When I started writing this, I hadn't known it was going to take me down such dark roads. I'm okay with that though, as I wanted to explore a variety of tones and styles with this NaNoWriMo project.
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS (FIRST DRAFT)
by Gordon S. McLeod
The moon crept up through the sky as though afraid of what it might disturb. The town slept fitfully, or most of it; the old Dolet manor still showed lights. The streets outside were quiet, not even animals roaming too far in the chill air of autumn.
The windows of the manor were shut tight against the cold and young master Archerd Dolet set a new fat log on the embers of the fire. As flame began to crackle around it, the light flashed off the round glasses he wore. He stared into the flames pensively.
Footsteps from behind roused him, and he turned, startled. “Father, you’re up late.”
“I could say the same, m’boy, and should.” Altman set his lighter down on a sturdy wooden end table. “You beat me to it. I was about to build up the flame myself. It’s going to be a cold one tonight.” Next, he sat himself down in a beautiful old overstuffed armchair. “Have a seat, son. Sit with me a while.”
Archerd did as he was bid automatically. He was a strong young man, 14 years of age with a slightly heavier build than his father. His features favored his mother, he had the same heart-shaped face. Of late though, he’d taken people aback with the intensity and curiosity of his gaze; in that, he’d definitely taken after Altman.
“Father, I’ve been wondering... Why do you always get so melancholy this time of year? I mean, I talked to mother and she said the two of you first met right at this time of year! Shouldn’t it make you happy?”
Altman smiled, a slightly twisted smile. “Oh yes, son. That much does make me happier than you can yet know, of course. It’s . . .”
Archerd held his breath for a moment, then prompted, “It’s . . .?”
“Well. You know of course your mother and I were instrumental in establishing this township and settling the whole of the valley and the lands around it.”
“Of course.” He could hardly forget it; he was forever Altman’s son, son of the founder, sometimes even son of the huntress. His father wasn’t the only revered figure in the family.
“And I trust you know of the ironworks incident? You wouldn’t remember it, of course. It was before your time, if only barely.”
“Of course. People still talk about it, especially at school. Several of my friends... they have to walk past that place every day. Sometimes at night!” He shivered; the ironworks was a local legend in Dolesham. One of the first large industrial buildings completed in town, before the town even had a name, it had had a proud but very short-lived history serving the fledgling community by smelting the ores that the early miners of the community brought out of their tunnels.
What most residents of the town didn’t know, and what Archerd was sworn never to talk about, was that the ironworks had had a secret purpose. Altman had used it as a cover to process electrite, the rare mineral to which the town owed its very existence. The electrite facility had been very small, tucked away in the basement of the large structure, accessed by only a very few trusted individuals, but it was there that the trouble had begun.
“Is it true what they say, Father?”
Altman’s face was grave. “They say a great many things, Archerd. Some of those things are true, others are exaggerations, still more are either entirely in error, or are outright lies.”
“They say the ironworks is . . .” he gulped, face serious. “They say it’s haunted. They say if you go there late at night there are the sounds of people still working there, and unearthly lights that move.”
“I have heard these stories too.”
“You don’t believe them?”
Altman settled back in his chair and shivered despite the heat from the now cheerful blaze. “It certainly is the right sort of night for a tale such as this one. You would hear it?”
“Yes!” Archerd sat forward eagerly, shivering a little himself.
“Well then, I suppose you’re old enough to hear it. But not a word to your sisters, not until they’re older.
“Fifteen years or so ago, it was a cold autumn, much as this one is. It was darker though. We had storms that year like you’ve never seen, and people to care for. The town wasn’t so much a town back then, but we had miners and construction men, and traders and farmers and medics. The farmers we didn’t have to worry about so much. They mostly lived off in their own homes by their fields.
“The miners though, and construction laborers, they were another matter. Most of them were in temporary shelters, good enough in the summer, or the milder days of autumn. But those storms, and that cold! We put as many of them up in our home as we could fit, but word was getting out even then that we were prosperous and there was good mining to be done. People were arriving and bringing families. We couldn’t house and feed everyone.”
