Nocturnes: 02 — The Choir at the Storm

The quickened footfalls of Ignatius rattled through the air as he scurried through Anchorhead Station. He travelled through halls devoid of any light only to be intermittently saturated with a grievous red glow, which emanated from pulsating crystals hanging overhead. The wail of the foghorn cried in rhythm, drowning out the panicked cries of men fleeing for safety—and of those who could not find it.

Steam pipes erupted not far behind him. Metal walls ominously roared as they crumbled from somewhere near him. And immediately ahead of him came a cry for help. It came from a man pinned between the ground and a collapsed metal pipe. The man’s voice croaked and pleaded as he held his bloodied arm outstretched, watching with failing eyes as Ignatius neared him. And then he watched as Ignatius ran past with no hint of a pause, looking onwards as if the man did not exist. And he continued to watch as Ignatius disappeared into the plumes of vapour until he took his eventual last breath.

Ignatius continued through the narrow winding halls, fumbling over mining equipment that lay strewn across his path, and turning blind corners with such careless speed that he near tripped when coming to an abrupt halt—the cause of which being a crowd of distraught miners immediately ahead.

“TEAR IT DOWN!” He heard the miners shout over the foghorn.

“FASTER!”

“THERE HAS TO BE ANOTHER WAY!”

Ignatius watched as the miners pulled and yanked with their bare hands at what was once a section of the hull, now a collapsed mass of wreckage made of torn sheet metal and ruined timber frames. Crude black oil trickled down the cracks of debris that loomed overhead like a polluted mountain brook; its entirety as thick as the snow is deep and it wedged itself from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling—leaving no room for escape.

“MOVE!” yelled a booming voice from within the crowd. It belonged to the foreman, and the miners quickly parted to give a clear path with which he marched towards the wreckage. Ignatius’s eyes were drawn to the man who marched alongside him, towering over the foreman and the surrounding miners. He instantly recognised him to be Balla, but what caught his eye was the bronze contraption suited to his legs; its bare innards revealing the ever-shifting gears and clockwork springs and exhaust pipes that expelled thin burst of steam. Ignatius knew it to be runner’s gear—worn to allow miners to swiftly haul heavy mining equipment throughout the station with relative ease; but before Ignatius could think any more of it, he heard a mighty roar bellowing out from deep within Balla’s lungs.

He watched as Balla let loose a devastating kick against the wreckage—the impact of which striking with such force that Ignatius swore he felt it send tremors through the metal walkways below their feet. The crystals above flickered dimmer and dimmer until they fully extinguished, throwing the men into darkness. The miner’s expectations rose as the crystals slowly came back to life, but as the red glow permeated the halls once more, their hope dissipated. The wreckage remained as it was, unchanged.

The wail of the foghorn continued, begging—pleading for the men to flee. It suffocated their thoughts, allowing for no other instinct to rise other than fear. But Ignatius, trying to suppress the boiling panic within himself, reached deep into his fur-lined parka and pulled out a set of parchments; inked with blueprints of Anchorhead Station. Using the wall as his rest, he scanned the blueprints, tracing the pathways with his eyes—trying to find alternate routes to escape while, concurrently, calculating times and distance within his head. But no matter how many times he looked or searched or calculated—there was no alternative. Anchorhead Station had become a coffin, and the frozen tundra the bed in which they would be buried.

He tossed the parchments in frustration, and they fluttered down the hall, eventually coming to a rest near the mining equipment Ignatius had fumbled over earlier. Then, an idea came to his mind.

He shouted for the foreman’s attention while pointing towards the mining equipment. The foreman, as if linked through a telepathic link, immediately understood, and gave a nod to Ignatius.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The foreman turned to the men and yelled, “YOU ARE MINERS! SO, GET YOUR GEAR AND START DIGGING!”

