“Do you have any evidence to back up that bold claim?” Sheriff Webster crossed her arms.
“So far, I only have my own eye-witness testimony and over a decade of personal experience working in high strangeness situations,” Orson said. “When I tailed the two Sight-Stealers, one spoke into a radio. Then when I cornered them, they were both wiping the war paint from their faces. One of those men tried to shoot me with a handgun. I don’t know your local lore, but I’m thinking these guys aren’t actually paranormal entities.”
“You’re saying the magic is fake?” Webster’s face softened in relief.
“But the weapons they made…” Enoa began.
“The iron phenomenon isn’t fake,” Orson said. “I’m sorry, but – and I get that you have no reason to believe the word of some random traveler – but there are people in this world, seemingly normal people, who can wield strange abilities. It’s not all ancient traditions and government experimentation. People can learn these powers, and since the world went to Hell, I’ve seen that these types of phenomenon are becoming more and more common.”
“Even if they aren’t really the Sight-Stealers from the stories,” Webster said. “Using a radio doesn’t necessarily connect them to the Liberty Corps. What would the Liberty Corps gain from attacking Enoa or attacking the train?”
“Another Sight-Stealer was walking on the derailed train,” Enoa told Orson. “He stopped a bullet in midair.”
“More iron, probably.” Orson walked toward one of the display shelves, containing pottery. He picked up a thin green vase and examined it in clear view of the storefront window and the Liberty Corps watching outside. “Fourteen Liberty Corps vehicles showed up here within minutes of that fake Sight-Stealer talking on the radio? It’s like he told them it was time to show up. Notice that their captain didn’t ask me, a witness, for any information about the robbery.”
“He didn’t ask me for details either,” Enoa said. “Everything was about getting me to go with them.”
“Exactly,” Orson said. “He didn’t ask because he already knew all those details, and this was just a show the Liberty Corps put on to accomplish something else.”
“The Liberty Corps came here because a dying man on the derailed train tried to give a warning to Enoa,” Webster said. “I don’t know what that means, but they had reason to be here, at least in their minds.”
“No.” Orson shook his head, still pretending to examine more vases on the shelf. “I don’t buy it. Forty guys had to turn up, just to talk to Enoa?”
“What are you suggesting?” Enoa really needed the conversation to move away from the train man.
“Their plan went wrong tonight.” Orson set down the vase and retreated further in the aisle, now out of sight of the Liberty Corps. Enoa and Sheriff Webster followed him. “I didn’t detect any outgoing signals, so I don’t think the store is bugged, but they still need to think I’m shopping.”
“You aren’t shopping?” Webster asked.
“Please tell me more about this guy at the train,” Orson continued. “What happened there?”
“After the train crashed and the Sight-Stealer made his appearance,” Enoa said. “This injured man staggered off the train and he said… He said that…”
“He said Enoa can stop what’s happening in town, and then he died,” Sheriff Webster finished. “We don’t know who he was. All other train passengers are deceased, but the others were separate, train crew and ceremonial party. This man was alone and judging by his injuries, he was involved in a struggle.”
“This all makes more sense.” Orson nodded. “The Liberty Corps want something from Enoa. I’d bet they knew that well in advance. But they didn’t expect her to be sought out by a survivor of their train attack. Before the man on the train arrived, I’d bet they were going to use their Sight-Stealer to derail the train, make a big show to scare everyone. Then, they’d have their same fake folk monsters attack Enoa. Except I imagine the Liberty Corps would have arrived to ‘rescue’ her, at which point they’d have easy access to her and her property. I’m not sure of the details, but I think they adapted their plan to the increased scrutiny Enoa is under, but I ruined whatever else they decided to do.”
Orson drew the package he’d recovered from the Sight-Stealers and placed it down on the nearest shelf, between sets of small pottery.
“That’s one of my protective antique book covers.” Enoa leaned closer. “Which book did they take?” Orson undid and opened the covering, revealing a brittle, dry leather-bound book.
“’ Mysteries throughout History in the Nimauk Valley and Surrounding Communities’?” Sheriff Webster squinted at the faded gold print on the book’s cover.
“It’s all old superstitions,” Enoa explained. “It talks about the urban legends like they’re all real, even the parts that we know were written in the last two centuries. I’ve been trying to market it as a self-help book, but nobody wants it.”
