Hundreds of partygoers were set to arrive in Nimauk over the next twelve hours. Even in those strange times, cars and campers constantly descended on the small town during the Wintertide Festival. It offered a rare escape and the certainty of long tradition.
That certainty ended with the train derailment. Heavy barricades had been placed across all roads into town. No one was allowed in. No one was let out.
Within minutes, thirty cars, trucks, and other assorted vehicles were backed up at the routes down into town. The armed gate guards refused to budge. “We apologize for the wait, but there can be no one entering the festival, not right now.” Sheriff’s Deputies stood by, offering water and tea and sandwiches, candy for children. “Please be patient.”
Almost none of the travelers felt very patient, trapped so close to journey’s end. Some had chosen rude words for the guards. Others felt no anger. They were just afraid or tired, and longed for safety and relief from the road.
One traveler didn’t complain or ask any questions. He didn’t wait, either. Instead, he decided to ignore all barricades and enter town anyway.
This traveler drove an old camper, an RV. Global destabilization saw the popularity of mobile homes skyrocket. Over half of all long distance travelers, in what used to be the United States, owned a trailer or some other mobile overnight shelter. The lack of interstate maintenance and road regulations also lead to some very bizarre vehicles. Triple decker and double width contraptions could be seen, roaming the heartland, as well as heavily armed and armored packs of vehicles, modified homemade tanks.
None were as strange as the camper the newcomer drove. This vehicle would have visibly stood out anywhere in the world and at almost any time in the history of motor vehicles.
The RV was long and boxy, but that’s all that gave it any similarity to most campers. It had a retro silver shine, like the vintage models from the post-Depression era, when most campers were custom. And it was covered in bumper stickers and graffiti. It looked like something that had sat by the side of the road for decades, like it was a piece of artwork that a whole community of troublemakers and travelers all worked on together. The stickers couldn’t be read, and the drawings could not clearly be seen, in the fading twilight, but they were unmistakably there. The camper looked bizarre, even by current standards.
This was not the strangest thing about the camper, not by a long shot. What made this vehicle so strange was what it did and what it could do.
The RV’s driver guided the massive, colorful thing through a tight gap in the guardrail at the side of the road.
“He’s trying to cut in line!” One of the frustrated travelers, already hanging out of his car’s window to argue with the gate guards, pointed to the RV. “Jackass.”
“There’s no way back to the road!” One of the guards waved to the camper. “You’ll be stuck. Turn around! Come back!”
The camper’s driver either did not hear the shouts or ignored them. The RV rolled away from the road, down the ice-slick hill, toward the water’s frostbitten edge.
“He’ll slide right in,” another guard yelled. “He’s going in the water.” By this point, the whole procession of cars and campers, all the tired and frustrated and frightened travelers forgot their troubles and instead shouted and honked their horns at the driver of the RV, a cacophony of distinct calls and sounds. They watched, helpless, as the camper rushed down through the snow toward the river.
“What’s wrong with this moron?” the first guard said. “I’ll call it in right now. We’ll have to hope water rescue can get their boat out in time.”
The RV drove right into the water. It rolled off the bank. The camper’s audience shouted. They were all sure the poor driver had lost control, and the camper was about to plunge down into the rapid, icy depths. They were all wrong.
The camper didn’t sink. It bobbed from side to side, twice.
Then it floated.
The weird vehicle drove on the river, upstream, like a boat.
The audience watched, mouths agape as it floated away from them, all lit up, alone on the water. The sight distracted them from their impatience and their fear. The Sheriff’s Deputies saw it too. Suddenly, the train derailment wasn’t the only strange story going around that night. Something else, just as bizarre, was also out in the world.
The camper passed swiftly up the river, past the summer rafting dock, the Nimauk hydroelectric plant, and under the abandoned railroad bridge. No passerby saw it for long. Everyone was stuck in traffic or occupied thinking about the horrific railroad accident. No one with a proper vantage point observed the floating RV for long enough to do anything more than stare, until it passed out of sight.
