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Author's Chapter Notes:
bonus "What If?" story
From the cockpit of his beached Albatross, Roger Wilco could still see the explosion from around the bend in the shore, flinging debris from beyond the pines and into the sea. The explosion, which must surely have been Erix’s ship, was not what any of them expected, judging from the others’ reaction over the radio.

From the way the others cried out her name, it was Roxy who got caught in the blast, leaving him with the sinking feeling the bounty hunter must have blundered into some kind of trap.

As the noise of the explosion faded, along with the ringing in his ears, the pilot listened in tense anticipation. Far as he could tell, the others were still alive, though whether anyone else was harmed was too incoherent to determine. He watched Max run out into the open to see if there was anything he could do for them.

Thus it was only when he felt a laser gun pressed against the side of his head that he realized he was not alone, that the spectacle outside was not only a booby-trap, but also a diversion.

“Not one word, fat boy,” a soft, menacing voice warned him, “and not one move. You’re my ticket out of here. If you value your life, you’re going to start these engines and haul ass.”

Sweat dripping down Roger’s back at the understanding that he was now all alone with the infamous outlaw they had chased all the way from the island of Yarbo. Found it difficult to make eye contact with his one good eye, grey and intense, even harder to linger on his dead, glassy left, with the trio of scars streaking down that side of his face.

An old wound from the very foe he just acquitted himself of only moments ago.

“It’s not that simple,” the pilot told him, half afraid to speak, but all too well aware of how a lack of cooperation without any explanation might be construed. Though he kept a revolver from his own dimension concealed under the dash, as a last resort, he cursed himself for not arming himself sooner, as it may as well be out on the nose of the plane for all the good it was doing him now. Instead, he struggled not to even look in its general direction, for fear of giving it away. “We took some heavy damage from the storm, and lost both engines.”

“Do you expect me to believe that?” Erix demanded. “Just what kind of fool do you think take me for?”

“No fool, I assure you,” the pilot replied, still struggling to regain his mental footing after being caught unawares like this. Sweating, trying hard not to think about the hidden killswitch concealed among some of the older control switches, which he had installed years ago, as an anti-hijacking measure. And engaged behind everyone else’s backs after they embarked on this ill-fated hunt for the man who now stood behind him. “We’re as stranded as you are.”

“Start the engines now,” Erix repeated, “or I’ll just kill you and figure it out for myself.”

“If you’ve never flown a plane from my world before, you wouldn’t figure it out in time anyway…” Roger sighed, reaching for the controls, relieved that he thought to engage the killswitch before anyone else could board, fearing that even the slightest hint of operability— damage or no damage— might arouse suspicions of sabotage or subterfuge. “As you can see, we’re grounded. Believe it or not, the bounty hunter was looking to capture your ship.”

“That’s rich,” Erix snorted. “Wouldn’t’ve done her any good anyway.”

“Roger, who are you talking to?” a young man’s voice piped up on the radio, for Roger’s mic was still set to voice-activated, and the pilot winced, having no idea how his captor might react.

“But Max is out here…” another voice pointed out.

“Then that means…” There was no mistaking the alarm in Max’s voice as the three companions arrived at the same ominous conclusion.

“Roger,” one of them called out, “is Erix in there?”

For his part, Erix slid his free hand’s index finger across his throat in a gesture the pilot understood all too well.

“I see him!” one of them called out. “He’s inside with him!”

“He means to maroon us…” the other realized aloud.

“Back to the ship!” Max called out.

“Not so fast!” Erix told them, well aware that his previous ruse was at an end. “If you’ve figured out I’m here, then you already know I have a hostage. If you value his life, you won’t show your face anywhere near this plane.”

“The joke’s on you, Erix,” the first voice informed him. “That bird won’t fly anymore.”

“Way ahead of you, Shades” Erix countered, “so don’t get smart with me. I’m taking this man as both insurance, and as my personal pack animal. He looks like he could use the exercise… We’re going to be rounding up some supplies, and then you’re going to let us just walk right out of here, got it?”

“Dammit…” the other muttered.

“Justin, he’s got us right where he wants us,” Shades reminded him.

“But what about…” Max seemed to take some unseen cue to zip his lip.

“You, get up,” Erix commanded. “Slowly, and no funny business. Your life ends at the same time as your usefulness to me, remember that. Your only hope of surviving this is getting me back to civilization, or a working ship out of here.”