Balla was the first of the men to move; his heavy footfalls accompanied by the metal clangs of the Runner’s Gear. Following close behind was a couple of hefty looking miners. More men began to trickle in until the whole crowd was now moving down the hall. The hanging clouds of steam and vapour had since thickened, and it concealed their persons; only the orange-tinted glow from the gas bulbs on their helmets pierced the spectral shadows—bobbing up and down as the men marched with a surprising placidity as if they were in attendance to a funeral procession in which they mourned their own perceived inevitable deaths.

The miners marched back towards the wreckage, only now draped over their shoulders were leaden shovels, sizeable pickaxes, and powerful hammers. Balla was the last to return. In his hands was a large, rust-wrought mechanical drill, which he held heavily at knee-height by two partially eroded iron rungs welded to the top of the chassis. Malleable pipes of bronze metal hung from the bottom of the contraption and dragged along the grated walkway, leading back to some sort of valve system in the walls. The drill bit—which was easily the length of Balla’s arm—protruded aggressively from the metal chassis. It was the Drillsaw, as the miners of Anchorhead affectionately called it.

Balla yanked at a series of levers at the side of the drill—each one letting out an exasperated hiss—and the Drillsaw’s metal pipes snaked to life, squirming in place as jets of steam surged through their innards. The motors and gears within the chassis whirled into action, letting out a deafening drone.

The drill bit began to gyrate, faster and faster until it was a spinning blur. Balla tightened his grip, struggling to keep a steady hold of the roaring contraption—and before it could leap out of his hands—he shoved it into the wreckage. There was an immediate horrific screech of shredding shrapnel, followed by a fuselage of amber sparks shooting outwards as the Drillsaw bore through the wreckage with ease. It juddered and convulsed, trying—as if it had a will of its own—to go awry; but Balla held the Drillsaw steady with the aid of the Runner’s Gear locking him in place.

The other miners piled in alongside Balla. Their clothes, drenched in sweat, clung mercilessly to their bodies while they slung their instruments at the wreckage in rhythm to the foreman’s behest, who orchestrated their movements like a greasy conductor.

Ignatius, standing near, thought for a moment that he had heard something over the deafening cacophony of clanging tools. But he swiftly ignored it, putting it down to a trick of the ear, and continued to watch as pipes lining the walls hissed steam at the miners while they laboured over the wreckage. And he watched the wreckage begin to shift as chunks of debris tumbled loose.

There it was again—he was sure of it this time. A low hum that permeated the space around them; something so barely perceptible that it was easy to mistake it for general background noise—especially so for an environment such as Anchorhead Station. But the more Ignatius concentrated on noise, the more concerned he became of it, so he tried to locate the source. It came from the wall at his side. He neared it, cautiously placing his against the hot metallic surface. Beneath his palm he felt the wall trembling. Ignatius knew instantly the Azoth was near.

The wreckage collapsed inwardly, and a narrow gap emerged between it and the ceiling. Miners threw down their tools to scale its surface. Ignatius shouted at them to stop, but none would listen, and the low hum grew louder and louder until it became a resounding rumble as Azoth swelled up along the copper pipes around them. There was a sudden shrill crack of metal fracturing, and before the men had a chance to react, the pipes above ruptured with a violent expulsion of steaming vapour. Ignatius raised his arms to shelter his face from the blast, and his eyes of those caught in it.

The rapidly growing plume of steam spilt into the hall. It tumbled towards the wreckage, searing men it engulfed and scorching the lungs of those who breathed it in to scream as their skin bubbled into blisters.  

Ignatius dashed for the wreckage—near leaping as he latched onto its side—and he began climbing upwards.

The ground shook again, and there was another ear-shattering explosion of vapour. Ignatius spun his head to see a deep smouldering hole in the floor where he stood before. From within gushed upwards a torrent of silver liquid that spilt over the edge of the hole and onto the metal walkways. It was Azoth, pure and viscous, and it pooled rapidly—and all that it oozed over sizzled and boiled, reacting to its touch as if it was molten lava—and men, still yet to reach the wreckage, found themselves trapped between the rapidly approaching plumes of steam and the spluttering Azoth.

