1. A Message from the Dying

Enoa Cloud was doing pretty well, for the end of the world.

She hadn’t been attacked by starving raiders, invading militias, or monsters from folklore. She didn’t think such things were as common as travelers’ stories once led her to believe.  

Enoa never went hungry. She’d never gone to sleep with that dull, desperate ache in her belly. She slept in her warm bed, the one she’d had for almost her entire life. She lived in the home she’d grown up in. She was never trapped out in the elements, in fearful desperation.

Enoa’s life really hadn’t changed much since the end of the world, though now she lived alone. She worked alone too, managed the shop alone, her shop – Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea. It had been given that name exactly sixty years earlier. Now it was hers, and hers alone. Enoa didn’t want to think about that, but the crowds outside wouldn’t let her forget.

People, hundreds at least, gathered and walked down the High Street beside the shop. She couldn’t ignore the march of their feet or their restless talking. They were headed, one and all, to the Wintertide Festival.

The midwinter celebration used to draw people from all around the globe. Tens of thousands attended, spread across the ten-day celebration. Statewide vendors sold crafts and candy and whatever preserves remained from their autumn harvest. Merchants from six continents visited, offering jewelry, clothing, gifts, and toys. Artists and musicians of all kinds told the tales that inspired the festival. As watered down tourist attractions go, the festival wasn’t bad, if only because Enoa and the few true Nimauk locals held a place of rare honor.

Because yes, tourists the world over arrived too, or at least they used to. They once filled all the hotels and inns and any free space the locals chose to rent. For 355 days a year, Nimauk was a sleepy village, a quiet, wholesome way station. But for those ten days, the town genuinely bustled.

Even now, five and a half years since the Federal Government had shut down, never to reopen, many hundreds poured into town. They braved the chaos out in the wide world, braved the cold and the snow, coming in carpools and caravans and packs. The Wintertide Festival had been held almost every year for three centuries. It hadn’t missed a year since the 1940s.

Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea had opened specifically to sell rare goods to travelers, arriving for the festival, and only later became a permanent business. Enoa was expected to commemorate the sixty-year anniversary.

She really didn’t want to commemorate anything. She wanted to climb into bed and sleep until some weird hour in the middle of the night, 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. Then she’d eat junk food until she passed out, before waking again and preparing for the festival to begin in earnest, the next morning.

She had no idea that this was the last Wintertide Fest she would attend. She had no idea that this was the last that would be held, ever.

Enoa lived pretty well after the end of the world. That’s because her own personal world still lived on, in part.

Enoa’s world would also end that night, very, very soon. Mercifully, she didn’t know it.

But she knew that she would regret skipping the opening, if she didn’t attend. She’d loved the fest as a child. Even after learning about her home’s history, her family’s history, she continued to enjoy the annual celebrations, but not for the festival story or the travelers or even the food. No, the festival and its visitors hinted at the great gorgeous world outside Nimauk, the world she had yet to see.

Enoa had lived in Nimauk since birth. Everyone knew her, the local families, the other shopkeepers, many vendors, and even some annual travelers. She wasn’t ready to hear their condolences. She was sick of the sad words from distant acquaintances. People had been whispering at her for months. Couldn’t she fall apart in peace? Her shop was open, Tuesday through Sunday. Her bills were paid. What more did they want from her?

Enoa selected a mask. She didn’t retrieve it from the three-dozen labeled boxes she planned to drive down to the town square the next morning. This wasn’t her merchandise, definitely not. She sold colorful costume masks, perfect for the festival masquerades or for hiding identity in a chaotic world. But she didn’t sell this mask.  

The mask she pulled from her backpack had wide eyes and was decorated in bright purple and black war patterns. This was the face of a Sight-Stealer, a festival character. The mask had just enough casual cultural insensitivity that no one would suspect it was Enoa wearing it. She’d bought it that afternoon.

Be careful how you present yourself, your family, your identity. She lived by that practice, but she desperately didn’t want to meet or talk to anyone. She only wanted to go out of habit, because she always had gone. Going meant normalcy.

Enoa took a deep breath and slipped the mask onto her face. She could see clearly through the mask’s wide eyeholes. She saw her neat storefront, the shelves of assorted merchandise and genuine antiques, all items known by heart.

The store had been divided and organized long before her birth, into three sections: books of local stories and histories; touristy trinkets, clothing, art prints, paper weights, the items that sold the most, that made the most money; actual antiques, rare items, art, pottery, some reproductions. Many of the antique items had stood on the shelves, unsold, since Enoa had been a child.

She grew tired of standing in the silent shop, slowly darkening with the setting sun. She pulled on her gloves and her warmest coat. Then she closed and locked the store. Enoa joined the crowds meandering down the gently sloping hill toward town square.

She was almost caught up in the party atmosphere. She almost forgot everything that had happened in the last year, in the last years. It was like any other festival, at any other time in her life. Almost.