Roger doubted that, not just based on Roxy’s accounts of him, but a strong intuition that his first statement was truer than the latter, that even making it that far with him was no guarantee of survival. Despite several hours of elevation and applying cold packs, his leg was still extremely stiff and sore, so there was no hiding the full extent of his injury as he attempted to limp across the cabin at gunpoint, nearly falling on his face once he ran out of modular seats to lean on.

“You’re off to a bad start,” Erix chided him. “Playing gimp will do you no good. After all, if you can’t haul supplies, then your use is at an end as soon as I’m clear of them.”

“Just… just give me a moment…” Roger groaned, seeing something Erix apparently didn’t know about. Wincing in both pain and guilt, unsure how he could face Max after whatever happened next, he turned toward the compartment next to the tiny bathroom near the rear of the plane, telling his captor, “I keep some old military rations in here, in case I ever got stranded…”

Sure enough, Erix was so focused on watching Roger’s every move, he failed to notice the black-and-white panther, still hiding behind some empty cargo crates after being spooked by the explosion, until Bandit reached out with a snarl and slashed Erix’s leg as he moved belatedly to evade him.

“Holy shit!” Erix lost his grip on his power pistol as he staggered back against the cargo door.

As the big cat lunged at Erix again, Roger wasted no time locking himself in the bathroom, while Erix’s second evasion caught his wrist on the door latch, hauling the cargo door back open.

Pouncing again as Erix regained his balance, this time dumping him on the ground outside.

“Bandit!” Max wailed, watching them wrestle on the ground before Erix came out on top, holding one of his now-activated laser claws up to his feline companion’s head. Bandit, seeming to realize the threat, his struggling ceased.

“Good kitty. That’s more like it,” Erix remarked, dragging both of themselves to their feet. That cry, combined with the look on Max’s face, told him everything he needed to know about this one. Which was a good thing for him, since he could now see that they had the Albatross covered from three points, with his back to the sea. “Next, you’re going to toss me some rope to make a leash out of.”

“Take me,” Max said instead, dropping his power pistol and raising his hands. Over six feet tall, and broad-shouldered, with shoulder-length blond hair bound by a headband adorned with an ancestral symbol. Though a swordsman and fighter of much untapped potential, none of his usual confidence was in evidence, his sea-grey eyes fixed on his feline friend.

“Nice try,” Erix taunted. He already understood that killing Bandit would set all three of them off. That for all his previous self-righteous talk, Max would kill him, or die trying. Under other circumstances, that could make for an interesting contest, but here it would be three against one, surrounded, with nothing to even the odds. “But I want to see you squirm, for the way you humiliated me back in Anchor Point. If I can’t have a pack animal, I’ll settle for a meat-shield until I’m clear of you.”

“But Bandit was injured in the crash,” Shades protested, figuring Erix would find out soon enough anyway. Though his sunglasses could make him seem opaque, the rest of his face betrayed his alarm and dismay all too transparently right now. Of more modest stature than his friend, his denim jacket and cargo pants somehow always conveyed an impression of armor, and Erix had already learned, holding him hostage many moons ago, that if nothing else, that gear contained a fair number of concealed weapons and tools.

For now, though, his power pistol drifted groundward in his obvious hesitation.

“Take me instead,” Max repeated.

“But you know he won’t let you live,” Justin pointed out. Short and wiry, with black hair and a quick, narrow face, he held a double-barrel disrupter pistol. Frozen pointed right at Erix, trigger finger straining against a lifetime of experiences that informed every fiber of his being that he needed to pull it, cursing the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to do that to the pilot who saved their lives only hours ago.

“How about I take you instead?” Erix drew his other power pistol to cover Bandit as he pointed at Shades. “We had so much fun last time, didn’t we?”

Shades swallowed hard at that prospect in spite of himself.

Though Erix kept a firm hand on the scruff of Bandit’s neck, the angle prevented him from piercing the big cat directly with his claws, instead keeping the pistol trained on him as he stood the rest of the way up.

“I’m not going to tell you again,” Erix warned them. “Lower your weapons, and prepare to pack. One of you is going to be my new—”

All eyes on Erix, so none of them saw it coming when a box went flying out of the cargo door, hitting Erix across the back of the head, knocking him flat on his face before he could make a move.

“That’s fat man, to you!” Roger blustered as he staggered over to the cargo door. When he nearly tripped over Erix’s other power pistol, he merely scooped it up and appropriated it as his own as he hobbled over. “Nobody hijacks my Albatross!”

