They soon noticed faces staring out at them from mostly curtained windows. Watching them with a mixture of awe and apprehension, given the direction they just came from. Turning to look at any of them mostly resulted in those faces vanishing in a blink, or a flicker of curtain.
Jarvis led them out near the harbor, where curious onlookers tried not to look like they were gawking, even while keeping a respectful distance.
“There’s been talk for years of tearin’ down that bridge,” he told them, “but after the wall went up, no one cared to go out there no more.”
“I can’t imagine why…” Justin muttered.
Along the way, they saw for themselves a measure of the toll the Woods had taken on their community, and Jarvis mentioned some more. Of missing livestock, missing pets, missing children, occasionally even missing adults, before the walls were finished. In the early years, that even included a few drunken wagers, and later on, foolhardy travelers and would-be adventurers. By now, most wise and experienced wanderers knew to take heed and leave well enough alone, just from the locals’ own avoidance, that this was no idle tourist prank.
“Heaven knows,” Jarvis rambled, “we have enough real trouble out there, to go makin’ any up…”
At last, they arrived at an inn called Pines Lodge, where he brought them inside. The place itself appeared welcoming enough, its bar most likely a local watering hole, its handful of rooms accommodating the occasional traveler. Enough tables and chairs to function as a small restaurant, with batwing doors connecting to a proportionately sized kitchen.
“Moira!” Jarvis called, and an older woman at the bar looked up from the mugs she was cleaning. “You have guests.”
“Jarvis.” She looked up from her work for a moment to take in these three outlanders, noting their dirty, disheveled looks. “Since when did you ever keep the company of strangers? You’re not seafarers, are you?”
“It’s as you think,” Jarvis told her. “In fact, they came all the way up from Camp Stilton.”
Moira fumbled and nearly dropped the ceramic mug, gasping at that name, looking at them in a whole new light.
“Is this true?” she asked them, her voice shifting from wry and world-weary to alarmed and intense as they walked up to the bar. The three of them certainly looked— and smelled— as if they had been out in the wilderness rather than on the high seas.
“Yes,” Max answered, his friends nodding in solemn agreement. “And we have two friends who are still stranded out there.”
“Surely they’re dead by now…” Moira turned away from them, visibly uncomfortable making such a grim pronouncement to strangers.
“With all due respect,” Shades pointed out, “I would like to remind you that we’re still alive.”
“No thanks to those damn Woods!” Justin added. “What the hell is the deal with that place?”
“Well, it’s not something we like to talk about anymore,” she told them, back still turned, “especially with outlanders…”
“I daresay we’ve earned some answers, don’t you think?” Max intoned.
“You’re right,” Moira sighed, turning back to them, “but I suppose I should start with some manners. I’m Moira Stilton. My late husband used to run the camp. That’s why Jarvis brought you here first.”
And here I thought there might be some hospitality in him somewhere… Shades thought.
Moira looked around as if to make sure there was no one on hand to object, then continued: “For many years, this town was run by a powerful family, the Rigbys. They built a mansion on the far side of Pickford. Vineholdt.”
“Caretaker…” Shades mused, “Is that what Jarvis meant?”
“Yes,” Moira admitted, “that’s why he looks after the grounds and such, much as he used to when he worked for them. The last head of the Rigby family was always said to have studied dangerous and forbidden knowledge, and about ten years ago, something she did one night went horribly wrong. Since that night, the Woods have been a deathtrap, and that estate has been haunted ever since. No one has seen hide nor hair of anyone who was there at the time, and the younger folks have taken to calling it the Castle.”
“Strange…” Max remarked, guessing from the look on Shades’ face that he shared his relief at no mention of Camcron. That a dimensional anomaly of this magnitude would surely have the Institute’s name written all over it.
“My husband and I put a lot of work into rebuilding and organizing that camp after the logging operation shut down out there,” Moira explained. “It was supposed to be a place for the children of Pickford to enjoy, like the camps we’d heard of in other lands. After that night, we ended up abandoning everyplace out on the peninsula, including Camp Stilton, when people started to go missing…”
“Like Kelly Edwards?” Shades asked, seeing her eyes widen noticeably at that name.
“You saw the poster?”