One man made an attempt to leap over the silver liquid, but it was expanding quicker than the distance he could cover, and he fell directly into the swelling substance. The effects were instantaneous. The veins of his body constricted and bulged, and the whites of his eyes blackened. He kicked his legs, but the Azoth clung like goo. His jaw dropped and from his mouth came a blood-curdling scream, followed by a burst of brilliant white fire that spat out from his throat—and, in an instant, his whole body was set ablaze with the blinding fire. His scream petered to silence, and Ignatius watched the man’s charred black, skeletal silhouette fall to the ground, while the white flames licked his smouldering body and the Azoth quickly consumed him.

The men on the wreckage clambered over one another; pushing and shoving and pulling as they fought to get to the top first—but Ignatius was desperate, and more importantly, he was ruthless—and he shoved his foot against the top of the head of whoever was below him, and managed to propel himself upwards and within reaching distance of the gap.

The foghorn continued to wail in the distance. The crystals above had long since stopped—and the only source of light came from the white flames of those set ablaze by the Azoth, which was now at the foot of the wreckage.

Ignatius dug his fingers hard into the grease slicked crevices, caring not for the cuts and gashes across his palms from the sharp metal edges, and he pulled himself upwards to see for the first time, the exit. A large metallic door stood ajar only a few quick strides away to the end of the hall. It led to a small metallic chamber room with a second door, which—when opened—would reveal the tundra abyss beyond. Ignatius could see a handful of miners already in the chamber. They were arguing between themselves, seemingly over the large bronze rotary wheel attached to the chamber room wall.

“WAIT!” Ignatius bellowed as he tried to drag himself through the gap. He felt a tug on his leg. Someone had latched on to his trouser sleeve to pull themselves upwards. Ignatius panicked and kicked, and the man’s grip loosened. The man began to slip, and he instinctively reached out to catch himself—but the wreckage’s surface was too slick with grime and grease and he tumbled downwards, splattering into the Azoth and bursting into flames. Ignatius averted his eyes while he squeezed through the gap and crawled out the other side.

“How many are left?” One of the men asked Ignatius, only just entering the chamber.

Ignatius paused. His face remained expressionless under the smudges of oil and grime that smeared him; the thick layers of his parka heaved at the chest as he tried to catch his breath. Eventually, he rested his bloodshot eyes on the two men and said, “Too many to save,” and he clasped the large rotary wheel on the wall.

It squeaked and groaned as it rotated heavily, resisting against Ignatius who spun the wheel as if it were the helm of a ship and all responsibility lay on him to navigate the looming storm.

There was a loud whistle as steam hissed from the hinges of the entryway door. It shuffled closed in a slow and agonising manner. Simultaneously, a gap in the seams of the exit door emerged—opening wider and wider while pellets of snow, whipped by the wind, shot into the chamber from outside. Ignatius continued spinning and spinning the wheel until one of the men shouted for him to stop, and he felt himself suddenly yanked away from the wheel.

“Let go of me!” He yelled, “You’ll kill us all!”

“Look!” Hissed the miner currently grappling Ignatius. He pointed with his head towards the wreckage and Ignatius followed with his eyes, squinting at the quickly thickening veil of steam and dust in the hallway. Only just could he discern the shimmering silhouettes of what appeared to be both the foreman and Balla clambering down the wreckage.

“Fools!” Ignatius barked, struggling to break free. “Any moment now that pile of wreckage will collapse and unleash a deluge corrosive Azoth our way. No door will stop it, and no man can outrun it. And that’s only if this whole station doesn’t collapse, burying us in the never-ending pit below our feet.”

“They can make it—we must wait!” Shouted the second miner, who stood between Ignatius and the door.

Ignatius noticed the man glancing anxiously between the wheel on the wall and the two men at the wreckage, and a thought slid into the forefront of his mind. Suddenly, he ceased struggling and his voiced lowered to a calmer tone.