“The Liberty Corps must be looking for something pertaining to the local culture.” Orson tapped the book. “Why would a real member of these evil fairy tale people need a historical guide book?”
“If the Sight-Stealers are fake, that’s a direct insult to every native Nimauk person.” Enoa exhaled and leaned against the shelf beside the book.
“I’m sure.” Orson carefully slid the old book aside to reveal a folded square of paper. “Also, this. Our friends the magic burglars added something of their own.”
“This is a map of the valley.” Webster unfolded the paper and held it up to the light. She traced something on the map’s surface with her right index finger. “They have maps just like these down at the visitor center.” She began to fold the paper again. “It definitely makes these individuals seem less… Is supernatural the word? But this still isn’t evidence the Liberty Corps is involved.”
“But you agree it’s all worth looking into?” Orson watched the Sheriff place the folded map on top of the antique text.
“I agree it’s strange.” Webster shrugged. “It doesn’t change anything in the short term. We’re all expected down at Mr. Tucker’s office. You’d better get shopping for real.”
“Actually,” Orson said. “I think it would be better to do my shopping later. I have a feeling I’m here looking for something that’s not for sale, the same something the Liberty Corps wants.”
“You’re just some treasure hunter, aren’t you?” Webster asked. “Maybe you’re behind this? There’s just as much proof. Who’s to say those men who robbed Enoa weren’t friends of yours?“
“Wow.” Orson scratched his head, messing his already unruly hair. “Seriously, I don’t think I can prove it. Hmmm. You might have me stumped.” He let out two nervous laughs, heh-heh.
“One of the Sight-Stealers stabbed you.” Enoa was totally onboard with Orson’s anti-Liberty Corps idea. She really didn’t want him to turn out to be another problem.
“That’s no proof.” Orson squeezed his eyes shut. “If they were friends they’d know about the armor woven in this coat. Thanks for the help, but just hold on, okay? I’ll come up with it.”
“But,” Enoa said. “None of this would explain why Maros didn’t ask a single question about the robbery attempt.”
“That is very strange.” Webster agreed. “If he were interested in solving the situation here, any attack on your person… Wait a minute, we never said your attackers were Sight-Stealers.”
“What?” Enoa said. “We talked about the Sight-Stealers.”
“I said your assailants were strange.” Webster scowled so deeply her eyebrows almost pressed together. “We did not say you were attacked by Sight-Stealers. You only told me, alone. We did not discuss the identity of the perpetrators once Captain Maros arrived.” The Sheriff pressed her right hand to her forehead. “My God, I’m slipping. Why didn’t I see it right away?”
“Man Bun really slipped up and incriminated himself.” Orson grinned. “Well, now we can actually start planning, for real.”
“What are we going to do?” Enoa had believed Orson from the start, but knowing the truth, knowing the size of the conspiracy arrayed against her was overwhelming. She took fast, shallow breaths. Her hands erupted in cold sweat.
“I need to get in touch with the rest of my Department.” Webster reached to her belt and unclipped a small box pinned there. She raised the pager. “One second, I’ve missed about forty messages while I’ve been here.” She perused those messages, the news she’d missed during her visit to the antique shop. The news she received didn’t register on her face, but she fell utterly, completely silent.
“Alright.” Sheriff Webster returned the box to her belt. “You have me convinced. Even if you’re bad news, Captain Gregory, you’ve broken no laws here, none that I’m aware of. The Liberty Corps is worse. What’s your play?”
“What happened?” Orson asked.
“The Liberty Corps is rounding up everybody down at town square.” Webster laid her hand on a nearby shelf. “They even took the performing acts into custody. I don’t know if I believe you, but I believe we need to put a stop to whatever they’re doing. They are plainly connected to the Sight-Stealers. What’s your plan, treasure hunter? I’m assuming you’ve got one.”
“I do.” Orson nodded. “We don’t have time to find whatever the Liberty Corps wants here, not with their boys crowded outside. So I’ll make a big diversion, enough for Enoa to sneak out of here through a back door or a fire escape, whatever she’s got. She’ll race down the hill, and we’ll escape in my RV until the wee hours of the morning. Then we’ll sneak back and find what those guys are after. In the meantime, Sheriff, I happily turn the stolen goods over to you, to help with your own investigation.”
“That’s a horrendous plan,” Webster said. “You’re definitely no criminal mastermind.”
“I never come up with a better plan than I need to win.” Orson laughed. “Are we all onboard?”
