Nicholas woke from a long-needed nap to the shunting of a train carriage.
Crusted sleep flaked and fell from the corners of his eyes as he blinked awake, vision becoming a blur of red and white as he rubbed away what remained. He took a moment to enjoy the pleasure of scratching out the fatigue, yawning, before extending his arms and legs to stretch out the final kinks of sleep.
His right arm jolted to a halt before he could complete the motion, and he frowned, sleepily tugging at it. Pain startled him out of his drowsy haze – enclosed around his wrist, a rusted shackle dug into his flesh. Panicking, he began to struggle harder against the restraints, and the violent movement quickly drew blood, sharp orange flakes cutting into his skin.
Before he could do too much damage, though, he was thrown bodily out of his panic. His back jarred against the seat behind him, and he groaned, stationary carriage lurching forward. Still tense but resigned to his current state of imprisonment, he began instead to look around.
The wood was worn and rotted, and a dense layer of rust coated every metal surface in sight. Half the carriage was smattered with specks of blood, and it took Nicholas a while to realize it had windows – they were nearly opaque, covered thickly in grime. Nicholas adjusted his shackle, chipping off the more jagged flakes. It gave him ever so slightly more freedom to move – or at least, he was less likely to rub his wrist raw doing so – and he reached for the window nearest him.
He tried rubbing away the filth, dragging his hand hard enough that his skin drew tight and the glass began to bow, but despite his best efforts, he succeeded only in widening ever so slightly the few areas where pinpricks of sunlight filtered through. Leaning as far as his restraints would let him, he pressed close, squinting hard and tilting his head as he tried his best to assemble a clear image of what lay outside.
“A forest? Where the hell am I?”
From the brief snatches he managed to glimpse, the expanse outside appeared to be smothered by an endless wild of trees. Nicholas stayed there for a while, watching, hoping to see something more, but the landscape didn’t change. His wrist began to ache, and he withdrew to his seat. Sitting on his bench again, he felt warm and relatively comfortable. He chuckled to himself.
“All things considered? This is by far the best place I’ve fallen awake into.”
He sat in peaceful silence as the train chugged along, faint hints of smoke blowing through the air, confirming that the train must be powered by steam.
“Timothy would be jealous. I get to ride on a steam engine, and he is stuck doing boring things, like… not riding on a steam engine. Sucker.”
The carriages swayed as they clattered along, and it wasn’t long before Nicholas was thoroughly bored. He began to exhaust his methods of self-entertainment; he tapped a drum beat with his hands and feet, beatboxed as best as he could. Finally, he tried to remember old songs to sing. But he was very quickly left with very little to occupy his running mind.
“Okay, this is a bit shit,” he admitted. “I can’t even fucking go anywhere because of this damned chain!”
He couldn’t help but yell in frustration, tugging wildly at the chain for good measure. He kicked the metal railing of the bench which bench? in an attempt to dislodge the warped frame from the rotten floorboards, sending up a flurry of rust. The wood didn’t immediately give, but he continued to strike at it as with each kick, they bowed and began to splinter.
“Just fucking break, you rotten-ass flimsy waste of fucking space!”
Right on cue, the boards supporting Nicholas’ seat split and fell away. The thunder of the train roared in through the hole, screaming vengeance, and the edge of his seat toppled through, dragging him with it. There was a jolting stop as the side attached to the wall held the seat from falling through to the racing by below. Nicholas desperately struggled to find the end of his shackle, trying to bail himself from his rapidly sinking ship.
“Come on!” He grit. “Why the hell are you still attached so damn well?”
He was knelt on the nearby floor boards that were still holding. Leaning down the hole, he attempted to remove the chain from the seat.
“Welded? Who in their right mind would weld it to the seat?”
Scrambling out of the hole and sitting on a piece of floor he deemed safe, Nicholas waited for his racing heart to slow. Now vacated, the bench only made the occasional movement, seemingly fairly securely fastened at the wall. He took a deep breath as his thrumming pulse calmed and shuffled to sit hunched under his seat – extra support – hoping that it would at least last until the train stopped.
