Tradewinds 21: Unreal Estate by shadesmaclean

Wherein Shades’ feet have a mind of their own, leading his friends into the heart of the darkness infesting the Woods, the house your parents warned you about…

Categories: Original Fiction Characters: None
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural
Warnings: Death, Violence
Series: Tradewinds
Chapters: 19 Completed: Yes Word count: 33435 Read: 27263 Published: 10/26/17 Updated: 07/17/18

1. Intro: Dare by shadesmaclean

2. I by shadesmaclean

3. II by shadesmaclean

4. III by shadesmaclean

5. IV by shadesmaclean

6. V by shadesmaclean

7. VI by shadesmaclean

8. VII by shadesmaclean

9. VIII by shadesmaclean

10. IX by shadesmaclean

11. X by shadesmaclean

12. XI by shadesmaclean

13. XII by shadesmaclean

14. XIII by shadesmaclean

15. XIV by shadesmaclean

16. XV by shadesmaclean

17. XVI by shadesmaclean

18. XVII by shadesmaclean

19. Interlude: Bargain (II) by shadesmaclean

Intro: Dare by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
one little ball, one little dare...
The morning sun hung bright over Pickford Bay, betraying not a hint of the eldritch, otherworldly horrors that lurked deeper inland, as well as downshore on the peninsula.

The small town of Pickford huddled along the coast, sequestered behind a palisade picket wall built from the very Woods it was designed to protect the townsfolk from. In spite of this, life went on much as it did before that fateful night all those years ago. Or at least as close as it could after years of population drift, as well as being cut off from the lumber industry that was once one of the cornerstones of its economy.

While the fishing boats were out, plying their trade as far up the coast as the competing fishers of Hawthorne would allow, the few remaining children took the opportunity to play before an afternoon of chores. For it was the perfect sort of day to play, say, toss-ball, some deputy having run them off from their attempts to get a closer look at that strange flying machine those outlanders brought back with them from Camp Stilton the day before. As if to make up for that, it was a particularly spirited game, boys and girls tossing the ball to their chosen teammates while trying to keep their rivals from intercepting it.

A very free-flowing game, folding up the entire neighborhood into its bounds. Mostly among the abandoned houses near the edge of the town proper, where no one would care if they accidentally broke what was left of any of the windows or anything. Most of what anyone wanted” what hadn’t already been packed up in their often hasty departure from town” had been carted off by their more entrenched neighbors years ago. Though their parents always cautioned them not to play inside the houses themselves, pointing to some of the longest-abandoned, most dilapidated specimens, with their sagging roofs, leaning walls, or crumbling stairways, as examples of the sorts of hazards the others surely contained.

Yet no errant ball strayed into any windows, nor even any weed-choked yards, thus far, as the game drifted farther out, albeit away from the Wall, through the abandoned neighborhood along the peninsula side of town, toward the coast. In fact, it wasn’t until one of them tripped on a rock exposed by that last rainstorm a few days ago, causing him to fumble the ball in mid throw, that any of them realized just how close they had strayed toward the Castle instead. All eyes on the ball, following it as it rolled across the dirt, only to come to rest just a few feet from the front gate.

From there, their gaze turned to the ominous estate beyond.

Set behind sprawling, largely overgrown grounds, the former abode of the infamous Rigby family loomed large and imposing, all dark wood, stone and mortar. Steep picket-crested gambrel roofs, flanked on both sides by the massive squarish stone parapet turrets at the end of each wing that gave the place its ominous nickname. Vineholdt stood aloof at the downshore end of town, the only part of its own curse not fenced-out by the Wall. Instead enclosed by a perimeter of stonework and wrought-iron bars topped by ornate, though sharp, points, much of it crawling with the same tangle of creepy-looking vines that scaled both towers and parts of the mansion walls, as well.

Much to their dismay, that forbidding gate hung open, a stray breeze rolling the ball a couple feet closer to the cobblestone drive leading up to the place.

Eight kids” three girls, five boys” looked amongst themselves, the unspoken question ill-at-ease on the tips of their tongues. Realizing that they now stood closer than any of them had ever chanced to before, even on a dare.

After a long, awkward silence, one of them stepped forward, a girl in bib overalls” hand-me-downs from her older brother” red ponytail and freckles, sharp green eyes on the prize, already reaching out as she put one foot in front of the other”

“Hey! Where do you think you’re goin’?”

All of them jumped in understandable alarm, even as they placed that voice.

A pale imitation of the Groundskeeper’s bark, but loud enough, and perhaps even worse in its own way.

All heads turned to the boy who strode up from the road they just drifted down in the course of their game. Short for his age, yet still head-and-shoulders above any of these younger children, with wide shoulders and a lumbering gate that was the spirit and image of his father. An oily mop of black hair topping a wide, sallow face, and a scowling expression that also resembled his old man’s, though it wouldn’t look properly menacing for at least another decade.

Menacing enough, though, in the face of children half his own size.

“Travis…” one of them mumbled.

“You know you’re not supposed to play out here,” Travis Tully reminded them, waving one arm in their general direction as he made his way to the gate. The locks and chains on the front gate had an eerie tendency to come undone no matter how many times they were locked up again, for all that they had been bound tight against most locals back in the day. Even going near the gate to periodically relock it was an unpleasant task, one even his father never sent him to do alone. “What would your folks say if they knew you were foolin’ around at the Castle?”

“You wouldn’t!” one of them gasped.

“Better to face them, boy,” Travis warned them, “than what’s in there. ’Course, my old man’d skin your hide if he caught you in there.”

Of course, according to local lore, the house just might skin you alive if it caught you in there.

“Ha!” the little redhead shot back. “Your old man wouldn’t dare set foot past the gate!”

She reached down for the ball, but Travis lunged forward, and she flinched as he snatched the ball from her.

“And for damn good reason,” Travis told her. “That house is evil, just like the Woods, anyone what goes in there don’t come out.”

He shifted the ball from one hand to the other, turning it this way and that.

“Hey! Give that back!” one of the kids shouted.

“Why should I?” He tossed the ball into his other hand, holding it aloft, out of reach even as the redhead made a bold grab for it. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”

“It’s our ball!” Redhead’s face screwed up in a snarl of frustration and indignation.

“And your ma would take it away if she knew you were playing with it out here…” An ominous gleam lit up in his eyes as an idea popped into his head. A look all of them seemed to catch on to at the same time at that sadistic grin. “Fine. If you want it so bad…”

All of them jumped back in spite of themselves as Travis took a couple steps back, cocked his arm, and threw the ball at the mansion with all his might.

“Then go fetch!”

They all watched in wretched silence as the ball flew over the cobbles and across that weedy expanse, another gust of wind blowing it off to the right of the entrance, crashing through a windowpane along that wing of the manor.

“That’ll teach ya to play where ya don’t belong…” Travis, looking quite pleased with himself, turned to walk away, telling them, “Now go home.”

“Give us our ball back!”

Travis wheeled on them, and no one looked too keen on owning up to that last.

“No way in hell I’m goin’ in there!” Travis snorted. “If you want it so much, I dare you to go in there and get it yourself.”

A long moment of downcast hush followed, eyes gazing at shoes and pebbles, before a quavering voice finally spoke up.

“Then I’ll get it,” Redhead blurted, looking almost as surprised at her own words as anyone else on hand. “You… you don’t scare me!… and neither does… that house…”

What Travis didn’t count on was that kids would be kids. Afraid, of course, but also curious. Along with that quixotic, paradoxical need to prove that they’re not afraid.

“Ha!” Travis barked, “You’re shakin’ in your shoes!”

“Am not!” She stamped her foot, trying not to look as scared as she felt.

“Melissa!” one of her friends called out, “Don’t do it! You can’t go in there!”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Travis taunted her.

“Watch me!” Melissa shouted, taking one hesitant step toward that gate.

A brief flicker of panic crossed Travis’ face, then he sneered, “Then show us.”

Melissa, previously frozen at the gate in her own trepidation, stood her full, if diminutive, height, and put one foot across the property line, then the other.

The other children gasped, then stood in silence, all words of encouragement or dissuasion stuck in their throats as they watched her venture where none of them had dared to go before.

Her heart thudded in her throat with each step as she made her way up the drive toward the main entrance, where large, foreboding double doors awaited. Every step, she half expected Travis to yank her back by the straps of her coveralls, yet somehow she understood that he wasn’t going to take one step past that gate, that she had already gone farther than he likely ever had. The closer she came, the more her mind raced at the thought of what might spring forth from that palatial ruin to challenge her, and she wondered what possessed her to do this in the first place.

She had seen her share of weeds, for Pickford suffered no shortage of abandoned houses in her own short lifetime, yet the plants here all felt sickly and diseased, as if their edges or thorns could poison with a scratch. When she looked over her shoulder, she kept expecting the others to be gone, to have fled, and when she turned back to the house, it was equally hard not to expect something horrible to be standing right in front of her. Having somehow gotten there in the brief moment she wasn’t looking, and the fact that there wasn’t was no less reassuring.

The ball had entered a first-story bay window, though still high for a child. Not to mention the broken glass, which she carefully avoided as she grabbed the window sill and pulled herself up on tip-toes to see inside. Much as she feared, the ball was well inside the room, in the middle of the floor.

Too far out of reach without climbing through jagged, broken glass.

All, the same, she was almost surprised it was still there, that something hadn’t taken it, as she dropped back down and turned her attention to the front door. By the time she reached the entrance, the whole mansion seemed to loom over her, and she swallowed hard before taking the next step. Though she hesitated a couple times, she finally reached out and grabbed the doorknob. Screwing up her courage, she then tried to turn it, only to find that it wouldn’t budge.

Locked, tight.

Even as she turned to give up, feeling a certain relief at her inability to proceed any further with this madness, she realized that she could see that smug grin on Travis’ face, even from here. Instead, something snapped in her at that look, and she found that she didn’t want to give up on coming back with that ball and showing him. Looking around, she remembered seeing a gate in the inner fence on the left wing of the mansion.

With that, she waved to her friends, stuck her tongue out at Travis, and went around the side, telling herself if she could find another way in, she could still snag the ball quickly and hop back out the window from the inside.
I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
local history
“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.
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Shades' feet have a mind of their own
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.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the shop that wasn't there yesterday
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.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
spectral replay
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.


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.
End Notes:
Boy is my face red. I got so caught up between the holidays, and spreading the word about the FCC's impending destruction of Net Neutrality and the Open Internet Order, I kinda forgot to finish posting the newest chapter. =P
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the house your parents warned you about
Of all the things Max or Justin might have expected to find in front of Pickford’s most shunned house, a bunch of kids standing around at Vineholdt’s front gate was about the last.

All of them arguing with an older boy, whom Max noted bore a strong familial resemblance to a certain caretaker they were just talking to earlier this morning. He appeared to be doing his best” or worst” to drive them away from this place, but the kids just weren’t having any of it. At first glance, that would seem a reasonable course of action, but even before they got within earshot, he found something about this just didn’t sit right with him.

“…You’ll get in trouble, too, you know. So why don’t you just run… along…” Travis Tully trailed off, faltering as he noticed their approach.

“What’s going on here?” Justin asked.

“Melissa went… mmph!” one boy began, then Travis reached out and clamped one hand over his mouth.

“Nothing!” Travis blurted, glaring at the others as if he dared them to say one word.

All six of them called his bluff at once, rambling at the same time.

“Shut up!” Travis roared, and all the children backed away from him.

“Our friend went in there,” one girl piped up, taking advantage of the moment of silence.

“And that other guy, the one with dark glasses, went in to find her,” another boy added.

“He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?” another chimed in.

“Shades went in there?” Max looked out at the mansion with a sinking feeling he just lost any chance of leaving this deathtrap unexplored. For once. And here he thought he was tagging along to keep Justin from doing anything rash.

“You mean that guy I fought?” Travis cocked his head, very visibly not liking where this line of conversation was leading.

Fought?” one boy snorted. “He whooped your ass!”

“Shut up, you little shit!”

“You?” Justin tried not to laugh as he regretted missing this. Deciding that perhaps vigorous constitutionals could be entertaining after all. “Beat up him?”

With a snarl of fury and indignation, Travis tried to take a swing at Justin.

But Max was quicker, whipping his arm out and catching him across the face, even as Justin was leaping aside.

“We weren’t talking to you,” was Max’s curt reply as Travis hit the ground. Quickly grasping the gravity of the situation, and concluding that this one was wasting dire time.

“I’m not afraid of you…” Travis muttered as he struggled to regain his feet.

“I don’t care,” Max warned him, “and it doesn’t matter. You’re no match for me anyway.”

Though it came out sounding like something Erix might say, it was about the truth of the situation, and with both his friend’s life, and this Melissa’s, in the balance, he was wasting no more time.

For his part, Travis reassessed Max, and appeared to conclude that discretion was the better part of valor.

“Seems like an asshole,” Justin mused, “no wonder Shades beat him up. I don’t like bullies, either, so if you’re too chickenshit to be any help, then stand aside.”

“I ain’t goin’ in there!” Travis stammered, finding himself on the retreat, shouting over his shoulder: “Ha! Even those Lucy-witches couldn’t do anything! That house will take you, too!…”

“Good riddance…” Justin spat.

“Now please,” said Max, turning back to the kids, “tell us what happened.”

In fits and starts, the related the basic gist of what transpired before.

Just as they got to the part about Shades going in to investigate, an odd four-wheeled vehicle rolled up, about the size of a golf cart, and bearing the seal of the Pickford Sheriff’s Office.

A deputy rolled down his glass and leaned out, calling, “Hey! You kids get outta here, before your parents hear about this!”

One of them looked like she was about to say something, when Max turned to them and said, “It’s okay, there really is nothing more you can do here. Leave this to us. Please, go tell Moira at the Pines what’s going on, and we’ll handle this.”

