Into The Depths Of Haggard Hill

Edmund stared down the deep staircase, feeling the hot stale air breathing out from the gaping earthen maw. Taking a deep breath, Edmund stepped down the rocky staircase, now muddy with the dust mixing with the icy black rain.

The dim moonlight from the outside did nothing to help him see. Thanking his foresight, he set aside the umbrella and held up the small brass lantern. Gripping the handle tightly to keep his hands from shaking, he began to turn the crank like an organ-grinder.

Slowly, a dim light began to flicker to life deep in the lantern’s depths, letting him see the path ahead, though not clearly. What he could see was that the stairway was old and dirty. Bits of the walls and ceiling had fallen into the passage over the years, and Edmund had to climb carefully to keep from stumbling. Roots from random plants stuck out from the walls to startle him and trip him up. The wooden braces in the wall were full of holes and cracks, and the air was stale, and foul smelling–a mixture of mold and rotten vegetables.

He only had a short distance to go before the steep staircase came to an abrupt end at what looked like a wall of stone and mortar. Edmund stared at the imposing blockade as he heard the storm rage down at the entrance of the tunnel. Who would build a tunnel that led nowhere? No one, he reasoned, and pushed gently on the stone.

Light as wood, the stone swung away from Edmund’s push, revealing a small room with a tall stone slab in the middle. The walls were covered in small alcoves that had been filled with collapsing wooden boxes and dried skeletons. moss and cobwebs covered the room like tapestries, forming a morbid mockery of the elaborately decorated Moulde Hall. Edmund carefully stepped around the room, casting his light over small wooden signs that labeled the alcoves as the final resting place of many men and women, all Mouldes.

It wasn’t until Edmund turned back to the stone obelisk in the center of the room that he realized he had been looking at the back of a stone chair. Seated on it like a queen was a dusty skeleton of a woman in what was once a fine burial dress, but had long since rotted away, leaving behind the cobwebs and dust that had become her funeral garb. The placard on the bottom of this gristly memorial proclaimed the throne’s occupant as Orpha Moulde, the first matron of the Moulde Family. Her jaw had been forced open, and several teeth removed. Several finger bones lay broken on the ground, marking her sorrowful fate as a target for grave-robbers–no doubt her own progeny.

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Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 5

I began to feel the pressure in my bones. The weight of the million tonnes of City pressing down on the pipes and wheels and cogs of the machine, all struggling to contain the furious flames hidden in the Boiler. I could hear the blood dripping into the gears, oiling the machine like a divine offering. I could feel the pipes bulging, desperate to burst and release their struggling charge. The smell of the crucible began to intoxicate me — the burning coal stinging my lungs like needles, as the air around me grasped at my neck with burning fingers, eager to crush the life from my throat. And still I worked harder, throwing more and more coal into the crucible. I was like a madman, running about the room, doing the work of three men.

They tell me it was Peeks who stopped me from throwing the barrel of water on the coals–I have no memory of that day. The difference in temperature could have caused the Boiler to explode, and we all would have had our flesh melted off in the raging torrent of steam. I heard the Foreman honoring Peeks as a hero as I was led away. I do not, for I hear the whistle.

The whistle! The foul whistle shrieking again and again, and I know that what I hear when the pipes shriek and bang is not mere boiled water, pushing against the metal. I know the Web like my home, and I know what it contains.

Such a pretty picture we tell ourselves about the way of the world. We say the glory of our civilization is paid for by oil and steam, wood and steel; but this is not the only fuel that our cities need. We pay in sweat and blood. We sacrifice our children to craft idols and temples to brass gods, in hopes that our life will remain comfortable. We work our whole lives in the machine — and we cannot stop. Jugs of wine and rolls of silk float across the seas, while people march across the land like ants, exploring, exploiting, conquering, and above all, moving. Like any machine, if we stop we are useless. The wheels of progress must keep moving, or everything will fall apart. Industry will collapse, food will rot in warehouses, while clothing will be eaten away by moths.

