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Iron Quill (Absent Friends): Tomorrow's Town

E.T.A. Hoffman

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                Brittle, unidentifiable desert plants crumbled to dust as Nell stepped on them. The game was to crush each one. Days of the same tedium under the desiccating sun had left her with little other amusement. Her company wasn’t good for much either.


                The cat, she loathingly called Bingles, was ahead a few yards, keeping perfectly silent. Nell frequently could not sleep at night from the idea it might try and kill her. As she walked behind it, she was forced to ponder the potential consequences of trapping an ancient malevolence to her service.


                Bingles sat and waited for her to catch up. “Town ahead,” it said.


                Nell stopped. Out in the distance she could see nothing but a heat blurred horizon. “I don’t see anything,” she said.


                “Over the dune. I smell life,” it said. It walked away.


                “Do you think it’ll be safe?” asked Nell.


                The creature did not respond.


                It was a frontier town, with maybe twenty buildings by Nell’s guess. She could see a water tower and prayed it was full. It had been four days since she had left her home town. She sold all her families possessions. It was enough to get her proper clothes, a duster, a hat, a shabby old six shooter, and enough water to last only three days. She was very thirsty.  


                The sun was lowering when they reached the first building. The streets were quiet; no doubt the citizens had finished the day’s work and were relaxing. Nell figured if she could find the inn or the saloon she would be alright.


                Under the long shadow of the water tower Nell stopped. There was something different about this one. In her old home town she had played near the water reserve a lot. This one was like nothing she had ever seen. Several thick copper wires ran along the side of it and into the ground. Funny shaped nobs where sticking out the top.


                They moved on and Nell found more oddities. One building had a gold lettered sign that read, “The Wire” and another “Ticker Box”. She wanted to stop and inspect them but the thirst was getting to her. A siren was going off in her head and her vision kept blurring.


                It was simple enough to find the saloon. It was the noisiest place around. Soft, golden light shown through the windows and Nell found it so inviting. She pushed past the double hinged doors.


                Fifteen men of various ages and dispositions turned and looked at her. Some of them smiled and others scowled. She tugged her hat lower on her head.


                The bar tender was a middle age man, with a kind face and a large bald spot. Nell sat down on the stool and placed her bag in front of her.


                Push back your coat, Bingles said. Only Nell could hear the cat, it spoke directly to her mind. Yet another reason she had trouble sleeping.


                Nell did as she was told. The pistol was out for all to see.


                “We don’t get travelers her often,” said the bartender. “What brings you out this way, young man?”


                Nell dropped her voice low; so far her disguise was working. “Got nothing else to do. Just walking till I find a place to stop,” she said.


                The bartender nodded as if she had said something sagely. “Well I’d be happy to put you up for the night. We don’t really have any extra rooms here in town, but I have a spare spot for lumber. If you don’t mind sleeping on dry reeds.”


                “That would be wonderful,” she replied than quickly added, “I mean it’ll do.”


                “Can I get you something?”


                “Water, lots of it.”


                “Meaning no offense, but do you have anything to barter with?”


                “I have some guild script—“


                The bartender ruefully rubbed his neck. “Like I said, do you have anything to barter? We don’t use script out here.”


                Nell thought for a moment, but she really didn’t have anything extra she could part with. In fact, she barely had enough as it was. “No,” she said slowly, “but maybe I can work it off?” She pulled her violin from her bag but instantly she knew she had made a mistake.


                Bingles hissed in Nell’s mind. Fool!


                The bartender’s eyes widened. Every voice in the bar dropped to silence at the sight of Nell’s soul stone violin. Faint green light shimmered off its neck from the inlaid stones. It was her one true possession of value and it had cost far too much.


                “My word, how did a lad so young come across something so… beautiful?” asked the Bartender. Nell did not like the way he said the word beautiful.


                She crammed it right back in her bag. But, it was too late. “I… um… it was an heirloom. Of my family.” She blinked away the tears of that memory.


                One of the men in the back stood up. His suit was a riot of color. He wore a thick set of spectacles and carried himself very properly. “I’m Mayor Dockman,” he said, bowing to Nell.


                Nell nodded back then pulled her bag closer.


                “Might I see that item again? Such a wonder shouldn’t be hid,” said Dockman with a massive, kindly smile.


                “I’d prefer not, actually,” said Nell.


                “My young lad, do you know where you happen to be? This is Tomorrow Town!” he exclaimed.


                Nell couldn’t recall such a place.


                “We have amongst us the best and very brightest minds in all of Malifaux. It’s partly why we live so far out of the city limits. What you have there is not some rusted banjo. How’d you like to stay with us for a while?” he said.


                “No, I’d like to push off in the morning. I have to be somewhere.”


                “Now didn’t I hear you say that you’re just walking where your feet take you? Well, why not stop here! We’re advancing, breaking through the barriers of science! That gem you have could be put to some good use here. The gems I mean, of course. You’d be doing something really profound, you know that?”