“The head of the construction teams — you know old Waldon Sias, I believe—” and Archerd nodded, “he did his best to accommodate everyone. His crews worked all day every day and into the nights to make sure everyone had some place warm to escape the coming cold and to sleep. And they were able to do it. Every family, every crewman, every miner, every fortune-seeker, every woman and child had a place to stay, if not call their own.”
Altman frowned and rose to his feet with a mild grunt of exertion. “I’m sorry son, I need to wet my throat if I’m to tell this tale.” He left and returned shortly with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Not a word to your mother, now. Not that she’d mind, you understand, but... I do have stern and responsible reputation to uphold.” He poured himself a generous glass and Archerd a half-glass.
Archerd sipped the red, sweet light liquid and managed not to cough as it hit his throat. “Careful son, most wine isn’t so strong, but the vintners here can produce some powerful stuff. Take it slow.”
“Now then, that’s better,” he said with a sigh. “Yes, old Waldon was able to house everyone we couldn’t take in. But nothing comes without a price — and don’t you ever believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Waldon’s teams were too busy working on housing, a task of the highest importance and most dire necessity, but that meant they couldn’t spend their time on finishing other things. Things such as the ironworks.”
“But I thought the ironworks was complete?” Archerd felt a pleasant warmth from the wine, and found himself being drawn into the story.
“The initial construction was, yes, but that was just the most critical parts to get the foundry functional since we had started attracting so many miners. Suffice to say the ironworks grew, but through no fault of Waldon’s, it was perhaps a bit more rushed than it should have been.
“That had been in the spring of that year, and it operated well all through the summer. As autumn’s chill crept into the air, all that began to change. The men who labored at the ironworks soon began to complain of strange sounds, much as you described.
“At first nobody paid it any mind. But one day . . .” The elder Dolet paused and drank from his glass, eyes lingering in the depths of the ruby wine. “It became a bigger matter the day they found Jeck.” He drank again, eyes faintly haunted.
“Jeck was one of the foundry men, and indeed one of the first who had claimed to hear the unearthly noises, as he called them. They found him that day still at his station, first thing when the ironworks was opened up, as if he’d never left. Only thing was, they found him missing his head.”
Archerd’s eyes widened and his breath caught mid-sip. He’d heard of Jeck, everyone had, but the stories were so muddled it was all rumor and legend.
“Of course this was terrible, the more so as back then we had no constabulary to turn to, no inspectors to investigate, no guardsmen to call. All of that was to soon change, but for the moment, we’d had only ourselves. We sent messengers to summon the inspector and guards from Holdswaine but they’d be at least two weeks to call away for such an isolated incident in a fly-speck of a... You couldn’t even call it a town back then, not really. It was still more of a camp.”
“So there was Jeck, headless, and they couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, if you’ll pardon the expression, son.” Archerd blanched and gulped.
“I heard about it quickly, within the hour if I recall correctly. News traveled fast around town in those days, and Waldon made sure to get the word to me. We’d been in a spot of trouble before, he and I; I’m sure I’ve told you the tale already.
“They brought me in to make of it what I could, but for all my education, I am now and was then a man of science, not an inspector. I like to think I made a fair attempt, as the fundamentals of an investigation are remarkably similar, be they in a lab or a crime scene, but a true inspector is trained in many ways to know what sorts of things to look for, and I lack such training to this day.”
“I will spare you the worst details, but he was found in the middle of the floor, in a large clear area with no obvious equipment that might have moved or shifted and caused him injury. Of his head there was no sign, and indeed to this day we have never located it.
“What was located was the murder weapon — for yes, we did later learn it was an ugly circumstance of money owed that had done him in — and the circumstances of that discovery were worse even than that of Jeck himself.”
Archerd blinked in confusion. “Worse than having your head chopped off? What could be worse than that?”