Bow-backed and sufficiently uncomfortable, Nicholas resigned himself to listening to the sounds of the train – louder now, thanks to the hole. As the hours rolled by, he could feel his every joint and muscle stiffen and after long enough, become entirely numb. Every now and then, he let out a long-exasperated sigh until the door to his carriage slid open, and the sounds of the outside world became louder for the moment it remained open.
Two long legs stepped into view, Nicholas’ position preventing him from seeing any higher. They were clothed with what looked to be a simple pair of black pants, but the shoes shone as if brand new. Knees unbending, a hand lowered, holding out a small card for him to read. And so he read.
Nicholas struggled with one arm to search his pockets, then did the same with the arm on the other side. In his last pocket, he found an old piece of paper. Torn and worn, it was the same as the one the strange pair of legs had lowered to his face. Doing his best to hand it up, the hand lowered once again to receive it. Disappearing out of sight, there was a solitary click, and the card was returned with a clean hole punched through it. There was a moment of what sounded like keys jingling, then a second hand came down with one. Aiming it at his chained wrist. He raised his arm as much as he could, and the hands unlocked him. He was free, but before he could move, a hand returned with a piece of paper and laid it on the ground in front of him before walking through the carriage. It was a simple diagram of someone sitting on a chair with a tick next to it. Next to it was an image of how he was sat with a cross next to it. The door at the back of the carriage slid opened and closed, and he climbed out from his resting place. Slowly using the wall to stand, he stretched out his back with a series of clicks and moans before finally righting himself. The last movement let loose a loud crack from the center of his back, and air escaped him with a sigh of relief.
“What a heaven-send. I don’t think I would’ve lasted much longer in that position. Now that I am free, I guess I should figure out where I am.”
he rose his leg high and brought it down on his seat, breaking the boards and setting them loose from their metal bindings. Picking up the largest of them, he slammed it into the window, shattering it. He looked out the window, first backward, then forwards. There was nothing but an endless train surrounded by a thick forest.
“yup, about as useful as I thought that might have been.” he said sarcastically.
Heading for the forward door, he stopped as his hand touched the handle. Turning back, he grabbed small piles of the smaller pieces of glass and shoved them into his jacket pockets before returning to the door. Passing between carriages was simple enough, opening one door, stepping across the small gap, and going through the next. The doors closed behind him automatically.
Standing in the next carriage was as if he had just stepped back into his own. The only difference was the lack of holes that he had made. Stepping forward, he was cautious; still with his piece of wood in hand, he checked down every seat that he passed and looked at the overhead compartments before he went by them. No matter how many carriages he moved through, they were all the same.
“Nothing.” He said with a sigh of disappointment. “There’s no way Hollow would let something like this go on without taking advantage of it. So why is there no one here?”
As if to prove him wrong, the door behind him suddenly slid open. A mess of raucous children spilled through, tattered clothes fluttering in the wind rushing in with them in through the open door. Each one of them was holding what looked to be a makeshift shiv.
Nicholas didn’t hesitate, rushing forward and using his wooden plank to stave in the face of the first child he reached. The kid fell to the floor with a limp thud, and Nicholas pressed one foot down on the kid’s arm hard, so they couldn’t make a grab for the knife. He doubted they would, though. From the blood beginning to pool around the kid’s head, they’re not waking up anytime soon, if at all.
“All right, little shits, I want answers.”
The rest of the kids froze in the doorway, some backing up. One stood fast, though, and stuck his chin out defiantly.
“There’s more of us than you. Maybe we want answers.”
Nicholas steadied his grip on his weapon, resting the tip of the plank on the seat next to him.
“Okay,” he conceded. “What do you want to know?”
The kids spun to form a dense huddle, voices hushed but overlapping and stirring up a cloud of chatter. Occasionally, one or two would steal a glance to make sure Nicholas wasn’t moving. Eventually, they broke form, and the kid that spoke before stepped forward.
“What’s your name?”
“Nicholas,” he replied. “My turn. What planet are we on?”
The kid shot a glance back at his companions, who seemed to share his confusion.
“Okay, your turn again.”
The leader dove back into his group, and their overlapping conversation started again.
“Fuck, I wish I were the unconscious one,” Nicholas muttered to the prostrate kid by his feet.
“What god do you worship?”
Nicholas’ eyebrows shot up.
“Wow, didn’t expect that,” he grinned. “I worship Anodyne.”
