17. The Nimauk Visitor and Recreation Center

The Liberty Corps had bound Kelly Webster’s wrists. They had forced a black hood down over her head. A strong hand gripped her upper arm and led her somewhere, somewhere loud, somewhere with lots of voices.

“Did you think you could come here without me knowing?” Tucker spoke in her left ear, close enough that she felt his hot breath through the fabric of the hood. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that I have a certain affinity with metal. I knew someone entered this building as soon as you stepped inside.”

Webster did not answer him. She saw nothing to be gained from words or speaking. She didn’t know if she’d have a second chance to resist, to productively fight against Tucker and the Liberty Corps.

But she knew that potential chance wasn’t now. That moment hadn’t come. She needed to wait and pay attention to learn where they were taking her. Putting a hood over her head was a really bad sign. She was directed forward, pulled by her upper arm.

Webster heard the rumble of a crowd. She heard the noise of all the townspeople and guests, forced away from the festivities and some even forced away from their homes. They had been brought here, to the Visitor and Recreation Center’s gymnasium. The noise of the crowd grew quickly, until she could hear individual voices, even though she couldn’t yet make out specific words.

Something squeaked ahead of her, a door opening. A bright light shone out, noticeable even with the material over her eyes. The sounds of the crowd grew and became deafening. Shouts, anger, fear, the crowd sounded ready to explode.

Their noise grew even further when she entered the gym. Just the sheer force of the six hundred plus voices was enough to drown out everything.

“Look!” Someone yelled. “They dragged that woman out of bed.”

Webster was directed forward. She was still blind, of course, but the hand on her arm led her somewhere specific. She allowed herself to be led.

“Here she is.” A man spoke, just beside her. Then all hands left her. Webster came to a stop. She had no perception of the room around her, nothing but the roaring crowd and the vague sense of light. The room was hot too. The temperature outside had plummeted overnight but the mass of all those bodies warmed the room beyond belief. From warmth and fear and the layers of makeshift camoflage, Webster felt sticky. She was soon drenched to the skin, rivulets of water running down her spine, like she’d gone for a run in the beginning of August.

The hood was pulled from her head. She blinked her eyes shut. She winced. The sound of the crowd erupted around her even greater. She heard her own name. Some gasps.

“They took the Sheriff!” A woman screamed. “Look at her hand. What did they do to her?”

“Bastards!” A man yelled. “They’ve taken everyone, these…” He made a gagging noise when a Liberty Corps spearman struck him. Other voices called. The hostages surged forward, until new sounds were heard, blades from sheaths and guns from holsters, as Liberty Corps personnel drew weapons on the crowd. The assembly’s roar fell away to a murmur.

This was a chance to speak, her chance to say something about what was really going on. If she could convince these people, there was still a possibility they might overwhelm the Liberty Corps. What could she say? It was unlikely this could be resolved peacefully. Unfortunately, Councilman Tucker already had his words planned.

“Our own sheriff betrayed us.” Tucker spoke through his wireless microphone, likely the same one he’d worn at the festival’s opening ceremony, just under twelve hours earlier.

“Proof!” A man shouted this. “Who the hell are you to keep us here at gunpoint!”

“Quiet!” One of the helmeted Liberty Corps troops approached the shouter. “No noise now.”

“Proof!” The shouter called again.

The Liberty Corps member advanced toward the shouter, but his way was blocked by a costumed group of six men. Webster wasn’t sure from forty feet away, but she thought they were supposed to be Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It was hard to tell with their costumes disheveled. Robin himself wore his green tunic over worn black jeans. These were well-muscled young travelers, twentysomethings who’d been hoping to cross paths with the militia for the past few hours.

“Proof!” The original shouter yelled.

“Proof. Proof. Proof. Proof.” The people answered. They chanted.

“He has no proof!” Sheriff Webster yelled the instant the chant began to fade. “It’s all a lie. Tucker’s behind everything. The Sight-Stealers are fakes. They caused the train derailment. It’s all Tucker’s plan with the Liberty Corps. They’re after something here in town. He’s taken my whole department. I think he murdered my deputy, Zachary Nesta.”

“What a horrible thing to say. I…” Tucker tried to speak again. Even his microphone, likely linked to the room’s sound system, couldn’t compete with the crowd.

“Proof. Proof. Proof. Proof.”