“Do you have a family?” He asked. The man by the door tried his best to ignore him, but Ignatius continued asking questions regardless. “How long has it been since you last saw them? Three years… Five? I’m sure they’re eager to see you again.”

“Shut up,” he snarled. Ignatius could see the tendons of his jaw jut out as he clenched his teeth.

From a distance, the foreman’s voice echoed down the hall. Hold the door! He yelled, but his words trailed off—interrupted by a deep rumble that shook the ground beneath their feet. Thin strands of debris fell from the cracks alongside the flickering crystals above and gathered into small piles at Ignatius’ feet.

“Five years in isolated mining is no small amount of coin,” Ignatius now spoke with a noticeably more hurried tone, “I’m sure you and your family will never have to want for anything again.”

He felt the other miners grip around him tighten. “He said shut up,” he hissed in his ear, but Ignatius ignored him and continued.

“But if you were to die here—in this wasteland, out of reach of any form of civilisation—can you say for certain that the Concilium will honour the coin that they have promised you…and that it will reach your family in full?”

The man’s eyes suddenly widened. He spun his head and looked to Ignatius with a cocktail expression of fear, anger, and confusion. He opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by another quake; it was fiercer than any that had come before it, and this time the whole of Anchorhead station swayed with the vibrations.

“You cannot, for you are nothing to them!” Ignatius was shouting now, fighting to be heard over the station’s creaking metal walls that threatened to collapse under their own weight. “With a stroke of a quill, they can make it so that you never existed in the first place. No nobleman will fight for your cause and no person, not even your children, will remember your name. No—only I can help you. But you need to let us out!”

The quake continued—the air was filled with the sounds of pipes burst and metal tearing. The man’s eyes were fixated on the wheel.

“Turn the wheel!” Ignatius coerced.

Tendrils of steam were now creeping into the chamber room. A rapid thump of metal against metal echoed from down the hallway. Beads of sweat dribbled down the man’s brow; his panicked eyes flicking between the wheel, the hall, and back to the wheel.

“TURN IT!”

Suddenly, the addled man let out an exasperated cry and latched onto the wheel—yanking it down, pulling with every fibre of his being. Then, with heavy breaths, he stood back and watched in shock as the wheel twirled against the wall like a weightless spinning top. The savage winds from outside billowed into the chamber room as the exit door promptly unfastened. The rapid metal thumps from the hallway quickened and grew louder the closer it got. The entry door screeched as it slid across the hall, leaving a trail of steam as it quickly shut. Then, bursting through the veil of white vapour, came Balla—still adorned with the Runner’s Gear. He slipped through the open crack of the entry door and into the chamber room. Without missing a beat, he spun on his heels to grab the foreman—but the door shut on his face.

“NO!” Balla yelled, banging his fists against the metal door. He turned to face the three men. The miner holding Ignatius had already released his grasp. Ignatius, who had his back to Balla, was currently bracing himself to leave the chamber room. The other man avoided Balla’s gaze entirely. “OPEN IT!” Balla demanded. He turned to look out the porthole in the hopes of seeing the foreman. Instead, he was greeted with only a thick sheet of twirling steam.

“He’s already gone,” Ignatius said without turning. His voice was dry and devoid of any emotion. “Come, or you’ll join him.”

He was the first to leave; throwing up the fur-lined hood of his parka over his head and stepping out to brave the perpetual snowstorm that littered the forever-night sky. The other two men quickly followed, leaving Balla the last to leave. He remained for a moment—watching the thick clouds of steam pirouette weightlessly against the porthole window, hoping to see the foreman burst through the grey drop curtain as he did. Eventually, Balla decided that the foreman was gone—a decision hastened by the crumbling station above him—and he turned away with slumped shoulders to follow Ignatius out into the tundra. Then, as if by providence, a hand did reach out; breaking through the steam and resting against the porthole window… But Balla was no longer around to see, and the door remained forever shut.

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