The children nodded, their reluctance unmistakable as they turned and head back toward town, though both of them somehow knew they’d drift back out here when no one was watching. Eerily certain that no one else would stand and watch this place for long.

“You should know”” Max began.

“And you,” the deputy cut him off, glaring at both of them in a way that left Justin wondering just what the hell people were saying about them, “you should be ashamed of yourselves, leading children out to a dangerous place like this.”

“Um, actually,” Justin informed him, “we just got here.”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” the deputy countered, turning pale as he glanced at the house with palpable anxiety. “Sheriff Duhan’s gonna hear about this, and he’ll have you run outta town. I don’t know what you’re up to, but if you go into that house, it’s your funeral, boys.”

With that, he fired up the engine, kicking up a small cloud of dust as he rolled up his window and turned to escort the kids and herd them back into Pickford proper.

If Shades was in there, they both now understood, there would be no help from town, Melissa or no Melissa, and Max for one, could not abide waiting another minute, leading the way past the front gate and straight up to the door.

Justin sighed in resignation and followed. Once upon a time, he would have scoffed at the idea of a haunted house, but even without this recent fun tour of the Woods, about half the places these two dragged him off to had weird shit going on. Figured it would be no different here as he set out to see what Shades had gotten himself into this time, any notions of treasure-hunting all but forgotten.

As they reached the front entrance, Max tried the door handle. Finding it locked, he wasted no time, whipping out his laser sword and slicing right down between the double doors. Locks severed, the two doors creaked slowly open.

Justin looked back to see the kids staring in awe. Even partway down the road, they apparently kept glancing back in spite of the deputy. Likely never seen weapons like theirs, not out here in such a remote realm.

The doors parted, a ray of sunlight illuminating a small foyer, beyond which they found a spacious, though gloomy, great hall, with a grand staircase leading to the upper levels of both wings. Faint light filtered in through a handful of dusty windows, so they were both glad they heeded Moira’s advice and kept a pocket flashlight on them, even during the day. Even to those without any latent psychic abilities, the place still seemed to loom over them as they looked around, attempting to figure out where to start their search.

Max turned right, heading for a door on that side of the chamber. Beyond was a spacious sitting room, and it only took him a moment to spot the ball, right where the kids said it would be. The only thing he could discern was that neither Melissa, nor Shades, had come in here and retrieved it, a fact that bothered him visibly.

“You don’t like this either?” Justin confirmed.

Max nodded, then turned back to the great hall to seek more clues, wondering if perhaps they should have followed the girl’s footsteps around the side of the estate instead. It was almost as if the thought of following tracks conjured dusty footprints leading up the grand staircase. Turning to Justin in mutual unease, they both shrugged and started up the steps.

At the top of the first flight, they found a door standing slightly ajar, so Max toed it open while Justin covered him.

Inside was a room full of junk. On closer inspection, though, they both noticed that it was mostly a collection of children’s toys, including a rusty old rocking horse near the middle of the room.

Max glanced down at his feet, spotting a toy sailboat. One of eerily familiar design. His jaw dropped at the sight of the name The Edge painted on the bow.

He stumbled back, barely noticing as he bumped into the newel post on his side of the landing. His mind’s eye full of tossing waves, driving rain and howling winds. Surrounded by dead-looking Cyexian pirates, all sopping wet and draped in seaweed.

Bloated, pale, waterlogged. Rheumy eyes, stringy hair and rotten teeth. All shambling toward him across the deck…

“Max!” Justin shook him. “Max! Snap out of it!”

Max blinked, looking around the stair landing as if trying to remember what he was doing here. The assault on his senses leaving him slightly shaky. On impulse, he looked down at the toy boat again, only now it bore no particular resemblance to his uncle’s lost ship, nor did it bear any name on its bow, let alone The Edge.

“What the hell was that all about?” Justin asked him.

“I… Nothing…” Max mumbled, not wanting to into the details of that fateful night now any more than before, resenting the house for even dredging up memories he didn’t care to dwell on. After a few seconds, he repeated more firmly, “Nothing. That boat just reminded me of something, that’s all. Let’s move on.”

Justin nodded, deciding not to bring up Max’s mumbling, reminding himself that his friend never talked about how he got shipwrecked on the Isle of Paradise, that he shouldn’t be surprised that Max wouldn’t talk about it here, either. Didn’t like this in the slightest, but also knew all too well that Max was never very good at quitting, and quietly hoped they weren’t about to find out what it would take to make him, as he wasn’t sure whose regrets he could bear less, his or his friend’s.

To both of their dismay, they noted more footprints, leading up and down both branching stairways. They both glanced at each other, their only relief that, clearly, neither of them had splitting up in mind, not in a place like this.

Before either them could open their mouth to discuss which way to go, they both nearly jumped out of their skins at an unearthly tolling of bells, that seemed to be emanating from all directions at once, looking around for its elusive source, to no avail.

Even as they listened to its echoes die away, Max found a grim moment to wonder why his unsettling vision of Slash’s pirates all consisted of drowned corpses.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Fur Elise (kitten on the keys)
Shades wandered among more of those dark corridors and rooms of spooky paintings that all seemed to stare at him no matter where he was standing.

Though some appeared to be portraits as generic as some of the landscapes, there were several recurring figures among them. There was an older, balding man, who tended to look fairly stern when depicted alone, but the aloof, patrician woman Shades presumed to be his wife always made him look the softer of the two when pictured together. The older version of her portrait almost seemed to glare daggers at anyone who dared to meet her gaze.

There was also a younger couple, consisting of what appeared to be the older couple’s daughter, and a man who was never depicted without her. She, on the other hand, seemed to have portraits ranging from childhood all the way to motherhood herself. A couple of them shown with a baby, later a girl with dark hair, who clearly took after her mother, but bore her father’s sea-grey eyes, as well.

Certainly the infamous Rigby family that once lived here, and he found himself wishing he had the opportunity to ask around about their family history.

The palatial size of this place, combined with the seeming lack of any reason or rhyme to where some of the halls even led to, left him deeply concerned about whether he could actually begin to find his way back out. Even if he found Melissa. Fearful that the great hall really might have been his last chance to leave this twisted place.

Naturally, he’d been turning that horrifying ghostly replay from down there over in his head, even as he struggled to remain focused on the task at hand.

He had given it no small amount of thought earlier, as he browsed what appeared to be a wing of servant’s quarters, poked his head in various rooms up and down the halls. After all, this thing, whatever it was, just demonstrated the power to kill at will. If so, that just left the question of why it didn’t just reach out and strike him dead where he stood, as it had done to Sister Leta years ago.

Why settle for using that macabre mirage as a warning shot?

He could think of a couple possibilities. One was simply rooted in nature, that most creatures don’t like to risk fighting unnecessarily, which left imposing questions of just how much he could get away with, this deep inside the entity’s territory, before he finally provoked it to more drastic measures. As well as whether he necessarily represented the same threat level the Sisters of St Lucy might have. The other thing he could come up with was that something that direct required some effort on its part, that the House’s energies were mostly tied-up, invested in something else, and simply didn’t have it to spare right now.

Thus the scary display downstairs.

Of course, wondering what else it could be doing wasn’t very reassuring, either. Leaving him with the ominous feeling that he was running out of time, and so was Melissa, certain he didn’t want to find out what for. Only the impression that the House was gathering its strength for something.

Earlier, he heard those chimes again, marking off the time to some unknown event, a ticking time-bomb whose timer he couldn’t see. Just when he was getting to the point where he was no longer tensing up at every creaky floorboard. The closest thing he could make up in the way of a plan was to grab Melissa, if he ever found her, and run like hell.

As he passed by a bank of rear windows, he happened to glance outside and notice a vast chessboard, formed of alternating squares of light and dark stone. Or at least something akin to chess, at any rate, as the massive pieces set out upon it stood in mid play, only some of them bore any passing resemblance to the traditional forms from his own world, some whose shapes and moves he could only speculate. Still, they were similar enough that, combined with the grid board, it was clearly a game of strategy that likely had similar rules and objectives.

Then it was back to the dark, dusty halls of old-fashioned doors and fixtures. Switching on his flashlight again, trying not to dwell on the how the functionality of these devices seemed to be directly proportionate to one’s proximity to haunted places. Mentally crossed his fingers and hoped that these later-gen lights would buck the trend and prove reliable enough to see him through this.

A little farther down the hallway, he spotted a door already hanging open. Hoping it might yield some clue to Melissa’s whereabouts, he shined his light in, revealing some sort of office den. Shelves of the sort of leather-bound volumes few owners actually read, a couple high-back chairs, and a small end table, all tied together with a woven rug, the whole room dominated by a massive, ornately-carved wooden desk.

Even as he moved to examine the scene further, an old-fashioned telephone on the desk started ringing, and he nearly fumbled his flashlight as he gasped in unabashed startlement.

He slowly approached the phone as it continued to ring, feeling as if his feet had gained even more autonomy than they had when he first made his way to Vineholdt. Feeling more than ever as if he was immersing himself in a horror movie, and that he was not the main character, but merely a bit player, doomed to die while doing one of the hundred-and-eight foolish things he always muttered at characters for doing in these sort of tales. Yet here he was, watching his own hand reach out and remove that black, polished handset from its cradle.

As he lifted it to his ear, he could hear the muffled sounds of a storm, accompanied by heavy breathing and some sort of rustling.

A voice picked up, saying, “Nine-One-One dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency?

My name’s John Doe,” the heavy-breathing voice spoke up, and Shades nearly dropped the handset in his shock at its familiarity, a voice he had not heard in many moons, “and I’m calling to report a break-in.”

Is the place you’re in being broken into?” the dispatcher asked.

No, it’s the place next door,” John told him. “I don’t know the address, but it’s in Lakeside…” He seemed to fumble for a moment, then: “Don’t call me… Dexter! Dexter MacLean is missing!

Shades would later suspect his eyes widened to the point that it could be seen from behind his opaque lenses as he listened to this surreal phone exchange unfold.

“John!” Shades finally found words. “It’s me! Shades! I’m not missing! John?”

But no one seemed to hear him, and the call continued.

Could you please calm down,” the dispatcher pleaded. “We’ve been very busy tonight…”

I’m sure you have, Shades thought, numb to his own senses, if it’s the night I’m thinking of.

What the”” John blurted.

The voices on both ends of the line wavered and distorted as an eerie sound washed over him, one he still remembered from that dark, stormy night.

Hello? Hello?” the dispatcher called out, but Shades already understood John was no longer in that room to reply. “Is anyone still there?…”

Shades dropped phone on the desktop, backing away slowly, leaving some hapless emergency dispatcher from another world, another night, babbling at no one as he stepped out into the hallway and shut the door very firmly behind him, cutting off the faint dial-tone.

He continued backing away into the dark hallway, mind reeling, struggling against a moment of lightheadedness.

Wondering if that really was what happened that night. If his old friend really had broken into his neighbors’ house to call for help. So far as he could recall, they were on vacation at the time, so it was at least possible.

Shaking his head, somehow already understanding that that phone wasn’t going to give him any straight answers, no matter who he heard on the other end of the line. Trying to pull himself together as he resumed his exploration. Already chiding himself for letting his guard down.

After standing alone and aloof from Pickford for so many years, it was hard to say what was true, and what was just hearsay about Vineholdt. Only that there was at least some truth, no matter how much embellishment it may have been seasoned with. The Woods alone were proof enough that something eldritch had been unleashed within this place, and his current experience only corroborated that much of the house’s grim reputation.

Along those lines, he found the nonsensical meanderings of this sprawling manor even less reassuring, in light of other places he’d visited that turned out to be bigger on the inside. He could see from the exterior that this mansion was big, but what he’d walked so far was simply beyond its scale, halls and corridors that kept getting him turned around.

While he was sure the Harken Building was more substantial, physically, than anything he’d encountered in here thus far, he felt as if he had only one foot firmly planted in the mundane world, the other slowly sinking into the world of nightmares. And unlike the Woods, where one could wander haphazardly in and out of the eye of the storm, he was not so sure he could pull his other foot back out so easily from here. That he might well get dragged all the way into the nightmare if he lost his footing for even a moment.

As he cast about, his light happened upon one of the fair number of family portraits dotted around the house.

A painting of the little girl, the granddaughter, with dark hair and grey eyes, wearing a very stiff-looking formal dress. But still looking very much a child in spite, or perhaps because of, this precocious presentation. Sitting in her lap on either side was a pair of fluffy black kittens, and while they both looking similar at first glance, there was just something about the one sitting on the left, though it took him a moment to figure out just what.

The kitten seemed to be smirking at him in a manner that didn’t seem quite feline, as well as the creepy intuition that it might just reach out and slash or bite his hand if he was foolish enough to put it up to the canvas.

In the corner, he also noted a signature: Nemo. No One, or Nobody, as he recalled, wondering what artist would sign himself off as such.

In the midst of his morbid musings, he started to hear what sounded like strains of piano tinkling. Wondering what spooky surprise this might herald, he turned and headed in the direction the sound was coming from. Though he doubted Pickford harbored any classically trained pianists” or many musicians of any sort anymore” he still refused to believe that any kid wandering around a place as creepy as this would just stop to play a piano simply because it was there.

As he drew nearer, he still couldn’t place the tune, though it did vaguely put him in mind of Für Elise, with its melancholy tone and similar ambiance.

At last he stood before another door, just slightly ajar, but as he reached for the knob, the notes came to a jangled halt. Holding his breath, he listed for a long moment, instead hearing what sounded like a kitten prancing around on keys, plinking random notes. Even less sure what to expect, he finally reached out and opened the door.

In the center of the room was an ebony concert piano, but the bench in front of it stood empty. He looked around the room, finding it as deserted as any others he’d explored. Just a few tables and small table off to one side.