The tourists did not walk with the carefree naiveté they once did. Most did their best to keep their distance from their fellows. They held their children close and walked shoulder to shoulder with their friends and family members.

Costumes had always been encouraged at the Wintertide Fest. The few true locals frequently dressed traditionally, and most of the tourists were polite enough not to do so. The travelers clothed themselves wildly. Clowns and wizards, princesses and superheroes walked the streets. They treated the whole festival like a weeklong snowy Halloween.

Now, almost everyone dressed up, somehow. Over half of the attendees had masks. Even more travelers used the frigid weather as an excuse to wear many layers, perfect for hiding money, or valuables, or weapons. 

Even the excited atmosphere had changed. People still smiled – seen on those with uncovered faces – but their expressions had shifted, subtly, year-after-year. Fewer and fewer people wore carefree, easy, amusement-park grins. Now, they looked relieved, glad to have arrived at the festival safely, glad to be free of whatever hardships they’d left behind.

Enoa stopped people-watching. She’d reached a row of food vendors, business owners who were either opportunistic and wanted the first shot at the hungry tourists or had acted too late to get space in the festival itself. Enoa smelled the nostalgia-inducing mix of soup, funnel cake, and assorted sweets. She looked to Mr. Alberty’s mobile bakery cart, waiting in its usual spot, situated just outside his storefront, two blocks from town square. She read the tall blackboard situated beside his cart, listing dozens of treats. He’d made fruit pies, scones, tarts, and cookies. He’d already sold out of oatmeal raisin.

But no chocolate. Never chocolate anymore. There were almost no local imports from South America, not for two years, since the North Atlantic Piracy Taskforce had disbanded. Now, all the drink stalls only offered tea and various ciders, and even these lacked cinnamon, nutmeg, and other tropical spices. Some vendors now served caramead, a rich sugary drink made in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. The thick, warm candy-shop aroma it gave off was inviting in the cold twilight, but it was also a wholly new smell. All the smells of the festival had changed since shutdown.

Enoa wondered if the lone coffee brewer would return to the festival. He’d sold out within a half hour, the year earlier. He allegedly traveled all the way from Mexico and had his own hydroponic farming setup. She hoped she’d manage to buy a pound or two of dark roast. She’d missed her chance last time. Enoa had defeated her caffeine addiction long ago, but she desperately missed the smell and the taste.

Eventually, she reached the foot of the hill where the great open park waited for all of them. The shaded area was filled with small carts and tents. The many colorful vendors, the shouting merchants and travelers, their breath visibly following their words into the air; some things had not changed. Many businesses were already in position.

There was still little room to move. Everyone was packed on top of each other. Many had masks pulled up onto their foreheads, food in hand. They were all clustered around the scattered collection of heated pavilions. Enoa wandered past more food carts and artist stalls and half a dozen ice carvings.

 She looked toward the largest heated pavilion, one that had been set up at the far end of the park. A raised stage stood there. A band of folk musicians, a drummer and two guitarists, were getting into position and setting up microphones and amplifiers. They were unfamiliar people, a visiting act.

Beside the pavilion sat the little wooden train station, recently painted in a welcoming yellow, now almost one hundred and fifty years old. Beyond the station a metal fence blocked a steep drop-off. The Nimauk river, water Enoa’s ancestors had known for many thousands of years, ran through the bottom of the valley, far below.

The crowd seemed about as large as those the opening ceremony drew in years gone by. The whole scene looked like no time had passed, except for the greater armed presence. Groups of security personnel patrolled the outer edges of the crowd. Enoa offered a wave to the County Sheriff, briefly forgetting her mask. Local police were present, as well, plus several groups of private security. One such group had turned up in huge numbers. They wore either red or blue armor with helmets of a strange and unfamiliar design. Most were clearly armed.

Three of Nimauk’s town council stood on stage, Councilwoman Amaren, Councilman Tucker, and Councilman Blue. All three were relatively young, younger than the town officials had been in living memory. All three dressed casually. All three would talk briefly, saying a few cheerful words of welcome. Then the music would begin.

The train would also arrive, driving down through the hills, as it had when the town, as recognized by the U.S. government, was founded. The settler’s town had taken the name of Enoa’s people, much earlier than that, well before the growing country forced out most of the true natives. Enoa felt no bitterness toward the modern town. Her own family had never left. They’d found ways to stay, no matter whose laws ruled the land.

And now, the government that had sent the Nimauk people away long ago, it was five years broken and five years gone. Enoa, on the other hand, she remained. 

Once the train arrived in town, the festival featured many separate events. Rumor had it that the festival had received private donations, amounting to well over thirty thousand dollars. The annual showing of Murder at Pinnacle Peak, a locally-filmed classic movie, would return, accompanied by a live performance of the film’s score and followed by a Q&A with surviving cast.

Enoa heard there would be fireworks too, the kind of multi-colored fireworks that hadn’t been seen in four years.