For his part, Bandit bolted the second Erix lost his grip, scampering over to Max as fast as his injured paw would allow.

“You killed my client, troublesome as she was…” Roger now stood over Erix, power pistol in hand. “You even tried to kill the rest of my passengers when we’re already stranded in the middle of goddamn nowhere…”

“Roger!” Justin shouted. “Finish him off! Now!”

Raising his own disrupter to do just that, as he feared this pilot lacked the wherewithal to go through with it himself.

Max reached over to retrieve his dropped power pistol.

Just when it looked like the dreaded outlaw Erix was going to die at the hands of some civilian pilot with almost no combat experience to his name, Roger looked over at them, as if realizing for the first time where he was, or what he was doing, and saw Shades facepalm at him.

Thus Erix took Roger completely by surprise when he scissored his legs, tripping him.

Roger howled in agony, landing on his injured leg.

“You’re as soft as the rest of them,” Erix muttered as he snatched up his other gun, pointing it at the pilot while they were still entangled, before Justin could even readjust his aim. “Nobody move!” Rubbing the back of his head with his free hand, still keeping his weapon trained on the pilot. He could feel blood oozing down his torn pantleg, and wanted more than anything to shoot that damn cat, but knew he needed the right moment. “You may not serve as a pack animal, but you’ll still do as a human shield. Now get up.”

“But my leg…” Roger groaned.

“If you can’t get up,” Erix warned him, “your worthless life ends here.”

“Then so does yours,” Max told him. Steadying his power pistol with stern effort. Trying not to think about what just happened to Bandit, lest he pull the trigger too soon and get Roger killed for sure.

“We have you surrounded,” Shades reminded him.

“You can’t shoot all of us at once,” Justin added.

“If I die, I won’t die alone,” Erix assured them, watching Roger struggle back to his feet. “I can take at least one of you with me, and you’ll have no one but yourselves to blame.”

Once the pilot was back on his feet, Erix stepped in close, keeping the pilot between himself and his enemies, to serve as a human shield if they tried anything else.

The others kept their position, remaining spread out, uncomfortably aware that Erix could hide behind his hostage, and still get off shots at them if push came to shove.

“Limp for your life,” Erix ordered as Roger hobbled along. “This is where we part ways. I won’t release him until you turn back for the ship.”

“And just how will you release him?” Shades pressed, ignoring the sweat pouring down his neck with an effort. “Just from you, or also from the world of the living?”

“What’s worthless around here is your word,” Max stated, “and he has no reason to cooperate if you’re just going to kill him anyway.”

“You’re not getting past us,” Justin told him as they continued to bar his way past the abandoned seaside lodge, into the woods behind it.

“Which leaves us at an impasse,” Erix admitted. “That bounty hunter wanted me, but you just want to live, right?…”

Erix’s words drifted away from Roger as he thought hard. He could imagine no version of this where he would come out alive, and no serious chance of all three of his passengers surviving whatever happened next. He could leave his life in Erix’s deadly hands, or take it into his own.

Taking one last breath, Roger tried to elbow him, but Erix felt him shift in mid step. He got the foot-long energy blades built into Erix’s glove, right through the chest for his trouble. Puncturing his left lung and piercing his heart.

“So be it, Fat Man.”

This fatal blow turned Roger into a human sandbag, dragging Erix down with him just as surely as if he ducked.

Thus Justin, the quickest on the draw, missed him by a mile as Erix raised his power pistol and shot back, nailing him several times before he hit the ground.

Now trapped in this desperate gamble, Erix turned on Max next, seeing him falter with Bandit in the middle of their shootout, only grazing his shoulder with one energy beam before going down.

Shades thought fast, cutting loose with a barrage of stun shots, looking to avoid killing any of his friends while neutralizing Erix at the same time. But not fast enough, as Erix hit him while he was still tracking Erix’s sudden drop.

Bandit was almost upon him, snarling in inarticulate rage, but Erix shoved Roger’s corpse at the big cat, tripping him up just as he was about to spring. Thus Bandit landed flat on his face in a most unfeline fashion, as Erix whipped out one of his twin laser blades and decapitated him. Kicking the dead cat as he staggered back to his feet.


Badly wounded, Max still hung on to his power pistol, struggling to regain his feet, lifting his arm with painful effort, one last thought etched on his face as he raised his head and looked Erix square in the eye. Too slow, too halting; Erix shot first as he pulled the trigger one last time.