As he crossed the room to a large bank of windows, a rare exception to the tall, narrow frames in most rooms, which appeared to overlook the back of the estate, the thought crossed his mind that perhaps the House was merely toying with him, conserving its energy with distractions, rather than fighting him upfront.

His thoughts trickled to a halt as he looked out those windows, though, spotting that same chessboard from earlier. It was not so much the gameboard itself, as it was the disconcerting impression that all the pieces were in completely different positions than the last time he looked at it.

“That can’t be right…” he mumbled, wondering if this was just some sort of hallucination. It’s just because I’m seeing it from a different angle, that’s all

Yet the stubborn intuition hung on that they were indeed in different places than before, and told his rational mind that if he believed it was just different angles, he also had a famous bridge to sell himself. Decided that unless he actually saw Melissa, or one of the other children, out there, he was staying the hell away from that thing. Trusted those game pieces about as far as he could throw them, if even that far.

Questioned if he should even trust the image of anyone out there in the first place.

There just seemed to be some sort of natural law, he reflected as he turned back to resume his search, that these sorts of crises could only happen under a blameless blue sky. Thought about how, if this were an abandoned mansion from his own world, it would be fun to go up to one of those towers and wave at everyone. Especially to piss Travis off.

Though, aside from the cellar, he quickly concluded that was about the last place he wanted to find her, could all too easily picture her being menaced by something just out of his mind’s eye’s picture, some unhallowed thing his unsettled imagination couldn’t quite settle on a definitive form for, that would push her right over the parapet, and onto the steep roofs just below…

That image only served to renew his sense of urgency as he pressed on.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
portrait of authority
Max and Justin strode down yet another hallway that felt every bit as familiar as it was unfamiliar at the same time.

Vineholdt was proving to have a lot more wings and corridors than even its palatial size suggested from the outside. Putting both of them in mind of places with similar properties, to both of their trepidation. Max, especially, felt as if the place was somehow rearranging itself behind their back.

Struggling to put his fun experiences in the Harken Building out of mind, he found himself recalling some old legend Shades told him about once, of a giant maze, and someone unrolling some string to show the way back. A trick that Alta’s Undercity, let alone the Lower Ruins, would have been too massive to even attempt. Here, though, he questioned whether a rope tied to anything would actually lead them back to the same place at all.

Even some of the twisted passages of the Building occasionally managed that much.

Having long since lost any trace of Shades’ trail, to say nothing of Melissa’s, they were reduced to haphazard fumbling in the dark.

Along the way, they heard that grandfather clock toll a couple more times, finding it every bit as worrying as the first. Especially since they had no clue what it was even about. For his own part, Justin tried very hard not to think of it as an alarm.

At first, he wished they had ignored everyone’s advice and brought their radios along, but based on prior experience, he doubted they would have been any help finding Shades.

They both paused and looked out a bank of windows lining one side of this hallway, overlooking the back of the estate. Providing a commanding view of a massive, checkered gameboard, with two sets of pieces arranged in apparent mid play. Recalling a game Shades once told him about, called chest, or something like that” even found a board in a compartment of odds and ends back aboard the Maximum and offered to show him how to play” and he couldn’t help but feel they were playing a similar game here. Only with no clue what the rules even were, let alone how to win.

Seeing nothing of use here, they resumed what neither of them could really quite think of as exploration anymore, lost as they felt.

A while later, they came upon another of Vineholdt’s many assorted paintings, of a little girl, with two black kittens sitting in her lap. Some of the others, like the grim old lady who glared at them from all angles, whom he wouldn’t care to meet anywhere, or the old man who would have looked right at home sitting among the Board of Directors back in the Triangle State, as well as what appeared to be their daughter and some other man, seemed to be the Rigby family everyone in town talked about. Yet this one stood out to him, because he’d seen her before somewhere.

“Eleanor…” Justin mumbled, staring at that face across a gulf of years.

“You know her?” Max tilted his head, but found no angle that lent the child any familiarity.

“Yeah…” Justin paused for a long moment, then told him, “You remember that ship I stayed on as a kid, before I ended up in the Triangle State” the Skerry?” she was a passenger… maybe more… I think she was on that ship even longer than I was. She was like the First Mate’s daughter, or something like that…”

Found he even recognized the kitten on her right. Poe, she called him. At first, he was at a bit of a loss about the second one, but then he remembered that she had mentioned another, if he could just remember her name…

Max, on some vague impulse, turned around to find a small black cat sitting down the hall, gazing at him in cryptic observation, and he couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance to the kitten depicted in the portrait.

As seldom as they ever got to speak to each other, Justin was sure Eleanor had mentioned Poe having a twin sister…

“Look, there’s a cat,” Max told him, but Justin continued to stare at the painting.

The cat, meanwhile, rose from her haunches and turned back the way she apparently came.

“Let’s see where he goes,” Max suggested, “before he gets away from us.”

Justin nodded, but said nothing, and Max turned to follow, trying not to imagine Bandit wandering around this creepy estate like that. In that moment, he couldn’t help thinking about his old friend as a cub, and quietly hoped he was still sleeping soundly at the Pines, rather than following after him, as he had a habit of doing.

“Now I remember…” Justin thought aloud. Lydia. A name Eleanor followed up with a distant, wistful look, as if she regretted even bringing it up. And a nickname to go with, giggled and spoke of her as… “Liddy-Kitty.”

As he snapped back from his reverie, he would swear to his dying day that the kitten on the left had started glowering at him while he wasn’t looking, as if she didn’t like that name. Even Eleanor’s face seemed to have changed, looking as if he’d said something particularly uncouth at the dinner table or something.

“Liddy-Kitty,” he repeated, for good measure, then turned to Max, saying, “Did you see that? Did you see her face change when I said that?”

When he received no reply, that was when he noticed that his friend was no longer there. Looking around, recalling him saying something about a cat. Wishing he had paid a bit more attention, as he couldn’t even remember which way Max took off.

The next tolling of the grandfather clock startled him into stumbling back from that painting of his childhood travel companion, alarmed and ashamed at how easily they had allowed themselves to get separated in here.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the hands resist him
Shades was just starting to think he could cope with the seemingly random and arbitrary tolling of that infernal grandfather clock, when this time it heralded another spectral vision, much like the first time.

Only this time, he was standing right in the middle of it.

Shadow-shapes strode up and down the halls, sometimes forward, sometimes seemingly in reverse, with nothing to cast them. An indistinct cacophony of voices, all murmuring, whispering, muttering overtop of each other. Flickering glimpses of the doors all opening and closing at random, as he stumbled around in circles, unsure which way to look.

Half-open doors, wall sconces, and scant hall furniture, all casting two or three different shadows at once. Just as it was dying down, he spotted a ghostly, ghastly figure stumbling down the hall. The bloated, drowned-looking apparition of a police officer, aimlessly wandering the halls, casting about in his own abject horror. From somewhere, a woman’s muffled voice screamed for help, accompanied by a faint pounding and thumping.

Shades staggered back as that spectral lawman blundered right toward him, and he threw his arms up to ward off the phantom, fumbling his flashlight in his shock. An icy chill blew through him, cut-ting to the bone like the north wind in winter. Though he had read of such things” even encountered something akin to this once on a certain haunted island” it was still something else to experience it for himself as he stumbled back”

And then it was over.

The halls stood quiet and still once more, leaving him trying to collect his fumbled wits in the wake of this last ethereal episode, before moving to retrieve his fumbled flashlight, as well.

Yet as he bent down to pick it up, relieved to still see a flood of light spilling from it across the floor after that drop, it dawned on him that he was reaching for it in a hallway with all the lights on.

Dim as they were, old-fashioned bulbs in even more antique-looking sconces, and hints of dull light from behind some of the doors. As he picked up his flashlight, deciding that there was no substitute for good backup, he also noticed that the floors weren’t as dusty and gritty under his boots any-more. Aimed the light around and observed that the wallpaper was no longer peeling, either.

As if the house was slipping backward in time in a way that made his skin crawl. Especially as it occurred to him that the place had probably been doing that all along, without him even realizing it, and he shuddered. The idea of a building somehow getting younger without any renovations…

At first he was glad that he had left his radio back the inn, knowing that these sort of phenomena frequently involved eerie emanations and staticky signals on many frequencies. And he strongly doubted whatever force was in play here would allow him to call for outside help anyway. Then he remembered that it sometimes also served as a warning as well as a manifestation, and wondered if he should test that with the radio tuner of the Cam Jam player in his jacket pocket.

Never thought I’d need a radio for a simple shopping trip

Then he remembered the screaming and pounding from earlier. A woman” or possibly a little girl” and most definitely the latter still trapped somewhere in here. Steeling himself as best he could against the Unknown, he pressed on.

Recalling the tower turrets, deciding that, now that he had somehow worked his way up to the third floor, that he would try to find the tower entrance at the end of the hall.

As he approached the end, though, he found his steps slowing instinctively. Finally came to a halt at what still felt like a less than safe distance from a doorway near the end of the hall, on his right. Unlike the others, this one was pitch-dark, and he could see nothing past the threshold, as if the space beyond swallowed up light.

Sure enough, even his flashlight’s beam didn’t seem to penetrate very far, and he took a reflexive step back at the jarring vision of many pale hands reaching out, groping and dragging him off into that darkness…

Shades continued backing away from that dreadful doorway until he was almost back at the far end of the hall, still grappling with a mixture of revulsion and shame. Revulsion at the intuition that he was nearing the end of the illusions, the end of the warning shots, that whatever came beyond this point would be real. Shame at backing away from a threat that he couldn’t even ascertain, that that must surely be the direction he needed to go if it was being ‘guarded’ by something.

Feared he was about to get turned around in this maze of a mansion once again if he set out in another direction.

With no clear way to distinguish between what was real and what was illusion, there was a terrible risk of blundering into something real if he didn’t take it seriously. Already sure there was, deep enough in. Yet if he started avoiding things out of fear they might be real, the place would just push him around in circles until it was too late to help Melissa.

Reminding him that was putting his life on the line just entering this place, questioning whether there really was anything he could do for her, if he would just be getting himself killed for nothing… and concluded that he had already come too far to turn back.

He was just about to fire up his stun-stick, in spite of his doubts about its usefulness against a thing like that, when he spotted a movement to his left, out of the corner of his eye, and he pivoted that way, dreading what might come next.

As he faced the door next to him, he saw that inside on the far wall was a mirror, and he nearly laughed aloud at the thought that he was jumping at the next closest thing to his own shadow.

He turned to head back to that spooky door again, when another odd movement turned his head back to the mirror, now showing him not his own reflection, but a sight that stopped him in his tracks.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Phantom Stranger: Robert
Max continued to follow the black cat back downstairs.

At the grand stairway landing, he paused again to look inside the junk room, only now it was all in order, looking more like a child’s playroom rather than the ruins of one. Now he could find no trace of the toy sailboat that spooked him earlier, most likely lurking in a toybox against the far wall. After that moment of distraction, he was relieved to see the cat still loitering near the bottom of the steps, almost as if waiting for him.

Just like each time before, as if leading him somewhere, and he turned to follow, barely noticing as he nearly tripped on the curled rug on the stair landing, absently kicking it back into place in his focus on the cat.

Whom he had started out thinking of as a he, most likely because of his long acquaintance with Bandit, but was becoming increasingly certain was a she, for some reason he couldn’t put his finger on. At first, he thought the cat might be leading him to Melissa, but now he was starting to wonder if he should have grabbed Justin before following this strange lead. Especially now that the trail was apparently leading back out of the house.

Through dimly-lit rooms and corridors, then some storage room, finally to a back door hanging wide open.

He stepped out, blinking away at the daylight and wondering for a moment if the girl hadn’t found her own way out of Vineholdt. If the cat might perhaps lead each of them back out in turn. Yet that felt too much like wishful thinking, given this place’s grim reputation, and now he suspected that he had just been led right back to the beginning of the maze.

Feeling cheated, and more than a little foolish, he was surprised to still see the cat, sitting over near that giant gameboard he saw from upstairs earlier.

Sure enough, the cat once again got up, sauntering alongside the board, and he followed. Standing this close to the whole thing, Max couldn’t help pausing to examine the nearest game piece. Stepping on a dark square to reach it, he moved in for a closer look.

Nearly as tall as he, and set on rolling casters, its squarish base topped by what appeared to be the stylized head of some sort of winged sea serpent. Carved of some dark flecked stone, looking quite solid, heavy, enough to cause serious injury if it, say, fell on someone. With that thought in mind, he was about to step back, when he noticed a name inscribed on the back of the base.

Nemo, a name that sounded simple, yet for some reason suggested to him hidden depths.

The light around him fell into shade, and he snapped his head up to find himself nearly surrounded by more pieces.

On reflex, Max stepped back, off the gameboard, realizing even as he did so that that was the only direction he wasn’t hemmed-in from. He stumbled back a couple more steps, whipping out his laser sword in case they continued to press the attack. Already concerned about whether he could actually evade several falling hunks of stone at once.

Yet when he looked back up to face that very task, he found all the pieces lined back up at opposite sides, as if starting a new game, looking for all the world as if they had been arranged that way all along. He stared for a long moment at the lineup of potential opponents. A open but faceless helmet, a pyramid, something vaguely canine, with a long snout and tall, pointy ears…

After taking a moment to pull himself back together, he remembered the cat. Who was now nowhere to be found, and he couldn’t help but feel that she had led him into some sort of trap. Found a moment to wonder how he let himself get separated so easily, no matter how much the cat gave all the air of leading him somewhere. Especially now that he had seen for himself where that led.

So focused was he on trying to pick up the trail, he hardly noticed the dark clouds creeping in as he skirted the edge of the board, giving the darker pieces on this side a wide berth.