The RV traveled undisturbed until it came back onshore, fifteen minutes later. It gripped the frozen soil, gained traction on the shore. The camper bit through the ice and drove into in the tiny lot at the foot of the hill, beneath the train station.
Just then, a festival worker finally caught sight of the strange thing, as it arrived in the empty gravel lot. Ms. Young – as her nametag announced – waved her arms and stood in the way of the weird camper, before the odd vehicle could take the small dirt road up into town square.
“No parking this way!” She waved her arms more until the camper came to a stop. She jogged to the driver’s side door. The window rolled down, revealing a clean-shaven younger man with a mop of unruly hair that fell nearly to his shoulders. He wore a large coat and thin gloves. Nothing more of him could be seen.
“Good evening!” The driver met her with an easy smile.
“No parking this way.” She pointed back toward the dirt road and the hill up to town square. “I don’t know how you got here, but I’m afraid I can’t let you enter town. We’re closed up, this way.”
“Oh!” The man playfully slapped his right hand to his forehead. “I’m so sorry. Well, I guess I’ll be on my way.” Almost immediately, the weird camper started crawling backward toward the river, beeping loudly in warning.
“Wait!” Ms. Young raised both hands. “You’re about to drive into the river…” She observed the tire tracks leading from the shore. “We didn’t realize anyone would have…” She eyed the vehicle. What was this thing? “It’s been a long time since we’ve had people come here by… boat. We have no dock here and there’s been a horrible accident. There will be, uh, wreckage I suppose you could call it. There’s wreckage in the water.”
“Really?” The man leaned out of the window, far enough for his breath to visibly smoke out into their twilit surroundings and his shaggy hair to dangle beneath his chin. “That’s terrible. What happened, if it’s not too much to ask?”
“A train derailed.” Ms. Young rubbed her gloved hands together. “Multiple cars went in the water.”
“Awful!” He looked around the lot, empty save for the gouges left from the train disaster. “I don’t know where I can go at this point. Could you please point me toward parking?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.” Ms. Young crossed her arms. Did this man really think he could drive up from the river and not be stopped? People were truly starting to act uncivilized. “You’re not allowed to drive anywhere around here, so you’ll need to wait until I can get you an answer.”
“Hmm.” The man reached out his window and patted the camper’s metal side. “If I change a battery or two, I can always fly outta here. Would that help?”
“There’s no need to be smart.” She had begun to feel like this stranger was having a laugh at her. “No one comes here by boat, not these days, and I’ll need to ask.”
“How about I stay right here?” He scanned the lot. Twenty feet to his right, a long gouge marked the place where a train car had struck the gravel. “This looks like parking. I can definitely pay you too, whatever you need.”
“I’ll have to clear it.” She turned back to the hill, to the path up to the pavilion and the park. She sighed. At least the Parking Authority tent would offer her brief warmth.
“Wait one minute.” He backed the camper away from her and turned it around in a tight arc. He parked the RV at the edge of the lot, facing the river. The stranger shut down the vehicle. Its headlights went out. With a metallic groan, the camper’s side door swung open. “I’ll come with you.”
Ms. Young drew out her small flashlight and lit it. She illuminated the stranger as he walked toward her.
He was dressed oddly, even by the standards of the festival. He wore a long heavy coat that stretched down to his calves. He also wore mismatched boots. One was larger than the other, metal, and reached up all the way to his knee. He looked to be wearing a thick sweater, but it was hard to tell through the mass of baubles and cloth that hung to his chest. He wore at least two necklaces and a lump of fabric that was either a handkerchief or the sad remains of a bandana. A small pair of goggles also hung at his throat. A great tall sword was strapped across his back. Lots of fest-goers had strange weapons or weapon replicas, but this one was different, somehow. That was obvious, even in the dark. It was much larger, for one thing. The hilt alone stood above his head by half a foot.
“I don’t recognize your costume.” Ms. Young gave the young man a quick once over. “Who are you supposed to be?”