Offering the final word: “I told you… Hero’s die y—”

The words caught in his throat as an energy beam pierced his own chest.

For a moment, he could only stare in shock at the ghost who stepped out from around the corner of the abandoned lodge, cloak fluttering over squarish shoulder guards, one of several pieces of light armor she fortified military garb of unknown origin with. Caked with sand and soot from head to foot, her blonde hair blown all to one side in a manner that might have looked cartoonish if it wasn’t for the fire in her violet eyes. Her bulky disrupter pistol, with its wicked-looking bayonet deployed, aimed square at him, barrel smoking.

“But how…”

Erix struggled to raise his gun as the Cyexian bounty hunter put several more rounds in him, his power pistol clunking to the ground as he fell to his knees, then flat on his face.

“The rocks,” the Hunter replied, still keeping a keen eye on him as she strode up. The same rock formations that grounded his ship having clearly shielded her from the worst of the self-destruct charges. “Just barely enough time…”

Then her radio got damaged, so she chose to play dead and move in silence. And apparently took too long getting back. It all happened so fast, even as she was positioning herself.

At point-blank, she shot him with a couple stun shots, to be sure he wasn’t playing possum, then fired up her laser staff and cut his head clean off. She spat in the dirt, the taste of this long-sought victory bitter to her tongue as she surveyed the cost. Though she doubted anyone in this backwater realm could even afford the bounty Erix had racked up, she was dead certain his head would no longer be recognizable by the time she made it anyplace that could be mistaken for civilization anyway.

At this stage more of a personal point than a professional one, Roxy reached down and plucked out his glass eye. She then took his laser swords and energy claws, trophies he would never part with willingly. Proof of the deed, even if no one would honor the bounty for him.

She then punted his severed head into the waves, deciding that the scavengers could have it, a fitting end for one who left so many others for the carrion-birds.

Setting aside this matter, now dead as her nemesis, she turned to Roger, seeing that he had already bled out from wounds she would have no way of saving him from anyway.

“You delivered on all your promises,” she told the pilot. “If anyone failed here, it was I.”

Hearing a groan from off to the side, she perked up, seeing Shades rolling slightly on the ground in a vain effort to move, and rushed over to him.

“Amy… John…” he moaned, trying to sit up, but finding his body no longer wanted to cooperate with him. Tears streaming from behind opaque lenses as his efforts grew steadily weaker. Eyes dimming, even as they filled with a vision of mountains, and a desert sunset beyond, the disappointing sense of being so close, yet so far away. So many close calls, all over the Sixth Dimension, just to fall here, in the middle of nowhere… “I’m sorry…”

“I promise you… Dexter…” Roxy told him, choosing to speak the name his mother gave him, taking his trembling hand. During their flight from Anchor Point, she had added John’s photo, and all of Shades’ search information, to her datapad, just in case she met either of them anywhere in her own travels. “If we ever cross paths, I will tell them that you gave your life protecting your friends.”

Seeing that there was nothing she could do for him anymore, likely not had she been even a couple minutes earlier and had the plane’s First Aid kit right beside her, she stunned him and put him out of his misery. Lifted his namesake sunglasses, closing his eyes before gently lowering the mirrorized lenses back in place. Reflecting that they just somehow belonged there, even in death.

Laboring to stifle her own attempts at hope, she turned to Justin next, finding him already dead.

“If I ever meet this Jesse Fletcher, I’ll kick his ass and let him know why.” She laid both of his disrupter pistols across his chest. “Then I’ll tell him about the real Justin Black…”

Finding Max just as deceased, she bowed her head.

“You were an honorable man, almost to a fault. If there is anything beyond this life, I hope you find peace there that you couldn’t find here…”

Looking about the gravelly beach, the scene of so much death in just a couple short minutes, Roxy took a deep breath before offering them the closest thing she could manage to an apology for those who died fighting.

“Rest easy, knowing you are avenged…”

Finding herself standing all alone on an unknown shore, in an unknown realm, it took her a long moment to regain her focus and decide her next move.

Seeing as how the place had offered no response of any sort since their crash landing last night, Roxy turned her attention to the derelict lodge. Now that she could focus on the building itself, she found she didn’t like the way the trees seemed to encroach on the surrounding buildings. Feeling hemmed in on all sides in a way that just didn’t sit right with her.