“That’s not all we saw,” Shades replied, shrugging off his backpack and setting it on the nearest table, remembering what else he brought all this way.
“Kelly?” a woman’s voice demanded from the front door. “Did you see our daughter?”
An older couple strode in, both looking aged beyond their years with grief. Anxiety, dread, and even a hint of hope competing for their dominant facial expression. Jarvis hovering right behind them, near the door. In the course of their intense conversation with Moira, none of them could even recall seeing him leave.
“Shelby and Lorna Edwards,” Jarvis introduced them, then stepped back. “Kelly’s parents.”
“Please don’t get your hopes up,” Shades cautioned them as he opened his pack and unwrapped the skull. “While we were out there, less than a day from Camp Stilton, we found the remains…” choking up in spite of himself, “the remains of a child…”
Shelby gasped, but Lorna objected, “How? How do we know if it’s her?”
“I also found this…” Shades reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and fished out the gemstone earring, half surprised it was still in there after all that, and handed it to her.
Lorna only looked at it for a moment before she broke down, long-dammed floodgates opening as she slumped in the nearest seat, and her husband leaned over to comfort her, one lone tear rolling down his somber face as he put his arm around her.
Shades bowed his head and Max followed suit, while Justin tried to look around at nothing in particular.
“We gave those to her for a ninth birthday present, just a few days before she went to camp…” Shelby stammered. Though already slightly stooped with the weight of years and loss, he seemed to slump just a little more at this final revelation. “She couldn’t wait to show them to all her friends…”
“Somebody found her…” Lorna sobbed. “After all these years…”
For his part, Jarvis simply grunted, bowed his head, and ducked out the door.
“Little Kelly was the first to disappear,” Moira told them, her face as ashen as either of the girl’s parents. “Then the search party…”
“It was the Evil in the Woods that got her,” Shades said, deciding it was better not to mention the roots, “of that I’m certain.”
All three of them tried to conceal their relief that no one asked them to elaborate.
“We couldn’t just leave her out there…” Max began, then remembered what else they came here for. “We also came here for our friends, who are still stuck out at Camp Stilton. This was all we could do for your daughter, but there is still hope for the living.”
“Five days?” Moira piped up. “Surely you can’t be serious…”
“We survived,” Justin countered, “and they have a ship to take shelter in.”
“For all the good that would do ’em,” Shelby muttered. “No one from the original search party was ever heard from again. Trying to rescue anyone from those Woods is suicide…”
“Roger Wilco saved our lives, getting us ashore in that storm,” Shades explained. “That’s a rather poor way to return the favor, don’t you think?”
“Surely they’re all dead.” There was no mistaking the terror in Shelby’s eyes. “You should be grateful for your lives, and the chance to continue on your way.”
“Bandit’s my oldest friend,” Max declared, surprising even himself with his own determination after all the horrors they endured. “I’m not going anywhere without going back for him first.”
“But no one’s been out there for years…”
“They brought back our Kelly,” Lorna told her husband, her long-denied grief hardening into a stony resolve. “How could we ever face her, if we do any less for them?”
“You don’t even have to go,” Max offered. “All we need are enough supplies to go around the peninsula, and any old boat you might be willing to part with. We don’t have much money, but…”
“Even the peninsula isn’t safe,” Shelby warned them, but his tone sounded more resigned than anything. Even as he spoke, he stood up a little taller. “Your money’s no good with us. You brought back Kelly’s remains, and that’s more than anyone could’ve hoped for. We owe you something for that, and if this is what she wants…”
“Then you’ll help us?” Justin pressed.
“Yes, but not this late,” Shelby cautioned them. “It’ll be sunset soon, and it’s far too dangerous sailing the peninsula after dark. We’ll set out at first light tomorrow. I just hope this isn’t all for nothing…”
“I’m coming too,” Lorna added. “There’s enough room aboard the Shorewind for all of us.”
“But you don’t even like sailing,” Shelby balked, “you always get seasick…”
“We have to see this through,” Lorna insisted.
“Please,” Shelby pleaded. “Stay here. With… Kelly. I promise I’ll come back, and we will bury her together…”
“I’ll hold you to that.” She then turned to the three of them. “When this is all over, you are also welcome to attend.”
