Jake hefted the bag and pushed his way through a wall of vines and into the clearing. A thorn caught him on the cheek and his fingertips came away bloody when he gingerly felt the cut. He cursed under his breath and pressed his sleeve into the side of his face while he took a look around.
The bag was heavy and full of clanking metal, so he grunted and dropped it before striding purposefully to the edge of the trees and walking the perimeter. He counted off distances in his head, idly checking leaves and twisting branches as he passed. When he finished the circuit he did a quick bit of mental calculation, nodded to himself, and returned to the bag, which he opened and up-ended. A pile of thick metal bars spilled out on the forest floor and he regarded them critically.
He picked up two lengths of metal and walked to a likely spot on one side. Standing so that his legs were shoulder-width apart, he carefully laid the bars down, one to each side. He did his best to keep them parallel, but absolute precision wasn’t required at this point, so he didn’t spend too much time fussing with them. Instead, he walked briskly back to the bag and grabbed another two pieces of metal then lined them up much the same way.
He spent the next hour or so laying out two parallel lines of metal bars that ran from one end of the clearing to the other. His forehead was drenched with sweat when he stopped, panting, and regarded his work, which looked like nothing so much as an ambitious child’s attempt at train tracks. He took a few deep breaths, wiped the sweat away, and began the next part of the process. The important part.
He produced a rag and a small glass bottle of golden liquid from one pocket, unstoppered the bottle, and poured some of the liquid into the rag. He leaned down and wiped the rag down the entire length of one line of metal bars, replenishing it with liquid as necessary. When he’d repeated this process with both lines of metal, they seemed to glow faintly with a strange inner light.
Jake stoppered the bottle again, returned it to his pocket and took a small leather-bound journal from another pocket. He turned and walked a few feet back from the lines of metal, opened the journal and flipped through until he found the pages he was looking for. After clearing his throat and taking a deep breath, he began reading.
As he spoke the words in a steady, booming voice, the lines of metal began to shimmer. As they shimmered, they began extending further into the forest on each side. The trees parted around them, forming first an arch and then a tunnel that stood ten feet tall and a few feet wider on each side. When Jake finished his recitation and closed the book with a snap, the resemblance to train tracks was unmistakeable.
His work done, Jake returned the book to his pocket, bundled up the empty bag and sat down on the forest floor to wait. He pulled a flask from an inner pocket and took a quick slug, wincing as the liquor burned his throat. He wondered, not for the first time, why there couldn’t be an easier way to arrange a meeting with the Colonel.
It wasn’t long before he heard the far-off sounds of a train approaching. When it began applying brakes, he gathered his things and stood. The engine burst into the clearing with a squeal and immediately filled the air with clouds of steam and the smell of burning metal. A few cars passed before it came to a complete stop.
A door on the closest car opened and a conductor stepped out, beckoning Jake forward with one furry paw. Jake presented his ticket and the conductor smiled in a toothy, feline way that wasn’t altogether reassuring, but that didn’t stop him from walking up the steps into the car’s darkened interior. He was barely inside before the train lurched into motion.
The car was cloudy with sweet-smelling smoke, and the seats were full of creatures with eyes that glinted yellow and green in the dim light. Jake did his best not to stare. The car he wanted was further back, so he kept walking until the smoke thinned out and the decorations weren’t quite so shabby. Here the seats were replaced with enclosed rooms that allowed the upper-class customers a modicum of privacy, not to mention better air quality.
He found the right door and knocked. After a moment’s hesitation, a gravelly voice spoke from within.
“I said most explicitly that I was not to be disturbed!”
“It’s me, sir. You called for a meeting.”
“I suppose I did. Come in, then.”
The Colonel was alone in the compartment, sitting on one bench with his face to the window, watching the forest speed past. Jake noticed that the thick orange hair on his face and hands was starting to show a little grey.
“You’re late. Pull down my briefcase and take a seat.”
Jake did as he was told and waited while the Colonel thumbed in a code and clicked open the briefcase. He pulled a thick red file folder from within and handed it to Jake before shutting the briefcase again and setting it aside.
“Start reading. We’re going deeper into the Shade Kingdom than you’ve ever been before.”
Jake hesitated for a moment under the Colonel’s laser-like gaze, then flipped the folder open and began reading. The Colonel turned back to the window with a sigh and left him to it.
“Beautiful country you have here. Shame it won’t last.”
Jake ignored this and turned another page, only to involuntarily suck in a breath at the face pictured there. Her face.
This was going to be interesting.