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Author Topic: Tradewinds (Original Fiction)  (Read 24468 times)

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November 02, 2017, 01:20:48 AM
Reply #450
“UNREAL ESTATE”
“Good morning!” Moira Stilton, the innkeeper, hailed. Middle aged, world weary, and seemingly always wiping something down at her counter.

“What’s so good about it?” Roger Wilco, pilot of one currently grounded Albatross, muttered as he stumbled down the stairs and into the lobby of Pines Lodge, which also doubled as bar and dining lounge. Along with a mild hangover, his injured leg was still giving him grief, even a week after their crash landing at Camp Stilton. Though a tad stout and barrel-chested, his companions noted that he looked to have lost a little weight of late, and figured that days of staring out at those creepy Woods (and the Woods glaring back) would be enough to kill anyone’s appetite. His khaki shirt fitting loose and rumpled, his pilot cap stuffed down over his bed hair, and he still hadn’t gotten around to shaving.

“Well, you could start with the fact that you’re still alive to enjoy it,” Max pointed out from a nearby table, where the young adventurer and his friend, Justin Black, were finishing their breakfast. “And Shelby did tow your plane all the way back here.”

Tall and broad-shouldered, with dark blond hair, the pilot considered him a classic duo contrast to Justin, who as short and wiry, with a mop of black hair.

“And I’m grateful for that,” Roger sighed, “don’t get me wrong. It’s just that now we have to get ’er up the coast to find anyone who can possibly fix my poor bird…”

“Who’s this we?” Justin intoned. “You landed us safe and sound, and we came back for you. I’m pretty sure that makes us even.”

“I’m sorely tempted to say you just came back for your damn cat…” he retorted.

“I think you just did,” the put-upon publican chided him as she scrubbed the bar counter. The big cat was still sleeping up in Max’s room, from both his crash injuries, and six restless nights at Camp Stilton, with the Woods looming over them. “And I think that little nightcap has got you up on the wrong side of the bed.”

Even making it back to Pickford by nightfall left Roger’s nerves jangled, after those harrowing days and nights out there. A couple on the house, out of sympathy for anyone having to stare down the Woods for nearly a week, but even he had to admit he may have overdone it.

“Shelby’s willing to tow you upshore for only the cost of fuel. You’re lucky he’s willing to do that, after springing that tow job on him out there, of all places…”

In the meantime, Sheriff Duhan assured him that his plane would be left alone for the time being. Though that still didn’t stop random townsfolk from passing through the docks just to gawk at the poor bird. Apparently even shooed some kids away earlier this morning, telling them to go play somewhere else for now.

“Still no sign of Roxy or Erix?” the pilot groaned as he took a seat at the table.

“Nothin’,” Justin told him.

“Roxy would probably present herself, if she saw no harm in it,” Max extrapolated the bounty hunter’s most likely choices, based on their short, but rather eventful, acquaintance. “She’d probably ask around about us, too. Erix…”

Would most likely be a thief in the night, leaving as little trace as possible, especially if Roxy still hunted him. All the same, they had warned Sheriff Duhan to keep an eye out for any missing stuff. As well as any breaks in the palisade walls around the edge of town, given the infamous outlaw’s energy blades, and general aversion to knocking, unless it happened to suit him.

Much as Max was inclined to regard either of them as too stubborn to die, they did both chase each other in the direction of the doomed town of Rannigan’s Wharf, from which no one ever returned. Though they did find evidence of someone using energy blades around that abandoned logging mill up the river on their way…

“I hope the damn trees ate him!” Roger grumbled. Then, recalling what they told him about a certain missing girl whose remains they recovered, whose grieving father still came to their aid, he mumbled, “Would serve him right, unlike that poor little girl… So, uh, where’s Shades at this hour of the day?”

“Went for a walk,” Justin replied. What the third member of their crew had called a vigorous constitutional. What to him, at least, sounded like a euphemism for taking a really big crap. “We trudge for days through those goddamn Woods, and the first thing he wants to do after making it back to civilization? Go take a walk…”

“It’s safe enough, here in town,” Moira reminded them. “Sister Clarice still maintains the old wardings around the outskirts.”

“So, who is this Clarice?” Max asked her. He had heard the name dropped a few times since they first arrived in Pickford, but nothing much by way of explanation. She had yet to make an appearance, though they were told she wasn’t feeling well at this time.

“Oh, I forget, you wouldn’t know…” Moira looked around, noting their conversation wasn’t being too closely scrutinized by any of the few patrons taking breakfast at the Pines this morning, though she doubted anyone would make any real objections by this point. “It’s a little awkward to explain to those who didn’t go through all the things we did, but things kept getting worse that first year after the Woods went bad. Until the Wall was finished, people kept goin’ missing. People, animals, things… The outskirts of town were already abandoned by that point, folks what hadn’t vanished movin’ up the coast, as many as could get away with it…”

After all they’d seen in the past week, Max could picture it more easily than he cared to. A looming, lurking menace, and a frustrating limit to any search party’s range before having to cut their losses and write folks off. The more he pondered it, the more amazed he was there was even still a town left to speak of anymore.

“It was about then that the Sisters first arrived,” Moira continued. “The Order of St Lucy, come down the coast from where they were staying when they heard about what happened here.”

Max perked up at the mention of that name, and Justin raised an eyebrow.

“You’ve heard of them?”

“Sort of,” Max replied. “Just the name, though. Of an island, actually.”