Log cabin construction, with notched corners that protruded about half a foot on each end, cut flat and flush with each other. Wood shingles growing moss, a few sagging beams, a couple broken windows, and the lingering certainty that any damage was done solely by natural occurrences, such as last night’s storm. Deserted for years, by the look of it.

A deep-hooded porch almost as wide as the front of the lodge, with steps leading up to the entrance. A long, flat hunk of driftwood hung from the eaves above the porch steps, the words Camp Stilton decoratively carved and burned into it. Much to her surprise, the front door was unlocked, letting into the dim mustiness of the interior. Log architecture, matching the exterior to a T, but only a few windows, all them dusty, admitting only limited light from outside, so she switched on the flashlight under the barrel of her disrupter pistol. As the door creaked open with a stuttering grind, announcing her presence louder than she would have preferred, she knew any pretense of stealth was past.

Though Roxy suspected, after the whole explosion part earlier, as well as all the shooting, that anyone holed up in here would surely have flown the coop by now. Along with the total lack of any response at any point since their crash landing last night, the dusty silence only served to confirm her suspicions about the place’s abandonment. Still, she found a moment to wonder why it would bother her so much, what with all of the abandoned places she prowled on her hunts.

Torn between leaving the door open to offer a hasty exit, or shutting it again for an early warning if anyone else tried to enter while she was inside, she settled for the quick exit, as she somehow doubted anyone else would be dropping by here any time soon.

She could also tell from the smell that the roof was every bit as leaky as they had feared, adding to her relief that they didn’t have to abandon ship and stay the night in here. Creaky floorboards made sneaking impossible, raising dust with even small movements. Letting her eyes adjust to the gloom as she made her way past the foyer.

Despite seeing no immediate evidence of illness or contagion, Roxy still whipped out a bandana from her belt pouch— often used to ward off her own smokescreen during raids— to tie over her face. After all, abandoned buildings could also harbor all manner of mold and fungus. Though by no means as foolproof as a respirator or dust mask, it was still better than nothing.

She found the place deserted. As if everyone just packed up and left in a terrible hurry. For her, that was the eeriest part about it.

No barricades or signs of struggle. Either they surrendered without a fight, or someone went to great lengths to clean up afterward. The latter, especially, made little sense if it was all just going to be left to rot in the end anyway. There were a couple broken windows here and there, but all of it looked more like incidental storm damage than the work of vandals or squatters. Much like how all the furnishings were intact and unsoiled by anything more than the occasional roof leak, as well as a general lack of indoor ‘camping’ squalor.

The bathroom, though slightly mildewy, was also in order. Also didn’t look like it had been scrubbed down clean enough to eat off of, either, the best evidence it was not contamination or plague. Reconsidering the matter, she decided she could trust the apparent haste of their departure, that if a sickness was that bad, no one would have bothered to clean up after it on their way out.

The whole place looking to have been hastily abandoned, with no signs of recent visitation. So much left behind, looking largely untampered-with in all the years since. She couldn’t help but wonder, after all this time, how such a viable, if remote, shelter showed no signs of appropriation, even in passing. Figured there had to be a reason, and feared she would find out all too soon, whether she cared to or not.

Beyond the lobby and accompanying bathroom, was a mess hall that occupied most of the lodge, with half a dozen long, wooden tables and matching log benches. To her left was a massive stone fireplace, whose chimney she had spied outside on the way in, and the walls were mounted with a few dusty paintings, as well as old logging and outdoor tools. Looking up at the rafters, a whole level above, she noticed a loft above the lobby portion, with stairs climbing above the door to the adjoining kitchen.

Turning that way, Roxy spotted a bulletin board. Mostly empty, as if a whole bunch of things all got cancelled at once. Might have failed to notice it at all if not for the pair of yellowed papers tacked to the center of it.

The first one had the words MISSING GIRL scrawled across it in big, bold letters. Below that was the name Kelly Edwards, followed by a big blank space. Down at her feet, she very nearly stepped on an old, faded photograph of a little girl with short, dark hair, and a shy-looking expression, with a twinkle of small white gemstone earrings.

Next to the first notice was another one, written in a shaky, frantic-looking hand that struck her as the embodiment of barely-contained panic, advising everyone to stay in the lodge or in their cabins until further notice.

She quickly snapped some pics with her datapad.

Something really bad happened here… Especially the absence of anything about search parties or rescue efforts one would expect for a missing child. This further notice sounding more and more like some sort of evacuation to her, and one grim enough to leave a child behind.

