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Tradewinds 21: Unreal Estate by shadesmaclean

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Chapter 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.
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