And so we work, plot, sweat, fight, drink, and never ever stop, to keep the engine running. And our masters, they keep the pressure high to make us move faster, fueling the insatiable hunger of Civilization. And it is not just the Areos Vitae that mixes with the water to fuel the City. It is not just our blood and sweat that greases the wheels of the engine. It must claim our souls as well. We who die here, among the gears and boilers of the Steamworks, as our souls take flight to the hereafter they must be caught in the spider’s web. The swirling Aether that fills our blood and bones becomes trapped, bottled, and sealed tightly in an inescapable pit of fire, boiling and fueling the lives of the millions who live above us. We will never leave the Steamworks — can never leave. We are here, forever and eternal.

And when the whistle screams, it is not the reed quivering in the flow of fierce steam, but the last scream you shall ever give, mingled with the screams of those who died before you. A final cry of pain and helplessness to the world you left long ago, mistaken by the remaining living slaves as a call to eat.

Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 4

One day, I heard the waterman open the valve to the Channel. Perhaps it sounded different? I don’t know what it was that made me stop and watch the water flow into the reservoir. It was rare that I ever took my gaze from the glowing red coals that nested under the Boiler–perhaps it was providence. We both stared as the water that flowed into the cistern. It flowed thickly, like jam, and was tainted red. Barely a moment passed before the waterman reached above his head, and pulled the whistle.

The whistle!

I had heard the whistle thousands of times every day of my life. It was a call to work, to rest, or to eat. I had come to love that sound, to depend on it like a brother. But the cry that leapt from the whistle’s lips that day was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was pain and despair. I could hear the sharp edges cutting their way through the sound, struggling to restrain the harsh echoing cry. The shriek filled my brain as it echoed throughout the room, racing throughout the catacombs, bouncing off the pipes as it sought the ears of Foreman Pike.

He came, red-faced and panting heavily, followed by seven men with heavy spanners. Neither I nor the waterman said a word–we simply pointed at the blood-filled water. With a sharp command, Foreman Pike ordered the tunnel cleaned, and the matter seen to. In half an hour, the dead body had been removed from the intake and handed over to the police. I saw the corpse before it was taken away. He was a young man, with a claw-hammer through his chest. He looked like a bricklayer, with crusty shirt and pants that even the Channel could not have cleaned. His hands were rough and callused, while his face was clean shaven, and thin. He wore a wedding band on his finger.

The reservoir was cleaned and the water flowed quickly again, but something in the valves must have remained because every time I looked, the water flowed a deep purplish crimson. And every time I heard the whistle after that, the dead man’s face rose to my mind, breaking through the fog like a ship in the night. I thought about the blood leaking into the water, and the claw-hammer growing rusty in his chest.

As the years wore on, the image began to fade, but the whistle continued to terrify me. As the days grew in length, I would grow more and more anxious. I began to fear our meals, and our scheduled sleep time. I worked harder and faster, hoping to drive myself into exhaustion, so perhaps I could forget that terrible sound. So perhaps I could drown out the terrible ticking with the sound of rushing blood in my ears.

Time became my enemy–an unavoidable march towards the next hissing scream. Every burst of steam, every echoing clang shivered in my soul. My body pulsed with the rhythm of the Steamworks–It was not the ticking of valves or Steam Meters, like I thought it was. I heard the heartbeat. I realized it was not the three-fourths valve in the center of the meter turning over and clicking into place next to the curing hammer, but a steady pulse of life, following the flow of the steam through the veins of the City. I saw the Steamworks true face: not a maze of pipes and tubes and valves and industry, but a giant web of veins and arteries fueled by the massive spider at the center of it all.

Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 3

The Boiler squatted at the center of the City like a great brass cactus, it’s tall and thick form spouting thousands of little pipes, all branching off into one of a thousand other boilers dotted throughout the city. It took seven to man the Boiler. One to measure the recipe for the water, and the other six to mend the fire.

