“Welcome to Ashworld.”
The gruff clerk handed Miriam her passport back, stamped. She took it excitedly and stuffed it into her side bag. This assignment was going to be her big break, and she felt like no amount of gruffness could bring her down. This was the opportunity of a life-time, and she fully intended to make the most of it.
So here she was, in the big city: Cindertown, the sprawling harbour port at Ashworld’s southernmost peninsula, taking on the job that nobody else wanted. That was fine by her; she was very small, and she planned to make a big name for herself.
In many ways, Miriam was the picture of a typical gnome. Like most gnomes, she stood about a metre tall, slender and pale. Like most gnomes, she had large, wet green eyes, pointed ears, and a convex nose several times too large for her narrow face. Like most gnomes, her long, hair was the colour of limestone, an enourmous uncontrollable frizzy mop on the top of her head. And like most gnomes, she had an erring itch for adventure.
It was that latter trait that had lead her to becoming a reporter. The thrill of hunting for new information, tracking down leads, and exposing the truth. Although, so far in career, she had done very little besides helping her more experienced colleagues. So when the opportunity to go solo had presented herself, she immediately leapt on it. Of course, there was some initial push-back from the editor. She was too young, too inexperienced. Too small. Much too small for the Big Grey. But she had insisted, and the truth was that no one else wanted it. So in the end, they had caved.
The goodbyes had been teary. Gnome families are large and very closely knit, and there had been a lot of hugs and kisses, far too many for Miriam to count. But they saw that this was something she was passionate about, and did nothing but encourage her on her way.
The first thing Miriam had noticed was the smell. Cindertown reeked of mill discharge, the kind of acrid wooden scent that you can taste on your tongue.
“Pee yew,” said Miriam, waving her hand in front of her face, before excitedly diving for her journal. Pollution? she wrote, underlining it profusely. Smiling to herself, she slipped her leather bound book back into her backpack. There might be a story already. What do the locals think of the mills? How are they powered?
It was the latter question that intrigued her the most, that she knew would excite readers back home. Especially in the Under Garden, where electricity was still a novelty that had yet to wear off. There, things were still done by lamplight (except for the market square, which had been lit with power generated from an underground river).
Oh, how she missed the Under Garden already. The gnomish city had gotten its name when the City above it had grown to encompass the hills that surrounded it, hills that the gnomes had lived under for millennia. A peace treaty had been signed, promising the gnomes their ancestral homes in exchange for non-intervention in the goings on of the Big Folk, as they were often referred to. Generally, the terms of the peace treaty had been kept to, though there were some notable exceptions.
Most recently, the City had tried to gentrify the Hills by laying new sewer pipe, pipes that would have destroyed the extensive caverns of the Under Garden. In response, the gnomes had staged a massive counter-action. Objects began to mysteriously disappear from the construction site. Workers would show up in the morning to begin digging only to leave a few hours later, lightheaded and confused. When the foreman went to investigate, he seemed unable to find the construction site at all, as if the entire park had suddenly evaporated into the ether. Eventually, cost overruns led the City to abandon the project, and there had been an enormous celebration that night. After all, no one loves an excuse to celebrate quite like gnomes.
And celebrate they had, when Miriam had first gotten her new job. Any nay sayers who thought that there was no way that a gnome would be given room at a human news desk bit their tongues, outwardly showing nothing but positivity and support. Of course, it had turned out that it was much more difficult than she had imagined. For one thing, none of the furniture or pens were designed with gnome proportions or statrue in mind, and she had to improvise and learn as she went. Her bubbly optimism and sunny outlook served her well, and she never shied away from a challenge.
Now here she was, all big dreams and big heart, with nothing on her mind but how, exactly, she would turn this posting to the back-water city of Cindertown into her big break.
Miriam stepped through the passport office and into the main terminal. The wood floors and tracks worn in them from the number of people who had passed over them day in and day out. The ticket offices against one wall, opposite a large clock, dangling cables suspended across the vaulted ceiling. Strings of electric lights lit the otherwise dark space. Voices and fragments of conversations echoed, filling the room. She stared up at the clock in awe, watching as the cogs and wheels seemed to turn of their own according, marching along to a drum beat that only they could hear.
“Excuse me, miss?” said a porter.
“Ya haw?” replied Miriam absentmindedly.
“Just letting you know that the station closes for the night in ten minutes,” drawled the porter.
“Right!” she exclaimed. She still needed to find somewhere to spend the night. And, hopefully, meet some people who she could interview.
The tavern smelled like vinegar and cheap alcohol, the sagging floor slanting sharply. Posters of local bands addorned the walls, and the whole thing was lit with dim electric lights. A few people sat at aged wooden tables, or perched precariously on rickity wooden stools. Miriam breathed deeply, steeling herself. Anyone here could be her next lead, and she needed to be on top of her game.
“Hi!” she said to the bartender cheerfully.
“What’s your poison?” he asked, looking down over the bar at her, a bemused expression playing accross his face
“Oh, I’ll just get a glass of water,” she responded, flashing him a wide grin.
He rolled his eyes, filling up a pint glass with clear liquid and handing it down to her.
“Thanks!” she squeaked. “You wouldn’t happen to know of any rumours floating around, would you?”
“Any what?” he asked.
“You know,” she said, “any gossip, intersting tidbits, people looking to tell a story…?”