“Odd. I may have to ask her about that some time… Oh, where was I? Ah yes, the Order. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised you’ve heard of them, they rarely put down roots, though they tried to here. Pity it ended the way it did.

“At first, they were a glimmer of hope in troubled times. Their wardings helped hold back the Evil, even before the Wall was fully completed. Things were going better than they had in a long time, but then they had to go and challenge the Castle.”

“The Castle?” Roger piped up. “Shelby mentioned something like that.”

“Vineholdt.” Moira nodded. “The Rigby mansion. No one knows what went on that awful night. Anyone who was in there at the time was never heard from again. Even when the police searched the place, they found nothing. Even lost the sheriff in there, never seen again. Old Willard Duhan’s done the best he can ever since.”

“And I’m guessing there was no search for him, either?” Justin intoned.

“No, and I can’t say I blame them. Not even Tully, who lost his wife. The ones who came back from that house all had the same haunted looks on their faces, as if they’d each seen things they’d rather not talk about. And they don’t, even to this day. The neighborhood around there started emptying out almost as fast the outskirts. Talk of bad dreams, queer lights, and nobody wanting their children anywhere near that place.”

“Can’t say I blame them, either,” Roger commented.

“That’s for sure,” Moira remarked. “That was also about when the Sisters decided to push back against it, seeing the place, and whatever happened in there, as the root of the problem. After all, they already made a name for themselves holding back the Woods.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t end well?” Justin leaned back in his seat.

“Elder Sister Leta believed, as many of us still do, that the spirit of Veronica Rigby still haunts that place. Even Clarice believes that the house wants something, and after what happened to them, she thinks it’s safer not to give it anything more. They tried to banish the evil power from the Castle, but it was too much for them. For all their spells and prayers, it still killed Sister Leta.”

And so Pickford’s faith in the Mother Goddess would indeed be short-lived, as Moira related:

“The others buried her in a local graveyard, took the next train up the coast. We never heard from any of them again. Only Sister Clarice stayed behind, and she does what she can. Wardings and talismans and such, but one lone Sister, against the Woods, I fear she overworks herself, even with Jarvis helping out. No wonder she took ill lately…”

“And no one’s been in there since?” Max asked.

“Not many,” Moira warned them. “Because of that, the place was never cleared out. Even though the Commonwealth at large was having a bad time— lumber was down, the shipyards in Hawthorne were out of clients, even the project to expand the railroad between Mountain and Mesa Districts fell apart. Talk of some stupid border dispute out in the desert, been years since the last time we had any word from the other side of the mountains…

“Anywise, what was I saying? Oh, right, the economy was in a rut, but even so, while some of the other Founders were losin’ money left an’ right, ol’ Rigby seemed to hold on. No shortage of luxury in that house, at least according to Ethan…” She sighed, then resumed: “Oh sure, a few people tried, ramblin’ about treasures still hidden away inside that most won’t dare go after, just drunken bets and would-be treasure hunters. Occasionally, some bold soul might try— mostly outlanders, or rubes from upshore— but most are never seen again. The few what escape hightailed it up the coast, saying no treasure was worth the horrors they faced in there. After what happened to the Sisters, the whole estate was condemned, no one in their right mind will go anywhere near it.”

“So I guess you do have an idea just how maddening it is,” Roger sighed. “To have the solution to your problems dangling just out of reach…”

“We barely survived the Woods,” Max cautioned him. “I know you want your plane to fly again, but please don’t try anything crazy. There has to be a better way to get the money…”

“Hold up lads, your friend’s got the right of it.”

Even Moira jumped in spite of herself as Jarvis Tully materialized behind their table.

“Whatever’s in that house keeps to itself,” the grim groundskeeper continued, “but woe be to anyone who goes muckin’ about in there.”

“Even you’ve never cased the joint?” Roger gave him a wry smile. “As the caretaker, you must know your way around. Maybe you’d have a better chance than the others.”

“And where would you get a damn fool idea like that?”

“Well,” Justin piped up, “we heard they were rich, and nobody claimed any of their stuff…”

“Now don’t be gettin’ any bright ideas.” From the look in his eye, one would almost think Justin spoke of looting his own home. “You’d have to be totally daft to risk it.”

“I’m with him,” Max added. “Let’s go hit the marketplace, see what we can find. Shades said he’d catch up with us there.”

With that, they thanked Moira for a hearty breakfast as Roger ordered his, and headed out.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

November 08, 2017, 03:22:48 PM
Reply #451
II
Shades strolled along, of a mind to take a load off his own.

From losing the Maximum, to the Excelsior hijacking. Their whirlwind stay in Anchor Point, crash-landing and nightmare trek through the Woods, to their harrowing voyage around the peninsula and back. It all happened so fast of late, with scarcely a moment to catch their breaths in between.

Now here he was, ambling down one of many dirt roads through a dwindling town that still stood vigil against the Woods. In his short time here, he had learned of other towns farther up the coast, and figured he and his friends would soon be taking the train out there, likely only a matter of days. Of course, Moira had advised them not to mention Camp Stilton or the Woods out that way, as the folks in those parts apparently held to a very stubborn denial about the peninsula.

Though that still left Roger, trying to figure out what to do about his grounded Albatross. When it comes to what you care about, he said, you save what you can and figure it out as you go along. It sounded like words that tided him over through other crises, but lacked much conviction in his current near-despondent state. Even if they could cough up the credits to get someone to tow the plane upshore, that still left the question of whether anyone out there could even fix the old bird up, let alone what it might cost. Ironic, given that they just left a realm with such a robust salvage industry.