The recipe is precise. The exact right amount of Areos Vitae must be mixed with the exact right amount of water to give the steam a thick and billowy texture when it boils. Without the Areos Vitae, the steam would be thin and weak. There would be no way to power the entire city with mere water and heat alone.

Whenever the Master Pressure Gauge of the Boiler gets too low, the waterman opens the valves that connect to the channel, pulling in water to the deep belly of the reservoir. Then, he adds the Areos Vitae through a small channel that hangs over his head, and pumps the reservoir into the center of the Boiler.

The men who tend the fire work hard, shoveling the coal into the deep crucible that nests the Boiler. It is vital to monitor the thermometers to make sure the heat is even. If one side gets too cold, or two hot, the Areos Vitae could explode inside the Boiler. The steam would escape, tearing the Steamworks apart, and the City would grind to a halt. And nobody knew what would happen then.

The first time I saw the Boiler, I made the same mistake every new man does–I dared to look up into the face of my God. The Boiler rose so tall and the pipes twisted so beautifully, I looked deep into the rising heights as far as I could. It was so high! I remember feeling like I was transformed, magicked into an ant, or worm, insignificant under the shadow of so massive a contraption. It towered over me like a colossus, reducing me to nothingness.

Then, I felt my world turn and I was suddenly craning my neck to look down a massive hole, filled with copper tubes and ticking meters. The infinite depths of the earth yawned beneath me, and like a timid fly I clung by my toes on the ceiling. of the world. The next thing I knew, Peeks had grabbed me and pulled me back before I fell into the crucible. I learned a valuable lesson that day–the Boiler showed no mercy, and could devour you if you let it.

Alas, it was not a lesson I learned well. The Boiler was a cruel and dangerous master, demanding coal and water like we needed air. We were consistently running about the monstrosity, adjusting levels, releasing valves, and always, always, maintaining pressure.

The constant pressure. The incessant ticking.

My life became the Boiler. When I worked the pipes, there would be jokes, and songs, and stories. We would talk with each other, sharing what time we could together, as friends and co-workers. On the Boiler, there was no speaking. There was no time to talk, and the air burned your lungs. All you had was your shovel, the coal, the thermometers, and the ticking to keep you company. The best firemen didn’t even need the thermometers–they could feel the differences in heat just by walking around the room. I was a good fireman.

Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 2

Then, when I turned eighteen, Foreman Humphreys died.

I remember everything about that day. I can remember which junction I was at, and which Steam Meter I was replacing. I remember exactly where the cracks and chips were on the old brass piping that snaked in and out of the wall. I remember where my hands were, and which tools were on my belt when I heard the long sharp cry of the whistle.

The whistle means everything in the Steamworks. It is communication–the breath of our work. The whistle sometimes blows for lunch, other times for rest. Other times, someone has fallen and burned themselves on the pipes, or cut their heads on the sharp bolts that seal the connections. Sometimes it’s a meeting, or a call for the young Runabouts to meet with the Foreman to coordinate their efforts with the repairmen.

Sometimes it is a funeral.

The Steamwork Spiders removed our hats as he passed on the doctor’s cart, tears in our eyes. His face was still red, but thin and waxy from the glowing lights, not bright and vibrant as we remembered him. As I watched him pass, I became aware, for the first time it seemed, of the sound in the Steamworks. It is never quiet in the Steamworks. The pressure bangs and claps against the piping, while cooling vapors and dripping water ticks and taps against the brickwork. The Steam Meters tick, while the fire roars, and the boiling water pops and fizzes in the gorged belly of the City. And randomly, a whistle would blow.

The officers said it was an accident, but we Spiders suspected murder most foul. It would never be proven, but we knew the Foreman was not a man who made mistakes. The funeral was in shifts, because the Steamworks never slept. After the funeral, Sir Walter Finneius Pike took the reigns. He was a harsh man, thick of stomach and sharp of tongue. He had a bright gold ring that glittered in the dim red light. When he spoke, he barked like a dog, his spittle flicking about to sizzle on the burning hot brass.