“I don’t know of anytrhing like that,” he responded. “But you might do well to ask that group over there.” He indicated a group of about four people sitting in the corner. “Strangers, like yourself. They’ve been sitting there for almost half an hour.”Miriam tipped the bartender for his help, stretching up on her tip toes to toss the coins onto the bar.
The Northern Wastes
A cold wind blew a face-full of rancid soot into Hakha’s face. Damn. They had been hoping to secure the windcatcher before the next storm rolled in off the mountains. She pulled her mask up over her face, taking one last quick swig of water before she did so. Pulling her goggles down around her eyes, she signalled to the rest of her team to start wrapping up. Once the wind picked up, they would be ashed out; this was the last site in their contract, and she would hate to start losing people now.
“Okay people,” she said, once she had scaled the face of the half-finished tower and dropped to the ground. “Storm is coming in, let’s rope up.” They dutifully began tying a thick length of rope around each other’s waists, checking to ensure the strength of the knots.
Once they were done, Hakha checked their location against the map. An hour’s walk back to base camp, and then a two hour ride to Vayden, Ashworld’s northernmost city.
It was a city that Hakha was still adjusting to, all narrow alleys and neon-lit dive bars. She was from Cindertown, and the change in scenery had initially set her on edge. She missed the constant pounding of the surf, the way the pilings moved subtly with the changes in tide. She missed the constant influx of sailors, and their stories of the high seas. In Vayden, the only stories were sordid local gossip, the only friends old drinking buddies. Luckily, her contract was almost up, and as soon as she didn’t have to be here anymore, she wouldn’t.
But building wind catchers was good money, and Hakha could hardly pass it up. Like most windcatchers, they were placed to capture the cold fronts that routinely came in off of Mount Hycretia to the north. Once rigged with copper coils and the proper machinery, they would be capable of generating the energy that made Ashworld one of the riches lands in Tybrus, that kept the lights of cities like Vayden and Cindertown glowing.
As the wind picked up, Hakha thought she heard a soft chittering in the fog. Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder, but saw only the silhouettes of her team members, lashed together. Good. She knew that they were superstitious, and the last thing she needed was a panic. All they had to do was get back to their vehicles and then they would be safe. Just for comfort, Hakha checked her side arm.
Locked and loaded.
As the storm intensified, so did the chittering, until eventually Hakha could no longer pretend that it was all in her head.
“We’ve got company!” she shouted through her mask, giving the rope a firm tug to indicate that they should make haste. Doubling up her pace, her team set out at a full run, buffeted by ash blown by the steadily intensifying wind.
By the time they reached the rover, Hakha could hardly see a few inches in front of her face for the storm, and she nearly blundered into the machine. The chittering too had built in intensity, now a steady, low-level hiss, a sound that she felt more than heard over the howling wind. As her compatriots clambered aboard, she swung her leg over the top roll bar and mounted the roof machine gun, rocking a fresh round into the chamber as she did so. Beyond the ashen veil, she thought she saw shadows moving, and she opened fire, swinging the turret randomly, unable to see what was hunting her team.
“Go, go, go!” she shouted, and the rover spun its wheels before digging in and darting forward. A roar, and a shadow arched over her head. She ducked, narrowly avoiding having the thing take her head off.
“How many of them?” shouted a voice.
“Lots!” she shouted back. “We need to be back in Vayden, time NOW!”
As the rover bounced over the charred earth, she felt the ground shift; this was wrong, they were going the wrong way, must have gotten turned around in the storm.
“Turn this thing around!” she shouted, stamping on the roof with a heavy-booted foot, trying to catch the drivers attention before-
The cliff came out of nowhere, and before she had a chance to react, they were in the ravine, briny water spraying over their heads, turning to ash into thick, grey mud that stuck to everything. She swore under her breath, hoping against hope that the mud wouldn’t clog the machine gun. She kept spraying bullets randomly, shards of dirt tearing off of the edges of the small creek-bed. The ravince offered enough shelter from the storm that she could see a broken bridge ahead, caved in and rusty.
“There!” she shouted. “Let’s get back on the main road!”
As the rover swung back onto the correct path, the turret dry clicked. Hakha immediately began scrambling to find a replacement ammo pouch, intensely aware that every moment she spent not firing at the shadows, they grew ever more emboldened.
“Reloading!” she shouted, throwing the pouch into place and draping the chain of cartridges over the open bolt. The rover struck one of the shadows, and the jolt knocked her off balance. Stumbling, she tried to grasp at the turret controls, but missed. She spun and fell, almost going over the side of the roof, but the line around her waist went taught, hooked over a piece of railing. She began to pull on the line desperately, praying that it wouldn’t give. As she came up over the top, a shadow coursed over top of her, so close that she could feel it, an electric prickling like the air just before a thunderstorm.
She rolled onto her back, drawing her sidearm just as the shadow made another pass. She fired once, twice, the rounds hitting their mark. There was a loud squeal, and then it was on top of her, pinning her to the roof, dark tendrils sinking into the meat of her upper arm. She screamed in pain, tried to wriggle away, but she was trapped, the thing leering down at her. Turning her face away, she thrust the pistol out in front of her and fired blindly, emptying the magazine. Another roar, and the thing was gone, leaving her on her back, bleeding profusely.
“You okay up there?”
“Yes, now just get us home!”