“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 perges 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.