Only time would tell, he concluded, deciding to dig up as much as he could about this Commonwealth of Sinovia in the meantime, before venturing out into it. Mountains, visible from the other side of town, and apparently an entire desert farther inland. Though Lorna Edwards did an impressive job mending his denim jacket and compound cargo pants when she washed them, his boots, which seemed nearly indestructible when he first bought them, were clearly showing their mileage, high on his list of priorities before setting out on another journey.

Mostly just relieved that neither of his friends seemed interested in trekking out their, either. Sinovia… He turned that name over in his head, figuring that surely it couldn’t mean the same thing it did in his world. Wondered what Amy or John would make of it.

Of course, Pickford was a small enough town that he had already confirmed neither of his friends had passed through here, so he did his best to quash the cynical prediction that he would have no better luck upshore. Along those lines, it occurred to him that he had said he would meet Max and Justin in the marketplace soon. Figured he should probably turn back soon, yet his feet led him on.

For lack of a better explanation, Shades felt drawn in this direction. It wasn’t so much like gravity pulling him on a downhill path— the path of least resistance— it was more like something called out to him, and his feet obeyed. Of course, his feet always had a mind of their own, a tendency to wander at will, yet most of his travels of late had offered them little opportunity to roam.

All the same, this time it really bothered him, now that he finally took notice. He somehow sensed that whatever was calling to him, it possessed an evil aura, a low buzzing in the back of his mind that was slowly getting a little more distinct with every step he took in this direction. At first, he felt safe enough walking around this side of town, mostly because the Woods were in the opposite direction, and so his own unfamiliarity with the local geography only served to pull the rug out from under him at this point.

While he was lost in thought, he failed to notice still-occupied houses giving way to boarded-up doors and shuttered windows, overgrown lawns and sagging fences, and the mood all changed. Even his ever widening proximity to the Woods failed to be very reassuring in this setting. Still, he continued to walk this way in spite of his growing dread.

This looming certainty that he was drawing closer to something everything in his rational mind told him he should be walking away from. And it was taking way too long for his taste. Found he could remember all too well how time seemed to slow down that time he approached the pedestal of the Book of Fate, deep within the twisted depths of the Harken Building, or a childhood dream he recalled out of the blue a moment ago.

Of walking into an abandoned schoolhouse, striding up to a podium at the front of the classroom, that looked to have been converted into some kind of occult altar, with shifting, shimmering symbols all over the chalkboard behind it…

It was only when several arguing voices cut through his reverie that he thought to look up from the road to his surroundings. For a moment, he was heartened by the sight of other people, at least until he saw where they were, for even at a glance he knew of no place else in Pickford this could possibly be. Looking upon the place his feet had led him, he looked back down at his shoes in consternation.

Seriously, you lead me to a haunted house?

That was also about when he noticed that those gathered in front of the place were a bunch of kids, and he found that sinking feeling in his gut could apparently sink a little deeper as he tuned in to their ongoing dispute.

“…I can’t believe you let her go!” one boy shouted at another boy, who appeared noticeably older than the others, at least junior high to their grade school.

“She was the one who was crazy enough to go in there,” the older kid shot back, sounding defensive enough that Shades already suspected this was going to be trouble.

“You coulda stopped her!” a little girl protested, stepping back when he wheeled on her.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well…” the girl stammered.

Shades cleared his throat with a loud cough, then interjected: “I was under the impression this place wasn’t really a tourist attraction. What’s going on here?”

“None of your business.” The older boy turned to face him with a stern glare Shades struggled to keep a straight face at. “And just who the hell are you anyway?”

“If you want to know someone else’s name, it’s common courtesy to give your own first,” Shades admonished him, taking a good look at his face. Same sallow countenance, dark hair, stocky build, his features slightly softened by both youth, and whatever his mother contributed to the boy’s makeup. “Tully, right?”

“That’s right, Travis Tully,” Travis retorted, “and I’m here to tell you you’re not supposed to be.”

“Yet here we are anyway,” Shades replied, “so perhaps someone would care to tell me what all the fuss is about.”

“Trespassing,” Travis snapped, cutting off the other kids even as they opened their mouths. “I was just sending these brats home.”

“Not without Melissa!” one girl blurted, stamping her foot. “That jerk threw our ball in there, and she went in to get it…”

“Shut up!” Travis snarled, though he came off sounding more frantic than authoritative. “That’s none of his business!”

“It is now,” Shades declared, now that he understood what was at stake. “I’m making it my business.”

“And just who the hell do you think you are?” Travis challenged as he strode up to him.

“Shades MacLean,” he answered, now that he knew who he was dealing with. He turned to the children and added: “At your service.”

“Be careful! That guy’s bad!” one boy warned him. “He beat up my big brother!”

“Don’t worry,” Shades assured him. Don’t know if I’m bad enough to rescue the President from ninjas, but it’ll be a cold day in hell when I back down from a creep who bullies children… “I’ve dealt with his type before.”

And Travis took a swing at him.

Just about when Shades figured he would. Too predictable, so Shades was way ahead of him, sidestepping and catching Travis’ arm, twisting it and throwing him down hard. Wrenching most of the joints and ligaments on his right side, the impact jarring his entire left as he hit the ground.