“You want me to trust you and run away?” Enoa was just about convinced, but she had to ask. Just hours before, her biggest concern was concealing her grief long enough to sell trinkets to tourists. Now, she was about to become a fugitive, along with a sword-wielding treasure hunter.
“Do you have a better idea?” Orson asked this of both women. “I sure don’t.”
“It seems like it’s either this or you go with Captain Maros to the town offices.” Webster showed no emotion, her face blank. Her frustration could only be seen in her tense shoulders and fidgeting fingers. “I will do my best to keep you safe, whatever you choose.”
“I’ll go with Orson.” Enoa didn’t really need time to consider. This way, she had some power, some ability to make choices. If Orson was a problem, he still needed her help to find what he was looking for. With the Liberty Corps, they would take what they wanted, without question or hesitation.
“Cool.” Orson waved his arms at the room around him, a big expansive gesture. “I’d grab any particular, uh, valuables or tchotchkes the Liberty Corps might steal, anything you can take with you. I have some emergency supplies, but pack anything you’d need to go away for a couple days too, just in case. We have to be prepared for things to go wrong, but also don’t take more than you can carry. My RV is parked in the riverside lot on the shore where the train derailed, so it’s a hike.”
“I’ll have to cross through the square to get there.” Enoa thought back to safer days, when exploring the small paths and hills around Nimauk offered none of the paranoid danger that came with societal destabilization. It would not be easy to reach Orson’s camper without being caught.
“I’m sorry,” Orson said. “I had no idea how difficult this would be when I got here.”
“There are tons of campers at the festival, how will I know which one is yours?” Enoa imagined her pitch dark journey through the hills. She imagined the Liberty Corps looking for her, with their Sight-Stealers, with their dozens of armed troops.
“It suits me,” he said. “It has the 1950s Route 66 dream machine look, but with a custom paint job and about seventy bumper stickers. You’ll know it when you see it. Plus I don’t think anybody else is parked down there. Take five minutes, get your stuff, and I’ll get this plan moving once you’re back.”
“I’ll be ready in three.” Enoa played through the items in her mind, the few things she thought the Liberty Corps might steal. What would she need to take to be away? She hadn’t gone away in so long.
“Oh yeah, one more thing, before you go.” Orson held up his gloved right pointer finger. “The whole train derailment isn’t sitting well with me.”
“What do you mean?” Webster winced at Orson’s constant stream of bad news.
“Well,” Orson said. “The two guys I fought earlier had a really hard time manipulating their iron, so I figure there has to be somebody way more powerful behind it all. I mean, people who can hardly make knives definitely couldn’t throw a train.”
Captain Maros walked Councilman Tucker to his car. Then he retrieved his sheathed sword and gun belt from his troops outside the antique shop. He looked over his shoulder and was satisfied to find Orson Gregory examining vases inside the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea. Good, he had time.
Maros walked down the mostly-empty street. He moved as quickly as he could without looking harried or worried.
Orson Gregory. He’d heard that name before, definitely. It had been five long years, five trips around the sun since the world went mad. Maros had been a boy then, in reality just a child. He’d been whole too, in every way.
So much had happened to him.
But through it all, Orson Gregory. Yes, he remembered that name.
Captain Maros found the person he was looking for. Duncan was dressed like a movie cowboy, in a small hat and threadbare patterned poncho, a scarf wrapped about his head to shield his face from the winter wind. He sat on a wooden public bench, beside a streetlight. Duncan looked around, watching the milling traffic, mostly people on foot, those who had wisely agreed to vacate town square, as instructed. Duncan was there, watching, because Maros had sent him there. The Liberty Corps needed people who blended in with the crowd – spies, in layman’s terms.
Duncan gave Maros a slight nod when he approached. It was a casual gesture, as if acknowledging a stranger.
“Orson Gregory.” Maros broke cover. He had to ask. He had to know. If losing a spy was the price he needed to pay, then so be it. “Where have I heard the name Orson Gregory?”
“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to talk until we recovered the Trove?” Duncan didn’t look at him.
“Things got complicated.” Maros fought the urge to shout. “Who is Orson Gregory? Why is that name familiar?”
“Orson Gregory is supposed to be the real name of Wayfarer One.” Duncan still didn’t face Maros.
“Wayfarer One from the Battle of Norlenheim?” Maros tried his best not to fidget. No, this wasn’t possible. They were so close. Did Gregory know?
