There is only one train to Palenwood, one train with one car attached, and there's only ever four people on at any time unless there's an emergency. At least, that's what the station attendant is babbling at me right now while I wait for the train. I can tell that they probably don't get to talk to many people, being posted here in the middle of nowhere. This stop doesn't even have a name, just 0024. There's not a town attached either, it's just the station attendant stand and a single house off a few yards away into the sea of tall grass. I'm not staying here, and I'm not from here either, those details don't really matter though, what's important is where I'm going. Palenwood. The single best place to go if you want to be trained by experts in any field, or if you just like the idea of such a place. People might call me crazy for willingly going somewhere that's likely to get me killed within a month, and that's being generous, more like a week. The station attendant agrees with this sentiment, very reassuring. I have always heard stories about Palenwood, it's a dangerous hub of innovation and betterment. Slacking can get you killed afterall, you have to be a special kind of person to make it there, crazy, dumb, or curious, maybe all three. Almost no one migrates to Palenwood, but I'm the no one who does, nothing is more exciting, more tantalizing than the stories about Aconholt, the cursed forest of the north. If there were ever anything worth learning about or experiencing, it's Aconholt. I don't have words for how excited I am just thinking about all the research and study I can do just from visiting such a historic location, with any luck I'll have a lifetime of information to parse through.
The station attendant seems less interested in my ramblings about studying in the next town over than they did about how boring their life is, and I feel less inclined to continue the conversation as my ears perk up to the whistle of my train chugging it's way down the track, before screeching slowly to a halt. Steam rolls up around the entire area, forcing the attendant and I to slide our masks on to avoid the wave of heat. Steam clears as the wind off the plains steals it away, leaving me and my luggage out on the stage-like platform.
"Have a safe trip, and keep that on." The station attendant says, tapping their own mask as it settles heavy against their chest.
"Thanks, I will." I reply, snagging my ticket off the counter, almost knocking the paper weight that had been holding it down onto the floor in the process. "See you around." I add.
The attendant just waves at me shaking their head while I nudge my bags into the train car, ungracefully settling into an oddly new and bouncy seat. This definitely doesn't get much use at all, more comfort for me I suppose. A good ten minutes of me trying to shove my largest duffle bag into one of the luggage compartments passes before the train lurches back to life and we are on our way. No other passengers, no greetings from staff, just the hum of the engine and the whoosh of wind outside the glass. Despite the eerie silence, the ride is rather pleasant, and eventually someone does exit the front of the train, and come to check up on the car.
A spindly person of tanned skin and brown hair, with an outlandish red and gold corduroy suit hugging them tightly peaks through the doorway. Their pants seem too short on them, coming up just too high on the calf to be a fashion choice.
"Hello, ticket please," They say, holding out the ticket scanner with a cheery smile.
I hand over the flimsy piece of paper to them, watching intently as they check it.
"Pace Alon, interesting name.” they mutter.
The purple light of the scanner washes over the room briefly and my ticket has another stamp punched through it.
"It'll be …" they pause to check some kind of clunky old timepiece "Another fifteen hours till we reach Palenwood, food will be brought out at sundown, there's cots in the compartment in the back." They explain giving a clumsy bow and walking back to the front of the train, nearly knocking their frilly red and gold hat off on the top of the door on the way.
A strange but wholly pleasant exchange, it's a comfortable temperature in this room, just right for sleeping, the fluffy chair is soaking up my heat and just holding it. Before I even think about it I'm tugging one of my bags over and draping a thick blanket over my form to take a little nap, it's a while till sundown. The further north I go the more worried I am that I'll have to change my wardrobe. I could see my breath at the station and it was near noon in late spring. If only research could be done in whatever place we wanted, I put every location of importance in a tropical paradise. With thoughts of essays and field notes I drift off into the warm honeyed embrace of sleep, cozy as possible given the circumstances.
My dreams are full of trees rushing past my field of view and banks of fog splitting into meadows that are cast in vivid daylight, a cool wind prickles along my neck and I wake back up to the person in red shaking my shoulder gently.
“Pace? Pace, it's dinner time- oh you’re awake, dinner is ready we’ll bring out a table.” they waste no time in turning to leave.
My sleep addled brain grinds back into gear just in time for me to grumble out a question. “What was your name again?”
The tall thin person turns back to me looking confused, a look of realisation washes over their face like a wave. “I am so sorry, I’m Rauri, I’m not really used to the whole meeting new people thing-” Rauri tells me, awkwardly bowing to me and scurrying into the front car again with an embarrassed blush.
They seem nice, a little socially stunted from working so far away from everything, but nice. I can handle awkward situations. The struggle starts when I meet the other people who are apparently on this train, but have yet to show themselves. My feet wiggle as I kick the blanket off and stand up to stretch. I rub the sleep from my eyes and shiver at the sudden drop in temperature from my sleeping spot to the open air. Rauri comes back out with another person, both waddling a folding table into the open space at the front of the car, already laden with covered trays of what I assume is food.
“Sorry for the wait Mx. Alon, Desro and Eve were arguing about which table cloth to use.” they tell me offhandedly.
“You can just call me Pace you know, I don’t mind.” I explain, walking my way over to the table “And you are?” I gesture to the other person.