A hearty helping of what he was in for if he decided to go another round.

“Anymore, I’m not used to fighting weaklings,” Shades told him. Though that last exchange confirmed what he suspected, the kid was definitely farm strong. Travis could certainly do some damage if he got an opening, so he decided to borrow a page from Roxy’s playbook, and keep up the intimidation offensive. Though they had the respect of the Edwards and Stilton families, the rest of the locals mostly regarded them with a mixture of awe and wariness, seeing them as being almost as uncanny as the Woods they passed through to get here, and he decided to play that to his advantage. “We fought things in those Woods that would turn your hair white.”

“You son of a bitch…” Travis muttered.

It took him three attempts to get back up, and he still wasn’t quite on his feet yet, staggering back from Shades in understandable alarm at the single step he took in Travis’ direction.

“And now you’re talkin’ trash about my mom…” Shades shifted into a casual fighting stance. Though he left his thigh holster back at his room at the inn, he decided that with something like the Woods looming over this town, concealed carry was a practical compromise in order to look less threatening. Right now, he tried not to think about his shoulder holster. Unless something else came along to menace them, he had no intention of drawing in the presence of children. “Should I take that as a challenge? If you keep this up, you’re going to make a hypocrite out of me.”

“My old man would skin your ass…”

“He’s welcome to try.” Figured the kid was probably talking from experience, he decided that Jarvis wasn’t half as scary as Erix or Roxy, nor anything else he met in those Woods. Grateful to him for letting them in, but still didn’t like the smell of him. Felt bad for the kid, though now seemed a bad time to show it. “But I imagine he might take a chunk outta yours, first.”

“Careful!” one of the girls warned him. “His dad’s the caretaker!”

“I know who he is,” Shades reminded them, turning back to Travis. “So if he’s the caretaker, why doesn’t he take care of this?”

“The house takes care of itself,” Travis told him. “My old man gets paid to deal with outsiders like you.”

“And I would only point out that he’s not here to take care of that right now,” Shades quipped, “so might I ask what he would do about a little girl wandering off in that twisted place?”

“Do?” Travis snorted, “You don’t do anything. I told you, the house takes care of itself.”

“And when her parents learn of this?”

“Hey! It’s my word against yours!”

An assertion answered by a jury of Melissa’s peers, all quite vocal about their verdict.

“Shut up!” Travis roared, turning on them. “Or I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” Shades demanded, drawing his attention back. “If you make any more trouble for these kids, I’ll give you the ass-whoopin’ your mama never gave you.”

“Mama never gave me nothin’!” Travis nearly choked on the words. “She died in there!”

“My condolences,” Shades offered. And meant it. In spite of all his sneering and posturing, there was no hiding how terrified Travis was of that house. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I don’t need your pity!” Travis felt the sweat dripping down his neck as he tried to stare down those impassive mirror lenses.

“Maybe you just need a hug?” He shrugged.

The others started laughing right on cue.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Travis shed any pretense of dignity, slinking away in shame, most likely seeking someplace to lay low until this whole mess blew over.

“You’ve done enough harm for one year,” Shades declared. This fool had already wasted a dangerous amount of time, of that much he was sure. “If you’re no use here, then get lost.”

The kids’ cheers, though, were short-lived, as they turned back to the real problem at hand.

“What do we do now?” one boy moaned.

“I don’t know.” Thus far, that whole confrontation had left a rather sour taste in his mouth. Though he also had to admit a certain satisfaction, as well, at providing the sort of intervention that was sorely lacking in his own childhood experiences with playground bullies. Now that he thought about it, one of the things that got him into martial arts in the first place. Yet Travis was just the tip of the iceberg here, and he wasn’t sure what to tell them now, so he asked, “How long ago did she go in?”

“I’m not sure…” one boy admitted.

“We started arguing with him…” one girl explained, trailing off at how that explained both too much and too little.

“I see.” Shades nodded. Since it seemed the one promise he could make with any confidence, he told them, “I’ll do whatever I can for Melissa, though I don’t know what I’m up against. I’ll try to find her, but if we’re not back within the hour, go tell somebody. There’s no way you’ll be in half as much trouble as your friend is right now.

“While we’re on the subject of friends, please leave a message with Moira at the Pines. Max and Justin’ll want to know what’s happening. And don’t let that creep off the hook, anyone who knows about this place should know better than that.”

The kids nodded in anxious acknowledgement.

As he gazed out at that haunted mansion, Shades began to realize that even standing beyond its gates and staring at it wasn’t all that safe. Somehow, he understood that if you stood their long enough, the place would start to waft into your head, and it would eventually begin to seep into your dreams. That if you stood there long enough, you might just feel compelled to do something foolish, like taunting a dangerous dog on a worn-out chain.

Wondering if even the edge of the Woods would have made for a less dangerous place for them to choose to play. Imparting a newfound respect for Jarvis, even if it wasn’t for his parenting skills. Facing the house directly, he could feel all those bold words he drove that bully off with trying to cram themselves back down his throat, but he pressed on anyway.

Up close, he had no trouble seeing why folks took to calling it the Castle. The stonework, the parapet towers, so many narrow windows, as if it was built as a bulwark against the outside world. However much reputed trouble they may have had cultivating those vines back then, now they dominated most of the walls. Vineholdt, indeed. Even if he hadn’t seen the Woods for himself, he could tell at a glance that their parents warned them away from this place with dire cause.