As he rounded the corner of mansion, wondering if he should perhaps get back inside to find Justin” or Shades, or even this Melissa he went in looking for” he spotted a crumbling stone fence marking some inner border of the estate. Originally about waist-high, more decoration than barrier, whole sections of it had toppled over through the years. Only the section that joined the mansion wall still standing fully intact, with its half-open iron gate.

Still no sign of the cat, though.

Nearby, built into the wall, he saw a fountain full of clear water.

On some vague impulse, Max ambled over to the fountain, looking down at the smooth stone basin. As the wind swept his shaggy hair, he was taken aback at just how much resembled his father in that moment. Or at least, what he remembered of him. Though he didn’t really like the stern vibes he was getting from those storm-clouds swirling overhead.

Much like that toy sailboat from earlier, he found himself profoundly uncomfortable with where all of this imagery was leading.

A few seconds later, a few drops of rain began to fall, then more, obliterating all reflection, and he looked around under an ever darkening sky, that night swirling around him as surely as the storm growing above. He blinked at the crumbled line of fence, a flicker of lightning showing him ancient Cyexian tombstones, runes and all. In the background, swaying trees all seemed to hang down with thick willowy fronds, completing the scene for him.

Somehow, he was back on Kinsasha, the farthest of the islands of Layosha, and he half expected the infamous clan ringleader, Slash, to grab him from behind, for Cyexian pirates to hold him hostage as they did one night long ago.

In his growing alarm, he spun around, and was genuinely surprised to find he was not surrounded by Slash’s old crew once again.

His relief, though, melted into sublime shock at the figure who came stumbling through that iron gate instead.

“Dad…” Max’s voice breaking even as he uttered that one word.

Sure enough, there stood Robert of Layosha, Slash’s mortal nemesis, sopping wet in the rain, and smelling faintly of sea-brine, as he strode toward this surreal reunion.

“My son…”

“Is… it really you?”

“Son… I forgive you…” Robert’s voice stern and somber, making Max cringe in spite of himself.

“Dad… How did you find me?”

“I forgive you…” Robert repeated, and as he drew nearer, he seemed to loom over Max as if he were still a child. “For failing me…”

Max backed up a step, finding himself up against an overflowing fountain that instantly put him in mind of the railing of a storm-tossed deck, the thunder rumbling overhead, just loud enough to make itself heard over the waves and the rain.

“I forgive you…” Robert said once again, reaching out for Max with both hands, “for letting me die…”

Even as he reached out to ward off those pale, seaweed-draped hands, having nowhere to retreat to, he struggled against that crushing feeling that he somehow deserved this, even as his small, feeble hands struggled against the steely grip of a man who had never laid hands on him like that…

That somehow the watery grave he avoided back then by the unintentional sacrifice of others had finally caught up with him.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Phantom Stranger: John Doe
Shades stood transfixed, staring across the room at what he saw in that mirror.

Still wearing the same leather jacket and jeans, looking for all the world as if he just wandered in out of the woods around Lakeside that very night.

Shades blinked, and it was gone, as if he had merely startled himself with the movement of his own reflection, some trick of the lighting, and he turned once again to see if he could find his a way up to either turret tower.

“Dude!” an eerily familiar voice called out to him from that room. “It that really you?”

“John?…” Shades turned and looked his old, long-sought friend in the eye, seeing him exactly as he remembered. “But how…”

“I don’t know…” he replied, “I just wandered in here, after getting lost in this big, scary forest all night… Am I glad to see you!”

Shades conceded that might be possible, what with the dimensional boundaries being so thin out there in the Woods, as well as whatever was happening the night of the Flathead Experiment, that even after all these months there was no accounting for the flow of time between worlds, yet the timing of this appearance still bothered him.

“It’s okay, man,” he continued. “I forgive you for leaving me all alone out there…”

“Before I could even apologize…” Shades mumbled, struggling against sheepishness as he felt himself slipping back into that night. Even more so at an epiphany he wished he had thought of many moons ago. A long driveway leading up to the house behind his neighbors, mostly concealed by a wall of trees and the rise of the bank, which was probably why it slipped his mind after that lightning-blasted tree fell. “If only I’d gone that way…”

Tried to remember if there was even any fence back there to bar his motorcycle…

“Come on, dude,” he urged Shades, gesturing to the door to the hall, “let’s get out of this creepy place and go find Amy.”

“I’m sorry, John,” Shades told him, barely noticing the sky darkening outside, dimming the light from the windows, barely heard the subtle pattering of rain against the glass, and the faint rumble of distant thunder, “but there’s a little girl trapped in here, and we need to find her, too.”

“She’s probably already dead,” he insisted. “Hell, I’m surprised either of us are still alive…”

“The John I know wouldn’t give up so easily.” Shades turned and started walking away. The more they talked, the more he felt a troubling fog drifting into his mind, and he feared it would fully engulf him if he stayed here. Struggling against the feeling he had just blundered into that one corny scene from a hundred B movies about this sort of thing. “Let’s get going.”

“Come on, Shades… You left me out there, in that storm, in the woods, with whatever the hell was going on out there last night…”

“That wasn’t my fault, that tree fell…” Shades fumbled, tugging against the twin fishhooks of guilt and shame attempting to reel him back into that room, into the fog… Then stopped and turned back as something he said earlier snapped both hooks. “Who told you about Amy?”

“Well…” he stammered, stepping back toward the mirror as Shades stepped toward him, “you did, remember? On the phone?”

Shades felt the fog beginning to fade at this inconsistency, as if dispersed by a fresh breeze, and as it lifted, he noticed a detail in the mirror behind them that he suspected had been there the whole time, seen even in the growing dimness.

Whatever stood before him had no reflection.

“No, I didn’t,” Shades informed him as he strode forward, all of his prior guilt and defensiveness having hardened into violated fury. The events of that night afforded him no opportunity mention his conversation with Amy at the mall earlier that day, and he knew it. Feeling something coalescing in his clenched fists. Found an immediate familiarity to this sensation, as if he’d done this before in a dream or something…

Recalling the feel of the battle-fire that sometimes swept over him in his dreams. As if he grabbed hold of something out of a dream and now held it in his hand, wielded it with his mind and will as he cocked back his fist. Held on to his burning rage at this thing that dared to wear his old friend’s face as he swung.

Felt something in that fist explode against his assailant, more than mere sensation. Felt his opponent as he crumpled and folded as if struck by a wrecking ball.

Smashed right through the looking glass into the other side, the glass cracking into a spider-web of silvery lines. Watched that limp form melt and sink into the floor on that side, even as the mirror shards tinkled to the floor one by one on this side of the looking glass.

It was only then that he remembered his stun-sticks, neither of which he even remembered sheathing to speak with that phantom impostor. Although, given that the place seemed to be slipping back in time with every chime of that ominous clock, he wasn’t sure if any damage he inflicted with them would actually stick anyway.

The thought of the clock tolling reminded him that time was a luxury he could ill afford in this place. In the aftermath of that strange confrontation, he discovered an unexpected clarity about the form and layout of the house. Realized that the mists that tried to close in about him during that encounter had been creeping up around him the whole time since he first set foot in this twisted place, and would soon be trying to worm their way back into his perception once again.

Just another time limit, he concluded, understanding that he needed to hang on to that clarity for as long as he could as he made his way back out into the hall, taking one last glance back to see daylight once again streaming in through those windows, and took what hope he could from it, to take at last some of that light with him into the dark depths of Vineholdt.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Phantom Stranger: Eleanor
Justin stood for a long moment in front of that painting of Eleanor and her two kittens, trying to pull himself back together.

Wandering this place was nerve-wracking enough with Max by his side, and even some chance of catching up with Shades. To find himself all alone in here, with all he had learned of Vineholdt’s horrid history and experienced thus far, it threatened to trample reason in a panicked stampede for the door. Wild eyes casting about, hardly even noticing the lit hallway sconces and newer-looking wallpaper all around him.

“Max!” he called out, turning one way, then the other, having no clue which way his friend went. “Shades! Can anyone hear me!?”

At first wondering why they hadn’t thought to do that in the first place, until it occurred to him that shouting like that was also a dead giveaway to anything else that might haunt these halls, and he clammed up as sharply as he cried out.

It was in the midst of his fearful silence, ears straining for any hint of a threat, that he heard a jangled ringing sound emanating from a nearby door.

He nearly bolted at that, yet curiosity held him back in spite of himself, and he instead turned to the door with renewed determination to figure out what the hell was going on around here.

Inside, he found a handsomely appointed office den, of a sort he could all too easily picture in the estates of any of the Board of Directors back in the Triangle State. The ringing was coming from a device sitting atop a massive, ornately carved wooden desk. An object of slick black plastic, with a small number pad, similar to things he had seen used in various places as a type of intercom.

Still, he hesitated for a moment before finally picking up the handset.

There was a long moment of staticky silence before a man’s voice hesitantly piped up.


“Hello, Michael!” the stern, raspy voice of an old woman crowed, but there was no hint of warmth in that voice. “So how are things up in Hawthorne these days?”

“Veronica?” There was no mistaking the trepidation in the man’s voice as he stammered, “Where did you get this number?”

“Such disrespect. That’s Miss Rigby to you, boy. And as for your little hiding place, you know I have my ways,” Veronica reminded him. “You also know what I want, traitor. The only thing you gave this family of any worth. I have a train waiting, just for you…”

“We’re free of you now,” Michael shot back, though his attempt at confidence didn’t sound very convincing, “and so is Eleanor.”

“Are you, now?…” Veronica chided, bemused at first, then simply amused as she added, “Let this persuade you…”

“Oh, Michael!” a young woman sobbed, “I’m so sorry! They caught me at the train station just before it arrived! Please! Whatever you do, don’t let her take our little””

Her pleas were cut off in muffled whimpering.

“Elise!” Michael called out.

“Now you listen to me,” Veronica cut back in, “You’re going to bring my granddaughter back today, or there will be hell to pay. Your little scheme failed, but I’m willing to let you go, cut you both loose, even, if you bring her back. You have until moonrise. If you don’t, then I’ll just use her instead. After all, I’m not getting any younger…”

Then she hung up with a loud bang.

“Wait! Veronica!” Michael pleaded on an empty line. “…Use her for what?”

With that, the handset went silent.

Justin stood there, for how long he wasn’t sure, before putting the phone very carefully back in its cradle, that desperate conversation still ringing in his ears.

If he understood that grim exchange correctly, Eleanor had been taken from her home as a little girl, by her own parents, in an attempt to prevent her grandmother, the very owner of this haunted house, from doing… something.

He was about to resume his search for Max, or Shades, or even Melissa, when he saw a young girl cross the hall outside into a another room.

Nearly blurted the name Melissa, but even that brief glimpse was enough to jog his memory, as it was already wandering through those parts anyway. Dressed exactly as she was in the painting, which was not much different from how she tended to dress during her time aboard the Skerry, as well, now that he thought about it. Had no description of this Melissa, but also doubted, based on his own experience, that she would find any clothing fit to wear in place as long-abandoned as this.

Unsure if he was seeing things, and quite possibly hearing things earlier, he paused for a moment before shrugging his shoulders and following this strange new turn of events.

On the far side of the room, she faced away from him, looking out the windows, in spite of the thin, cobwebby curtains drawn over them. Shifting, along with her dress, in a gentle breeze that carried the scent of the high seas. The cries of gulls, as well, and a buoy bell echoing to him somewhere beyond a shifting strip of grey sky.

At last, she turned around, and he saw that it was indeed her, the painting come to life, just as he remembered her.

“Eleanor?” Justin mumbled, struggling to wrap his head around this most recent development, as it was nothing he ever would have dreamed of finding in here. “Is it really you? How can this be?”

“Does it really matter?” she asked in return. “You’re here, and so am I…”

“But didn’t your father…”

“Yes, he took me away from home,” she replied, “but I’m back now. I’ve even found you again, so you have a second chance to fulfill your promise.”

“Promise?” Justin stammered, turning his mind over and shaking out its pockets trying to recall if he ever made any such thing to her. “What promise?”

“You promised to travel the world with me, remember?” She walked up and put her hands in his, and he found only a brief moment to wonder when he holstered his disrupter pistol as he gazed down at her fingers. Of course, he had always had small hands, but he was still surprised to find that hers were about the same, despite no apparent change in her age. He looked up to find himself eye to eye with her as she carried on. “But then we stopped over in Benton and you went off without me…”

Justin stumbled back against the tide of memories washing over him, mind flailing for something to anchor him against it all.

At last he found it, in the sight of the Skerry’s empty berth at Benton harbor, the cold realization that he was once again an orphan, and he turned for the door, saying, “If you want to travel with me now, we’re going to have some company. Let’s go find my friends.”

Wondering, even as he spoke, why his voice sounded so strange, even to his own ears, since he started talking to her.

“Justin, I forgive you,” she said, still refusing to move any further out of the room. “I forgive you for abandoning me…”

“I didn’t abandon you…” Justin told her as he pulled open a door he had no memory of closing, with only a passing flicker of annoyance that the doorknob seemed higher than he recalled, as he walked away. “Don’t you get it? The crew of the Skerry abandoned me!”

He didn’t even turn to see what her expression may have been, somehow certain it would be a carefully crafted look of hurt and confusion, his mind still echoing back his fresh recollections of the last dwindling days of his short childhood. Though the decision to depart may not have been hers to make, the decision to guilt-trip and blame him for it most certainly was. That he should ever need to be forgiven for surviving the Triangle State…

On some impulse, he turned to glare at her portrait as he stomped past, and froze in mid step at what he beheld.

Any doubts about the painting’s earlier changes in facial expressions were obliterated at the sight before him. Poe hung suspended in mid-leap out of Eleanor’s lap, feline fright written all over the poor kitten’s face. Lydia arched on her other knee, hissing at him, eyes glaring. Eleanor’s mouth agape in wide-eyed terror.

Looming over all of them, a ghastly old woman dressed all in black, her eyes ablaze, her teeth gleaming fangs, her outstretched arms ending in steely-clawed fingers.