His father gave him a grim smile. “Oh, it can be worse indeed. Terrible as it is, having your head cut off is a quick way to go, but we’re getting ahead of the story — if you’ll pardon the phrase again.
“See the problem is that while we know what and who ended poor Jeck’s life, we’ve never been entirely sure what happened to him after that.”
“After? What do you mean after? Is Jeck — I mean — is he ... Is it his spirit that people say they hear?” Archerd could feel himself going pale, though whether from dread or excitement, he couldn’t say. The two were very mixed up together inside him.
“There are many who believe exactly that. There is, however, no conclusive evidence to support the idea, while there is much circumstantial evidence.
“Did you know I found most of that evidence?”
Archerd blinked. “No. I knew you were involved, but not more than that. Was mom there too?”
Altman chuckled. “Your mom was in no fit state to be involved, though she nearly had fits that she couldn’t be part of it. No, she was far too big, carrying you around as she was! I had only myself to rely on, I’m afraid. The investigation was a tough one. I had to work alone. Nobody else wanted anything to do with it; they were too spooked by the circumstances of Jeck’s death and the strange events afterward.
“As I said, Jeck had owed money to a bad character. A new community in unsettled, un-policed land holds a certain appeal to those with a, shall we say, checkered past, and this place, as nice as it can be, was and is no exception.
“They had gotten into a fight ... a disagreement over the results of a bet. Colum Heely was the worst of a bad lot of thugs in these parts back then. I see the name doesn’t mean much to you, and it’s just as well; his sort is best forgotten. I’m sad to say that I won’t forget it any time soon though. What happened to that man ... that should never happen to anyone, and that’s a fact.
“I don’t know the specific details; I can’t imagine anybody does. Those were between Jeck and Colum, and they’re not talking. What I do know is that just over a week after Jeck died, Colum turned up dead too, and there were things about it ... sorry, son.” He cleared his throat, and his face had gone gray, eyes hollow.
“It was straight out of a book of mystery fiction, a classic locked-room puzzle. He was in a housing dormitory, a tiny shack the workmen used. It was a single room, locked and latched from the inside, without a window or other exit. There was a chimney for the fire, but it was too narrow for even a child to descend.
“Colum was inside. His nearest neighbors, 3 of them, all independently claimed they heard Colum arguing loudly with someone else. He sounded terribly afraid, they said, and that was something in itself, for Colum was a big man, the sort nobody wanted to trifle with, and not much given to fear.
“As to the identity of the other, every one of them swore the voice was Jeck’s! I tried to reason with them, one had even seen the body himself, but they were all certain it was him, though none could make out any of the words either had been saying.
“They all agreed on the particulars of the exchange, as well. It went on for no more than 5 minutes, and ended with Colum shouting, and finally a loud, terrible scream.” He stopped there and drank again; his color was still all wrong, and his knuckles were white such that Archerd feared for a moment his father might crush the glass in his hand.
“I arrived within a quarter of an hour, by which time Colum’s room had long gone silent. I had this pocket watch even then,” he pulled a familiar, beautiful brass watch out by a chain, “so I was able to verify the time.” He popped the watch open and gazed at the face for a moment. “Half past ten. Just as it was that night.” The firelight danced across his face with the shadows, giving him an almost otherworldly air, and he closed the watch with a metallic snap, dropping it back into a pocket.
“It took some time for us to get into Colum’s room. As I said, it was locked from the inside like a sealed room mystery, and that is indeed exactly what we faced. Once we did get in ... I am afraid, my son, the sight nearly unmanned me completely. Jeck ... he’d lost his head. Colum lost a lot more than that. The remains were ...” The gray of his pallor started to take on a distinctly greenish tint. “It took us another quarter-hour to account for every piece of him. When Jeck lost his head, it was clear he’d been met with a blade, but Colum, he had been ... torn. Even chewed in places.” He stared blankly at the fire; Archerd could almost have thought his father had forgotten he was there.