Though likely meant to hold back outright panic, there was still something about the vagueness of it all that bothered her, mostly because it provided no clue if the threat that emptied this place out back then still existed.

Seeing nothing else of interest in this main chamber, she mounted the creaky steps to the loft, finding the structure aged, but of solid craftsmanship. She wasn’t too surprised to find the loft served as an office of sorts, with a table against the wall, and an old-fashioned-looking two-way radio sitting on it. Spread across the wall above the emergency radio was a map.

Shining her light upon it, she read the legend: COMMONWEALTH OF SINOVIA: Peninsula District. As the name suggested, this Camp Stilton was located on the coast, above the ‘shin’ of a boot-shaped peninsula, of what appeared to be a much larger landmass. More land than she had seen in one place in a long time.

With an effort, she pulled her eyes away from the map and reached out to remove it from the wall, deciding it would be wise to take it back to the plane, where she could study it in more detail, and greater security. Even at a glance, she could see signs of hope and cause for concern, but wanted to take a closer look before figuring out her next move.

Just a test, Roxy tried to activate the radio, and was not exactly surprised to when nothing happened. Radio dead, bare bulbs dark. There was probably a generator on the grounds somewhere, but much like those rusty hulks fenced outside, she doubted it would start anymore.

She was about to examine the desk and cabinet, though she doubted she would find anything half as interesting as the map, when she spotted a note left on the table in front of the radio. That leaky roof having splotched it with so much mold, it was all too easy to mistake for more of the water damage to the tabletop, leaving only a couple fragments of it even readable. By far the biggest leak above the table, she noticed, and it was hard not to shake off the paranoid feeling that something was trying to destroy that note, the radio itself long-since useless.

In between the blotches, all she could make out was:

If anyone finds … leave immediat— … —e woods will … radio recep— … no signal fro— … to get the children out … but not to Rannigan’s … last seen — grove — never there bef— … woods have become too dangerous to sear— … —ay Kelly’s parents forgi

Even with all the missing puzzle pieces, Roxy still felt an ominous chill at what she was reading. Something menacing the camp? But what? Whatever happened, it drove them to abandon a child to apparently save the rest, a decision she could not imagine anyone making lightly.

She frowned, putting the note back down and wiping her hand on her pantleg, making another datapad entry of it, then made her way downstairs and back outside, where she nearly kicked a small wooden sign lying on the ground next to the porch steps. As if it was once nailed to the roof support beam at the foot of the steps. She slid the toe of her armored boot under it and flipped it over, exposing faded red letters:


“Tch…” Figuring it would’ve been all too easy if she found that first.

As she looked up at the shore, toward the plane wreck, she spotted movement, raising her disrupter on pure instinct.

At first she thought some aquatic creatures had dragged a bunch of seaweed ashore with them as they investigated the beach in front of the Albatross, but on closer inspection, she could see they were draping themselves over her fallen companions. She approached the masses of shimmering fronds cautiously, weapon trained on the nearest ones. Her first clear view of the creatures drove home what her subconscious had been way ahead of the curve about: chalk-white corpses festooned with seaweed, molesting the dead in an apparent feeding frenzy.

From their soaking sheen, to their sea-brine smell, there was little doubt where they slithered up from.

One of them, having apparently noticed the bounty hunter’s approach, looked up with rheumy, empty eyes, staring right at her. It parted its blood-streaked lips to reveal rows of needle teeth that did not belong in the mouth of any human being. Letting out an ear-splitting shriek that nearly caused her to fumble her weapon in spite of herself.

Then she opened fire, and that got all of their attention right quick. At first they tried to crawl toward her, flopping and dragging themselves in a way that only made sense once she noticed that none of them had any legs, but once she put a couple of them down, the others shrieked in outrage. Then started flopping back toward the watery grave she was sure they meant to drag the dead into.

Seeing that she had interrupted their frightful feast before it could rightly begin, she immediately set to dragging each of her travel companions’ corpses farther ashore. Stricken with a primal sense of disgust at letting such foul things have them, even in death. Keeping a wary eye on both the fallen ones, which she also beheaded with her laser staff, just to be sure, and one eye on the water, against their almost inevitable return.

As ungainly and awkward as they were on dry land, she had no doubt they would make for much deadlier foes underwater.

One by one, she hauled three old friends and their cat up to the nearest cabin, next to Stilton Lodge, placing each one in a bed. Fairly sure she’d put a strong fear in those creatures, as they failed to reappear in between rounds. Once all four of them were inside, she shut them in, carving their names on the door.