Even as it dawned on him that he had been seeing all of these things from a child’s eye level the whole time” and still was” he could hear, in the back of his mind, Eleanor’s horrified whisper: She’s coming!

Justin’s neck popped as he turned his head back to that room, as if his eyes were pulled in that direction of their own accord.

Sure enough, standing in the hallway was the same old woman he remembered seeing paintings and photos of all throughout the place, come to lurid life. Her eyes seemed to glow with their own inner light, and it took a desperate act of will to pull his gaze away from them as she raised a very solid-looking cane with a heavy silver knob, hissing at him as she lurched into pursuit with uncanny speed.

For one dangerous moment, Justin struggled with uncommonly frozen feet, but once he got them moving, he bolted.

For its part, the hallway seemed to telescope, stretching out and revealing more side doors than he remembered, and that only made him run harder.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
for whom the bell tolls
Holding on to that newfound sense of clarity, Shades made his way back down the hall, finding the door to the turret tower more readily than he expected to.

Understood now that he had been gradually working his way through some sort of illusion, and suspected that anyone else who entered Vineholdt could fall victim to the same thing. Having noticed the daylight pouring in through the windows again, he also knew the rainstorm was also all glamour, as well. Much to his relief, as he was at first afraid the place had somehow managed to delay his search until after nightfall.

Once again, he stood before that last narrow stretch of corridor leading to the tower, guarded by that impossibly dark doorway, whose visions of pale, groping hands had turned him back before. His feet always had a mind of his own, and now he realized that, even as his eyes were deceived by this place’s various diversions, his feet had been steadily leading him in the right direction all along. Though he suspected most of what he encountered around here were phantoms and figments, the fact that this house was known to swallow people whole meant that at least some of those things must be real. His run-in with Looking Glass John earlier struck him as a final warning, that he was getting close enough for the House to stop pulling its punches.

Couldn’t chance the hands that resisted him before not being illusory, but that still left the question of how to proceed.

Recalling that feeling from earlier, that burning rage against the phantom in the mirror, he stared down that dark door. Knew he just opened a can of whoop-ass earlier, though from whence, he had no idea. In this eldritch place that played it fast and loose with the laws of nature, he might still be able to do something more.

“I’m here to see the Lord of the Manor,” he declared, recalling the stern portraits on display throughout the mansion. Of course, that fellow still took a back seat to the more prominent paintings of his widow, Veronica, who seemed to be the true head of House Rigby, but he figured he may as well add insult to injury while he was busy living dangerously. Found he also recalled that phrase from some book he read in an elective Intro to Psych course he took last semester, as well as a snatch of that creepy poem he stumbled across in the Harken Building, but he pushed that aside as he focused on the path ahead of him.

Taking a deep breath, he imagined himself on fire, an aura of eldritch flames that would burn anything that tried to touch him. Nearly fumbled his concentration when he noticed that he could almost see those shimmering flames as he strode forward. Thus he resisted the hands, real or imagined, as he passed the door and at last reached the one he was seeking before.

Though he doubted this flame he had kindled could compete with this place’s power for long, he understood that he just crossed another threshold from which there was no turning back anymore.

Reaching out with a still burning hand, he found the reinforced wooden door firmly locked. Having no experience picking an old-fashioned lock like this, he kicked the door. Only to find that it didn’t even so much as rattle in its frame.

“Hello!” a little girl’s voice called out from behind the door. “Who’s out there?”

“A friend,” Shades answered, recalling old tales about the dangers of revealing names, and deciding to play it cautious.

Concentrating that battle-fire into himself, he focused on his legs and stepped back into a strong front stance. Holding Kelly Edward’s bleached bones in the forefront of his mind, he reminded himself that the same evil power that turned the Woods loose on her was the same power that now held Melissa’s life in the balance. He kicked again, this time busting the lock, leaving the door barely hanging on its hinges.

Inside, he found a square, stone-walled study, with a scroll desk, a small table, and walls crammed with bookshelves, as well as a corner-turning stairway leading up to the next level of the tower. An area rug had been rolled aside, and some sort of arcane ritual circle inscribed upon the hardwood floor, in the center of which sat a little redhead girl in bib overalls. Pale and haggard, her face streaked with tears, she gazed at him in wide-eyed astonishment, as if trying to make up her mind if he was really real.

“Are you okay?” was all Shades could come up with to say as he entered. He silently thanked their former travel companion, Ma’Quiver, for helping him tighten his concentration under pressure during their training, and hoped it would be enough to see this through. Though he still harbored suspicions in the back of his mind that this might be another distraction, everything about this situation seemed to ring truer than that pale imitation of John.

“I… I think so,” Melissa mumbled, her voice as weak as her movements.

“How did you get all the way up here, anyway?” Shades wondered aloud, remembering her original purpose for even entering the house.

“Well…” she stammered, looking a tad sheepish, “I found the ball, but then I saw this kitten. I wanted to help, but she kept running away, so I followed her upstairs…” By the look on her face, her own decision apparently didn’t sound very bright to her, either, in hindsight. “She led me to this room, then started walking in circles around me after I stepped in the circle… It’s… it’s like a cage, I can even see the bars out of the corner of my eye… even after the door shut and locked…”

“We need to get out of here,” he told her. “I don’t think we have much time left.”

“But… if I leave the circle, something bad will happen to me, I know it…” Melissa pleaded. “There are… things out there, and the bars keep them out… If only Sister Clarice was here, she’d know what to do…”

“Travis, I can handle. This…” Shades found he had no reassurance to offer. Wasn’t sure he could do anything useful from here anyway. But how to explain walking away, even to find this Sister Clarice? Every fiber of his being rejected the thought of giving up when he was so close, and he found the fire rising up within him again. Reaching out, he answered, “No, the opposite is true. Something bad will happen to you if you stay inside the circle.”

Letting the fire flow through his arm in a mighty blaze, he pushed through the spectral bars surrounding the circle, and they burned away at his touch.

Seeing him break through her cage, her eyes lit up in hope, and she reached out to him”

Only to collapse at the next tolling of that infernal godfather clock, her skin turning even more pale, her limbs limp, her gasping breath shallow and strained, eyes pinched shut in obvious pain, and he understood that he would have to carry her from here.

Feeling a malevolent presence bearing down on him, he turned to see a black cat sitting in the doorway, staring at him with green eyes that seemed to burn with their own inner light.

That fearsome feline face seemed to zoom up huge in his sight, even as the room appeared to expand in all directions…

Shades blinked and shook his head, pushing back with his mind in some way he didn’t fully understand, and both the room and the cat returned to their original size.

The cat’s glare intensified.

If he understood this correctly, he very nearly imagined himself as a mouse. Which meant this thing could cast some frighteningly powerful illusions, that even looking into her eyes was dangerous. At least he hoped they were only illusions, though he doubted it really mattered in here.

The dawning realization that he was fighting with something he had only a tenuous grasp of, against a being that surely had many years of practice on him, and the second he lost his grip… Even as he focused on his outrage at this thing, which may once have been human, and become both more and less than in the bargain, a weight of futility threatened to smother his fiery aura. Understood this was the mystical equivalent of flailing wildly at a Kung-Fu master, bracing himself against the certainty that this could only end badly, no matter how much power he summoned.

Struggling to keep it together as that ominous clock continued to chime, louder and longer than any previous instance, knowing full well for whom that bell tolled as the cat’s eyes widened abruptly.

Sensing something stir, he turned back to see Melissa’s eyes flutter open, staring blankly ahead, then dilated. In frozen horror, he watched her rise slowly, stiffly, to her feet, then turn toward the back of the room. She made her way woodenly over to a small closet door beneath the turret stairs, revealing not a closet but a hidden stairway leading back down through the tower.

In his desperation, running out of time against a foe who had years to master this mysterious power he just tripped over five minutes ago, he turned to see the cat’s eyes fairly glowing with triumphant satisfaction at his faltering.

It was in that dire moment, as he agonized over what to do” try to stop Melissa’s descent, or perhaps attack the cat in an attempt to break her hold over the girl” that Melissa collapsed again. The clock’s tolling becoming jangled, distorted, breaking its solemn rhythm, and the entire house seemed to tense up. Felt something vaguely tectonic shift in the space around him, and nearly stumbled, despite the floor itself holding perfectly still.

Gone was the cat’s gloating gleam, replaced by a look of alarm as jangled as the bells themselves as she arched her back, hissing at him in spite, then bolted back down the hall.

Shades stood there for a long moment, wondering what new devilry was afoot.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
macabre menagerie
Justin Black ran as hard as his short, skinny legs would carry him, that nightmare granny still hot on his heels and seemingly gaining.

That ominous bell tolling in his ears as she chased him down hallways and around corners he had no memory of encountering in this place. Too afraid to look back, with those heavy footsteps so close behind, for fear of seeing steely claws reaching down for his shoulder. Even in his frantic frame of mind, though, he found a moment to wonder why he didn’t just turn around and shoot her, yet all he could come up with were grim visions of his weapons having no effect, much like a couple other monsters he been chased by before, in other places he had no plans to revisit.

That, and the chilling intuition that if she caught up with him, that was the end.

Legs straining, lungs burning, sides on fire, he wondered how much longer he could keep this up, running for his life down seemingly endless hallways.

He blinked, wiping sweat out of his eyes, and caught a glimpse of a side passage, which he immediately veered down, barely evading a swipe from that ghastly granny’s cane and buying himself a very short lead.

Ahead of him, he spotted the grand stairway, though he was fairly sure he and Max originally ascended the far, right-hand, branch going up. It mattered little to him, though, if it meant he was almost to the front door. Taking his cues from a childhood of running away from hostile locals, he seized his opportunity as he hit the stairs.

At the central landing, he made like he was heading for the door, as his pursuer surely expected of him, but then turned a sharp left, onto the other stair branch, leaving his trailing foot dragging behind just enough to trip her up on the main stairs, sending her tumbling all the way down to the bottom with a desperate snarl.

Which was a good thing for him, since he also tripped on that foot-tangle, his lead foot landing just short of the next step, sprawling him out across that upward staircase. Gasping and cursing under his breath at every bruise the steps left on him from head to toe, he struggled back to his feet. Finally standing on shaky legs on the landing, he looked down the center stairs for any sign of his attacker.

It took him a moment to piece it together because all there was to be seen down there was what looked like a jumbled bundle of twigs wrapped in a moth-eaten dress splayed out on the floor, lying just inside what appeared to be a faint circle scrawled upon the floor in the great hall below, which he didn’t even remember noticing when they passed through earlier.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he stepped forward, looking to make good on his escape before anything else could assail him, tripping on a curl in the carpet runner.

Catching himself against the junk room door, Justin kicked the rug aside in a fit of nerves, sending a small, tarnished silver skeleton key clinking across the floor, trailing a frayed belt cord dangling from it. Figuring Granny Twig there must’ve lost it in the fall, he reached down to pick it up, almost on impulse, noticing as he did so that the rug he kicked was also covering up a trapdoor on the stair landing. Spotting a keyhole in the latch, he was not surprised to find the key fit perfectly.

Even unlocked, the hinges were stiff and dust-clogged, the hatch itself heavy and reinforced to support the weight of being walked upon, so it took some effort for him to heave it open.

Revealing a rickety spiral stairway leading down below the ground floor, far enough that even his flashlight couldn’t quite provide any view of the bottom.

He hesitated for a long moment, catching his breath and weighing his options, wondering what possessed him, to keep pressing his luck like this, yet also sure he was on to something very important, he made one last check below on his fallen foe, to make sure the thing stayed down, before finally taking the plunge.

Down the narrow, creaky steps he wound, past the ground floor, surely past the basement, before finally emerging in a cavernous chamber.

His light caught a faint, dusty gleam of gemstones and precious metals, of fine jewelry, but he didn’t much care for how it was all displayed, adorning rag-clad skeletons, all chained to chairs in at least three circles. The dusty outlines of concentric circles dominating most of the floor, any other furniture, mostly cabinets and display tables, having been moved to the edges of the room. The circles were all accompanied by arcane runes and symbols at specific points, along with tipped-over candles at regular intervals between the chairs, all pointed outward.

Several ragged skeletons sprawled on the floor amongst the chained ones, or just outside the circle, giving all the impression of fleeing something, for all the good it did them.

Much like the attempted escapees, only the three charred skeletons in the center of the ritual circle bore no jewels, save for two wearing matching rings, all having fallen away from an altar at the heart of the whole horrific spectacle, and he found himself drawing nearer in spite of himself to get a closer look.

Quickly wished he hadn’t, as he laid eyes on the centerpiece of this macabre menagerie, gasping in horror at the jade disk sitting upon the altar between the only two upright candles in the whole room. Though carved of stone instead of gold, he still recognized all too readily that five-pointed star with the dragon’s head, snout and four horns forming the points of the star, the negative space occupied by characters he was pretty sure would match the ones on the gold disk he found once upon a time, in another haunted house. He stood for a long moment, trying not to dwell on the last time he found a troublesome trinket like this, and what came after.

Half expecting the whole chamber to come alive with dancing furniture and skeletons if he so much as touched it, he pondered Shades’ theory about that other malevolent entity’s limits, wondering if he should take it at all.

Deciding to score some other treasure first, just in case, he helped himself to some of those nearby jewels, deciding that their current bearers no longer had any use for such finery.

About a dozen pieces in, he froze in mid reach as he heard a heavy thump from way up at the top of the stairs.

Followed immediately by a rustle of twigs on the stairs above. The faint creak of steps. The voice of an old hag mumbling. Drawing nearer with each footstep.

Justin killed his flashlight as he ducked behind the altar, scrambling for a hiding place. Stuffing a gold necklace in his pocket, figuring there was no longer anything he could do about the stuff he already took as he crouched down. Concluding that an energy blade would have to be his key to the trapdoor this time, he figured his best bet would be to wait for Granny Twig to move further into the room, away from the door to the stairs, before making a break for it.