He wasn’t surprised, however, when the kids’ eyes lit up with fear. Some – their leader included – tried to keep face but did so poorly.
“Okay, my question. Excluding yourself, how many other Holites have you seen?”
“Loads. But you’re the first we’ve found alone.”
“I’m not a Holite, though.”
“Then what are you?” the kid blurted.
“I’m Human. My question.”
One of the other kids smacked the leader on the arm. He rubbed it, then smacked the other child back.
“Where does this train stop?”
The children all laughed.
“It doesn’t,” the leader said.
“Then why wasn’t the train moving when I first woke up?”
“Wait, you were the special stop?”
“Yeah. Everything locked down, and we stopped. Wait, so you only just got on? A few hours ago?”
He gave the kids a calculating look, taking a moment to silently count them.
“There’s only eight of you. I like those odds.”
The children turned and fled. Nicholas laughed as they disappeared into the next carriage, stopping by the back of the door and watching him, wary. He bent and grabbed the unconscious kid’s shiv and pocketed it, walking slowly into the next carriage. The children opened the door behind them but stayed put.
“Why don’t you want to go back through the train?”
“Things are much worse that end. Nightmares and strange things. Things get weird and confusing. Everything is much easier up this end.”
“Interesting. I am going to step to the side here. You kids run past one by one. I’m headed that way.” he said as he pointed away from the train.
The children looked shocked but did as he told them.
“You’re going to die,” one warned.
“I count on it.”
Nicholas smiled as the last child disappeared through the joining door, fiddling with his new knife as he made his way farther from the head of the train. He may not have known what he was looking for, but he knew that if he were to find it, he’d have to go through the strange. On his way back through the rusted carriages, he used his new knife to chip away some of his wooden planks, smoothing one end into a handle.
“It isn’t much, but it should help a little,” he muttered, swinging the makeshift bat. He passed the hole he made and smiled. Marching south, he was met with a similar population to his previously northbound journey. He grabbed the next-door handle and expected the same, but this one was stuck. He tugged a little harder, and he heard the sound of rust breaking away. Gripping the handle with two hands, he braced his foot against the lip of the door and tugged as hard as he could.
The door screamed open, metal scraping and warping as it tried to follow almost non-existent grooves. Nicholas made no attempt to close the door behind him, tugging hard at the next as he was buffeted by the wild winds between the carriages. It opened painfully slowly, and he slipped and fumbled on the thin walkway. As soon as the door was open enough to squeeze through, he forced his body inside.
“No fucking kidding, it’s harder down this end. How did those little shits get through those doors?”
He swept the rust off his clothes and wiped the sweat from his brow. When he looked up, he froze.
The carriage was filled with Imps, small frames lining the walls, occupying every seat, and filling every overhead storage space to the brim. They didn’t seem hostile, but even so, Nicholas took his first few steps in the carriage with care, walking quietly until he reached the center. As he progressed, he relaxed, imps appearing to be wholly unbothered by his presence. On a whim, he jumped on the spot and yelled to make a fuss.
“Urgh,” one of the imps groaned and gave him a nasty side-eye. “I hate noisy passengers.”
Nicholas shrugged and proceeded on. The door at the other end was at least much easier to open, but the next carriage’s lone occupant made his blood run cold. Hunched at the far end, a hooded Wanderer stood, face to the ground. Nicholas slid his hands into his pockets, turning up nothing but a few nicked fingers sliced open on shards of glass.
“Damn,” he cursed. “No gold.”
he looked around the carriage wildly, looking for a coin. Its advance was slow, but the Wanderer began to move toward him, arm outstretched. Where its hand should have been, a tentacle extended in its place, and Nicholas turned tail and left. Between carriage doors, he spotted a rebar ladder to the side. Taking one last look back to note the progression of the Wanderer, he wasted no time climbing it.
Breathless, he lay on the roof. The door below opened and closed, then the next door opened and closed. There was a commotion from the carriage below him as the imps initiated a mass exodus, fleeing out the door he’d left ajar. A terrible screech vibrated through the air, and the carriage began to shake violently. Nicholas contemplated for a moment whether it might tip and derail before Imps came pouring out of the cabin. Many of the winged ones flew away, while some landed on the roof alongside him. Lost for breath, with a face of relief.