“Who else?” Duncan chuckled. “Why does that matter now?”
“Because I just met a man who called himself Orson Gregory. He fought the Sight-Stealers and won. He won easily too, by the look of him. He’s the reason everything’s gone wrong tonight.” Maros talked quickly, before Duncan could interrupt or question him.
“So this guy’s good in a fight.” Duncan shifted his poncho so he could face Maros. “That doesn’t mean he’s the Orson Gregory who fought the Thunderworks at Norlenheim, even if that is his real name and he’s not just some copycat.”
“Duncan.” Maros bit his lower lip. No, now was not the time for fury. “You have not seen this man. There is something about him. He’s calm.”
“And?” Duncan rolled his eyes. There was just enough light from the streetlamp for Maros to see the motion. “Okay, he’s calm? He obviously doesn’t know to stay out of our way, but we’ll teach him.”
A large group of festival-goers, a dozen of them, all dressed as pirates, walked by up the street.
“But we also need to take him very seriously.” Maros spoke as soon as the group was out of earshot. “I’d rather stay out of his way. We need good public opinion for this to work. There is something strange, I’m telling you. This Gregory, I could believe he was involved in the battles that broke the world.”
“You need to breathe, Kol. This is your big night, remember? Everything will be different when you find the Trove. Don’t throw it away over some dumb story. Orson Gregory probably was never real. If he was real, this guy probably isn’t him. If it’s him, he’s probably not as good as the stories say.”
“I guess you’re right.” Maros massaged the bridge of his nose. “I’m probably just looking for something to go wrong.”
“Exactly.” Duncan laid his hand on Maros’s arm. “How is everything else going?”
“It’s going very well.” Maros took a deep breath. “Really well. The girl, Cloud, she’ll be joining us soon. Then it should be…”
Gunfire rang out up the street. Shouting. Yelling. More gunfire.
Maros and Duncan both stood. Duncan drew his small revolver from beneath his poncho.
“Hold your fire.” Maros waved an arm in front of Duncan. Why had any of his men opened fire? He grabbed his radio and thumbed it on. “I’m assuming it was some of you who decided to start shooting?”
“Sir, I’m sorry.” The voice gasped. Maros couldn’t recognize it.
“Every bullet you fire damages our reputation here.” The Captain didn’t give the man time to speak. “Whatever it is, unless your life is in danger, deal with it some other way.”
Maros heard approaching feet and a loud great booming footfall that he did not recognize.
Orson Gregory rushed down the street toward him, metal boot stamping against the road. “You’ll never get it from me!” He shouted. “It’s mine now. Do you hear me? MINE!” He cackled at the top of his lungs. “Eat my dust, Copper!”
Two squads of Liberty Corps troops, some with guns, some with spears, came into view behind him. The few mingling tourists, still on the road, got out of their way.
“Hi again, Captain Man Bun.” Orson waved to him when he got closer. “It’s a great night, isn’t it? Not too cold.”
“Stop.” Maros drew his sword. Maros had forged the blade, himself. That was step one on his way toward mastering the power of iron, but could any iron blade withstand the sword Wayfarer One supposedly carried, a sword made of fire? “Stop where you are.”
Orson barreled straight at him, but didn’t draw his own sword. Instead, Orson shoved his metal boot against the ground. The strange footwear must have greatly increased his strength. Orson flew straight up into the air, over Maros and his sword.
Orson landed behind him with a thud that reverberated through the ground at Maros’s feet. “It’s dangerous to play with sharp objects!” Orson shouted over his shoulder. “You’d better be careful with that.”
Duncan raised his revolver and took aim. Maros laid his hand across his friend’s arm.
“Hold your fire.”
“But,” Duncan didn’t look at him. He watched the billowing shape of the Wayfarer’s coat, as the stranger rushed further and further down the street. Just then, the Liberty Corps troops reached them. Maros held up his hand for them to stop.
“We’re in pursuit, sir,” one of the riflemen said.
“I know.” Maros nodded. “Good stamina, but there’s a better way. I want all of you working together. We need to get our teams prepared in town square. Get our war force on the road, ready to trap him.”
“What about me?” Duncan holstered his revolver and readjusted his poncho.
“Find another disguise.” Maros looked down the street, where Orson Gregory had vanished into the night. “Miss Cloud is still in hand. Once I’ve dealt with Captain Gregory, everything will happen like we planned.”