“I’m a wayfarer.” He smiled again and approached her. Then he began rooting through his coat. He drew out several pieces of metal, a small kazoo, and what looked like a top with metal needles coming out of it. Finally, he brought out a leather pouch that jingled. He returned the other oddments to his pockets.
“I don’t know if they’ll let you park here.” She pointed to the RV. “Especially under the circumstances. I definitely don’t know what it would cost. I’m going to find out for you. The more time you waste here, the longer we’re both out in the cold.” Every year, Ms. Young told herself she was done with the Wintertide Festival. Every year, she loathed the frigid cold and the stupid tourists and many of her fellow volunteers, but somehow she was back the next year, all the same.
“Would you mind if I came up with you?” He readjusted his coat. “I’d love to see some of the fest, if I can. That way, I can pay whomever needs to be paid, right away.”
She eyed the Wayfarer’s camper. It sat silent and dark and showed no sign of rolling back into the river. “I don’t see why not.” She turned and began walking up the steep hill. He followed after her.
“Those voices don’t sound too happy.” The Wayfarer caught up to her. They walked side by side. The higher they climbed up the hill, the more the general background rumble of voices could be heard. There was yelling, but it had no mirth, no happiness. “Were people hurt in the accident?”
“I think so.” She pointed to the far side of the park where four crumpled, broken metal shapes lay in a smoking heap. The Wayfarer quickly drew his small goggle eye-mask to his face. The view of the distant wreck magnified in his view, and he saw the derailed train, the scorch marks on the metal, surrounded by a crowd of town officials, investigators, and assorted onlookers. The Wayfarer knew how the machine must have rolled as it left the tracks. He nearly swore, but caught himself before he spoke.
“We’d better go find the festival parking.” Ms. Young began to walk away through the crowd, toward the nearest tall pavilion, which was currently mostly empty. She rubbed her gloved hands together again, in anticipation of the warmth.
“Why don’t I pay you now.” He stepped quickly to catch up to her. “You’ve done so much work to help me, and I know there’s no way you’re being paid enough for all this extra effort, out in the cold.”
“I’m not paid at all.” She turned back toward him.
“Well.” He drew several coins from the pouch. “Are dollars still good? I’ve been abroad, and I really want some home style American cooking, you know? I’m starved. I’ll pay you what? Parking for the night can’t be more than say, what, ten dollars?”
“I really have no idea.” She stared at the coins in his hand. “The riverside lot is usually VIP reserved.”
“Here’s twenty.” He handed her several coins. “Keep the change. If you need more money, I’ll gladly pay it, with interest, when I leave tomorrow.”
“I guess that should work.” He’d already begun to walk away, through the trees. “Wait! How will I reach you if something goes wrong?”
“I’ll be back this way soon.” He bowed his head. “Thank you so much for your help.” Then he turned back and walked through the trees.
Once he was lost in the tangle of tents and carts, pavilions and food stands, he drew his goggles up over his eyes. He marched forward, his metal boot stamping deep prints in the firm, frozen soil. Distantly, he heard fearful and desperate talk from the tourists and locals.
“I’ve always known there’s some truth in the old stories.” A middle-aged man spoke to a group of young people, probably in their early teens. “All the wild old things are coming back into the world now, now that us normal folks are less out there.”
That was the common sentiment. The Wayfarer listened to their talk, but he didn’t stay anywhere for long. He bought a rich, warm funnel cake and a plastic cup of non-alcoholic caramead. He needed his wits sharp. His arrival coinciding with a train derailment – there was some connection, though he didn’t have nearly enough information to know what.
He ate and drank. Then he collected a small map of the nearby area, designed to show visitors where all the local participating businesses were located throughout town.
After quick words with the women in the visitor center tent, the Wayfarer tapped at the mask beside his eyes. The mask’s goggles quickly magnified again and zeroed in on a worn flagstone path, just across the street from the park.
He hurried forward and walked across the street without breaking stride. There was no traffic. Then he quickly ascended the steep stair of rough-hewn stones. The old path led him up beyond a small wooden church, placed above the park. He took that path all the way as it wound high over the valley and the town.
