The race to win the Dreamside Road began with seven murders.
The League of Earth’s Nations’ IHSA operatives had long hunted for that stolen trove of paranormal artifacts and top-secret knowledge. They’d searched from the moment the ‘treasure’ was liberated from governmental control, decades before the race began. Knowledgeable fortune-seekers and adventurers sought the relics too. Supernatural forces, the world over, left their cloisters to find the trove.
All those early efforts failed.
It wasn’t until five years after the League of Nations’ governments had fallen, that the real contest began, the struggle for a power that could rebuild the world or destroy what remained.
Seven deaths marked the beginning of a conflict that eventually spanned the globe.
Mr. Herman J. Arden, a train conductor, knew nothing of the Dreamside Road trove, but he was one of the unfortunate seven. A widower, his children grown, Arden enjoyed working on the limited passenger lines, north of Philadelphia. It was a scenic run, quiet and mostly peaceful, despite the declining governmental influence.
Mr. Arden wore a sidearm after destabilization, but he’d never had to use it on the job. He wore it that last evening too and assumed he wouldn’t need it. That Friday’s trip ended at the annual Wintertide Festival in Nimauk, a tiny town at the westward end of his run. Even with the growing instability, the festival still attracted enough guests to keep away the kind of lawlessness that would see the train as a target.
Until the old man appeared, Arden thought he was working the usual Wintertide Festival trip. Every year the train’s arrival marked the beginning of the festival. The train carried the traditional ceremonial party, re-enacting the town’s founding, as well as any last-minute guests, visiting from the outlying communities. Arden didn’t expect any changes to the tradition.
But then he saw the white-haired and bearded old man sprinting across the lot outside the half-abandoned Coalway Township Station.
Coalway was the last station before the festival, but the train no longer stopped there, unless passengers scheduled in advance. It had been months since anyone got on at that station, and no stop there was scheduled for the festival run. If Arden weren’t standing at the railed gangway, between train cars, staring out at the snow, he might not have seen the old man against the darkened hills.
Half of the depot’s motion-sensitive, security lights lit when they detected the old man’s race around the train station. He ran toward the curving train tracks, far ahead of Mr. Arden, who watched the old man, with astonishment.
The old man moved in great steps that would shame most sprinters. He bounded, now parallel with the front cars of the train, like gravity had less hold over him.
The old man seemed to look right at Mr. Arden. He shook his head and wildly waved his arms.
What was he doing? He couldn’t be trying to catch the train. Why would he run like that through the snow?
Mr. Arden saw why. Before he could call in to the engineer, he noticed a strange shadow moving at the edges of the station’s lights.
The old man was being chased.
Mr. Arden caught a glimpse of a figure, faceless and solid gray. Its skin seemed to ripple, a form made of liquid instead of flesh.
Something struck the station lights, all of them at once. They shattered in unison. Everything went dark, leaving Mr. Arden with only the lights between train cars. He lost his view of the creature.
Mr. Arden drew his walkie-talkie and, for the first time on the job, his pistol.
“I think we have an attempted Code Five.” Mr. Arden spoke into the walkie-talkie. “Do not halt.”
“Everything alright, Herman?” The engineer asked. “Code Five? Here? That’s not possible.”
“Don’t halt, Steve,” Mr. Arden said.
“Sure?” the engineer answered. “Whatever you say.”
Mr. Arden wanted to say more. He wanted to try to explain what he’d seen, but he didn’t get the chance.
A shape hurtled out of the darkness, yelling as it flew toward him. Mr. Arden ducked away.
The old man landed on the thin strip of metal between train cars. He wobbled on his feet, but regained his precarious, impossible balance.
He had somehow jumped aboard the train, still traveling over thirty miles per hour. In his left hand, he grasped a round shield. The shield was bronze in color and the size of his torso. Mr. Arden was certain the old man had been empty-handed when he’d waved to him.
The old man climbed over the railing and stood beside Mr. Arden. This man was much older than he appeared from a distance, his face extremely pale, heavily wrinkled, and dotted with the spots of great age. He was certainly old enough to be Arden’s father. The old man huffed, short of breath, his right hand clutching at his side.
Mr. Arden saw the trickle of blood, weeping from beneath the man’s hand and dripping onto the deck of the gangway.
“You’re bleeding!” Mr. Arden said. “Let me get you inside.” He reached toward the man.
“Wait.” The old man held up his shield, so Arden couldn’t come closer.
Mr. Arden watched the man draw his right hand away from the wound, pulling a sliver of shining metal out of his clothing and his body. The metal sliver rippled, just like the figure that had pursued the old man.
The sliver moved on its own. It squirmed in the man’s hand, as he pressed it to the inside of his shield. The bronzed metal appeared to melt around the dagger. The shield reshaped itself into an orb the size of a volleyball.
It was an inescapable fact that, before the fall, the League of Nations’ governments and their IHSA had meddled in the occult, the knowledge of the hidden. They’d tried to wield extrasensory powers, unexplained phenomena, and devices from other worlds.
Mr. Arden had never seen such things, not in person, but he could not deny his senses. He heard the metal sliver bouncing around inside the floating bronze orb. It was trying to escape.
The old man heaved the bronze orb. It flew off the train and burst in a ball of light.
The light was bright enough to illuminate the forested hill beside the train tracks.
Mr. Arden caught sight of the rippling, metal figure, racing up the hill between the trees, at an impossible speed. The figure crested the high hill and vanished from sight.
Then the light disappeared in a burst of smoke. The bronze orb and living metal sliver were entirely gone.
The old man sagged against the wall of the train car.
“What was that?” Mr. Arden approached the man. “We need to get you inside, sir.”
“Not what. Who.” The old man waved him away. “Under that Cobalt Nine is an old Shaper, like me, I have no doubt.”
Mr. Arden didn’t know those terms, but the stranger gave him no time to wonder at their meaning.
“I haven’t gone to Nimauk in years.” The old man pushed himself from the wall. “Are there stops after Coalway? Are we going to the festival next?”
“Yes,” Mr. Arden said. “The festival is our next stop.”
“Good,” the old man said. “I’m needed in Nimauk. There’s a young lady living there who is in grave danger.”