Even from here, he could feel an unseen presence glaring out at him from every window. Reminded him a little of crotchety old folks back in Lakeside, with their Beware of Dog signs, who’d rant and rave and threaten to call the cops just for setting foot near the edge of their property, sometimes even if it was on a public sidewalk. Only here, he already understood that the consequences for trespass could get a whole lot worse.

Even though it was broad daylight, he couldn’t help picturing the opening scenes of most Castlevania games as he stood before the gate. For the first time in many moons, wondering whatever became of that whip he picked up on his last day on Earth. And to think, most of the time, all that came to mind about that thing were Indiana Jones references

Found he kept expecting something cheesy to happen, like a bank of dark clouds blowing in front of the sun out of nowhere, or a bunch of crows or ravens to perch along the wrought-iron fence and start cawing at him, though he wasn’t so sure just how cheesy he’d find it if anything like that actually happened to him now.

Who ya gonna call? And from somewhere in the back of his mind, Bruce Campbell answered: Just me, baby. Just me

All this internal wisecracking mostly just served to drive home how much he was creeping himself out, so he did the one thing he could think of to focus his mind.

Put one foot in front of the other.

As he stepped across the gate, Shades felt something change, something in the air, something fundamental. The only thing he could compare it to was the captain on an airline flight he was on years ago, having to take a detour over part of Canada, announcing that they just left American airspace. Over the years, he’d been across a couple borders (mostly state lines), been past a few of those Beware of Dog signs, hell, even walked into another dimension one dark and stormy night. Never, since the night of the Flathead Experiment, had a few steps’ distance seemed so far.

He turned around and glanced back at the kids. There was hope, and even a certain awe at his boldness, but also a quiet panic lurking around the edges of their gaze. As if they believed they were seeing him for the last time.

Perhaps they are

Shades shunned that thought as best he could. That kind of thinking would benefit no one. Still, he pondered the wisdom of going and fetching his friends. No matter what his pride told him, he understood those children wouldn’t shame him for turning back now; he had already done more than they apparently had the courage to do. And he was also sure part of what confidence they did hold out for him drew from them surviving the Woods, so it took an effort not to remind them that their expedition was a team effort.

Surely his friends were already on their way to the market by now, no telling how long it might take to track them down, especially if they split up. Was becoming increasingly certain that time was of the essence, that all the backup in the world would do no good if something wasn’t done soon. Recalling those bleached bones from his first day in the Woods, of Shelby and Lorna’s final heartbreak at learning their daughter’s fate, he found he didn’t want another Kelly Edwards for this generation.

By now, he stood before the broken bay window, so he took the next logical step. Careful of the shattered glass, he pulled himself up to the window ledge and peered inside. In the gloom, he could see the ball still lying on the floor, a rather less than reassuring sign. Honestly wished he could be a little more surprised.

He looked back at the kids, half surprised they were still there, tried to summon some moisture back into his mouth, then called out, “Which way did she go?”

They pointed off to the left-hand side of the mansion, faces blank with fear.

Shades quietly hoped she hadn’t found any way in as he headed around to the far side of the building, yet he doubted the house was going to make anything that easy.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

November 15, 2017, 10:48:19 PM
Reply #452
III
Max and Justin had little trouble curbing their enthusiasm as they walked the streets. Over the years, what was left of Pickford’s marketplace had migrated away from the Woods, gravitating around the harbor, between the docks and the train station upshore, the better to seize any business opportunities with passing outlanders. Even so, only about half of the storefronts were even open, and most of those looked to be just barely still in business.

No sign of Shades so far, but they figured they would recognize each other easily enough after all, so they turned their attention to shopping around for supplies. Though it did dawn on Max that Shades still had the notepad and pencil Roger lent them for this project, so for now they would have to commit the basic info to memory. They were nearly out of power clips, and after their misadventures in Alta, Anchor Point, and the Woods of late, what little money they had left would require some careful budgeting from here on out.

Pickford was a small enough town, Max figured John or Amy would have been remembered, so he doubted Shades would be long searching. They all figured it would only be a matter of days before they took a ride up the coast to see what opportunities presented themselves to a crew of young adventurers upshore. Max, at least, had no travel plans until Bandit was up and moving; for now the big cat rested in their room at Pines Lodge under Moira’s meticulous, if untrained, care.

They both tried hard to shrug off the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) looks they tended to attract from the townsfolk. After seeing the Woods for themselves, they had no trouble understanding why anyone from around these parts would be a little spooked by anyone who survived that. Mostly, they just hoped no one would close up shop just because they were in the neighborhood.

Justin also suspected that part of the looks they were getting was also because he was wearing both holsters openly. With the Woods so close at hand, he refused to go anywhere unarmed, regardless of how effective anyone thought this Sister Clarice’s wardings were. Though he left his crossbow back at the Pines, he insisted on keeping his gunbelts strapped, and as far as he was concerned, the locals could glare at his double-barrel disrupter pistols all they wanted.

Justin finally suggested, “Do you think we should try the general store first?”

“Hey,” Max recommended, “what about that place?”

Justin blinked in disbelief as his friend pointed out a basement entrance beneath some shuttered shop at the street level. Somehow that dark wood pattern managed to blend in with the local architecture, and look just like a certain basement storefront Justin entered once upon a time in Centralict, both at the same time. Even the wooden sign hanging from the wall above the door looked just as he remembered it:

Obscura Antiques & Curios.