                Nell stood, pulling her bag on her shoulder. “I couldn’t never part with it.”


                We should leave, said Bingles.


                “Right,” said Nell.


                “Now hold on,” said Dockman.


                The bartender stood before the door, there was something very hostile in his unthreatening posture.


                “Young man, do know what you saw when you walked into town? That water tower? It’s one of a kind. It can draw water out of the very air! How about that?” Dockman waved his arms about like a showman. “We have a network of wired communication that doesn’t mess about with that nasty vox. How remarkable is that? Come, stay and help us.”


                “No! I want to leave now. Please step out of the way,” Nell said to the Bartender.


                “I wish you would reconsider,” said Dockman. The fourteen other men stood with hands full of guns and blades.


                Nell pulled her pistol but the bent sight caught on the hostler and the whole thing tumbled from her hands. Bingles leapt onto the bar and sat down.


                Good luck, he said.


                Nell looked at the cat in horror.


                Dockman lunged for bag. Nell drove her boot into his shin and back away. The bartender reached for her neck but she rolled out of his grip.


                Nell pulled out her violin and bow. She put the bow to the strings but didn’t play. “Please, we don’t have to fight.”


                “We don’t, just leave that trinket on the floor and you can go. We’ll even give you a horse, water, and all the supplies you can carry. But, there is no way you can leave this town with those stones,” said Dockman, his voice was like a wolf’s growl.


                “Please,” said Nell. The town’s folk and their assortment of deadly items continued toward her. She ran the bow across the high string; a piercing tone and emerald light filled the room. The patrons fell to their knees.


                She grabbed for her bag but as soon as the tone stopped the patrons started shooting. Nell screamed as something hot struck her leg. Without thinking she played another melody, something hard and visceral, and then a bolt of searing light erupted from the stones. It blasted at least five of the men into bloody pieces before exploding out the side of the bar. Timber and fire rained down from the hole and the arrow of light pierced into the next building and the next.


                Shocked and enraged the remaining patrons charged. Someone grabbed Nell’s arm, another grabbed her violin, and yet another struck her face. Her hat fell off and all could see she was a girl with her hair pulled up tight. They did not care.


                Blood and tears ran down Nell’s face. There was a throbbing pain in her leg. But, nothing was worse than the moment her violin was taken. In the sea of hands, she had no idea who had it. Someone else struck her head. Nell collapsed to the floor. Boots collided with every inch of her as the patrons beat her.


                In the glowing firelight, Bingles looked down at Nell from the bar. She could see the humor in his eyes. He had betrayed her after all; she wasn’t surprised. Then something changed in the cat’s face. It seemed twisted and in pain. The cat slowly started to move towards her as if it was fighting itself to stop. It leapt into the fray.


                As Bingles landed it transformed from the cute white cat into something terrible and massive; a beast the size of a bear, with a devouring, tooth filled smile and two front limbs that split at the elbow into three separate clawed arms. It tore a bloody swath through the men, leaping from one to the next, six sets of claws rending flesh and bone. One man’s head was crushed between its teeth. Dockman and the bartender ran in terror but Bingles’s tail lashed out, the razor fur opened them up for their guts to spill out. In mere moments there was only one person left alive in the bar.


                Nell struggled to her feet. She limped to her violin and pulled it from a severed arm.


                “So, you cannot betray me after all,” she said.


                “It would seem not. One cannot be accused of not trying,” said Bingles.


                The fire was spreading, in few moments it would catch the liquor. Nell and her cat left the massacre. Outside was a circus. Dozens of people were madly trying to put out of the fires. Not just the bar, but the whole town. Nell stared in awe at what her magic had caused. The entire length of the eastern side of the town was ablaze. The arrow had pierced though each building. Nell was forced to wonder who else she might have killed this night.


                There was a groaning of iron. Fire was licking the legs of the water tower. Then there was the colossal scream of metal and the tower collapsed. It fell towards the west, smashing through a building and unleashing torrents of water in all directions. Nell’s destruction of Tomorrow Town was complete.


                We should leave, said Bingles.


                “Yes,” said Nell, “but I think I need to rest for a bit.” She felt cold. There was something hollow in her she hadn’t noticed before.



Theme: Absence

Location: Saloon

Item(Sort of ;P): Rusted Banjo

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  • 3 weeks later...

Definitely feels like "part 3 of an ongoing series"...did you link to the rest? And good use of rising tension.


Some notes:

  • "The cat, whom she loathingly called" (or which)
  • "from the idea it might try to kill her" -> needs rewording
  • bartender - one word, no caps needed (varies throughout the story)
  • "Only Nell could hear the cat, for it spoke directly to her mind"; or use a semicolon instead of a comma.
  • "she replied than quickly added" -> "she replied, then"
  • "lunged for the bag" (missing word)
  • "at least five of" -> the 'at least' disrupts the narrative; be more definitive.

Apologies if these are unwanted; it helps me pay attention as I read. ;)

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