Finally, he arrived at a walled overlook. A thin metal railing separated him from the great sheer rock face and a forty-foot fall. There was the usual pair of binoculars, the kind of coin-operated setup that tourist attractions have the world over.
The Wayfarer didn’t bother with those binoculars. He drew the spiked top from his pocket. It spun and pointed toward a location, down in the village, now far below. His mask zoomed in on a building. Then he compared what he saw to his visitor map.
He’d found the place. He’d finally done it! After months of missed leads and misadventures, the Trove was hidden in rural America, rural Pennsylvania, all along, in some antique store called Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea. The treasure was literally there.
The Wayfarer smiled. He descended the hill, victorious.
Her brain processed that the old man had said her name. She slowly wrapped her mind around that truth. The old man, the man on the train, the derailed train, he’d carried a message for her. Why? She didn’t wait to find out.
The other council members approached the fallen man, their microphones shut off. The Sheriff and emergency crews forced their way forward, as well.
Enoa wanted to watch what happened to the old man, but even more she wanted to make sure she wasn’t discovered. She wasn’t ready to talk about this. She wasn’t ready to talk about anything.
She’d stepped down from the bench. She sat on it instead and waited for several minutes, trying to ignore the speculative conversation around her. Thankfully, she still wore the Sight-Stealer mask, and none of the people near her mentioned her name.
“That bullet didn’t touch him…”
“I hope there are no other people on the train…”
She tried to ignore their words. She failed.
She’d hoped other travelers would flee, on toward whatever shelter awaited them, but they hadn’t, not since the first round of scared tourists fled from the Sight-Stealer. But she couldn’t stand waiting any more, and she ran. She ran as she’d been desperate to do since her name rang across the square.
Enoa ran and no one noticed her go. No one noticed her charge back up the hill, past Mr. Alberty’s baked goods stand, past all the food stands, past the candy store, and the fortune teller’s house, past inns and bed-and-breakfasts, on up the several blocks to her own shop, to her own home. She was nearly there. Once she arrived, then she could piece it all together, then she could figure everything out.
The shop’s storefront door stood wide open.
Enoa hesitated on the threshold. Someone had broken in. Someone could be inside. No matter how rowdy the crowds had become in previous years, no damage had come to her property. Never. Now she had no choice but to return to the town square and find police help. She turned away.
“We would like a word with you, young woman.” Two Sight-Stealers emerged from the store. Both their faces were painted purple and black, their mouths red as blood, their heavy-lidded eyes wide and bloodshot. They wore dark robes, many layers of thin cloth. “You know the ways of the Shapers. It is true.”
“We can feel the strength from your mind.” The second Sight-Stealer raised his right hand. A knife appeared in the palm. One second, the hand was empty, the next, it held the blade’s handle.
Enoa had no time to consider herself. She had no time to consider the fact that, as far as she knew, the Sight-Stealers were just stories. They were tourist boogeymen, not even real local folklore. There was absolutely no historical precedent for their existence, whatsoever.
If it weren’t for the trick with the blade, she would have thought that these were just thieves, disguised in the costumes of the festival. But the blade, that had been impossible.
That had been magic.
She looked around and listened. There was no sign of anyone else nearby. She took a single step backward.
“Come inside.” The first Sight-Stealer also produced a blade from nothing and nowhere. “Or we will take you inside.”
Enoa took a second step back. She’d had some self-defense training, kickboxing and Muay Thai, but that had been years ago. And self-defense training, what would that do against supernatural people? Well…
“Excuse me!” A muffled male voice shouted from far behind Enoa. Both Sight-Stealers looked toward the noise. Even she turned her eyes, hoping to catch sight of the speaker. She saw a shape barreling right toward her.
She stepped out of the way and saw a man with a face covered by goggles and a strange cloth, with a billowing coat, one metal boot, and a great sword, sheathed at his back.
“Hello!” The Wayfarer lifted his right gloved hand in a small wave. “I’m sorry to bother you, but it looks like you’re about to be attacked.” He pointed to the two Sight-Stealers. “Would you like some help?”