The story so far: Having gathered at the edge of town, the members of SCAG have eaten breakfast and discussed the journey to Herald Rock. Now they begin to walk.
POV: Marshall Cooper
Lead in story: Gathering on the tracks
At first they were clumped together, but by the end of a half-mile or so, the party had divided into two groups. In the front were Aadi, Happy, and Jack, who all moved at a brisk clip. In the back were Marshall, Catrin, Tilly, and Nick. They moved at a slightly easier pace, and it wasn’t long before they lost sight of the group up front.
“Does anyone know why the train doesn’t run anymore?” Marshall asked.
Tilly answered after a moment. “The train ran from the late 1800s until 1983. It was a big part of the economy, especially after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, when they started directing a lot of ships here. Fishing was bigger then, as was mining and logging, so for quite a few years, there was good reason to have the train, even though there were always problems. One piece of track or another was always going out. We’re a terminus route, so there was talk for years about whether the line was profitable enough to keep up repairs.”
“In 1983 we had the big flood. It rained for a week straight. From what I read it was just a constant deluge of water, the most rain Santa Creda had seen in fifty years. There were two back-to-back tropical depressions that pretty much followed the exact same path, and seemed to hang over us. Santa Creda itself has good drainage, so there was damage, but nothing irreparable. In the mountains though, about three miles past Herald Rock, there was a massive landslide. It was so big you could hear it all the way in Santa Creda. People thought it was an earthquake at first, but it was just a few thousand tons of dirt and rock coming apart and crashing down. It took out over a quarter-mile of track. When the surveyors came out afterward, they declared that the whole area was too unstable to rebuild on. They would have had to build about five miles of new track taking a different route, and there were arguments about the land rights and environmental impact and such, so they decided not to do it. That was pretty much the death blow to Herald Rock. The town had already been struggling. At its biggest, when there was still mining, it was around two thousand people. By the time the train stopped running, there were less than five hundred. The road into Herald Rock was never more than a dirt road, and it was washed out as often as not. The post office closed, the power lines went down and were never fixed. By 1990 there were only a handful of people left, and I think the last resident died around 2006. I mean, there are squatters out there sometimes, but as far as original residents go, that was that.”
“It seems weird that no one would try to make a go of it,” Marshall said.
Tilly shrugged. “There are other stories too. They aren’t as nice. The place is supposed to be haunted. I suppose that’s why we’re making this trek. The um, Jack thinks there’s something out there, right?”
“He does,” Catrin said. “He told me that the area was like a chrysalis. Something is waiting to emerge.”
“I’m not entirely comfortable with that imagery,” Tilly said.
“It’s Jack,” Catrin said, “He likes to make things sound grand.”
“Does he?” Tilly asked.
“He says he’s the personification of death and bankrolled an adventuring guild. You don’t think he had a taste for drama?”
“I guess you have a point,” Tilly said. “It does make things more interesting .”
As the tracks wound further from town, the surrounding land grew rockier, but there were also trees: ghost gum, rosewood, and cherry. They came across one area where a small wildfire had burned about two acres of land, leaving the trees black and leafless. Closer to the tracks, wildflowers grew, dominated by white and yellow cream cups and tidy-tips, red maids, and red and white speckled skyrockets. Tilly picked a few and put them in her hair. Within moments, a breeze blew them back off.
“What do you think of Jack?” Marshall asked Nick.
Nick didn’t say anything for a while. When he did, he spoke quietly. Marshall had to concentrate to listen.
“Jack came to me when my parents died. This was before anyone else knew they were dead. They were just missing. He came and sat with me and said that it may be a while before they were found, but that they were gone. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I know this is hard, but I think it is worse not to know. You probably won’t remember me,’ he said, ‘but I hope you take some comfort.’”
“The thing though, was that I did remember. I didn’t see him for almost a year, but when I did, he was sitting on a bench by the beach. He was surprised that I saw him. He was surprised that I knew his name. After that, we talked from time to time over the years. Then one day he asked me if I would join a guild he was putting together. That’s how I ended up here.”
“What do I think of Jack? I think he wants to be one of us, instead of what he is. He wants to be a part of the world. I admire that about him. Sometimes I wish I cared that much.”
They were on a turn of the tracks, where on one side the mountain climbed up steeply, and on the other side there was a drop off. Marshall heard a crack, then the sound of rocks tumbling down the mountain. “Cover your heads,” he shouted. Several large rocks fell onto the tracks. None of them were true boulders, but some of them were a little larger than a softball. They fell in front of them, the closest one landing about ten yards away. Nothing hit them directly, and after about a half-minute it was done. They waited for a minute or two, just to be sure, then continued forward. There were a couple dozen of the large rocks strewn about the tracks, and a lot of smaller ones, but they presented no real obstacle and the party continued forward.
The first of the tunnels was a minor one, just sixty feet long and only slightly curved. You could easily see from one end to another, and while it was shadowy, it never truly got dark enough to even take out a flashlight. Still, the crunch of their feet on the gravel between the tracks echoed in an odd way, and at one point the wind picked up and a low whistle seemed to surround them. Memories of the rockslide were still fresh. Everyone seemed more relaxed when they reached the open air again. Once they were out of the tunnel, they found themselves in a flatter area where rocks were less likely to hit them on the head.
Along the side of the tracks, among the flowers and the grass, rabbits romped and played. Three of them especially seemed obsessed with running at each other and tumbling up and down. Marshall spotted several raptors floating on the air currents. At some point a raptor dived down and tried to pick off one of the rabbits, but failed. Marshall smiled. There were still a few miles to go.