“Under other circumstances, I’d agree,” Shades replied, “but we can’t afford to keep sitting around out here. Roger, how much food do we have onboard?”
“A few days,” Roger answered, “but it’s hard to tell with four… er, five of us. For just two or three people, I’d say at least a week, but even without Roxy…”
“We need to get going,” Max concurred. “But where?”
“That’s what I hope to find out,” Shades proposed. “We should start with the lodge. It’s probably too much to ask for there to be any supplies, but even just some information about where we are, or what happened out here, or if there’s anywhere out there to go for help.”
“I see,” Justin nodded, “and since we’ll have to walk— wherever we’re going— we need to get started today.”
“Exactly,” Shades told him. “When it comes to wilderness survival, it’s important to remember the Rule of Three’s. Three weeks without food. Three days without water. Three hours without shelter in extreme weather. Three minutes without oxygen.”
“And three seconds without your head on straight in a crisis,” the pilot added.
“I’m glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Justin muttered.
“We’ll have to split up, of course,” Shades pointed out. Roger and Bandit were in no shape to travel without some kind of ride, so it would be unwise to leave them alone. “Max, you stay with them. Justin and I will have a look around.”
Justin looked like he was about to say something, then most likely clammed up at the realization that Shades had also volunteered himself in the same breath.
All the same, none of them liked the way Bandit looked at them when they re-opened the cargo door, visibly torn between wariness of the woods beyond, relief at Max staying behind, and some concern to spare for the two venturing in.
Seeing no immediate threat, they stepped out, Max covering them from the cargo door as they disembarked and approached the lodge. Now that they could focus on the building itself, Shades found he didn’t like the way the trees seemed to encroach on the surrounding buildings. Feeling hemmed in on all sides in a way that would be very difficult to construct without damaging them.
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 their surprise, the front door was unlocked, letting them 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 Shades switched on his flashlight. Back in Anchor Point, Justin had acquired a flashlight mod for his crossbow, recalling their fun romp through Alta’s Undercity, which he had attached during their plane flight. As the door creaked open with a stuttering grind, announcing their presence louder than either of them would have preferred, they knew any pretense of stealth was past.
Though Shades 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. Along with the total lack of any response at any point in the meantime, the dusty silence only served to confirm his suspicions about the place’s abandonment. Still, he found a moment to hope Roxy was faring at least as well.
Wherever she was, as she had passed well out of their limited radio range.
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 they were inside, they settled for trusting Max to alert them of any new arrivals.
They could also tell from the smell that the roof was every bit as leaky as they feared, renewing their relief that they didn’t have to abandon ship and stay the night in here. Creaky floorboards, making sneaking impossible, raising dust with even small movements. Letting their eyes adjust to the gloom as they made their way past the foyer.
Despite seeing no immediate evidence of illness or contagion, Shades still whipped out a bandana from his pocket— the same one, he recalled, taking with him in their subterranean misadventures in under Alta— to tie over his 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, and why he took it underground with him back then in the first place.
Justin scowled at him, reminding himself that the Ruins, as well as some parts of the shantytown of Benton, didn’t always smell so good, either. Covering Shades as he investigated.
“What’s going on in there?” Max asked, not entirely able to stifle his own sense of urgency.
“Not much,” Shades replied, trying not to sound too anxious about how inexplicably staticky their signal sounded over such a short distance. To say nothing of what sometimes sounded a little too much like whispering or coughing for his taste. “The place is deserted. Like everybody just packed up and left in a terrible hurry…”
For him, that was the eeriest part about it.
No barricades or signs of struggle. Either 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 kosher. Didn’t exactly look like it had been scrubbed down clean enough to eat off of, either, the best evidence it was not contamination or plague. If nothing else, Shades trusted 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. Both of them found a moment to wonder, after their own fashion, how such a viable, if remote, shelter showed no signs of appropriation, even in passing. Figured there had to be a reason, and feared they were about to find out, whether they wanted to or not.
Something dangerous or traumatic enough to scare off a whole community… The apparent abruptness of it all reminding Shades of old news photos about a disaster from his own world, and found himself thinking of Chernobyl. Then wished he hadn’t. After all, they had no means of detecting radiation, nor treating themselves if exposed. Decided not to risk panicking the others without proof, reminding himself that any evidence of radioactive contamination would look about the same as a particularly virulent infection would. A bit more reassuring, the realization that any radiation level strong enough to sicken people would also have a negative effect on the local fauna and flora, which all seemed to be doing well enough.
