Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
He liked to put his face against the cool steel of the floor and listen to the rack and rumble of the track. He liked to feel the sweet hum in his cheek, the rhythmic jolt in his teeth. When the train would string out and curve along turns through the steep, orange caverns of Utah or the flat, green fields of Iowa, he pressed his ear against the floor even more, as a hundred metal wheels, springs, brakes—some shiny and some dull with caked grease, let out a harmonious screech and the heavy cars squatted in the cool midnight.
He imagined the metallic creaks, clunks, and hum flying out, bouncing around the open wallpapered cupboards of a lone farm house in Kansas, or sinking down into a desert hole in New Mexico and pricking the ears of a fox; or during the day, when Nikolas would sit in the cool shadows of his boxcar, he imagined the sounds drifting out, touching the faces of revolutionary couples on motorcycles waiting at crossings in Oklahoma. James Dean and Cleopatra waiting for the train—Nikolas’s voice to pass.
This was how Nikolas Veshinski came to be in the world after returning from Iraq. Any time he stepped off of the train, when he had to venture out and get some food or water, it was like he was launching out into nothingness. He could see the busboy in Tennessee hurriedly taking out the bucket of scraps in the sweltering night, and he could sense the jagged paint and the oily funk of the back alley dumpster that he was hiding behind. He could smell the rich sourness of plastic, cardboard, food, dirt, and shit. His nose told him that they were there, but none of it seemed real. Nothing ever felt real. Except when he was on the train.
Before the train, there had been a rail yard in Los Angeles.
Nikolas was drawn in by the screech and bang of the cars as they came in and departed the station. He sat and watched the rail yard obsessively for a few days from inside the rusted, corrugated walls of an abandoned warehouse. Nikolas laid on the cracked concrete with all the mice and pigeon shit and listened to the distant metal wrench and clamor as the cars came in, pulled apart, clanked together, and the deep rumble of the engines as they pushed down and shook the earth and traveled to places like Jacksonville, Chicago, New Orleans, and Spokane. He rolled and laughed like a delirious child as he thought about wild horses running the pale green plains of Wyoming. The gentle patter of rain on a tin roof in North Dakota. Below, an eager couple kissing feverishly in a candle-lit bedroom with damp, white sheets.
To be free.
Nikolas didn’t know if it was possible for him to get on the train, or what he would do if he did; what he would do if he had to take a shit, or even how he would eat, but one night, Nikolas set out to board this mysterious thing that brought all of these dreams, and yes, he finally realized, also brought feeling back to him. He left the dim warehouse and passed through a jagged gash in the outer chain link fence.
To be free.
The nighttime air of Los Angeles was charged with heat and electricity. Metallic clouds from colossal smoke stacks pushed into the yellow, saturated sky. A dog barked somewhere. As Nikolas ran, he could feel the mighty rumble in his feet. He was panting and could smell and feel sourness and pain passing through his skin. For the first time in a long time, in the churning mechanical night of a train yard, Nikolas was feeling something real. He reached another fence.
This time Nikolas didn’t find a convenient hole, but instead an even taller chain link fence with a menacing halo of razor wire. He flung himself onto the fence and began scrambling up with clawed hands, and when he reached the forbidding, cutting razor wire, Nikolas thrust his hand through it and catapulted himself to the dusty ground on the other side of the fence.
Nikolas ran for the shelter of the train cars. He couldn’t feel any pain, but he could sense the cooling blood running down his arms. He reached the first set of cars and peered around the corner to the other side.
He saw beams of flashlights bobbing and poking into shadows, seemingly undirected. They belonged to sentries, and Nikolas had to avoid them if he was going to successfully board the train. Nikolas squat down and felt the cool track, the vibrations and the rocks with his fingers. He felt the cold blood dripping and he gasped as his lungs burned. He felt like an animal, a big jungle cat running, or a wolf running in the wild. In its own habitat. In the place where it belonged.
Nikolas stooped and ran through the night. A distant light flicked to a car behind him. Did they see his shadow? He scrambled between massive wheels and paused behind a concrete pillar.
To be free. To be caught was to die, he told himself. Then, a disembodied voice from a nearby shadow.
“You know it isn’t that easy, don’t you?” said the voice of a man only a few feet away from him.
Nikolas jerked as if to run. And then stopped.
“We get guys like you all the time, think they can just hop on a train, and erase their problems, that some adventure is going to save them, like they’re fucking Jack London or some bullshit,” said the man calmly from the darkness.