Enoa never liked the old movie, and it was impossible to get close enough to the water for a good view of the fireworks, but she hoped both rumors were true, all the same. The festival might have cost many thousands, but it kept the town alive and relevant and safe.

Enoa arrived in the park in time. Just then, the three town officials approached the front of the stage. They all adjusted small wireless microphones, clipped to their clothing.

“Welcome and Good Evening!” Councilwoman Amaren said. She couldn’t have been past forty, dark of hair and complexion. She had some original Nimauk ancestry. “It is such a pleasure to be here again. So many new faces! Our…”

A train whistle sounded down through the valley. It echoed strangely and the noise boomed out louder and longer than it usually did, a single blast. The whole crowd went silent.

The train was early.

The whistle called a second desperate time, now lasting out even longer. That sound was usually friendly. Since destabilization, that sound now meant supplies and food, for many in town. For the tourists, it meant the fun was about to begin. Everyone knew it. Many loved it, the happy call that bounced down from the hills.

The sound was different that night, shrill, metallic, and repeating in harsh echoes. Enoa had been hearing the Valley Engine 421 for nineteen years. This could not be that train. Everyone in the whole great crowd turned toward the thin mountain ledge where the train tracks wove down from high rocky places, far above them.

Light appeared, up on the tracks. The great steam locomotive rounded the shoulder of the hill and blasted toward them. It roared down the pass, whistle still wailing. It was the Valley Engine, but it visibly wobbled back and forth violently on the tracks.

It was moving fast, too fast.

Everyone ran, suddenly shoving each other. People fell. People shouted. The crowd raced back out of the park, toward the hills.

Enoa ran back too. She rushed across the street from the park. There she found a small bench. She stood on it. From that spot, she could see everything. She could see people running, people yelling. She saw the town council shouting to the crowd, trying to calm them, their voices drowned out by the screaming locomotive. She could see the train flying down the hill, now only a few hundred feet distant.

Then she saw the train derail.

Four of the eight cars flew right off the side of the hill, skidded down through the small gravel lot beneath it and slammed down into the river. A terrible wave rose up, high enough to splash the makeshift pavilion and the train station.

The other cars and the locomotive rammed into the bottom of the hill’s rock wall, a hundred feet from the station. The loudest sound Enoa had ever heard ripped through the valley. She winced and briefly shut her eyes. She almost stepped down from her bench. She heard more yells, screaming, running feet.

Enoa opened her eyes and witnessed the carnage. The derailed locomotive burned. A towering yellow and red flame poured from a broken window in the engine. The lapping fire licked at its metal skin. Smoke also began to rise. The crowd cleared away from the wreck, while security forces advanced, especially the red and blue armored force.

“Leave or die.”

A deep voice, impossibly loud, called out from the train. Enoa turned toward the wreckage. A lone tall figure stood by the firelight. Even with the slight illumination Enoa could see the face paint, the many layers of dark cloth, covering him from head to toe.

“We have come to claim our land.” The figure spoke English clearly, fluently. “The Nimauk stole our land, and you stole the land of the Nimauk. Two hundred and fifty years have since passed and, as promised, we have returned. You have until dawn tomorrow to leave this place. Leave or die.” The figure turned his back on the crowd. He began to walk along the surface of the train, his footfalls ringing across the metal.

Gunfire sounded. A bullet tore from somewhere in the crowd, straight toward the strange visitor.

In the growing darkness, it was impossible to see the bullet’s flight, but after several heartbeats, it was clear that the projectile hadn’t struck the figure.

The fire died away at once, extinguished, and the phantom vanished with it into darkness.

Free from the Sight-Stealer’s gaze, the crowd yelled and ran. Some charged back up the roads along the hillside. Others ran down toward the expansive parking areas, just outside town. Most looked for shelter, either their sleeping accommodations or their vehicles. Any thought of partying died.

“There’s someone alive coming off the train!” Councilman Blue pointed to the wreckage.

“It’s all right, everyone!” Councilman Tucker, a young, fit, sandy-haired man, jumped from the stage and ran through the trees toward a sideways passenger car. “Everybody, stay calm!” Enoa saw the other council members run, too, along with the Sheriff’s Department and some of the assorted security personnel.

The Council had been correct. Someone came stumbling out of the wreckage, an old man, white haired, bearded. There was blood at his side, a great huge stain, visible even through his heavy jacket, visible even in the faint light from the park. The old man shook. He could barely walk and staggered with each step. He waved his right hand forward. His left hand was balled in a fist.

Councilman Tucker reached the train passenger first. The old man fell against him. He began to gasp out words, and he was close enough to the Councilman’s chest that his speech was projected across the crowd by the official’s microphone.

“I have to warn her.” The old man grabbed Councilman Tucker’s collar with his right hand. “She is the only one who can stop this. She’s the only one. I have to warn her.”

“Who are you talking about?” Tucker supported the man with both hands.

“Enoa Cloud.” After the name had passed his lips, the old man slipped from Tucker’s fingers and collapsed onto the ground.

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