The closest thing to a grave or a tomb she would be able to provide.

Along the way, she had gathered the others’ weapons back at the plane.

“I will do you honor with their use…” she promised them as she walked away from the cabin.

Once back at the plane, she brought Roger aboard, propping him up in the pilot’s seat, figuring this was where he would want to be at the end. Though less than enthusiastic about sharing the cockpit with a corpse, she still felt she had done right by him this one last time. All the same, she still made sure to check that the cargo door lock still worked. Just glad Erix hadn’t blown or carved any holes in the hull or anything.

That covered everyone except Erix, whom she left for the scavengers, but dragged away from the plane to help draw the corpse-things off, as she couldn’t help the intuition that she had not seen the last of them. Now certain she had brought this upon herself, Erix’s head spreading blood in the water, even the knowledge that she had no clue of their existence feeling like a poor excuse in hindsight. Given the foul creatures’ limited mobility on land, she figured she was safe enough as long as she kept the cargo doors locked. All the same, she kept her guard up, and a tool carefully balanced on the door latch, so that anything that disturbed it would make plenty of noise.

Only then did she set herself to studying the map.

According to which, they had landed in the Commonwealth of Sinovia, Peninsula District, at Camp Stilton. Most of the map depicting the coast above and below the boot-shaped Woodbine Peninsula, on which Stilton was just past the ‘shin’ of. The rest of what it revealed was less than encouraging.

She stared long at that map, wondering just how big this realm of Sinovia could be.

Farther along the shore, in the direction of Erix’s ship, or what was left of it, appeared to be a settlement marked Rannigan’s Wharf. The nearest location, probably less than a day’s walk from Camp Stilton. Much to her dismay, though, the name was X-ed out in black pen so hard it scratched the paper, with the disconcerting legends Don’t go! and No return! hastily inscribed next to it.

Inland, several locations were marked, though most of it was a big blank space, simply marked as Durwyn Wood. A couple logging mills, officially marked Rigby Millworks and Pickford Mills. As well as a handwritten Ol’ Tobey’s near a road, about halfway between Stilton and the coastline on the other side of the peninsula. A more dubious scribble near the peninsula proper, marked Circle Stones? a little off the beaten path, which put her in mind of several ancient monuments she’d stumbled across in the course of her own journeys.

Along the Woodbine Peninsula itself were marked several small names, each one with a hand-written question mark next to it. The only exception was farther up the coast from the peninsula, near the upper right edge of the map, a town marked Pickford.

That map, as well as the note, had all the feel of having been left as some kind of warning, suggesting that the best course of action would be to put back out to sea. Not much help, in her situation. Even the part scribbled on the sea, with an arrow pointing to the peninsula, and a hastily-scrawled advisory to hug the coast, was not terribly encouraging.

She wondered a moment if she even had the supplies to take the long way around. Though she had seen an inflatable life raft among the emergency gear, without a motor or sails, it would take days to row around that peninsula. All the while waiting for pale white hands to reach up for her…

Even with the most conservative distance estimates, it would surely take more days than she had supplies for, to walk all the way around the peninsula, and the dubious state of the handful of settlements dotting it did nothing to inspire confidence. As much as she would prefer to avoid a long march through the woods, skirting the coast mostly just came across as a series of opportunities for those things to come back after her, whereas she doubted they could follow her very far on land.

Based on the warnings— especially the map— and those creatures, an expedition to Rannigan’s Wharf sounded like a fool’s errand at best, a suicide mission at worst. She might have contemplated trying Rannigan’s Wharf in spite of the warnings, just because it was closer, but now she had seen for herself what likely awaited her over there, as well as along every step of the peninsula shore, she concluded that her best bet was to take the direct approach inland, and hope things went better in this Pickford place.

She had also tried radio, figuring she was close enough to Rannigan’s to send and receive. But ultimately confirmed neither, instead hearing only static, along with what sounded like frogs croaking, and other, less distinct noises. Of course, she had learned in her travels that radio anomalies never portended anything good, and that was the final word on the matter.

Pickford, it is.

She could only hope that it wasn’t as abandoned as everyplace else on the map indicated.

With her finger, she traced a line marked Hwy 13, that ran from Rannigan’s Wharf past Camp Stilton, then cut through the Durwyn Wood, all the way to Pickford. Reminded herself that people built roads, that they always lead somewhere. All she had to do was follow it.