As his fearful nemesis entered the chamber, the distorted, eldritch figure seemed to emit an eerie, iridescent light, shimmering off the walls as it moved among the morbid furnishings. Somehow also generating an insectile buzzing in his mind that made it hard to concentrate.

Much to his dismay, though, its hunt never seemed to seemed to take it very far from the stairway door, keeping its patterns confined to a range that would always intercept him about halfway there, pausing periodically and loudly sniffing the air, and he began to fear that coming down here might have been the biggest mistake of his life.

Again recalling how they escaped from the entity on that other island by taking the gold coin out of its reach, Justin decided to risk it, figuring he had nothing left to lose down here. In the Benton marketplace of his lost childhood, snatch-and-run was always a risky move, often inviting at least a dozen pairs of pursuing feet along for the ride. Always better to take advantage of a moment of distraction to palm something. Better still, his old friend, Jesse Fletcher, once showed him some good ways to create a few diversions of his own.

Reaching slowly, quietly, into his pocket, he fetched out some random bauble from his earlier gathering. Waiting, struggling to focus against that buzzing in his head, knowing he would have just one chance. He waited until Granny was at the far end of the search arc, then tossed it into the far corner, through a different doorway that he noticed only now, as he was looking at it.

The thing snarled and rushed off in the direction of that sound.

Justin wasted no time snatching up the disk as he sprang from his hiding place and bolted for the stairs, dodging among the morbid obstacles ranged about the room.

In the midst of that mad rush, he briefly swung his flashlight beam behind him, hoping to blind his attacker as he heard a loud, snarling hiss somewhere behind him.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a watery grave
Max continued to struggle against hands that dwarfed his own, against the grim specter of a man he had grown accustomed to the lonely prospect of never seeing again, now getting a cruel, twisted answer to his childhood question of what would hurt more, if his father never forgave him, or if he did.

The water itself seemed heavy, sluggish, as if it were trying to hold him down. Even as this ghost of the high seas continued to half-drown, half-strangle him, dunking his head each time his struggles faltered even slightly. It seemed the watery grave that nearly claimed him back then had finally caught up with him.

Somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled, even against the din of storm and waves, and though it sounded like a bell-buoy, he somehow knew it was really a clock. Spots began to spread across his vision, and water threatened to fill his lungs. That suicidal clock chime he felt he should know from somewhere filled his ears, starting to drown out even the storm.

At some point, his brain had stopped cycling panicked apologies to the unforgiving ghoul that wore his father’s pale, drowned, face, and latched on to those he would regret if he should die.

Bandit. Justin. Shades.

At visions of their faces, he felt something changing. All at once, those iron hands began to loosen, even as the storm started to let up. As his mind cleared along with the clouds overhead, the deck railing became a fountain again.

No longer a child, Max pushed back with all of his renewed strength, sending the phantom stranger stumbling back several paces, looking less and less like Robert of Layosha with each step.

As if waking up from a nightmare he didn’t even realize he was having, Max stood up straight, squared his shoulders, and stared the foul creature down.

“You are not my father.”

For its part, the shambling thing seemed to turn sepia tone, like some of the old photos from his parents’ chest back in the Islands, the color draining and washing out of it by the second. Before Max’s eyes, it began to shrink and desiccate, its skin turning to brittle parchment, its tongue to a shriveled black root. Eyes sunk and collapsed into empty, dark sockets as its whole form crumbled to a fading pile of dust that was already blowing away on a cool breeze.

It was only then that he noticed the ground was dusty dry, without a hint of cloud in the sky. There was crumbling stone fence, but not a single tombstone, and no droopy trees like on Kinsasha, That the fountain itself was empty, the basin lined with a thin film of dried pond scum.

The only reason he was all wet was because he was soaked in his own sweat after that harrowing ordeal.

On closer inspection, Max noticed a shape in the muck, and when he reached into the basin on some unknown impulse, he came up with a rust-encrusted badge, much like the one he had seen Sheriff Duhan wearing.

Wiping both it, and his hand, as best he could, he put it in his pocket and turned back to the house, stepping back in spite of himself at a newfound sense of just how dangerous this place was. The idea of going back in struck him as at least as insane as re-entering the Harken Building, but the thought of Justin and Shades, as well as this Melissa, still wandering around in there cut a blazing streak through his fear. Steeling himself against unknown dangers, he strode back in through a side door he found hanging wide open, letting in to a pantry full of funky smells.

Even as he entered a large kitchen, he noted that more sunlight seemed to find its way in through the windows than he recalled before. The long dining room he passed through also seemed somehow less ominous than he expected. In the great hall, he found a crystal chandelier smashed on the floor in the center of an arcane circle he didn’t recall seeing there before, and when he reached the landing, he also found the carpet runner swept aside, though for what purpose, he wasn’t sure.

He stood there for a long moment, trying to figure out where to go next, he heard a plaintive meowing from the right-hand side. Torn between wariness at another possible trap, curiosity about what was going on in this place, and concern for what sounded very much like a feline in distress, he finally decided to get to the bottom of this.

Up the stairs, at the far end of the hallway, his flashlight lit on a black cat, which he was somehow sure was the same one he saw before, only now she was ranging about the house as if searching for something. Or someone. Caught in his flashlight’s beam, she turned to him, head tilted in feline curiosity, and he found he couldn’t help but give the cat a second chance.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
heavyweight curse lifting
Of course, the kids all came back a couple hours after the deputy shooed them away, drifting back to the scene in ones and twos.

And, of course, Travis Tully returned, as well, having just as much luck convincing them to leave as the last time.

“They’re probably all dead by now,” Travis taunted them. “My old man says nobody comes back from that house! You should… just… give…”

He faltered as the entire mansion rocked on its foundations. Windows cracked and shattered. Doors and shutters banged and flapped. Several shingles popped off the roof, spinning away in all directions, and the front doors flew wide open. An unseen force pushed everyone back a couple steps with all the strength of a hard gust of wind.

In that moment, both the children and Travis stood there in awe-struck silence as the whole place fell still and quiet.

None of them were sure quite how long they stood like that, waiting for something, anything, to happen in that eerie calm.

Then, just as they were starting to pull themselves back together, Shades stepped out of the looming darkness of that doorway, Melissa in tow. The other kids gave such a might cheer, that if Travis had anything to say about this most recent upset, no one heard a word of it. For good measure, Melissa held the ball over her head in triumph, sticking her tongue out at the bully who dared her to go fetch it in the first place.

“But… how?” Travis stammered. “No one’s… ever…”

“I thought I told you to take a hike.”

“I thought you said ‘get lost’.”

“Same diff.” Shades shrugged. “Trust me, in those Woods, all you have to do to get lost is take a hike.”

“Now, now… I didn’t make anybody go in there…” Travis backpedalled physically, as well as rhetorically. “You went in there all by yourself…”

Melissa glared at him.

“While you stood and watched,” Shades reminded him.

“But… but… no one…”

“Oh, it’s certainly a spooky old building,” Shades assured him, “but it’s not the first haunted place I’ve walked back out of.” He grinned at Travis. “Care to take a look for yourself?”

“Uh…” If Travis had a watch, Shades figured he’d probably be glancing at it about then. “I, uh, think I’ll be going now…”

“By the way,” Shades inquired, “what happened to your face?”

Just something about that bruise, since he first laid eyes on it. Had an ugly guess about it, but was quickly proven wrong.

“None of your business”” Travis started.

“That’s from when Max beat him up!” one boy declared, the others backing him up.

“Shut up, you little brat!”

“Max went in there?” Shades froze for a moment at that possibility. “Justin, too?”

“Yeah!” the other kids confirmed.

“Ha! They’re all dead!” Travis sneered, all the while continuing to back away from them. “Go on, then! They’re both gonna die if they haven’t already! Guess I’ll have the last laugh, tough guy!”

“Nah.” Shades relaxed. After the black cat thing ran off earlier, an intangible wind blew through the whole place, rippling, shimmering, an invisible wave leaving the entire mansion aged and dilapidated beyond its years, seeming withered in its wake. Even that creepy door in the hall no longer held any sense of menace, so they took their chances, finding it led to servant stairs, taking them straight down to the ground floor. Moved as quickly as Melissa was able, as he could already feel whatever power he had drawn upon up there slipping away, as well, right along with whatever malevolent force permeated the place up until now. “If I could handle it, Max should be just fine. And Justin did survive the Harken Building, and that haunted island…”

Somehow he knew, just knew, his friends were still alive, and he suspected he owed them for doing something, whatever it was that bailed him out there at the end of that grim confrontation, just when it looked as if all was lost.

And that was about when another figure stepped out the front door.

“Well, speak of the devil…” Shades remarked as Justin emerged from the depths of Vineholdt.

Hardly anyone would’ve noticed Travis bugging out at this point, if Melissa hadn’t chosen that moment to call out after him.

“Off with you! Ya big fart-bag!”

As the other kids laughed, Shades smiled, harboring the sneaking suspicion that nickname was going to haunt Travis for a long time to come.

Then he laughed out-loud as he observed Justin struggling under an armload of Castle swag. Even the kids’ laughter trailed off in wide-eyed wonder at the jingling mass of jewelry he carried, and Shades sighed at how he always managed to find stuff like this. Now that he no longer needed to keep an eye on Travis, he just couldn’t help cracking up at seeing his friend loaded down with more bling than Mr T.

“Where the hell did you find all that?”

“In the basement,” Justin answered. “But wait! There’s more!”

After draping some gold chains on his arm to free up one hand, he reached into his pocket and produced a jade disc.

Shades’ breath caught in his throat, turning his laugh into a cough.

That was in there?”

“What is that?” one girl asked.

“Bad news,” Shades told them. The only good thing he could see about this was that removing it from wherever Justin found it seemed to confirm that the Evil in this place was down for good, not just for the count. “I’m pretty sure that’s what caused this whole mess in the first place, Woods and all.”.

At that last, the kids all backed off as if he just announced that it was radioactive.

“What happened to Max?” Shades brought up, recalling the kids saying that he and Justin came to the house together.

“We got separated…” Justin blurted, his treasure momentarily forgotten as he remembered what he was doing before his run-in with Phantom Eleanor and her ghastly grandmother. “There was this painting, of Eleanor… and Max said something about a cat…”

“We’d better go look for him,” Shades recommended, already bracing for Justin’s inevitable objections, surprised to see none.

“Go and find your friend,” Melissa piped up. “You’ve already saved me.”

The other kids added their own encouragement.

“Very well. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to tell your parents about this little adventure,” Shades suggested with a wink. “Save it for your grandkids.”

“What’s this all about now?” Sheriff Duhan demanded as he came upon the scene, a young woman in tow. After hearing something about some deputy running off some kids hanging around the Castle, without checking on things properly, especially after hearing a couple of those newcomers figured into it, he dropped everything to go investigate this personally.

“So much for that idea…” Shades muttered, noting that Justin managed to shove the amulet in his pocket before they got close enough to see it. “Well, you see…” he began, drawing the sheriff’s attention even as he tried to figure out exactly where he should begin.

And the kids immediately launched into a loud, overlapping complaint about Travis Tully, with Melissa holding up the ball again as Exhibit A, as Shades accepted that there would be no withholding anyone’s involvement in this matter anyway.

As if we weren’t already the talk of the town

“You went in there?” the woman, who could only have been this Sister Clarice they’d heard about, gasped. Dressed in dark grey robes and a powder blue shawl, she still looked a bit under the weather, so it was hard to tell how much of her pallor to attribute to it. Despite that, she still came out here when she heard that both children, as well as those mysterious strangers who somehow survived the Woods, were involved in this.

“Sister Clarice, I presume.” Shades noted her violet eyes, the mark of Cyexian lineage, but decided not to make a big deal out of it, given its total lack of relevance to the matters at hand.

“Please, just Clarice… Are you… a Seer?” Clarice tilted her head, as if trying to measure him up in some way.

“Just an educated guess,” Shades told her, not sure how to explain that he recognized her from that haunting vision in the great hall earlier. “I figured you would come, once you heard…”

“I have bad memories of that house,” she explained, appearing visibly ill-at-ease just standing at its front gate.

“Sister Leta, right?”

Clarice blinked at him.

“That house has some bad memories, too,” Shades informed her, “and it likes to share.”

Max and Justin nodded in somber confirmation of that.

“Where did you get all that?” Sheriff Duhan’s attention, meanwhile, had shifted to Justin and his stockpile of jewels.

“Well, they were in the basement…” Justin struggled not to squirm under the lawman’s scrutiny.

“Given that I believe he just lifted the curse on this place,” Shades interceded, “I daresay he’s earned it, hasn’t he?”

“Lifted the curse?” Clarice’s eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. “What do you mean?”

Before either of them could elaborate, Max came strolling out the front door, holding a fluffy black cat in his arms, and they all jumped in spite of themselves.

Shades stepped back for a moment at the sight of that cat, instinctively positioning himself between her and Melissa. Then he noticed that the cat was just resting, curled up in Max’s arms, purring even, merely gazing out at all these strangers with idle feline curiosity. No trace of the malevolence she exuded only a short while ago, a completely different kitty.

“Lydia?” Justin gasped, trying to wrap his head around the fact that he was seeing Eleanor’s kitten, Poe’s, twin sister in the flesh, all grown up. “But where?…”

“It’s a long story,” Max replied. One he was not too keen on telling most of. He looked at all of his friend’s loot and found the perfect cue to lighten up. “I found her wandering around the house a few minutes ago, after whatever happened… well, happened.”

“But where do you know that name?” Clarice asked Justin. In her time in Pickford, she had taken it upon herself to learn as much as possible about the Rigbys, even after their failed bid to cleanse the house, and there were few left who were privy to that particular name.