“Most we see are kids; you real homeless guys usually don’t make it past the second fence once you realize what you’re up against. I’ve been watching you for a few days.”
Nikolas sat down hard with his back against the concrete pillar. He looked into the darkness, but couldn’t see where the voice was coming from.
“What’s stopping me from calling you in? Shit, I wouldn’t even have to call you in, Bobby’s right around the corner, I’d just have to yell for him,” said the man. The metallic hum of the rail yard filled Nikolas’s ears.
“If I don’t get on this train, that’s it for me,” said Nikolas.
There was a long pause.
“Don’t give me that bullshit about how this train is the only way for you to live. That your life is in my hands. You don’t have the right. I call you in, they take you to county, you shoot too much dope on the street or jump off a building, or whatever. I don’t give a fuck,” said the voice sharply. “I’m going to impart a little advice upon you before I call my buddies up, or let you get on this train.”
Nikolas felt a stirring in his stomach.
“My name is Smart, and unlike most people you meet out here, I’m from this city. That gives me a unique perspective, you see. All sorts of folks come out to Cali to be models, movie stars, hang out on the beach, become porn stars, but they forget about the actual living part, the part that they didn’t see on TV. What’s your name?” asked the voice.
“Well Nick, you still have to live your life. I can tell you’re a veteran. You’re no different than the cracked out porn stars and burnt out waitresses singing to brick walls in their shit apartments at night. Maybe you didn’t come out here to be some fancy movie star or whatever, but you got suckered in just as bad as the rest of them. You saw some movie, let some guy bullshit you, things didn’t work out, and here you are, running around like some animal that forgot how to live.”
Nikolas rubbed his hands together on his lap. The blood had congealed and was now sticky.
“If I let you on this train, you’ve got to know that, this isn’t the end to your problems; you need to find a way to go on living. This fucked up veteran thing is just as bad as the acting gig. Maybe you saw fucked up shit over there, and maybe you didn’t, but either way, you need to find a way, your own way to go on and to live. As much as the world says that they love you, and they want you to be well, they want you to suffer like you have been. It’s all part of the big gig. You were the sacrifice that allows the rest of us to eat, fuck, and watch sitcoms while the rest of the world burns. Nick, the only way I’m going to let you on this train is if you promise me that you are going to find a way to live. To make your own way.”
Nikolas looked in the direction of Smart. He didn’t know if he could promise what was asked of him. Sure, he could just tell him anything, but Nikolas felt like Smart would see right through it. This was a real life decision. It wasn’t some crack deal where everyone involved was a liar but just enough of a friend to keep the whole thing going on. If Nikolas couldn’t get on the train and make real change, not just get on and run, then he didn’t deserve to get on. Nikolas swallowed hard.
“I want to live,” said Nikolas.
“Then get on my train.”
Notable History of Castle Jade: The Beginnings of the Tenth Kingdom and the Battle of the Seven Blades
Within this volume, you will find a general history of the Tenth Kingdom, Castle Jade, and a first-hand account of the Battle of the Seven Blades by Sergeant Pendleton of the Jade Army. All histories in this volume have been collected from the most reputable of sources, vetted several times over, and are humbly presented as part of the official record.
The Tenth Kingdom is governed by separate castles with varying jurisdictions and influence. At the time of The Battle of the Seven Blades, two hundred years prior to the writing of this history, there were four castles ruling throughout the kingdom. At other times in the Kingdom’s history, there have been twice as many as that, and at one point, in the beginning, there was only one castle. That singular castle was Castle Jade.
It was a role that came with a great deal of responsibility, and for the most part, was met with an adequate amount of agency. Jade served as a model for all those in the Tenth Kingdom. Separate tribes in various regions of the Kingdom began to emulate Castle Jade, and provincial governments were raised with Jade being the principle contributor.
Initially, the relationship between the budding castles and regions was awkward, but as time went on and the expenditures of war and the benefits of cooperation exhibited themselves, an equilibrium developed within the Kingdom. There were periods when the pendulum would swing to one side or another and clashes would break out, but despite all of the grumblings about the overarching powers of Castle Jade, its jurisdiction was seldom questioned. Of course this balance was eventually turned on its head when the notorious delegation arrived from Castle Ker, thus initiating the fall of Castle Jade and widespread chaos and death throughout the Kingdom. It is now believed that the engagement with Castle Maryt, which came to be known as the Battle of the Seven Blades by the Jade Army, was the major turning point that eventually led to the fall of Castle Jade a decade later.
