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Author's Chapter Notes:
too soon to celebrate
At the sound of Max’s voice, Bandit practically tackled him when Roger opened the cargo door.

“I missed you, too, old friend…” Tears of joy and relief streaming down Max’s face. As he struggled back to his feet, he turned to the pilot, still wiping his eyes. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you so much for watching over him.”

“Um, sure thing,” Roger mumbled, “we were kinda in the same boat anyway. I was startin’ to think stayin’ with the plane was a mistake…”

“The Woods were no picnic, either,” Justin remarked. “With your leg, you wouldn’t’ve survived half the shit we ran into out there!”

“There are worse mistakes to be made in this twisted place,” Shades assured him. “We were half afraid you might’ve tried to go to Rannigan’s Wharf anyway.”

“Speaking of which,” Max brought up, “any word on Roxy or Erix?”

Roger shook his head.

“I see,” Shades replied. “We don’t have a lot of time, so we’re here to pick you up.”

Roger shook his head again, frowning.

“You can’t be serious…” Justin muttered.

“I’m very serious,” Roger told them. “That ship is big enough to tow my Albatross, so I ain’t leavin’ without her.”

“Fine,” Shades said, nodding to the radio. “You get to argue with Shelby about it. Max, you stay with him, we have some unfinished business with Stilton Lodge.”

For reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he kept thinking about that haunted island where they originally found the Maximum. Of wanting to leave some kind of warning for any passing travelers. Couldn’t help thinking of this as a chance to do it right this time, perhaps save the lives of anyone else unfortunate enough to find this place.

He and Justin wasted no time entering the lodge, trying to shrug off how surreal the place felt, now that they knew the truth, or as much of it as anyone was ever likely to find out. After traveling so far to get away from this place, after all they’d seen, nothing looked the same through their opened eyes. Once inside, they made for the bulletin board, finding it exactly as they left it. Shades reached into his jacket pocket and unfolded a new map Shelby found him to replace the one that got ruined when they fell into the river the other night.

Even added all of the original warnings, plus one about the Woods themselves (Woods are death-trap – stick to coast), for the benefit of any future castaways.

Skipping the upstairs office, he simply tacked it up on the board next to the missing child poster. He then picked up Kelly Edwards’ photo and tucked it in his pocket for Shelby and Lorna. According to Shelby, the photo was originally a birthday portrait from a small family party. There was supposed to be a bigger camp birthday party, that would have been held only a day after the disappearances started. In the blank space on the poster, he whipped out a permanent marker and quickly added: remains found – trees got her.

All the while, he tried not to think about all that old logging equipment left to rust nearby. Kept telling himself that if it could have, it would have by now. Still, he remained tense, ears straining for the faintest sound of engines starting…

Mission accomplished, they made a hasty exit, stopping only long enough to prop up the weathered warning sign on the floor next to the door, where it could readily be seen.

Though it was hard for Shades not to imagine that some malevolent force would soon be hard at work to remove the new warnings…

By the time they got back to the plane, Roger had apparently convinced Shelby to have a go at towing the Albatross, so they rowed back to the Shorewind to haul out some lines.

Turned out the fact that the tide was coming in was the only reason Shelby agreed to the attempt at all. After retrieving the mooring lines, they attached the tow cables, Roger supervising while the three of them did the legwork. When all was in readiness, they also got out and pushed while the Shorewind pulled, though they had their doubts about how much help it would be.

In spite of the Albatross having the better part of a week to settle in the sand, they just barely managed to pull the old bird free. One pontoon was slightly waterlogged, listing to port, but still stable enough to tow.

Still cheering, Justin and Shades rowed back to the Shorewind, Max and Bandit staying on the plane with Roger, who refused to leave the cockpit now that his bird indeed proved seaworthy. After reattaching the lines to pull the Albatross forward for easier maneuvering, it was already past noon by the time they were ready to return to Pickford, and Shelby was sounding more and more anxious to be on their way, as he hadn’t counted on towing anything.

Justin and Shades were making one final check of the tow lines as they got underway, Shades looking back at Camp Stilton. Wanting to sigh with relief that they were now out of range of any rampaging machinery, not wanting to speak too soon about dodging a bullet with a menace that never materialized. Much like at the bridge to Pickford, yet still felt as if he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As he turned his attention back to the tow lines, Shades spotted something drifting up toward them. For a second, he almost started laughing, because on closer inspection, it just looked like a clump of seaweed that spooked him. Still, something about it just didn’t sit right with him, and even as he wondered why it was coming loose from that depth, he saw a pair of chalk-white hands reach out from that eerie swirl of fronds, still more parting to reveal a pale dead face staring up at them as it approached the surface, reaching in their general direction.