“There was blood everywhere, and worse. The thing that stood out through all that though was a black mark on the wall above the stove. The wall was charring ... not charred, but still charring. There was a lump of metal on the stove right by the wall. It looked like it had been flung and landed on the cast-iron. Close enough to the wall to scorch, but not to burn.
“We found more like it in the room, smaller bits that charred the wood they landed on without causing flame. I must confess that after I escaped that foul abattoir, I was sick. Not just physically sick, but sick to the spirit, as well. I found myself entertaining thoughts that were wholly unscientific, but that molten metal had also given me a valuable starting place, illogical as the entire scene had been; Jeck had worked at the ironworks, of course. And at that time, there was only one place you could have expected to find metal in that condition.”
“A week had passed since Jeck’s death in the ironworks, but it had shut down afterward. ‘To help the investigation,’ they said, and that was true enough, but also because nobody wanted to spend any time there. I can’t say I was all that eager myself, honestly.
“It was well after 11 by the time I got there. The gate to the fence was locked, and nobody was in a rush to open it. I finally ended up entering alone. Not so much out of bravery, you understand; I was too disturbed by the scene in Colum’s home to let things lie. It felt too unnatural, too unexplained, and it was eating at my mind.
“They tried to talk me out of entering, and I only resisted their attempts by the barest of threads. The foreman opened the gate for me and I just about turned back. The grounds felt ... wrong. The moon was near full that night, but the light didn’t enter that place.
“The air felt heavy, though maybe that was just me. And it was quiet, oh so quiet. Every step I took toward the building sounded impossibly loud.”
Altman shivered. “To this day I don’t like walking past there, even though I know perfectly well it’s silly.”
“I tried to reassure myself by going over everything I knew about the individuals involved. Colum Heely was a low-life crook who had arrived here to start a new life for himself, wipe away the stains of the crimes he’d committed. That’s what he told people anyway. I am sure that had he lived, he would have tired of mining, committed some new crimes, and been on his way again before too long.
“Jeck had been another sort altogether. He’d lived in Holdswaine with his wife and daughter before the Blue Chill had taken the wife.”
Archerd started to open his mouth, but his father cut in. “You won’t have heard of that, I know. It’s a terrible plague that spread throughout Dolesham and many farther lands, oh, about 30 years ago. It killed many, many more than just Jeck’s wife, sad to say.
“Jeck was a melancholy sort; that’s to be expected, I suppose. Spent a lot of time at the taverns, drinking away the evenings, starting off quiet, getting rather louder as the ale flowed. He had his share of fights, certainly.
“Jeck’s daughter was rarely seen. She was never the same after her mother passed. In the several years she lived here, nobody ever heard her speak. She spent all her time at home; she never attended lessons.”
“After Jeck was found, the ironworks foreman agreed to take her in and foster her; she had no family left that anyone knew of. The man had gotten on with Jeck well enough. But when the news was brought to her, Jeck’s house was empty. Of the girl there was no sign.”
“These thoughts consumed me as I crossed the grounds and reached the main doors. I know not what I expected to find in that place. I just knew it was a trail of thought that had to be followed. I have learned in the years of my studies that intuition is not to be dismissed or discounted out of hand, Archerd. I know that over the years I have taught you to value logic and reason, and this you must always keep to. But the mind is a wondrous agent of reason on its own, and will often give you clues you’d do well to heed even when the reasons remain unclear.
“The offices were dark and chill, for no-one had been there in a week to light the fires or turn the switches to the electric lighting. I found myself having to light them as I advanced through the room; the atmosphere was too oppressive without them, and they gave me some comfort.
“I found myself thinking of the girl as I went, and kept my eyes open for any sign that perhaps she’d found her way here, but there was no trace that anyone had been present for the past week.
“The first signs of dust were beginning to show themselves on the desks. It was a dark dust, dust and soot from the enormous furnaces that lived elsewhere in the facility. Inspecting my own trail confirmed that while it was yet very faint, having only had a week to accumulate, there was enough to let me know that I was the only person to have been present in the last day.