Castle Maryt, which at the writing of this history is a set of ruins ruled by an ever revolving band of warlords, is located in the central part of the Kingdom in a significant geographical area known as Badean’s Moor. The namesake of the region is derived from the explorer Badean, a woman who, interestingly enough, was Jadean and could trace her heritage back to the first inhabitants of Castle Jade. Badean had discovered many relevant areas between Jade and her moors. Her vast achievements are even more remarkable considering the fact that she died at the young age of 29, supposedly in the Inner Harsh, although no body or substantial evidence of her departure from this plane of existence was ever recovered.
Now, saying discovered by Badean, really means mapped by the Jadeans. A relatively well organized and hardy tribe called the Marytians had existed in the moor for at least a thousand years. What Badean didn’t bring in terms of existence to the Marytians, she replaced with trade and other benefits of association with Castle Jade. It wasn’t long before the Marytians decided that they should erect a castle of their own, at least not long in terms of the history of the Kingdom. The nature of the terrain made this task immensely difficult.
Badean’s Moor is perpetually shrouded in a layer of fog, wet to the point where you can be walking in ankle deep brackish water one moment and swallowed up over your head the next; covered in patches of impenetrable black brush, and thus, considered to be absolutely inhospitable by any other inhabitants in the Kingdom. It was certainly not an ideal location for a castle.
Prior to deeming a castle necessary, the Marytians had existed on massive floating forts, which were primarily constructed from wood brought into the Moor from the east. For a castle, they needed stone, not only for the rugged walls of the castle itself, but for the very foundation that it would sit on. A few ill-fated attempts to import the vital material were initiated, but it wasn’t until the Marytians had their first court alchemist that they met with any success.
The origins of alchemy can be traced back to experiments and meditations conducted by religious leaders and healers of the ancient tribes. Modest discoveries were achieved during those times, mostly in the realm of medicine, including the curbing of a few especially nasty maladies.
It might seem shocking to consider at the present day, but many of these medical techniques were practiced within private residences by normal, untrained individuals—some achieved better results than others, but more than a few unfortunate accidents occurred as a result of this unregulated experimentation. As the wheels of civilization turned, and the beginnings of Castle Jade were being established, the most notable of these homespun alchemists was summoned to serve on the Jadean Court.
Her name was Serene, and if it wasn’t for her extensive knowledge, ingenuity, and selflessness, Castle Jade and the Kingdom as a whole would have embarked on a much different path. Although Serene gained fame from her remarkable healing abilities with the spheres, she was also responsible for developing the first branch of transmogrification, actually turning water into stone. This technique, on a much larger scale of course, allowed the foundation and walls of Castle Maryt to be built several hundred years later.
Serene also formalized alchemy by establishing a governing body and school to cultivate it. As alchemy became more powerful at Castle Jade under the care of Serene, it also became more powerful outside the protections that she could provide. This meant higher returns and higher penalties for those practicing on their own. Con artists would travel to unwitting villages, sell faulty spheres, ingredients, and spells to enthusiastic budding alchemists, and leave town before the horrific deformations, and many times, deaths took place.
A true alchemist will operate outside the temporal inclinations of men. An alchemist’s mission is to further their craft, build upon the knowledge of those before them, serve the people under their care, and hopefully as a result of all this, one day, allow either themselves or another in their sacred line to achieve true transcendence. These were the tenets set forth by Serene when she established the School of Alchemy, and they are the same ones that still stand today. Up until about 100 years prior to the arrival of the delegation from Castle Ker the school was located at Castle Jade. It was moved to its current location on the eastern coast for the sake of impartiality.
Gifted children were sought from all parts of the Kingdom, with the understanding that they would never return home if they became alchemists. The children had a higher calling and associated responsibility to tend to. These alchemists were then distributed and governed by the school. When Serene finally died at the age of one hundred and twenty-two, she had left behind a body of work and infrastructure that was invaluable to Castle Jade and the rest of the Kingdom.
Now that we’ve covered the general history of alchemy, the Kingdom, and Castle Jade, let’s bring attention to a sweltering afternoon in 1568. Three riders approach the towering walls of Castle Jade, each carrying the same message. It was from Castle Maryt and read:
Why waste the blood of those, which in the end will mean nothing? Let us decide this matter in a more direct manner.
The dispatch was signed by none other than Queen Alleb of Maryt. The time for change in the Kingdom had come.