10 November 2000 1400H. 60km east of the Wittenberge rail bridge over the Elbe.
Maks’ train parted ways with the salvage merchant convoy. Scouts in vehicles took the lead.
At 1600H, the train shuddered – with gut-wrenching clanging sounds – and rolled to a stop. Steam hissed out of the side of the engine.
A piston rod had snapped, violently whacking the boiler as it thrashed around.
Maks looked at Doc Shultz, who shrugged. “Close enough on the quarantine, I suppose. Nobody developed plague symptoms. You and your team are free, colonel.” Released from his confinement, Maks jumped down to see what the problem was.
Engineer Straczynski was looking over the damage. The leaking boiler could be repaired on site, he said, but the piston was ruined. They’d need another.
There were train museums scattered around Europe. Hopefully they’d get lucky.
Maks assigned his battalion-strength American personnel to securing a large perimeter around the stricken train. He then sent Barna Aron, GDW, Wojciech, and Paxton in the GAZ to make contact with Wittenberge.
The train now quieted, and the men dispersed; Maks thought he could hear the tolling of a bell.
At Bad Wilsnack, the town was deserted. Soon the GAZ team began spotting corpses. There were no signs of fighting. The former citizens seemed to have dropped dead where they were, leaned up against walls, in beds, and so on. The corpses appeared about a week old, give or take.
The GAZ team could definitely hear a tolling bell now, and quickly fled the dead town for Wittenberge.
Part-way, both driver and gunner (GDW and Aron) spotted a figure up in a tree. She looked old, perhaps older than her years from exposure. As the GAZ pulled up, the primitive woman regarded them from 10 meters up in the boughs.
Paxton, an actor in his previous life, was conversant in German. The crone was now looking in the direction of Wittenberge with displeasure. The bell was a constant background noise now.
She rasped, “Tell them to cease tolling their wretched bell!”
He asked her to clarify. “Tell them,” was her reply. She disappeared into the foliage.
Rain began falling.
10 November 2000 1800H. Wittenberge.
The GAZ team approached the city, searching out one, then another stash spot to fall back on, should it become necessary.
They were beginning to agree with the old lady in the tree. The bell was very annoying this close to Wittenberge. Whoever was ringing it had been tiring, and it stopped briefly, before resuming again with increased vigor: A replacement bell-ringer.
It was growing dark. They spotted civilians out with torches outside of town. It seemed as if they were searching for something, but in a chaotic fashion.
The team radioed in this information back to the train. Maks was uneasy. Bad Wilsnack was a graveyard, and the people of Wittenberge seemed unhinged. He told the team to proceed with caution. The clock was ticking. Less than five days left to get to Bremerhaven, and the train was broke down.
Paxton led the way, catching the attention of a father and daughter standing sentry, the older man cradling a shotgun. They were startled at the team’s approach, and a few tense moments passed as Paxton used his best negotiator voice to calm the pair.
The man spoke of a witch, who’d cursed the town. Some citizens had awakened last night, unable to breathe, and had reported seeing the witch sitting on their chests. Nobody was hurt, but the citizens were aroused and anxious. One farmer had spotted the witch in a tree, looking over the town.
Already on edge from hearing of the mass death at Bad Wilsnack, this affliction set off the citizenry.
Paxton asked if a doctor had seen those people, to diagnose their breathing problems. “A doctor?!” The man looked at him incredulously. “Father Jakob is leading us against this witch.”
These people were cuckoo crazy, the team decided. Paxton asked if Wittenberge had a railyard. They did, and a rail museum as well. Even better, the rail bridge was reported to be intact.
Paxton asked the citizen sentry to take them to the priest.
Fr. Jakob was a very intense man, directing the witch hunt, assigning the people to tasks. When told of their train, and needs, Jakob declared that the witch had cursed their train as well. He said they could help themselves to train parts from the museum, but wanted them to assist in the witch hunt in return.
The GAZ team kept quiet about their prior contact with the old woman in the tree.
They noted that some of the citizens were raspy and coughing. When Wojciech radioed back, Maks was left pacing. He had no idea what afflicted these people, and didn’t want to catch it. They’d just had a brush with the plague, and no desire to repeat that experience.
He devised a plan where they’d get Straczynski and a crew into town to pick and pull a steam locomotive piston, while 100 of his Americans would make a great show of beating and searching the countryside overnight. All involved would avoid contact with the locals as much as possible.
The church bell went quiet.
11 November 2000 1200H
By morning, they’d recovered a “close-enough” piston, and brought it back to the train for adaptation in the metal shop car.
Late morning, the re-milled piston was installed, and the train brought up a head of steam. The new piston ground a bit, a truly nerve-wracking sound, but the substitute seemed functional.
The train crossed the Elbe river, leaving the cursed town in the distance.
The rain let up.
Sometimes, the player doesn’t take the bait. My brother mused “chemical weapon” when described the people of Bad Wilsnack. I believe he has a chemical sniffer in his equipment, and thought he might use it. But no.
Had he done so, the party would have found traces of phosgene, a blood agent in the Twilight 2000 rules. Protection only requires a gas mask, with which the party is plenty stocked.
There’s an East German army proving ground in the vicinity, and there I wrote-in intermittently leaking phosgene shells. For the unfortunates of Bad Wilsnack, the military reservation leaking poisonous gas was close enough to be their doom. Wittenberge, however, was 15km distant, meaning the blood agent was dispersed enough to only provoke mysterious respiratory issues.
Since the witch spent much of her time in trees, I decided she’d avoided the hazard thus far, as phosgene gas is heavier than air, and tends to hug the ground.
The proving ground would have been a discomforting silent zone, devoid of animal or human life. It’s a few kilometers wide, with many trails and sealed storage bunkers. Lots of opportunity to find random abandoned gear and munitions… as well as unexploded ordinance and booby traps.
But, perhaps wisely, Maks declined to follow the lead.
German folklore tales
Due to the imminent deadline to reach Bremerhaven, the train is rushing its way through Germany. I wanted to do at least one distinctly German adventure during this time.
So I drew on German folklore tales. The state of Brandenburg in Germany north of Berlin is sparsely populated, and these isolated settlements could fall back on their traditions to explain strange events.
German folklore tales are a great source of inspiration: Witches, treasure hunters, dwarves, black dog treasure guardians, and plenty more.