“I was struck by the silence of the place. It was more than just the absence of people; that much you would expect. But it went beyond that, well beyond. The ironworks was a large building; indeed, to call it large is to sell it short, for it was at that time by far the largest building in the region, and even today there are only two that are larger. One would expect there to be rats and other vermin inhabiting a space of that size and for that purpose; rats, and perhaps bats and mice. But there was no sound. None whatsoever. No feet on the floor, no scurrying in the walls, no chewing on plaster or wiring, not even wind from outside. The noise I made while making my somewhat clumsy way through the office rooms felt unnatural and disturbing. I felt like I might wake the whole town if I missed a step.
“Soon enough the dust got much thicker in the corners and I knew I was almost past the offices and into the service corridors. I thought it perhaps more likely I might find her there, as surely if she’d been in the offices for any length of time someone would surely have seen her through a window. At least that was what was going through my mind.
“In truth, this area looked if anything even more empty. The soot was thicker, composed more of slag ash and residue from the fires that I knew still burned. As I explored, I found discarded trash that had gone uncleaned, broken bits of wood and glass and packing materials, small pieces of scrap metal; the normal detritus that one would expect in such a place.
“I also started to see signs of the rats; droppings in hidden corners. This filled me with great relief, for the previous lack of any sign had been eerie. The droppings were dry though, and as I kept moving through the building that remained true. There were no disturbances, nothing fresh. My relief gave way to confusion and a certain unnamed dread.
“Before long I found myself in a main corridor that lead to the floor of the ironworks. I’d been here the week prior after Jeck’s body was discovered; that was a long way from that moment though. Then it had been day, with all the facility’s lights operational, and there were other people at my side. A far cry from skulking about near midnight, alone, in the dark, and with uneasiness already in my heart.
“That was when I saw it was not entirely dark.”
“I expected some light. Faint light from the halls behind where I had turned lamps on, perhaps, and the enormous vats of molten metals that are never extinguished could be expected to provide some illumination. What I didn’t expect was the blueish glow I encountered throughout the area.
“It wasn’t bright, but had no obvious source that I could see. I don’t mind telling you the last thing I wanted to do in that moment was go searching for it, but I had to. Light like that simply can’t exist without a source ... and I was terribly afraid that I knew what that source was.
“In the larger, more open space of the ironworks floor the quiet was lessened, replaced by the echoing of my own footsteps. Since that was still the only sound, it didn’t set my mind at ease.
“The blue glow didn’t extend throughout the entire space, which was immense. It was coming from what I distinctly remembered as the part of the floor where the vats were located. Indeed, as I drew closer to investigate, I saw that the light of the vats was present, as expected; a welcome orange/yellow cast by the molten iron and leaked by the still-burning furnaces below. It was only further out that it took on a blue cast.
“This then is the part where my story diverges greatly from what is known to anyone else.” Altman stared into his wine for a long moment and looked directly into Archerd’s wide eyes.
“You’re not to repeat this to anyone, Archerd. Your mother knows, but nobody else.” His voice was solemn, as serious as Archerd had ever heard, and it brooked no deception. He knew that when he answered, he had better mean every word.
“I swear, father. I won’t repeat a word to anyone.”
“Good lad.” Swirling the wine in the glass, he stared through it into the fire. “So far as anyone outside this house knows, I finished my exploration of the building in detail and emerged, shaken but well, with no new information at hand. That ... is not entirely true. Not true at all, in fact.
“There is a basement to the building. This much is known; after all it’s where the great furnaces lay, those that melt the iron and generate the steam that allows the turbines to produce electricity for the building.
“However the basement contains far more than that, and it is that which is secret. When the building was first constructed, it was a design I worked on with Waldon Sias. He ran the crews of workers that built all of the early works here. We worked into the plans a secret facility for the processing of electrite.