That resolved, she cooked lunch with a camp stove Roger kept onboard for emergencies, pouring him a libation, a cup of some of his finest stash. Toasted him once to send him off, and put the rest back in its compartment. Knowing all too well she would need to keep a clear head if she was going to survive whatever came next out here.

She then turned to sorting out the most critical supplies to include in her pack. Leaving most of the canned goods so she could travel light and make better time with less burdensome foodstuffs, jerky and dried fruit, as well as some sealed military rations. Also leaving the camp stove and most of the fuel gel, taking one can with her, just in case she needed to start a fire in less than ideal circumstances. Packed a couple canteens, as much water as she could reasonably carry.

An assortment of supplies Roger had picked up along the way in many realms. Both a handheld and a clip-on flashlights. One flare gun and a handful of flares. A cargo tarp, rope and utility knives she knew how to build makeshift tents and other useful things out of. Lighters and a waterproof tube of matches, as well as a couple camping dishes and cookware. A bottle of insect repellant Roger picked up while visiting some tropical island, as well as any other odds and ends she thought she might need out there. Loaded up what weapons and ammo she could reasonably carry, left the rest on the plane, figuring anyone else who got stranded out here would surely need it.

Periodically looking out the windows, casting wary glances at the camp, and the woods beyond.

She stood in the cargo door for a long moment, could see the late afternoon sun angling toward evening, daylight wasting. Certain that even she would lose her nerve if she had to enter that forest after sundown. For a long moment, she contemplated staying the night aboard the Albatross, getting a fresh start in the morning, but didn’t care to share the cabin with a corpse, and didn’t have the heart to dump him overboard, either.

Also wasn’t sure how much defense the downed plane would actually offer, if those things came back in greater numbers. She glanced over, near the rocks, to see Erix’s corpse was already gone, those things having dragged his remains out into the sea while she was working. Short on pity, but still shuddered in spite of herself, wondering if someday a seaweed-thing that looked just like him might menace other unfortunate travelers…

Regaining her resolve, she set out to enter the Woods in earnest, as armed and prepared as one could be for the Unknown.

As she passed the lodge, she made a point of stopping by the nearest cabin to offer one final moment of silence for three adventurers of such recent, yet very eventful, acquaintance.

Near the edge of the Camp Stilton grounds, the dirt road that wound through the camp led into the forest proper. Though the trees were already a strong presence in and around the camp, they practically formed a solid wall along the shallow stream at the edge of the grounds, that, according to the map, would bend a little ways downshore of Stilton to empty into the sea near the last big bend before the curve of the peninsula. The covered wooden bridge crossing it striking her as looking more like a tunnel into the woods.

Though the bridge was old and creaky, and slightly warped, it still held, a testament to the craftsmanship of its builders. Little more than a trickle ran beneath it compared to the size of the riverbed, the Amarrack clearly at low ebb, which she could easily cross on foot if the bridge was too frail, she didn’t care to leave any wet footprints so close to her starting point.

On the other side, the tree canopy fairly seemed to lean over the old dirt road on both sides, allowing only a scant, golden-green light to filter down to them through layers of leaves. Scenery she might have found rustic and scenic, if it didn’t feel so ominous. Even here, so close to the shore, the salty, briny smell of the sea became ever more muted, and the pungent, primal scents of the Woods began to take over, the sound of the tide completely lost.

Resisting the temptation to look back, she put one foot forward, then the other.
Chapter End Notes:
Sorry I took so long posting this; it turned out to require a lot more revision than I originally thought, in order to make it a functional stand-alone story for anyone not acquainted with the Tradewinds series. This little wayside story started out as a horrifying thought I had while writing the early chapters of Tradewinds 20, what might have been had things gone a little differently. Chapter four was probably the trickiest single chapter to write in the rough draft, finding myself as white-knuckled with the pen as any of them with their weapons, repeatedly painting myself into a corner, desperate to avoid a [I]deus ex[/I]. But damn, that Erix is a real piece of work, and even I underestimated him, as he just kept turning the ta-bles. Though I’m glad his previous defeat back in Anchor Point didn’t cause any Villain Decay, it also served as a measure of how much the main characters had leveled up since their first battle with him, that they could also keep holding him off until Roxy’s surprise attack broke the stalemate. The rest was a natural extension of following how Roxy handled the remainder of the Camp Stilton scenario on her own, a grim character study of a survivor type.