“Keep up the pressure!” he would yell, pointing a chubby finger right at us, the ring glinting in the lamplight. “The blood of the City, that is!”

And so we would, running to and fro, keeping the pressure high.

After a year he decided to move me and Peeks from the pipes. He said it was to make room for new blood, and that we were getting too big. He needed us to work the Boiler.

There are thousands of boilers in the Steamworks, all filled with thick bubbling water and Areos Vitae. They were fickle things, and needed constant tending to make sure the heat was always high, and the steam pressure steady. They provided the lifeblood of the City to every nook and cranny, but these were mere homonculi–vague mockeries of the one true Boiler.

Intermission: Tales from Cliffside – Steamworks 1

You have to be careful in the Steamworks.

Brass and steam fill the belly of the City. When I first became an Engineer, and I saw those towering pipes that twisted and turned like yarn through the brick walls and floors of the Steamworks, I had first thought I had gone insane. It seemed impossible that so much metal could exist. But of course, Cliffside is a giant place, filled with steam cars and zeppelins, doctors and fine gentlemen and ladies going about their days, and it was our duty to keep the City running, ticking along like an old Steam Meter.

I had only ever seen one of the old Steam Meters in a book before I went to the Steamworks. Of course, Ventometers were everywhere in the City, their thin and gleaming cylindrical forms replacing the loud thick clunky disks. In the Steamworks, however, the Steam Meters still reigned, their thin black needles always quivering slightly as they measured the steam pressure in the pipe, or valve, or regulator, or cooler, or boiler. The ticking was everywhere. Even with the roaring blaze of the boilers, and the banging of the boiling water, the ticking echoed through the tunnels like a clock, reminding us of the steady passage of time.

I was named Wetherbee Spikes by a mother who did not survive my birth. When I was young, my father sold me to my eventual mentor and friend, Foreman Humphreys, for drinking money. I worked with Kites, Pullson, Richards, and Peeks. We five were the Lower Runabouts, and we knew every inch of the lower half of the Steamworks. We kept the pipes clean and tight, sealed all the cracks, and knew all the shortcuts so we could get from one side of the lower half to the other in fifteen minutes flat. We scouted all along the twisting web of pipes, dodging Engineers and Steamologists. We made a game of it, seeing how many days we could go without the other workers seeing us fix the cracks. Foreman Humphreys called us his Steamwork Spiders.

Of all five of us, I was the smallest of stature when I joined the Runabouts, so I was sent down the deepest and narrowest pipes to adjust the valves and regulators in the hollow bowels of the Steamworks. My ears were sharp, and I could find a leaking pipe quicker than anyone, seal it off, tighten the bolts, and get back before the pipes had time to cool. We had pride in our work, then, the boys and I.

But time passed, and as I grew older and could no longer fit down the narrowest of cracks, I would climb the large boilers and thick pressure pipes to seal leaks and keep the pressure high. I became an Engineer then, fitting new valves, adding new threads in the ever widening web of pipes. My muscles grew strong from lifting large spanners, and hoisting giant brass pipes into place with my fellow men. Kites fell ill when he was fifteen, and died before the year was out, and so it was just me, Pullson, Richards, and Peeks.

Edmund’s Notebook 16: Down, Down, Down

https://www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/7447732100/

Image: A Young Scholar, Tyne &Wear Archives; Museums

Excerpt from “Born from Ashes: A Learned Study of Patron Lord Edmund Moulde and his Writings” by Sir Loomus Kohlm, DFA, MRD, NDA:

Perhaps most interesting, in the entire annuls of Sir Edmund Moulde’s great poetic history, is the poem simply titled ‘Down, Down, Down.’