And beneath that, the only thing different: “…For All That Glitters is Not Gold.

“No way…” Justin breathed.

“What?” Max tilted his head at the place. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing,” he answered after a moment of consideration. Now he had to know. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Deciding that this time he might finally get some answers, he noticed another familiar sign as they strode down the steps: New location! Check us out!

As Justin opened the door, they were greeted by the same melange of incense and candle smoke and other smells he couldn’t place to this day, which he recalled from his first visit. Much like his first time, it took both of them a moment for their eyes to adjust to the gloom of a mostly candlelit interior after the late morning sunlight outside, but already Justin saw about what he expected to see. Wooden shelves lined with books and an assortment of other objects he was sure there would be a story behind each of.

Most of those tales he wasn’t so sure he cared to hear, but figured they’d be right up Shades’ alley, and Max’s curiosity was not so easily sated, either, as he could already see his friend gazing about in open wonderment.

Among other things, what stood out to Max most included the gruesome sight of a shrunken head hung by its hair; a jar of cloudy fluid, a greyish hand floating in, a ring adorning one finger; a rusty old ship’s lantern.

A crystal phial of what looked like clear water. A tiny silver skeleton key. A dark, smoky mirror.

A pile of yellowed scrolls. A deck of what looked like playing cards. A marching drum and two mallets hung from a sling on the wall.

Something Shades showed him once at that twilighty mall back in the day, which he had called a Magic Eight Ball.

To say nothing of numerous books, their spines forming rows of symbols and characters neither of them could begin to decipher. What titles Max could read included one about unspeakable cults, and something about a king in yellow.

About the only thing Justin recognized from his first visit was a small, ornate wooden box, strapped with several strips of paper scrawled over with unknown characters.

“Welcome back, young mariner,” a raspy voice greeted them. “Returned, you have.”

So lost he was in his own puzzlement, as well as his amusement at Max’s gawking, that he was caught off-guard in spite of himself by the wizened old man standing behind his ever cluttered counter. A bare bulb buzzed over his head, framing him in a hazy cone of yellow light, illuminating a dusty glass display case full of even more peculiar and morbid curiosities, and shadowed shelves more looming behind him to both sides.

Justin also recalled the sign on the counter that read: Pretty to look at, pretty to hold, but if you break it, consider it sold. And below that: All sales final.

“Oh, hi…” Max mumbled, apparently just as startled as his friend. Especially since he was quite sure there was no one standing behind that counter a moment ago. Of course, there was a dark doorway behind him, so perhaps he wasn’t. Then, the shopkeep’s words finally caught up with him, and he turned to Justin, asking, “You’ve met this guy before?”

Noticing his friend had gone uncharacteristically quiet since they set foot in here.

“Um, yeah,” Justin admitted, “but not here. It was back in Centralict…”

“But why didn’t you tell us about it?”

“Well…” For one thing, Justin wasn’t even sure how to explain this sort of thing to someone who’d never been there before. There was just something about this shop that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “After the Harken Building, and chasing the Triad and all, I guess it just didn’t seem all that important.”

Max nodded, but still appeared a touch concerned, though it didn’t take long for this place’s odd selection to reclaim his attention once again.

“So, what convinced you to set up shop way out here?” Justin quipped, figuring he might as well make conversation with the old man while Max was browsing. There was no way around the fact that Centralict had to be a more profitable market than Pickford.

“In the business of forbidden things, I am,” the mysterious shopkeep reminded him. “Hidden and forbidden, something is in these parts, so it is said. Know anything of it, would you?”

“I don’t know about that,” Justin told him, “but something happened in that mansion out there a long time ago, that turned all the woods outside of town into a deathtrap. Of course, the folks who lived there were loaded, but the house is too dangerous to explore…”

“A place of evil, it is.” The shopkeep nodded. “Tampered with forces beyond their control. Such powerful objects are rare, indeed, but those there are who would pay handsomely for them.”

“Like you?”

“Perhaps. An intermediary, I am, after all.” The shopkeep kept his tone noncommittal, having planted the seed. “So, just browsing again, you are?”

“Maybe,” Justin replied, turning back to Max, whose eyes could still not settle on any one curio for long. “Say Max, you wanna go take a look at that Castle place?”

“Didn’t everybody warn us to stay away from there?” Max finally replied as he turned back to the conversation at hand. “And shouldn’t we wait for Shades?”

“Shades’ll be fine,” Justin assured him. “It’s not like he can’t handle a little shopping. Besides, I’m not saying we go in, I’m just saying we have a look, that’s all.”

“Just a look,” Max pressed him, turning to keep up with his friend as he made his way back outside with hardly a backwards glance. Didn’t much care for the idea of Justin going anywhere near a place like that all on his own, especially with all that talk of hidden treasure hanging on the air. As he stepped out the door, he remembered his manners, and waved goodbye to the shopkeep.

Quietly hoping he’d have the chance to come back for another look as he climbed up the stairs into the daylight once again.

Even as he strode down the street, Justin spared a glance over his shoulder, to see that the strange little shop was still there this time, and wondered what that could mean.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.

Yesterday at 01:45:33 AM
Reply #453
IV
At first, Shades told himself that going around the side of the mansion wouldn’t be so bad. He quietly hoped that this Melissa would be unable to find a way in, but between the vibes he was getting from this place, combined with how long she had already been gone thus far, he was already sure that was just wishful thinking on his part. Sure enough, he found a wrought-iron gate set in a second, inner fence hanging open on one rusty hinge, leading into the rear grounds behind that wing.

