor of the once beautiful dining car. One by one they looked out of the window to find the train on a flat expanse of black rock that gleamed like a sinister mirror. For a few minutes nobody did anything. Finally, Gale began to cry. Samantha, instantly moved to hug her, but before she could put her arms around her, Gale shot towards the door and was outside in the blink of an eye.
Samantha moved to follow, but Ahmed caught her by the shoulder. "Let her go. She cannot go far, and she will feel better for it."
Samantha was about to argue when she saw Mr. Bristle nod his agreement, and so she went to the window and found that Ahmed was right. It was not a large island, and she could see Gale's blond hair moving like a beacon among the black rocks. What Samantha and her companions did not know is that even then a pair a eyes watched with interest as one of the sources of magic fled the train.