Webster took her bathrobe’s tie in her bound hands and spun it over her head, catching the crowd’s attention. “Please, help me save this place.” She turned in a wide arc. The crowd quieted for her. They listened to her, but she had no proper proof either. Her few belongings had been taken from her when she’d been captured.

Webster didn’t look at Tucker or the Liberty Corps. She looked at the people, adults and children. Some had cots set up, but no one could sleep in that gathering. She saw people still dressed in costume, caped movie heroes and space aliens and knights. Webster saw many of the performers hired for the festival, who were caught up in the Liberty Corps’ sweep of the festival grounds. The musicians and their gear were clustered together, along the wall closest to her, by the rear loading door, the folk musicians and other assorted acts, even the small classical orchestra that had been hired to accompany the opening night showing of the locally-filmed cult classic film, Murder at Pinnacle Peak.

Beyond those doors was a small road, a few scattered parking spaces, ten feet of snowfield, and then trees. The forest waited there, the full thick primordial forest that had always waited outside Nimauk.

If Webster could escape that way, she would be gone. No one would find her. And then she could contact the local police departments and her remaining deputies around the county. Had Lawson escaped to rally them? Would the other departments really offer any help with Tucker on the loose?

“Tucker and the Liberty Corps have been lying to you.” She raised up her bound wrists, raised her wounded hand. “The legends are true. I’m sorry to tell you that. Some of the Liberty Corps know parlor tricks, enough to pretend to be Sight-Stealers, but it’s Tucker who really wields this strange power. I don’t know how, but it’s him. They didn’t round you up for safety. They rounded you up so they could dig up the ground that used to belong to Sucora Cloud. There’s something buried there that they’re after.”

A high-pitched whine came down from the ceiling. Both Webster and the crowd cringed from the noise and covered their ears. The room was totally silent by the time the audio distortion sound ceased.

“There’s no truth to any of this,” Tucker said. “You are here so we can protect you. The world was stranger than we realized. So many of the things we casually talked about for this festival turned out to be true. You’re all here to be safe and to…”

The lights went out.

People jostled each other, some ready to fight, some ready to run away. There was more yelling, more noise, too chaotic to hear.

“We’re too late.” Tucker gave a believable performance. Webster genuinely marveled at him, although he had to be very good at lying. He’d been living a lie for a long time. How many years had it been since he arrived in town, twenty?

Flickering red flame burned suddenly into life in the center of the room. The burning came from a torch in the hand of a cloaked man. His face was painted in purple and black, the war paint of the Sight-Stealers.

“You came here to resist us.” The man’s voice boomed through the room. “You plan to keep us from reclaiming this land.” He raised his left hand. Webster stood close enough to him that she felt a new wave of heat reach her, beyond even the warmth from the flame.

A long spear burst into life in the man’s left hand. “You did not leave,” he said. “Now, you will die.”

* * *

The Basebreaker Drill cracked through the concrete and stone of the shop’s foundation. The drill made a terrible racket, but it moved at a deliberate pace. The Liberty Corps could not afford to damage the trove hidden under the antique shop.

Captain Maros held up his Cobalt Isodar, the same small detection device Tucker had given him when they’d started their partnership, months ago.

The radar let out only a faint, slight beeping. This was nothing like the overwhelming sound he’d heard just hours earlier. What had changed? How could anything have changed?

Maros waited an hour and a half to complete the drilling. They’d needed to burn the building, to hide the confiscation of the interior items without interference, but now they risked collapsing the whole building on top of them, if they weren’t extremely cautious.

Once the hole had been made in the basement floor, it had to be widened, tripled in size until a grown human could fit through it.

The hole completed, Maros watched the drone pilot guide his hovering probe down into the hole in the foundation. Maros had filed twenty pages of request forms to have the drone pilot temporarily reassigned from the Liberty Corps operation in Montauk, New York.

The Dreamthought Project had stolen so many priceless relics from the old IHSA. Who knew what they would do to protect them? Maros wanted to immediately climb into the hole, but instead he stood at the drone pilot’s shoulder, waiting for a solid feed from the floating device.

The drone lit its primary lamp. It illuminated a small wooden desk. Maros clenched his fists until his prosthetic hand actually whined, but the drone pilot didn’t move the little probe until he was satisfied no booby-traps would strike.

The pilot nudged his controls. The probe moved. The view turned with it, at a pace so slow it took Maros’s full willpower not to scream.