At first he thought it wouldn’t be so bad, after making it past the outer gate, but he was wrong. Even just peering in the front window a couple minutes ago made him feel like a child himself. How an actual child could hold up in the face of this place’s atmosphere left him wondering if it wasn’t an unhealthy side-effect of growing up next-door to an eldritch location like the Woods.

The vines along the walls back here were even more rife, as if the growth out front was just a preview. Vineholdt… Found himself pondering why rich people so often felt the need to name their houses. As if they were a separate country or something.

This was worse than being in another country. This was like being on another planet. The knowledge that the outside world was so close at hand only made it worse; at least when he wandered off into the Sixth Dimension one dark and stormy night, he had no idea how far away from his own world he really was.

The fact that he even thought of this estate as being somehow apart from the surrounding world only served to remind him of what this place was. Though the idea existed in his mind, he had no name for it, no proper words to describe it. In his travels, he had encountered a couple places that were sort of like this, but not exactly; whatever all haunted those Woods outside of town was largely overshadowed by whatever evil resided in here.

Along the way, he encountered a fountain built into a niche in the mansion wall, of an ornate floral motif. Its waist-high basin full almost to the brim with blackish, brackish water he could fairly smell even several yards away. A horrifying thought crossed his mind, and he took a couple steps forward before he caught himself, breathing a sigh of relief as he observed that the foul water and the basin ledge were completely undisturbed.

Wondering why such a grim thought even came to mind, it finally dawned on him just what it was he so instinctively disliked about it. The water itself. Not merely its toxic appearance, but the realization that it hadn’t rained around Pickford in at least two or three days. Even in the shade, the water shouldn’t be nearly as full after that much evaporation.

Though there was still something else about the fountain he didn’t trust, could’ve sworn he heard something plink and splash, but when he looked back, that black water stood perfectly still.

Moving on, around the corner, he found a little-used side door. Gaping wide open, yawning into darkness. Shades couldn’t help but groan as he looked upon it.

“She didn’t…”

Or course, he already knew she went inside. After all, that was exactly what the House wanted. Wasn’t sure just how he knew, but he was more certain of that than he was about much of anything else going on around here.

The dusty footprints just inside the threshold, too small to belong to an adult, merely confirmed his suspicions.

“These people have suffered more than enough because of you…” Shades glared back at all those unwelcoming windows with more conviction than he actually thought he could muster. “You won’t have her, too.”

Still, he hesitated in the doorway, reaching into one of his many pockets and producing a compact flashlight. Switching it on, he tested it, finding the beam strong, if narrow. Moira had warned them of rare, but potentially dangerous, blackouts that happened around town once in a blue moon, and even though he was only out by day, their past misadventures had taught him how many different situations a flashlight made for an adventurer’s best friend.

Ordinarily, he took comfort in how the power cells and bulbs designed in this world tended to last a lot longer than batteries, especially, from his own, but now he found shame in wishing they’d failed. And after making such bold declarations. Yet he found he was less ashamed of showing fear in front of those kids than he was at the thought of coming back without so much as a clue about what happened to their friend, so he put one cold foot forward.

The house seemed to push back with waves of stuffy air, but it mostly just invoked his own stubborn streak as he strode forward. Pressing on, he swept his light around to reveal a small foyer full of shelves of garden supplies, as well as the long-withered remains of what was once fresh produce, the shriveled husks of herbs and vegetables, surely the source of most of what he was smelling. Through the next door was a large kitchen, equipped with a mix of old-fashioned-looking equipment, and electric appliances of outland make that would look right at home in Moira’s kitchen back at the Pines, or even his own mom’s, if not for the mix of peculiar brand names.

Off to his left was another door, to a flight of stairs leading down. He looked down those steps into some sort of cellar. His flashlight illuminated part of an old furnace, with a row of circular ducts branching out from it like tentacles, and a faint updraft fed him a whiff of coal and soot.

Shook his head, just couldn’t imagine her going down there for anything. And could all too easily imagine those rickety steps collapsing under him right on cue. Didn’t care to get caught down there with anything that made itself at home in a place like this, his inner Admiral Ackbar being particularly vocal about that view.

Reminded himself that abandoned buildings could host their own share of mundane hazards an unwary explorer might fall prey to. Resigned himself to the possibility that he just might have to search every room of this warped place. Deciding that he would only risk coming back here if his search of less obviously dangerous, and far more likely, places proved fruitless.

As he turned for the only other door, he found himself wondering why he hadn’t tried calling out to her. After all, he was all but certain whatever haunted these halls was already well aware of his presence anyway. That rescuing her from this place wasn’t really going to be a stealth operation anyhow.

Starting with the cellar door, he called out: “Hello! Melissa! I’m here to help you!…”

And the house answered him with ominous silence. Not even the building settling, nor any other sound. Just the creepy sense of anticipation, as if the entire house was waiting for something.

Concluding that she must not be in this area anymore, he moved on to the next door, which led into a dining room. As he skirted around the long table that occupied most of the room, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the child’s boldness— or at least sufficient preoccupation to not notice those cellar stairs— as he was fairly sure she actually went this way. To the side were a couple smaller doors that looked like closets to him, and another door at the far end of the room.