Found in the seventh Unpublished Notebook of Poems, the title appears at the top of a loose page that had obviously been crumpled and mostly burned before being used as a macabre bookmark. No other words are legible on this page.

Nowhere in Sir Edmund’s vast collection of writings is there any indication of what this poem might have contained, and Sir Edmund himself was famously tight lipped on the subject. As a result, countless pet theories, such as the laughably nonsensical idea offered by my respected and otherwise learned college, Sir Wather Krink, that this poem was somehow connected to the random sketches of burning skeletons that were peppered throughout his notebooks, have become quite fashionable. 

The Clock Statue

The clock itself, Edmund had to admit, was rather striking. The sculptor had gone out of his way to carve minute whorls and spirals in the clock to give the white stone the appearance of ashen wood. The pendulum hung crosswise, frozen in mid swing, while the numbers were carved in a beautiful script. The hands themselves were covered by a glass window, attached with a realistic looking hinge.

As soon as Edmund looked closer, he saw what he had expected–the hinge was real, painted to look like stone, and a tiny keyhole sat on the edge of the frame. Edmund reached as high as he could to slip the tiny key from the gargoyle’s mouth into the hole, just managing it.

He twisted the key gently, and the glass window opened with a click. Edmund smiled as he saw that the hands, which had been so exquisitely carved to look like part of the stone face, were in fact painted iron and could rotate about the face.

The rain and thunder crashed down on top of Edmund as he stood, staring at the large granite statue. The cold wind pushed at him, twisting and winding through the holes in the hedges, but he would not move no more than would the clock statue.

‘The time my child first cried,’ went the poem, Edmund recalled. Lucky that he had spent so much time pouring over the journal for clues about the Mechanus Vitae.

Reaching up to the face of the clock, he cast his mind back to Plinkerton’s journal, and the entry about his son: Rotchild had been born at seven twenty-three. Carefully, he moved the hinged hands on the clock to seven twenty-three. Stepping back, Edmund waited in the pouring rain.

Nothing happened.

Was there something he had forgotten? ‘When lightning fills the sky,’ was the next part, but that was obviously about when Rotchild was born.

Was it?

A hunch building in his mind, Edmund’s eyes locked onto the very top of Moulde Hall, barely visible over the tops of the hedges.

After only a few seconds, with a crack that almost split his ears, a bolt of lightning struck the western pole on the roof of Moulde Hall. Deep in the building, thought Edmund, the large copper wire traveled down the chimney to the furnace in the cellar, and then into the ground. It had been there for years to protect the building from lightning strikes. Perhaps Plinkerton had put it there himself. Edmund had assumed the cable ended there.

Now, Edmund could imagine the lightning traveling through the building, and then just after the wire sank the ground, it turned to the side, and traveled down the hill, heading straight for where he was standing.

For a moment, nothing happened, and then a tinny gong echoed from the statue, and the sound of a crying bird drifted through the air. There was a loud grinding, and Edmund watched as the grandfather clock slowly moved aside on small brass wheels, revealing a long dark stairway heading into the depths of Haggard Hill.

Braving The Maze Once More

He ran outside towards the maze, a small black umbrella open over his head to protect him a little from the rain, and a small crank-operated lantern in his hand. It was hard going–the wind was strong and it tried to either blow the umbrella out of his hands or to throw soot filled rain in his face.

It was almost too easy. ‘Beneath an unkindly hour,’ Edmund reflected as he ran outside towards the decrepit maze. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given the line a second thought, except for the mention of the Cavalcadium hidden ‘under the foundation.’ If Plinkerton had hidden the Cavalcadium under a clock, he would have had to us a clock he knew would stick around.

Edmund came up short as he reached the entrance of the large dilapidated hedge maze. He wished he had paid more attention the first time he had stepped into the hedge. Now, with lightning streaking across the sky, he wasn’t sure he could find the statues that lined one of the many twisting paths.

Nevertheless, he had to try. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped past the stone skeletal sentries and pushed into the dark maze.