“It’s the least we could do,” Max nodded.
“In the meantime,” Moira stepped in, “you’re welcome to stay the night here. My husband, Ethan, was the leader of the search party, and I feel he would want it this way. You’ll be safe enough here in Pickford. Sister Clarice still maintains the old wardings around town…”
“We thank you for your hospitality,” Max told her, all three nodding in heartfelt accord.
“First thing’s first,” Moira resumed, “you boys should go wash up while we prepare dinner.”
“Good idea,” Shades mumbled.
After the better part of a week in the Woods, and being cooped up on a plane for a couple days before that, they all naturally smelled of an overabundance of testosterone, and a shortage of deodorant. A hot shower did much, both to wash away sweat and grime, as well as to sooth sore muscles and stiff joints. Moira provided some spare robes she scrounged up from the storeroom, and Lorna offered to wash their clothes that night.
Though every bit as polite and gracious as the Royal Treatment warranted, each of them held on to at least one holdout weapon, just in case things were not as they seemed in the quaint little town of Pickford.
By the time they had all washed up, dinner was ready. From the array of dishes and cookware on display, they gathered that Pines Lodge was most likely frequented by locals, and the occasional seafarer on shore leave. For the next couple days, that was all about to change.
That was not to say that they didn’t have their share of visitors throughout the evening. Most of them a touch quiet and subdued, each with some trivial pretense for catching a glimpse of the first people to survive the Woods in years. Years of eldritch encroachment had shrunk Pickford into a rather small town, and even the local sheriff, Willard Duhan, who happened to be taking a shift at the gate, just like his deputies and local volunteers, dropped by to ask a few questions.
Reminding Shades of a very important matter.
“For the sake of disclosure,” he brought up, concluding that these folks really did have a right to know, “we originally ended up here in pursuit of an outlaw named Erix.” The lawman nodded, having apparently heard the name before, even if most folks in these parts had not. “There was a bounty hunter with us, as well. But the last time we saw Roxy, she was chasing him out toward someplace called Rannigan’s Wharf…”
“Then you’ve surely seen the last of them,” Sheriff Duhan told them, and Shelby shuddered.
“By any chance,” Max chimed in, figuring it was safe enough to ask at this point, “have any of you ever heard of anyplace called Deltania? Or Cyexia, perhaps?”
Heads shaking all around.
“Not anywhere in these parts,” Moira told them. “This whole land used to be called Sinovia, but I’m not sure how it is on the rest of the coast anymore…”
“The Commonwealth…” Shelby added, “isn’t what it used to be.”
“Wherever did you hear such odd names?” Lorna asked.
“On the radio,” Shades shrugged, not wanting to bring the Black Angels into all of this, “back when we first arrived.”
“You shouldn’t trust anything you hear on the radio out there,” Shelby advised them. “It’s all wrong, every bit of it…”
“You’re tellin’ us!” Justin laughed.
And so the discussion changed to less morbid topics. Much to their relief, no one at the table wanted to hear about the Woods, likely having already seen and heard more than they ever cared to, so the three of them provided tidbits of what was happening in other realms they’d passed through. It helped take the edge off the awkwardness of dining with hosts who had lost so much to the place they just survived.
That night they dined on a hearty stew of fish and veggies, fresh-baked bread, and crab rolls for dessert. Washed down with warm tea and cold cider. A blissful blur of down-home cooking, and a panacea for dwindling packs of provisions and days of deprivation.
But also no small helping of guilt, wondering how much food Roger and Bandit might have left back at the plane wreck. Or if Roxy had found anything at all to eat, wherever she was. Even for the likes of Erix, exposure and starvation seemed a terrible fate, with the memory of their own gnawing hunger still so fresh in their minds.
In spite of tomorrow’s grim and uncertain prospects, they thanked their hosts graciously before retiring.
Though it was the first time any of them had slept in a proper bed since their last night aboard the Excelsior back in Anchor Point over a week ago, sleep would not come easy, in spite of their bone-weary exhaustion.
Max worrying about Bandit. Justin, that the town and everything in it was just a delusion or ruse of some sort, too good to be true. Shades, worse still, that they might all be the victims of some lotus-eating trap, a creepy thought that even crept into his dreams.