Beyond was a cavernous chamber he could barely discern through the faint gloom of cob-webbed curtains and dusty windows. Sweeping his light around, he took in an ornately furnished great hall of high ceilings, sporting a large crystal chandelier, and hardwood floors appointed with carefully arranged rugs. To his right was a pair of double doors, matching the front entrance outside, with a decorative glass fan window above, designed with a peacock motif, and on the far side was another door, leading into the other wing.

To his left was a grand staircase, forming a t-joint about halfway up, branching off into both wings. Wondering if she really would go any deeper into this spooky place, he went over and poked his light into the next room. Sure enough, there was the ball, still lying on the floor, untouched, leaving him with the dread certainty that she must have gone upstairs for some unfathomable reason.

Taking a deep breath, he plunged even deeper into the mansion, starting up the stairs. Even through the stiff carpet runner, he could hear some steps creak, but still held firm, so he continued up. At the first landing, there was a door hanging partway open, so he checked it out.

Inside was what looked to him like some sort of playroom. Scattered toys, stuffed animals, and an old-fashioned rocking horse. As well as scattered dead bugs, peeling wallpaper, and an antique-looking device that reminded Shades of an old phonograph, just sitting on the floor in the corner, looking every bit as forlorn as the rest of the room.

Shutting the door on this vista, which set a most unsettling tone, he turned back and looked out across the great hall.

“Taking a child…” he said aloud, no longer able to contain his own disgust at this place. “You really do have no shame, do you?”

Much like before, he expected no response, so it made him jump in unabashed startlement when a grandfather clock started tolling out of nowhere, reverberating off all the walls.

He nearly tripped on the stairs as he wheeled about the landing, seeking for a threat that failed to materialize. His free hand having already drawn one stun-stick, even as his mind pivoted just as much as his feet, uncertain if his weapon would avail him against anything in here. The door behind him remained closed, and nothing seemed to be approaching from any stairway, even as the deep chiming of an unknown hour died away.

It was only in the midst of regaining his wits that he noticed the spectral spectacle unfolding in the great hall below, that he was missing the show.

Around the center of the hall, six shimmering women garbed in hooded ceremonial robes surrounded a seventh. Each of them clasped their hands together in various ritual gestures, the others’ heads bowed as the one in the center spoke. Shades was eerily certain she had been chanting all along, but the fading echo of the clock chime left him feeling as if he just tuned in to a new radio station between gulfs of static.

…stand upon the unshakeable Foundations of the Earth under our feet, that we might stand unmoved in our conviction.

“In Her name, so let it be,” the others answered.

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Fire of Purity to burn away your corruption.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Free Air, that your ashes may be blown away upon the Winds of Time.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Waters of Life to wash away your filth that defiles this place of the living.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, Mother of All Things, we cast you out of the place.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, who gave birth to all life, we call upon all human spirits found herein, and grant license to quit this place… that you might return to the Source, the womb from whence all souls enter this world…

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, who guards her children with righteous fury, we cast out all… foul things… without soul… to return to the Void from whence…

Though she started out strong, her voice was becoming increasingly strained with each line of the ritual, her words were coming out increasingly desperate. Her last incantation cut off by a strangled gasp as she was lifted bodily off the floor by an unseen force. Head thrown back, hands fumbling frantically at thin air in front of her neck. At this horrifying sight, the others looked up from their concentration as their sister struggled.

And their prayers were answered with silence.

In the name… of the Goddess…” she choked out, feet thrashing over a foot off the ground, head snapping from side to side in a vain effort to break that terrible grip. “The… Void… take thee!…

As if on cue, her neck gave a loud, chicken-bone crack, her whole body spasming, then going limp as the others cried out in abject horror and anguish.

“LETA!”

Her body flung at one of the sisters as the others scattered.

Their screams faded even as their ghostly forms dissolved, leaving Shades standing alone on the stair landing, overlooking an empty hall.

Then, for good measure, that massive chandelier came crashing down, right on top of the faint outlines of an old six-point ritual circle, spraying crystal all over the floor.

Heart lodged solidly in his throat, gasping reflexively at the sensation. Certain that grim replay truly had happened. Quite certain that display was meant to scare him.

Okay, it worked… Shades admitted to himself, feeling his blood run cold. Felt an unseasonable chill in the great hall as he found his feet taking him down the steps. Energy blade fired up to slice the locks right off the front door when he got there.

It was only with great effort that he pulled the reins on them in mid step, his feet halting in indecision as he reminded himself what was at stake here. Quite sure that he was out of his depth, out of his league against whatever was at work here, yet that Missing Child picture of Kelly Edwards stared at his mind’s eye, pleading. Begging the question of whether Melissa would also become another chapter of this place’s horrific history.

Even as he tried to tell himself the kids outside wouldn’t think any less of him for being defeated by something that had beaten everything else that ever challenged it, the thought of facing Melissa’s parents without doing everything he could for her, that thought brought his retreat to a grinding halt.

Little Kelly had met her end years before any of them knew the Woods even existed, let alone ever set foot there, while this was happening right here and now.

Half expecting invisible hands to seize his own throat, or perhaps push him down the stairs, he strode back up, deciding to search the upper level of the wing he started with first. As he reached the center landing, he tripped on a slight curl in the rug, catching himself against the playroom doorframe. At first gasping and sweeping his energy blade around in an attempt to engage a nonexistent foe.

Then breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at himself as he realized what just happened, and he wondered if the sound of laughter was as foreign to this place back then as it was now as he continued on his way.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.