Its mouth slowly opening to reveal rows of needle teeth.

“The fuck is that!?” Justin screeched, already unslinging his crossbow.

The creature, meanwhile, started groping one of the propeller screws, seaweed wrapping around the blades.

Justin opened fire at it, shredding the marine monstrosity with a laser barrage.

“Don’t look now, but we’ve got company!” Shades alerted them, sighting more of the foul things drifting up from the deep.

“Don’t let those things damage the screws!” Shelby warned them. “If they do, we’re down to sails, and we’ll have no power to tow your friend’s ship back!”

There was no mistaking the look of abject horror on Roger’s face as he looked on helplessly from aboard the Albatross, at the very idea of being left behind after coming so close…

Justin and Shades both opened fire on the creatures as Shelby opened up the throttle. With another vessel in tow, the Shorewind was slow getting up to speed, so it was a constant struggle to push back the unsettling onslaught. Especially while taking care not to shoot out any of the tow lines while they were at it.

Just when it looked like they were about to get tangled in a glom of seaweed and dead limbs, both Shades and Justin having to let up to reload, they finally started accelerating enough to pull out ahead as their twisted attackers began losing ground by the second.

In the Albatross’s wake, a few of them tried to cling to the pontoons, but Max popped out a couple windows with his power pistol to clear them off.

Having narrowly escaped that macabre mess, they angled back closer to the shoreline and resumed course, Shelby informing them that they would be lucky to make it back to Pickford by nightfall at this rate.

Too soon to celebrate, they all understood, the whole way around the peninsula, as they braced for the worst and hoped for the best.
Chapter End Notes:
-rough draft: July 05, 2015 – Sept 19, 2016
-word draft: March 14 – Oct 09, 2016
-additional revisions: October 2016

Whoops, can’t believe I forgot to post this before. Boy is my face red…

Well, here we are again, at the end of another tale. Given how making projections and predictions always seems to end in disappointment, all I will say concerning Tradewinds 21 is that it is coming along, and I will post progress reports when it’s close enough for me to measure with some accuracy. Though there have been some supplemental points, the basic world-building for this portion of the series is mostly concluded, so if nothing else, I can focus more of my attention on the story itself.

When I first came up with the basic premise for “Into the Woods” many years ago, it was mostly provoked by [I]The Blair Witch Project[/I] (over time by other “Dark Woods” sort of tales, as well), and my sense of disappointment with the results. As someone who grew up in the mountains, I found myself constantly facepalming at the continual folly of a group of city kids who clearly didn’t have enough prior wilderness experience between them to find their way out of my back yard, let alone more remote forest. In hindsight, I think my old project goal of “Blair Witch Done Right” was a bit too arrogant, presumptuous, and rooted in my younger self’s easy disappointment with others’ failure at things I saw myself having little difficulty. Even my old “Follow the river, dumbass!” response to every other leg of the movie left little consideration for whether or not my strategy would have worked any better if there were indeed eldritch and possibly unnatural forces working against me every step of the way. Though I would still hold that in the real world, without such entities or phenomena, following the river would’ve gotten me back to civilization faster than walking around in circles ever would have.

As for the Woods themselves, by the time I got to writing this portion of the series, this region had become tied to larger world-building endeavors, that would dovetail into the next couple tales, as well. Camp Stilton, Kelly Edwards, Rannigan’s Wharf, all of it needing to be more menacing than just “spooky” to explain the region’s long-standing abandonment. From there, a blind woodsman could surely spot the Lovecraftian influence from a mile away, though much of it came up in the course of writing each chapter, as almost as much of a surprise to me as it was to our poor protagonists. All I started out with was just the premise of fractured layers of reality, and just sort of let it run its course as they struggled with each obstacle and adversary. Though the phases of the moons started out inspired by a bit from the Blair Witch video games (I’m afraid I have no idea if any of the games themselves are any good, but if you can find any of the soundtracks, the best stuff is almost— almost, mind you— on par with Yamaoka’s stuff from the original Silent Hill trilogy, and at least worth a listen in spite of the cornier tracks), they quickly took on a life of their own as I found myself imagining moons I would not care to walk under myself. As for Roxy and Erix, all I can do is apologize for now, as they have both proven too stubborn to die, save perhaps by the other’s hand, and only time will tell what became of either of them.

Even the town of Pickford showed me a thing or two, as the nature of the anomaly required them to be more proactive in their own defense than I originally would have imagined, but it does set the stage for a lot of what comes next, when Shades’ feet have a mind of their own, leading them all into trouble…