At last, the probe turned and illuminated an entire row of shelves, like a library had been there. Once.

The shelves were empty.

“Shut off the drone’s camera and lower me down.” Maros left the drone pilot. He walked between the shop’s empty inventory shelves and the Corps digging machines until he looked into the hole in the earth. Usually, his forces argued with him, but not then.

A cable and winch was set in place. Maros attached the cable to his belt. He nodded to his men. They lowered him down through the foundation until he touched down in the empty library. He unhooked the winch.

Alone under the ground, Maros showed no caution. He rushed from one shelf to another to another. He searched them all. There was nothing there. He tore the desk drawers open, as well, searched them for hidden compartments.

The entire room was empty.

Then Maros spotted the door, built into the side of the room.

Of course, this was only an antechamber of some kind. Who knew how long that library had sat deserted? But there, that door was the way to the real treasure. His destiny was waiting.

Maros did not sprint through this door. No, the probe hadn’t flown through there. It could be loaded with traps. He would not be overbold or caught in a moment of weakness.

Maros walked to the door and opened it. He lit his flashlight before examining the passageway around him. He bent down and examined the floor too. There was no trip wire, no pit trap, no collapsing walls or swinging axes. But there was something else, there on the floor.

Maros stuck his fingers into the fresh muddy footprint. It was still wet.

He was no tracker or woodsman. He’d had only minimal training in either discipline, but he distinguished multiple pairs of footprints. It looked like two or maybe three people had been through here.

But the closer Maros looked, the more he knew it was likely two people. One of the two was a lot smaller. The other person wore mismatching boots, the right much larger than the left.

Then Maros did run. He sprinted the length of the tunnel. He was careful not to step in the prints, but he followed them with his eyes, all the long way back to the closed slab door, sealed shut ahead of him.

When Maros reached the sealed slab, he knew enough of the old IHSA systems to look for the button. He found it, smacked his left hand into the small disk, and watched the stone door slide aside, before stepping into the chamber beyond.

Maros turned through the room. It was a tomb. Then, he found words, an inscription in the stone. He read the words written in the rock.

“May this honored ground offer an eternal home to the Cloud family.”

* * *

“This is a trap!” Sheriff Webster yelled. “This is a… AHHHH!” Three fingers dug into her broken hand. The fingers found their way under her bandages and the splint, digging into her skin.

She collapsed to her knees from the pain, at around the same time the Liberty Corps troops stepped forward.

“The Sheriff said this was fake.” A woman shouted down from the gym’s bleachers. More voices in the stands booed.

The fake Sight-Stealer had prepared some pyrotechnics. He clashed his spear into his torch. A tower of flame rose almost to the ceiling, lighting up the entire room.

Ten more Liberty Corps troops ran toward the Sight-Stealer. Their guns were drawn.

“We’ll only ask this once,” one militia member said. “It’s time for you to leave.”

Sheriff Webster knew this was her last best chance to intervene. Even if some of the festival-goers and suspicious locals were ready for a brawl, they weren’t organized enough to act against the Liberty Corps. How many of them were angry drunks? What could such people do against soldiers, especially if the rest of the crowd believed the Liberty Corps story? If any sizable percentage believed the militia’s story, everything could dissolve into chaos.

BeepBeepBeeeeep. A car horn called outside the building. The last blast was loud enough that everyone, magic or not, local or traveler, shut up. With everyone quiet, it was clear where the sound was actually coming from.

The horn was blaring down from the sky. Everyone looked up, to the skylights set into the ceiling. They saw a shape, flying above the building. A square of lights hurtled down out of the sky, making a slight roaring sound like a rocket ship in a vintage sci-fi movie.

The sound grew louder as the shape passed over the windows and died away, as the craft descended out of sight.

When that noise quieted, another took its place, knocking. Someone was knocking on the loading door.

“Can somebody let us in?” A voice shouted, a distant sound. “I’d rather not cut us in. I didn’t expect actual chains on the door.” No one would have heard his words if the crowd hadn’t gone quiet from the sight of the approaching ship. “Never mind, I got it.”

The loading door slid open, unleashing intense headlights. Even in the brief darkness, those nearest the entrance were dazed and blind from the light. But through squinted eyes, they saw the two long shadows, cast into the room by the headlights.

Enoa and Orson had arrived to save the town.

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