“I think I met Eleanor on a ship years ago,” Justin answered, “and Poe, too, and she told me about his sister, Lydia. Liddy-Kitty.”

Lydia perked up at that name, as well as Eleanor’s, glancing about with a look of anticipation, as if she expected her kittenhood companion among those gathered here. Giving way to dismay and confusion after a long moment, for she found she recognized no one.

“Kitty!” one of the other kids chimed in, and they all circled around Max, wanting to pet the cat.

Melissa looked concerned at first, but could see no recognition in the cat’s eyes. Just another friendly stranger who wasn’t Eleanor.

“Oh, that’s definitely Lydia, no mistake,” a gruff voice declared from behind them, Jarvis Tully having materialized while everyone was paying attention to the cat. Though his eyes also kept drifting to the gold and jewels Justin had found. “I never thought I’d see the day…”

Having had an eyeful of both, he turned and strode toward the house.

“Have a care, Jarvis,” Clarice cautioned him.

“I know what I’m about,” Jarvis muttered as he entered. “Where is that no-good layabout when there’s work to be done?…”

“Tully”” Duhan began, but the caretaker completely ignored him.

“Let him be,” Shades suggested, figuring Justin already set the precedent in that matter. “After all, he lost his wife in there, and his son was the one who set all of this in motion in the first place. Besides, I think we’ve seen the last of Veronica Rigby.”

“I almost forgot…” Max mumbled, reaching into his pocket. He fished out a grimy, crusty-looking sheriff’s badge, handing it to Duhan. “I think you might want to see this, Sheriff.”

“Taggart…” Duhan breathed, even making out his predecessor’s name engraved beneath the Pickford town seal, even under all of the grime. He hesitated for a moment, unsure if he really want to know, then came out with it. “We searched all over… Where did you find this?”

“In the fountain,” Max replied, “around that side of the house, where I was attacked by… something.”

“You too?” Justin gasped.

“Guess that makes three of us.” It was only now that Shades noticed the faint bruising around Max’s neck, vaguely shaped like a pair of hands wrapped around as if someone tried to throttle him, and concluded that perhaps avoiding the fountain was one of the best ideas he had all day. “That thing did a real number on you…”

You don’t know the half of it… Max kept to himself, then said, “Then it just fell apart…”

“Just about when you…” Shades was about to say took the amulet, but decided to keep a lid on it as long as Justin chose to. “Did whatever you did down there…”

“Down where?” Duhan’s eyes narrowed.

“There’s a secret door in that big staircase,” Justin explained, handing the sheriff the silver skeleton key he had reclaimed on his way back up. “There’s a bunch of skeletons and jewels down there, and this big circle with three more skeletons in the middle…”

“You broke the ritual circle…” Clarice concluded. “That’s how you severed her power…”

“I suppose I’ll have to… investigate…” Sheriff Duhan swallowed hard as he approached the house, key in hand.

Neither Shades nor his friends could help but wonder just what he ran into in there back then.

“Goddess, give me strength…” Clarice prayed as she steeled herself. To gaze upon this place, even in its diminished state, the form of all of her nightmares. “Let’s get this over with.”

In spite of her words, though, the house was already starting to feel less ominous by the minute. The whole structure seemed to sag in on itself, deflated, as if some cosmic poison was draining out of it. Though Shades suspected the estate and grounds would always carry some lingering trace of it,, much like that haunted island after Justin carried a very similar amulet out of another entity’s reach, and he wondered if that thing still posed any threat to passing travelers anymore.

All that emanated from the mansion now was a just a malevolent, but largely impotent, presence, glaring out at them from every window, silent, powerless.

“Well, I doubt anyone’s gonna be moving in any time soon,” he commented.

“What?” Max turned to him.

“Nothing,” Shades mumbled. “Now what say we get the hell outta Dodge?”

“If it means leaving this creepy place,” Justin replied, “then what you said.”

That resolved, they turned and left the kids to their new feline companion, figuring they’d be safe enough now until Clarice and Duhan returned, all of them apparently wanting to hear all about Melissa’s adventures in Vineholdt.

Along the way, they showed Max the other amulet, and he was also alarmed to find such a thing at the heart of all this horror. The one thing they could all agree on was that none of them felt like keeping it in their possession for long, not even Justin. Shades and Max were both in favor of dumping it way out at sea, in the hope that it might never be found again, but Justin continued to hold out, despite having seen the local marketplace, and what little it had to offer.

There really was no one around here who could afford market value for such a thing, and no one who would want it, if they had even the slightest inkling where it came from, or what it had been used for, but then he recalled one place that might.

“Ya know,” Justin told them, and Max seemed to remember now, as well, perking up as he said it, “I think I might just know a place where we can sell this thing.”
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Ruby Sees All
At first Shades thought Justin was pulling his leg about the mysterious shop, but Max was no good at these sort of bluffs, and kept corroborating every word of it.

Yet here it was, just as Justin said, basement entrance and all. The ‘new location’ sign leaving Shades wondering how any locals might react to questions about this place, let alone noticing it themselves, and he decided it was probably wiser not to even mention it unless they brought it up first. As they descended the steps, he noted the slogan underneath the store name.

For not all who wander are lost.

Inside, it was very much how he imagined the place would be, based on how Justin and Max described it to him along the way, with its candle- and lantern-lit interior, and incense-laced collection of almost-familiar scents. Much like the antique and second-hand stores his mother was always fond of stopping by on road trips, and which he was always inclined to lose himself in. Except that in this dimension, he could easily picture a store like this hosting an entire season of The Twilight Zone.

Among the assortment of intriguing odds and ends, each of which he suspected had a tale or two to go with, a few pieces stood out to him.

A bundle of what looked like five sticks wrapped in bandage. A very authentic-looking dreamcatcher. A spooky-looking old-fashioned tube radio, which he half expected to spontaneously tune in to any of the creepier things he’d heard on the airwaves in his time in this world.

Most of the books on the nearest shelf were printed in languages he’d never seen before, but a couple he could read included Necromancy For Dummies and The Black Arts On Trial.

That blazing power from before was gone, but a few trailing embers of that fire tagged along, some lingering trace of that awakening following him into this little shop of wonders, illuminating things he was sure he shouldn’t rightly know about some of these items, as if they were whispering bits and pieces of their stories in his ear.

Inside the glass counter, under a pale light bulb, was a compact, snub-barreled revolver with a yin-yang symbol engraved on its hand grip, just below the cylinder. A box sealed with paper strips inscribed with unfamiliar characters. Near it sat a Buddha-esque figure carved of some green stone. As well as a gold-capped vial of what looked suspiciously like blood.

Up on the wall, next to a couple masks that would have been right at home on the set of some old pulp adventure movie, he spotted an electric guitar, very classic-looking, but bearing no manufacturer name. Found he could picture himself picking it up, and spontaneously being able to play it like a rock star. Busting out Chuck Berry licks and power chords and wild shredding on a whim, and unsure if he’d actually be able to stop…

If he was playing it, or it was playing him.

His half-dream, half-nightmare came to a grinding halt as his eyes drifted over to a rag-clad skeleton puppet, missing one eye, its jaw hanging askew at an angle that he found inexplicably unsettling. Just couldn’t shake this feeling he’d seen this thing before somewhere. On TV, perhaps, from some low-budget children’s show, and wondered how an object that could make a grown adult shudder ever got past the show’s executives, picturing children huddled in the corners of their living rooms, their parents completely oblivious…

“Seen him before, have you?” an aged, raspy voice chimed in. “Mostly harmless he is, without a voice…”

“Ummm…” Shades snapped his head back toward the counter, where now stood the sage old shopkeep his friends described earlier, materialized while he wasn’t looking, and again just about as he’d pictured. “I’m not sure…”

Even Max and Justin didn’t seem to like the look of that puppet, going by their expressions, when they saw what he was talking about.

“So, these must be the friends you spoke of before, young mariner?” The question clearly addressed to Justin, and Shades was relieved for the change of subject. “Pleased to meet you, I am.”

“Likewise,” Shades replied. I think

“It’s good to see you again, as well,” Max said, though his words sounded less confident than usual.

For his part, Shades wasn’t entirely sure he believed they were even having this conversation. It felt so much like something out of some old folktale, and he again wondered just how many strange stories started or ended at this counter. If there was anything he felt terribly sure of about any of this, it was that this thing they found in Vineholdt was probably safer with this fellow than it would be much of anywhere else.

“So, come to browse some more,” the mysterious shopkeep enquired, “or have you something else in mind?”

“As a matter of fact, we do,” Justin told him, fishing out the amulet from his pocket and placing it on the counter. “If I remember right, you said you buy as well as sell. Let me tell you, this thing is all kinds of weird. Found it in a haunted house, too, while we were at it. I’m sure it’ll fit in just fine with the rest of your collection of forbidden stuff.”

While none of them were thrilled to find another of these amulets, they all agreed to take advantage of it anyway. After all, even if they had the money, none of them could imagine any local merchant in Pickford buying anything they found in that house. More likely shove them out the door and slam it in their faces.

“Perhaps…” the shopkeep intoned, producing a jeweler’s loupe and scrutinizing the jade disc under a cone of yellow light. “The genuine article, you have, lost for many centuries…”

“You know what this is?” Max asked.

“Yes, belonged to an ancient emperor it did, one obsessed with immortality…”

Shades found his mind wandering, right when he would usually be at his most attentive. Felt light as a feather, as if his feet barely touched the ground. As he sometimes felt after a long run. Or perhaps after swimming, as if he was wading through a shallow pool, and could just kick off the floor and glide across the room with a spread of his arms, and he was pretty sure he knew why.

Up in the Castle, he had somehow called upon the battle-fire in the waking world, and it left him feeling drained. At first only a little, as he was still mainlining adrenaline during his harrowing experiences and narrow escape, as well as the aftermath back at the house, but now he was starting to feel it. Along the way, he had attempted to rekindle that flame, only to find that no matter how hard he concentrated, he could no longer summon the fire within.

As if it was something that existed only in that place and time.

Justin elbow-nudged him, saying, “Isn’t that right? You wouldn’t be surprised at all if there turned out to be a third one of these things, would you?”

“No, I suppose I wouldn’t,” Shades mumbled, surprised that Justin even remembered what he told of that tattered journal he found on the island where they found the gold amulet. From the looks of it, the deal was already finalized, and he missed it. He took some relief from the fact that he at least had the presence of mind earlier to use the pencil and notepad he borrowed from Roger for shopping around earlier to make a rubbing of both sides of the amulet for his own records, as he would not be terribly surprised if they ever stumbled across a third of its like.

After seeing this one, Shades almost wished he’d thought to snag one of those photos he’d seen of the other one on that haunted island. Almost. Even so, he was still pretty sure it was a nearly identical design. Still couldn’t believe Justin had found a place like this back in Centralict and resisted the urge to tell about it.

From what he gathered, they just sold the jade disc for the lucrative sum of forty thousand credits, easily enough to get them back on their feet. Much to Justin’s disappointment” though about as Shades expected” the shopkeep showed no particular interest in the rest of the Rigby jewels, but they were all fairly confident they could find some buyers upshore. Max and Justin both fairly beaming at the prospect of acquiring a ship of their own once again.

“Fare you well, travelers,” the shopkeep called after them as they headed for the door, and Max waved back at him. “May you ever find what you seek. Always open, my shop is.”

On the way out, Shades paused in mid step, spotting a bulky, squarish machine next to the door. Judging from the looks on their faces, he was pretty sure neither of his friends had seen it, either, on their first visit. Given the nature of this sort of shop, he figured he should have seen it coming as he gazed upon an old-fashioned fortune-telling machine.

Bronze-strapped wood panels, framing a smoky glass window, looking in on the figure of an old woman wearing a crimson shawl, gold hoop earrings, and a dark blue blouse. Wizened face shrouded in shadows. Flesh-toned mechanical hands hovered over a dusty crystal ball, clutching thin air. Red curtains draped both sides of the box’s interior, lending it the intimacy of an enclosed booth.

Printed across the top of the machine, in lettering that reminded Shades of a dozen carnivals, the legend read: Ruby Sees All.

They all turned back to the shopkeep in near-perfect unison, and he just shrugged at them with a patient smile.

Next to the machine was a floating table with two bowls; one containing a pile of identical brass tokens, the other an assortment of coin from different realms.

Seeing no specific price listed anywhere, Shades dropped a couple credit coins in one bowl and took a token from the other, inserting it in the slot on the front of the machine as his friends watched.

The machine lit up, swirling lights playing inside the crystal ball, Ruby’s eyes glowing bright red, mouth flapping to the sounds of distorted mumbling. A roll of eerie, pre-phonographic music that wouldn’t have sounded out of place being played on a pipe organ started up. Herky-jerky hands waving around the crystal ball, and in spite of himself, he found he could make out vague images in those swirling lights and colors.

Glimpses of mountains, a desert, ghost towns…

Then the lights died down, the music ground to a halt, and that groaning mumble stopped, followed by a yellowed strip of ticker-tape spit out of a slot next to the token intake.

Shades hesitated for a long moment before reaching for it. He had seen enough of these sort of things at fairs and circuses to know that they typically pumped out generic, fortune-cookie-cutter predictions and proverbs. But here, in a shop like this, he suspected this one might be a little bit different.

At last, he looked at his fortune, seeing two words: hashbrowns and eighty-six. He blinked at those words, only to see that they had changed. Now it read: ASHTON 86.

Instantly calling to mind a vivid image of a green road sign against an impossibly blue sky, sand stretching past the horizon in all directions…

After a moment, he stepped back to let his friends give it a try, and Max stepped up next, paying his credits and inserting his token.