This one is much shorter than Rauri and has a much more toned down version of the uniform on, their white hair is also cropped very close to their head and spiked up in every direction. Their eyes look up to me from the other side of the dining table.
“Desro, she/her.” She replies, sticking a floured hand out to me.
We shake hands and smile at each other, sitting down as Rauri uncovers the food so we can eat before it gets really late into the night.
“So is Eve the conductor?” I ask, shoving a bite full of some vegetable dish into my mouth.
“Oh, yeah, Eve is. He ate already though, -doesn’t like to step away from the controls even though Des knows how to keep everything running.” Rauri replies, bumping Desro on the shoulder and sipping from a juice pack.
“He’s just nervous because we aren’t just carrying cargo this time.” Desro says.
“I see… I hope he can feel at ease once we arrive. I’d feel bad if he wasn’t able to sleep because of me… but I guess he wouldn’t be able to sleep while running the train.” I chortle at my own rambling but Rauri and Desro don’t seem to mind which is nice.
“I’m sure that having such a nice passenger would make him happy.” Rauri reassures me.
If this is how all the people this far north are then I don’t think life will be as bad as a I was led to believe it would be, then again these folks aren’t exactly full natives of Palenwood are they?
“Are you both from Palenwood or are you from another settlement?” I ask my dinner companions aloud. They share a look before answering.
“I’m from Palenwood.” Desro replies.
“I am too but the south sector.” Rauri remarks.
The south sector is the boring side and I plan to steer clear of it for my own enjoyment, if I’m living here from now on I am getting the most out of it.
“Why exactly are you visiting Palenwood, it is not exactly a tourist destination.” Desro asks through a half full mouth.
“Well, mostly research and training. The best scouts around are trained in Palenwood. I’m a bit of an arcane scholar though so the allure of that forest isn’t lost on me either.” I explain to them, as I talk they get worried expressions on their faces.
“You’re here to join the scouts? You don’t really look the type.” Desro has an air of scepticism in her voice.
“I get that a lot, but it's my passion and I’m of age to transfer now, so why not make one of my dreams come true as fast as I can.” I can sense both of them clamming up the more I talk about joining the scouting team, most everyone who isn’t part of the scouts has this reaction.
I’ve “got to be crazy or stupid to join”, but I don’t think thats the case.
We eat the rest of dinner in silence, Rauri and Desro giving each other strained glances back and forth until I am done with my food. They begin packing the table up and walking back to the front cabin. That got very awkward very fast, I hope I can clear things up with them but I have a feeling that they aren’t going to be so keen to warm up to me now that they know I’m entering a program that only has a twenty percent success range. No one from Palenwood has a warped perception on life expectancy, some of the natives I’ve met outright refuse to talk to me once they find out about me and the scouts. They don’t seem to want to get close to someone who might be dead soon I guess.
I look out the window as the train glides down the tracks, the scenery is all but nil due to the pitch black sky above, dinner dragged on longer than I thought it would, definitely not tired yet though. My smaller bag is full of encyclopedias, arcane textbooks, and cultural guidebooks to help me get settled in Palenwood, so I elect to have a read at once of the more interesting magic books. “A Complete Reference Guide to Transfiguration Magics.” By Hillwen Forgraves. A newer addition to my ever growing collection of magic tomes and grimoires, sure to bring me days of interesting learning at the very least. Once I crack the book open I lose focus on the world around me and start taking in the information, this book is mostly factual but also has anecdotes and inserts of myths or legends regarding various spells and creatures that are related to transformation magics. About four hours into my reading I begin to feel tired again, and curl up on one of the chairs with my blanket and book so I don’t fall asleep on the cold floor of the train car.
The next thing I am aware of is waking to the sound of industrial size brakes screeching to a halt, and the train tossing me off the cushion. My book clatters to the ground with me making two loud thumps, that's definitely going to bruise at the very least. I blearily stand up and look out the window to see an actual train station, a very old one, but still nice. Cold white marble and clean steel is all that meets my eyes, along with many faces all looking curiously at the train before going back along to their business. A thumping of feet comes to me before the front car’s door slams open and Rauri comes out in a less than neat version of the same outfit from yesterday just dark wine red this time.
“I am so sorry! We completely forgot to wake you before we started stopping!” They say looking at the mess of my belongings scattered at my feet.
“Nah, you’re fine it happens. I should probably get all my things together.” I say, grabbing up my fallen books and blanket then shoving them back into their respective pockets.
“Oh… well I’m glad you’re okay, there should be someone waiting for you on the platform so don’t feel too nervous… and uh- good luck Pace, I hope you make it into the scouts.” they say holding their hand out to me.
I give their large tanned hand a glance before grabbing it and shaking vigorously. “Thanks, I’ll be at the top of my class, when I pass I’ll stop by the station and grab you to go celebrate!” I say, grinning up at Rauri’s supportive but worried face.
They help me unload the rest of my luggage and then have to run off to do their actual job. Then, at last, here I am on a raised terminal. Looking down over the densely packed houses of the southern district of Palenwood, as the sun crests over the horizon I can see the bearist glimpse of dark trees shrouded in a layer of fog in the distance, made all the more ominous by the looming shadows cast below by the cloud tipped peaks of the Forgraves Mountains.
“It's absolutely breathtaking.” I say under my breath.
I think I could get used to seeing this view every morning.