“My god, I hate Wanderers,” he panted.
“You hate them?” an imp squealed, voice shrill. “No heads up or anything? We could have killed you when you came in! You owe us your life!”
Nicholas stood up and punted the wingless Imp off the carriage. His scream faded before it collided with the ground. Those remaining few spat at his feet and wandered off along the top of the train, descending into their carriage once the Wanderer had passed through.
“Why don’t more people stay up here?” Nicholas wondered, taking a moment to scope out the entire landscape. “I can see for miles.”
The tracks were surrounded by nothing but forest, and neither end of the train could be seen.
“Too open,” he mused. He peered over the edge of the train. “Too easy to fall,” he added, watching the ground whip by. Decided, he descended back into the train.
“There must be a reason why there’s no one else up here. I’m not risking it. Yet.”
Gripping his wooden board, he continued on. Again, he wandered empty carriages for what seemed like hours. For a while, he made a futile attempt at measuring time but soon gave up. The sun never moved.
“Those little shits said this was Hollow,” he grumbled, looking back to where he’d met the kids. “But Hollow’s sun moves. This is somewhere else.”
He paused, another thought struck him.
“But at least I know Anodyne’s name draws fear even here.”
He forgot about time after that, moving through as fast as possible until he realized the carriage he was about to enter had a large brass number bolted to the door.
he opened the door. Inside was not the carriage but a shed. The shed he used to play in as a child.
“So this is a dream. Not technically Hollow, but might as well be. I guess the kids didn’t lie to me.”
he wandered around the old clubhouse, taking time to interact with everything he remembered fondly. He climbed the steep steps leading to the mezzanine, looking down on the cold stone floors and shelving units that littered the walls. Grinning, he flipped open the trap door he and his friends had made and descended the poorly attached ladder. He found the next door at the back of the shed. Taking one last look back, he smiled the smile you make when you know you are never returning.
“I can’t believe we spent a whole summer in that heat trap. Building shitty sleeping places and playing nerf wars. Probably best summer of my life.”
Turning away, he moved from the room quickly, not allowing himself to linger.
“Who are you talking to, Anodyne?”
he chuckled as he took a seat in front of a small girl. Behind her, a large black monster reared its head at his approach.
“How many times do I have to remind you, Penrose? I’m not Anodyne.”
“Don’t worry, big brother,” Penrose reassured the beast, gently petting its oozing form. “We like this one.” She swayed her legs and offered him a smile. “Maybe not yet,” she replied, “but you will be soon.”
Nicholas smiled back and laid down on the bench he was resting on.
“I guess. But while I’m he, I’m different to him.” He paused, looking at Penrose inquisitively. “Do you prefer me like this? Or do you like Anodyne?”
“Hmm,” Penrose thought for a moment. “Anodyne is a lot sadder than you. But he plays with me more. You’re never around, and Anodyne brings me treats.”
“I like him more. But I still like you too,” she decided, touching her arm with reassuring apology. He offered her a smile in return, but it quickly soured. It stung slightly that he would always live in Anodyne’s shadow. He sat back up, leaning heavily against the arm of the chair.
“What does Anodyne bring you?”
Penrose’s eyes rolled as she tried to remember.
“He brought me this,” she said, drawing a sickle from behind her. “It’s much prettier than my last one.”
He admired the ornate handle and shimmering blade with hollow eyes and an empty heart.
“It’s a lovely gift,” he lied. “I guess I don’t quite match up to him yet, so I’ll leave you to your new toy. Any advice before I go further?”
Penrose climbed to her knees, peering over the back of her chair at the carriage’s rear door. She didn’t take her eyes off it when she next spoke.
“It’s not really a train after this room. It goes weird.”
He moved to stand at her side, and she spared him a glance.
“That’s why I sit here,” she grinned. “I like seeing all the weird things that come through.”
“Of course you do,” he said, patting her head fondly as he wandered past, carefully maneuvering around Penrose’s brother.
“Easy big boy,” he murmured in response to the beast’s threatening rumble. “I might not be her favorite version of me just yet, but I’d never hurt a hair on her head.”
He grabbed the handle of the door and calmed his nerves.
“This is where the journey begins.”