At first he walked randomly, jumping through holes and taking turns without forethought or concern. The moon gave little light, and what perception was gained by the lack of mist was lost again in the darkness. Edmund had a lantern, and would have used it, but he didn’t want anyone to glance out a window in the Hall, see his light, and then perhaps decide to investigate. Luckily, the lightning provided brief glimpses of the path ahead, and helped Edmund recognize paths he had taken before.

Finally, a bright flash of lightning illuminated the rows of statues on a path on the other side of a small hole in the hedge. Edmund squeezed through, and began looking for Plinkerton’s statue.

He hadn’t looked carefully the first time he saw the statues, being far more interested in the maze itself. Now he saw each one with astonishing clarity, and a new understanding. These weren’t a part of the landscape like trees or flowers. Each one had been put here by someone, for some reason. A sundial held by bones, a skeleton in white-tie holding a cane, they all had been created and placed like furniture. And some…

Edmund stood in front of the large statue of the grandfather clock surrounded by ravens. At first he had thought the dark ravens were merely huddling around the tall clock, but as he looked closer he could see the looks in their eyes. Each one was staring intently at the clock, mouths open in aggressive spite. These were not birds that had lit on a flat surface to rest, but furious ones, that had been caught up in the violent passage of time. Edmund sighed to himself. It was a bit of a stretch, the sort of thing only a poet would recognize.

He wondered briefly what a group of ravens was called.

The Key From Kahmlichimus

When Edmund stepped off the elevator, he had already begun to hear another storm brewing. Distant thunder and the faint tentative taps of a slight rain echoed through the roof into the fifth floor. Edmund took a deep breath as he knocked gently on the tower door.

The door swung open. Edmund paused, staring into the dark stairwell. The door had never been left unlatched before. He wondered if the Thing was out wandering between the walls of Moulde Hall.

He stepped into the middle of the round room, listening to the strengthening rain and deepening thunder. A flash of lightning lit the room as Edmund turned to look at the large gargoyle statue. It didn’t look as frightening as it had before, Edmund thought. Even in the darkness with the mouth hanging wide, it seemed somehow smaller to Edmund now. He remembered how large it had seemed when he first saw it–how strong and angry. He remembered the mouth had…

Memento Mori…the mouth of memory…

Edmund stepped closer to the stone statue. He remembered he had seen a gleam in the teeth. Looking at the statue now, he could see it was a rough granite–not shiny at all. But the gleam had to have come from somewhere…

Leaning closer and twisting his head, Edmund could just make out something metallic in the beast’s mouth. Carefully, he slipped his hand between the large stone teeth, and felt about until a small piece of metal had slipped off a delicate stone hook, and was now in his hand. It was a tiny key.

Another key? What did this one unlock?

Edmund stared at the steady gaze of the Gran Gargoyle. He had the key — the key that would lead him to the Cavalcadium of Fortune. He was one step closer to his goal, and if there was anything he was certain of, it was where he needed to go next.

‘Walk the winding path,’ Tayatra had said. Edmund almost felt insulted.

 

The Mansion struck ten in the evening.

Edmund gripped the tiny key in his hand as the rolling storm clouds crept over the city, blanketing the smog and making everything darker still. The black rain fell fast and hard, splattering against the hundreds of windows in the walls of Moulde Hall, with a sound like irregular clockwork.

It had only taken Edmund a few moments to make his way down to the basement, and the side door that led out into the gardens. And now, he stood in the open doorway, staring out into the shadowy mists. It was time, and Edmund was ready.

He wasn’t positive he was correct, but he couldn’t help but feel confident. He had to be right–it was exactly what he would have done. A flash of lightning lit the world a brilliant blue as Edmund’s heart began to beat faster and faster. The air was electric, sending tingling energy though his body. He felt like he had just before he had given Matron his poem to read at the orphanage, or fit the Mechanus Vitae into Tayatra. He was about to experience something important.