Unlike some of the strange and ghastly mutations found in the Exclusion Zone, though it was still hard not to think about the Black Angels’ talk about forbidden ground.
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 their left was a massive stone fireplace, whose chimney they 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, they noticed a loft above the lobby portion, with stairs climbing above the door to the adjoining kitchen. The whole setup reminding Shades of a couple summer camps he stayed at when he was in grade school.
Turning that way, Shades 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 his feet, he 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 him as the embodiment of barely-contained panic, advising everyone to stay in the lodge or in their cabins until further notice.
Something had these people rattled… 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 him, 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 him, mostly because it provided no clue if the threat that emptied this place out still existed.
Wondering, as he often did in this world, just how much form actually followed function, he mounted the creaky steps to the loft, finding the structure aged, but of solid craftsmanship. Much as he suspected, 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 his flashlight upon it, reading the legend: COMMONWEALTH OF SINOVIA: Peninsula District. As the name suggested, this Camp Stilton was located on what he couldn’t help but think of (in the absence of any compass rose) as the ‘southern’ coast, ‘west’ of a boot-shaped peninsula, of what appeared to be a much larger landmass. More land than he had seen in one place since he left Earth…
With an effort, Shades pulled his eyes away from the map itself and reached out to remove it from the wall.
“Hey!” Justin muttered, “I was lookin’ at that!”
Shades gasped, having nearly forgotten Justin was there, then told him, “I think it would be wise to take it back to the plane, where we can all look at it together.”
“What happened?” Max piped up on the radio.
“Good news, we found a map,” Shades replied as he removed the tacks and began the delicate task of folding up the brittle paper to slip in his jacket pocket. Even at a glance, he could see signs of hope and cause for concern, but he wanted to compare notes with the others about it before drawing any further conclusions. “We’ll be bringing it back with us, since it will be safer to study it there. Hopefully, it’ll help us figure out our next move.”
“Sounds good,” Roger commented.
For his part, Justin tried not to dwell on the fact that Max could only see the front of the lodge, facing the sea. Meaning that anyone could sneak up on the place from behind. Though he started out with Erix in mind, the primitive, survival-instinct part of his brain kept offering even less reassuring suggestions about the woods beyond.
“Let’s wrap this up, okay?” he recommended, trying hard not to sound as anxious as he felt.
On a whim, Shades tried to activate the radio, and was not exactly surprised to when nothing happened. Radio dead, bare bulbs dark. Probably a generator somewhere on the grounds, but much like those rusty hulks outside, he doubted it would start anymore.
He was about to join Justin, who had just finished examining the desk and cabinet (apparently finding nothing half as interesting as the map), when he 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, Shades noticed, and it was hard not to shake off the conspiratorial feeling that something was trying to destroy that note, the radio itself long-since useless.
In between the blotches, all he 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, Shades still felt an ominous chill at what he was reading. Something menacing the camp? But what? Whatever happened, it drove them to abandon a child to apparently save the rest, a decision he could not imagine anyone making lightly.
“What’s it say?” Justin pressed him.
“Not much, that I can make out.” Shades frowned, putting the note back down and wiping his hand on his pantleg. “Whatever happened here, it started with that missing girl, and quickly escalated into a full-scale evacuation.”
“Evacuation?” Roger chimed in. “What kind of evacuation?”
“I’m not sure,” Shades told him, “but I think it was by sea. The note was too messed-up to read much of it, but it sounded like they were afraid of the woods, for some reason.”
“But we don’t have any way of traveling by sea,” Max pointed out, “so how do we get out of here?”
“I don’t know,” Shades admitted, “but it looked like a couple other places were marked on that map. I don’t think we’re going to find anything else in here, so I move that we go back to the plane and look it over together.”
“I second,” the pilot agreed.
“None here,” Max replied.
“I’m with you,” Justin added.
“Then it’s settled.”
Both of them made their way downstairs and back outside, where Shades 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. He slid the toe of his boot under it and flipped it over, exposing faded red letters:
“Of course, now we find the warning sign…” he muttered, then followed Justin back to the Albatross, Max covering them every step of the way back. Figuring it would’ve been all too easy if they found that first.