“You are familiar with electrite, I trust? We work with it openly now, in proper facilities. Back in those days we weren’t so equipped. Electrite was extremely rare, extremely valuable, and tightly controlled by the Conclave. Had they gotten word that we were so near a rich deposit, they would have claimed control of the whole region.
“Waldon knew of the deposit as well as I did, and was committed to helping conceal it from outside interference. So he helped in the design of not only the ironworks sub-facility, but also of routes from the electrite mine and concealment of the mine itself. In that way we were able to keep the electrite source secure until the community had grown sufficiently that I could register a legal claim without the Conclave getting in the way.
“The way my story truly ends is this. I did go into the basement to continue my investigation, and I did inspect the furnaces. But what I found is what must forever remain hidden. There was a great deal of electrite hidden in the other section of the basement. Electrite’s unique properties lie in a type of radiation it releases.
“That radiation had penetrated the walls between the sections of the basement and irradiated part of the room. I understand it quite well now, but at the time I was very new to studying electrite. Most of the work I have done with it was done in the years since this occurred—and as a result of what occurred.
“The blue light was stronger in the basement than it had been upstairs, and the color had immediately made me fear the electrite’s involvement, for it is strongly characteristic of that element. Once I saw the strength of the light, I did two things.
“First, I donned the strongest protective garments I could find in the building. Even back then I had at least a poor idea of what the radiation might do to living people.
“Second, I went immediately to the secret facility of the basement, which involved a hidden entrance far from the stairs to the furnaces and navigating an underground path.
“When I arrived, it was as I’d feared, and it scared me more than any silence, any stillness. First, a sizable sample of electrite had been taken from the place. And second, I located Jeck’s missing head.
“It looked to have been discarded in a corner behind the storage crates we kept the electrite in. I would never have found it but for the glow... it was radiating a strong blue light that led to my investigation. From where it lay, it was also responsible for the radiation leaking into the rest of the basement; the storage crates contained a lining of lead intended to prevent exactly that from happening.
“Unfortunately Jeck wasn’t alone there.” His father finished his drink and sighed with a shudder.
“There was another head there as well. Much smaller, more fine-boned. Both were fleshless; both looked as though they’d been dipped into the molten iron. Both bore scorches from the heat, and glowed from exposure to electrite, and that’s the queerest part of the whole business; both had sizable lumps of electrite ore jammed into their mouths.
“I am quite certain the smaller skull must have been Jeck’s daughter, but what became of the rest of her, we may never know. Perhaps it was left in the iron; in time even the bones would have reduced to ash under that heat.”
“But how does that explain what happened to Colum?” Archerd’s mouth was bone-dry, the words came out as a rasp.
“An excellent question, son, and I didn’t find a satisfactory answer to it that night. Truthfully I expect I never will, though I may have gotten closer.
“The stories people tell of the apparition of the ironworks always describes a figure that wanders the halls, and always there is a blue light. I myself have seen it on two occasions.
“People would think me mad to suggest this, but ... I can’t think of a rational explanation. I believe,” he said slowly, “that the electrite itself, or the radiation it gives off, is responsible for the wandering spirit. Or spirits. For while the stories have all described a figure that looks like a man, on the second occasion, I am quite certain the figure I saw was that of a little girl.”
Altman set his glass down and sighed. “And that, son, is why autumn has become a time of sadness and melancholy for me. I’ve never rid myself of those images, those questions, those horrors, and though it has given my work direction and purpose for many years, that purpose was never worth the loss of 3 lives, especially one so young.”
Archerd took a last sip of his own wine; the glass was mostly untouched. His mind swirled with questions; his eyes blazed with the curiosity. “I’ll be old enough to study the sciences soon, father. I think ... I’d like to follow your work. I want to go to Holdswaine and study at the Academy. And then I want to study with you.”
He set his glass down and went to bed. Altman sat and stared into the flames for a time longer, heart filled with a most curious mixture of pride and dread.
The Price of Success by Gordon S. McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.