As the crystal ball lit up again, and Ruby repeated her robotic ritual, Shades looked into the lights and saw, even at a distance, a moonlit beach, and the shadowy figure of young woman stumbling along past the half-buried wreck of some small boat, sticking out of the sand…

As the lightshow died down, Max took his fortune, containing two words: paradise found, and he stepped back from the machine, a puzzled look settling on his face.

Then Justin took his turn, hesitating for a moment before committing himself to matching their credits, then plunked in his token.

This time, the lights showed Shades the decks and corridors of a passenger ship, ending with a scene at a pier somewhere, of a sad, apprehensive man herding an anxious little girl over to a kindly, yet concerned, man who took her aboard the ship docked there, as the first man turned back to town with a grim, determined look in his eyes…

Shades gasped as he realized he recognized both the girl, and her doomed father, from portraits he had seen inside the Castle. Only now did it occur to him to question if he should really be peering into these vignettes, which all showed scenes he suspected were of personal significance to the fortune-seeker. Wondering if his friends were even seeing any of this, and concluding that it was probably too personal to ask about anyway, as Justin reached out and took his ticker-tape.

This one reading: Eleanor Skerry.

“I knew it…” Justin said, more to himself than anyone else.

Each of them folded their strip of paper and tucked it away in one pocket or another, leaving each with something to think about as they filed out of the store and back up the steps into the sunlit world above.

For his part, the shopkeep simply watched them leave in bemused, contemplative silence.
End Notes:
the shop that wasn't there yesterday
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
back in the black
“So, what kind of ship do you want to get?” Justin asked his friends as they neared Pines Lodge.

After that eerie fortunetelling machine, they had walked on in contemplative silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Yet it was also hard not to think about all that money they just made from selling a dangerous artifact from a haunted house, to the shop that wasn’t there yesterday, so they finally found themselves deferring their individual reveries to start discussing plans, now that Justin brought it up. After all, rather than a dire search for direction up the coast, it looked as if they were back at the helm of their own destiny.

“I don’t know,” Max admitted, “but I think we should try to do something about the Albatross first. I think we owe Roger that much.”

“It’s his plane,” Justin pointed out, visibly put out by such talk with fresh credits in hand, “not ours.”

“He did bring us down safely,” Max reminded him.

“He’s the reason we were up there in the first place. Him and Roxy…”

“Or we could’ve gone down with the Excelsior,” Shades piped up, having said next to nothing since they left Obscura Antiques, “with no one to save them from Erix’s revenge.”

“You’re the one who found it,” Max told him, “and we did agree to split all treasure three ways, so I guess it’s up to you to decide what to do with your share…”

“Damn skippy!” Justin muttered as they approached the inn. Though he suspected he would end up spending part of his share on it, even if he didn’t quite match Max or Shades’ contributions. Just couldn’t bring himself to do less with Max around. “And I’d kinda like to enjoy it for five minutes before we start spending it all.”

Inside, they found Roger sulking at a corner table, barely poking his fork at Moira’s fine cooking.

“So, where were you guys all day?” the pilot asked. Somehow he doubted there were that many places to shop around in Pickford, even in its best days. Having tired of moping around the inn all day, he spent the better part of the afternoon attending to his Albatross as best he could with his gimped leg. Every minute trying his damnedest not to picture himself placing a For Sale sign or, more likely, selling her off piece by piece for scrap.

“Taking a tour of the Castle,” Shades replied, his sheer nonchalance earning him a fumbled mug when those words finally caught up with Moira.

“You didn’t…” she gasped.

“We most certainly did,” Max declared, “and that’s not all.”

“We saved a little girl who had gone in there on a dare,” Shades explained, “and we kinda ended up breaking Veronica Rigby’s power over the place while we were at it.”

“Sister Clarice and Sheriff Duhan are probably done searching the house by now,” Max added.

“And here’s the best part!” Justin started emptying his pockets of both money and jewels. “We’re back in business!”

Roger’s face lit up as Moira’s turned white taking it all in.

“Back in the black!” Shades crowed, “and we can surely sell the rest of it up the coast.”

“With that much money…” the innkeeper speculated, “you might actually get someone up there to take a look at that flying machine of yours.”

“Hot damn!” the pilot laughed, possibly for the first time since they crash-landed at Camp Stilton, “Let’s perc some joe!”

Moira’s perplexed expression ground him to a sheepish halt.

“That is to say,” he reiterated, “um, you got any coffee?”

“Oh. But where did you sell any of it?” she stammered, as she was quite sure none of them had even a fraction of that money to their name when they first stumbled into town. “I doubt there’s even that much money left in the town treasury…”

“Well, we sold it at this basement shop over near the harbor,” Max answered.

“I think I may have shopped there before,” Justin elaborated, “though back then the shop was somewhere in Centralict…”

He trailed off as he realized the implications of what he just said.

For his part, Shades just shrugged.

“That can’t be right…” Moira murmured. “There’s been no store down there in five, six years…”

Shades realized now that he had been so preoccupied with visions of desert highways and road signs, the thought never crossed his mind to look back and see if the store was still there as he walked away, as he originally meant to. From the looks on his friends’ faces, he suspected that neither of them did, either. Just another thing that left him wondering at the time of it all.

Even so, he felt that such a dangerous artifact was probably safer with that fellow than with most stores. After all he’d seen along the way, he now found he couldn’t help but wonder what ever happened to the first amulet they sold off…

About that time, Bandit appeared at the top of the stairs and started ambling down the steps into the lobby, and Max looked up at his feline friend. This was the first time, besides the Woods, when the big cat was still too injured to even try, that he had not followed him into trouble. Decided it must be a measure of how exhausted the poor panther was after that weeklong ordeal.

“You’re supposed to be resting…” Max said, matching Bandit’s quizzical head tilt. “Yeah, I’m glad to see you, too.”

As Bandit came down the steps, Shades headed toward them. Light as he felt at the antique store, it was starting to feel as if his body was turning to lead, his mind growing hazy. As if he had pushed himself too far, in some way couldn’t fully wrap his head around.

Whatever he did back there, he now understood that it was not a power to be used on a whim, rather a desperation move, assuming he could even figure out how to do it again.

“Hey! Where’re you goin’?” Justin called out. “The party’s just getting started!”

“Sorry, guys, I think I overdid it in there,” he told them, starting up the steps, one foot, then the other. “I believe I’m gonna call it a day.”

“I’ll bring you up some dinner, then,” Max assured him. “Sleep well.”

So, as Shades went to get some well-earned rest, his companions celebrated, discussing plans to make their next move up the coast, Albatross and all.
Interlude: Bargain (II) by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
a buyer
The sun hung low and hazy on the shimmering horizon, the ever-shifting sands drifting across baked hardpan, blowing small dust devils into the outskirts of a marketplace of some remote oasis.

Flat, broad adobe buildings radiated out from the deep wells of the commons, forming a ramshackle maze of back alleys, dusky and dingy in the shadow of the setting sun. Moving through the robe- and tunic-clad crowd, a dark-cloaked figure, wearing a conical hat of outland make that drew its share of stares from the locals, made his way through the crowds of people and livestock. Pausing here and there along the way, occasionally consulting a compass otherwise tucked up one sleeve, still leading in a steady direction.

Due to local architecture, it was a rather indirect, labyrinthine path that finally led the traveler to a faded, little-used wood plank door around behind a place of dubious repute. Without the compass, it would have been all too easy to overlook, even to the most discerning eye, but once noticed, there was no mistaking the sign, the only one not printed in the local vernacular.

Obscura Antiques & Curios.

Along with the legend: “…For that is not dead which can eternal lie.

As well as a plucky scrap of paper tacked to the door: New location! Check us out!

The compass needle pointed directly at the door, so the traveler tucked it back into his cloak and opened it.

Even as his eyes adjusted to the candlelit gloom, this visitor saw little of any personal interest in this enigmatic emporium, and nothing he would be inclined to pay for. Only one thing in this infamous inventory held any interest to him, and his nostrils flared at both the blend of incense and antiques, as well as the certainty of who he was dealing with. The desert village behind him muted and ultimately silenced as the door swung closed behind him, the air hanging untimely still as he strode to the counter.

Where a certain wizened old shopkeep already awaited him, impassive eyes measuring him as the traveler removed his hat, revealing an Oriental countenance of indeterminate age, crowned with raven black hair, and piercing eyes that returned his host’s appraising gaze.

“So… awake, you are now?” The shopkeep’s words were merely phrased as a question; there was none in his expression.

“It has been a long time, hasn’t it?” The visitor’s words were casual, but not their tone. “Why don’t we forego the pleasantries and get down to discussing business. You do still honor the old contracts, do you not?”

“Of course,” the shopkeep replied.

“Then I have come for what is mine,” the visitor told him. “You know what I seek.”

“Found this place, you have.”

“I have my ways.”

“You always did…” The shopkeep weighed his options carefully, concluding that refusing service to this customer could be quite costly. “Have you the finders fee?”

“You tread on thin ice, old man…” The visitor produced and consulted the compass again, finding it now pointed to the shop’s dimly-lit back room. “I will have it, one way or another.”

“I see…” the shopkeep nodded. “Preparations, you have made.”

“For many things.” Both an assurance and a warning. “The only question left is what you get out of this, if anything.”

“Short on funds, are you?”

“You still accept equivalent exchange, do you not?” the visitor asked, trying not to dwell on how much his quest had cost him already.

The shopkeep nodded.

“Then I propose a trade.” The visitor reached under his cloak and shifted a leather shoulder bag around. Among other odds and ends was a bundle of dark cloth that he fished out, unwrapping it to reveal a book. Bound in deep red leather, bearing no title upon its cover.

Only the dragon pentagram symbol also inscribed on the amulets, stamped into that ancient leather in worn gold foil.

He placed it upon the counter, and the shopkeep leafed through this weathered tome with great care, for its thick pages were brittle, bearing inscriptions and diagrams and arcane symbols few in this age could read. Scanning through key passages to appraise its authenticity, all the while struggling to an uncharacteristic degree to conceal his interest in it. Satisfying himself that it was the genuine article, he glanced back up at his guest, one eyebrow raised.

“Willing to part with this, you would be?”

“It contains nothing further for me to learn,” the visitor informed him. “I’m offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to possess the only complete manuscript of my master’s original masterwork, which I refused to leave behind for some ignorant treasure hunter to blunder upon.”

“Powerful you have become, Xiang-hai, to cast aside the wisdom of your master so casually…”

“Do not address me as some lowly conjurer, I was once Court Mage to an Emperor.”

“And you seek to be again?”

“That has yet to be seen.”

“Fair enough.”

“I first knew you back when you were but a no-name wandering peddler, long before you ever had a store of your own.”

“And you, when you were still but an apprentice,” the shopkeep reminded him.

“Perhaps we should just agree that we have both come far in this world, and leave it at that? My offer still stands, but not for long…”

“Very well,” the shopkeep finally answered, “a deal you shall have. Committed to this course, you are, more so than I imagined.”

The visitor nodded, and shopkeep stepped into the back room, returning a couple minutes of rummaging later with the jade disc. After scrutinizing the amulet to his satisfaction, the visitor handed over the tome, sealing the deal.

The shopkeep watched as he opened the face of his compass, revealing a tiny chamber at its heart. He then removed from it a small slice of jade, dropping it into a tiny pouch. From that pouch, he withdrew a white crystalline shard, inserting that into the heart of the compass.

Once the face was back in place, the compass needle spun rapidly in one direction for a moment, then the other, finally settling on pointing to the shop door.

Which he promptly turned back toward, saying, “The Winds of Time have carried them far…”

“Better for you,” the shopkeep conceded, “than the Sands of Time burying them.”

The visitor made no reply as he strode back across the floor and exited without any further delay, leaving the shopkeep wondering who got the better end of that bargain, yet only for a moment before turning his attention to his new book.
End Notes:
-notebook draft: December 19, 2016 “ November 11, 2017
-word-processed draft: August 10 “ November 22, 2017

Oops, meant to post this ages ago…

Recently, someone pointed out to me that this is, almost to the day, the tenth anniversary of when I first started posting Tradewinds online. Truth be told, it was a project I first started writing in high school, went on hiatus in college, and started re-writing from scratch in 2001, not long after I finished the Book of Hondo. I had the first twelve stories in working draft before I ever decided to test the waters on the internet, and back then I still envisioned it as a novel, with those first twelve comprising Volume One. An interesting thing happened, though, after I started posting them on forums (and later e-fic sites, and eventually deviantart and tumblr) one after the next: I began to realize that what I was writing was really more of an old-fashioned pulp sort of serial, and that model has held up pretty well over the years, so I imagine that’s how the series will continue.

As for this installment, I imagine most folks saw this coming as soon as the Castle was mentioned in the previous story; after all, it would be rather disappointing to introduce something like that and then leave it completely unexplored. This story actually started with a nightmare my sister once told me about, in which she found herself in a haunted estate, and one of her friends was trapped in this pond (rather than, say, a fountain) where the water itself was pulling her in and under. The original working title was “Hypnotic House” (I’ll give you three guesses about where the name came from…), but aside from being too derivative for a final title, it just didn’t really fit the larger tale. Which was really more of a love letter of sorts to some of my favorite horror authors and stories, there’s a little of all of those flavors mixed in there, though some influences probably show more visibly than others.

There was also some important revelations and developments woven in, for all three main characters, as well as the larger storyline of the series. One reason this whole thing has proceeded so slowly, aside from working almost full time, and occasionally taking vacations to places like the Commonwealth or the Sword Coast, this realm has also been a much more extensive exercise in worldbuilding compared to most destinations in the series, and its history and geography will both play a major role in this phase of the series. Please bear with me, as Tradewinds 22 is still in the works, and even though I still have some other large projects on the table, I have not abandoned it, when it’s ready to roll, I promise you’ll be among the first to know. So stay tuned, as an expedition up the coast goes off the rails and takes a detour on the scenic route…
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