Once secure onboard, the two of them gave a brief report of their findings, everyone quickly turning their attention to the map.
According to which, they were 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 stood ‘west’ of the ‘shin’ of. The unsurprising (but no less disappointing) absence of any compass directions left Roger and Shades simply applying cardinal directions based solely on the map’s orientation, but the rest of what it revealed was less than encouraging.
Shades stared long at that map, wondering just how big this realm of Sinovia could be, looking like the corner of what might well be an entire continent.
Farther ‘west’ along the shore, in the direction Erix fled, and Roxy gave chase, was what appeared to be a settlement called Rannigan’s Wharf. The nearest location, probably less than a day’s walk from Camp Stilton. Much to their 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, that made all of them uneasy in their own way. A couple logging mills, officially marked Rigby Millworks and Pickford Mills. As well as a handwritten Ol’ Tobey’s near the road, about halfway between Stilton and the coastline ‘north’ of the peninsula. And a more dubious scribble near the peninsula proper, marked Circle Stones? off the beaten path, which Shades couldn’t help but wish they had the time and the resources to detour for.
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.
No mention of this ‘Deltania’ or ‘Cyexia’ the Black Angels were babbling about, only this Commonwealth of Sinovia, furthering Shades’ own suspicions on that matter.
“I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to just hike over to Rannigan’s Wharf and at least check it out?” Roger sighed.
“Out of the question,” Shades replied. “Roxy wanted Erix, she can have him. We have the safety of the rest of this crew to attend to, so unless she calls or returns to confirm that he’s dead, or that there’s anything over there, we should avoid going that way. You’ve seen for yourself just how dangerous he is. That, and from what I read in that note, it sounds like someone already gave their lives to provide this intel…”
“It would be wise to heed their words until we understand what’s going on around here,” Max agreed, not liking the look of any of that handwriting.
“What he said.” To Justin, 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, if possible. Not much help, in their 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. “Besides, we all have weapons.”
Then it dawned him that he had spoken those exact words before, once. Outside the Harken Building, or was it on that haunted island?
“So you really plan to take the long way around?” the pilot groaned. “I have an inflatable life raft, but without a motor or sails, it would take days to row around that peninsula.”
Even with the most conservative distance estimates, it would surely take more days than they 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. The Albatross was too badly damaged to maneuver its wing ‘sails’ and the only other vessels they could find were some rusted-out canoes half-sunk by the dock, apparently the last thing on anyone’s mind when they fled this place. As much as any of them would prefer to avoid a long march through the woods, skirting the coast without engine or wind power would take too long, just like walking. At this point, they could only hope that this Pickford wasn’t as abandoned as everyplace else on the map indicated.
“Which is why I think we should take the direct approach,” Shades proposed, pointing to a line marked Hwy 13, that ran from Rannigan’s Wharf past Camp Stilton, then cut ‘northeast’ through the Durwyn Wood, all the way to Pickford. “People build roads. They always lead somewhere. I’m not sure how these marches measure up to a mile, but I would guesstimate at least two days— four or five at the most— and hopefully we can find or hire a ship to come back around for the two of you.”
“And the Albatross,” Roger amended, having no better plan if Rannigan’s was off the table. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere without ’er.”
“Wait, aren’t we all going?” Justin blurted.
“No,” Max pointed out, “Roger and Bandit are too injured to travel. And if Roxy does return, she needs to know what’s going on.”
“And like I said, I’m not abandoning my Albatross,” Roger reminded them, then pleaded, “I still think you should try Rannigan’s Wharf first, before marching halfway across an unknown land for help, but I’m also at your mercy, so I guess it’s your choice. I mean, whatever happened here was a long time ago, right?”
“If there was anyone in Rannigan’s, I think they would’ve sent somebody out here by now,” Shades explained. “Or fishing boats out on the water, or something… No one’s coming to rescue us.”
“And what if Roxy comes back?” Max added.
“Maybe she’ll find supplies…” Justin put in hopefully.
“And Erix?” the pilot pressed.
“Wouldn’t blame you for shooting him on sight,” Shades answered. “Or anyone else trying to board without identifying themselves, while you’re at it. You’re kinda gonna be on your own for at least three days, possibly a week, depending.”
“Then we should get started soon,” Max recommended.
That resolved, Roger cooked lunch with a camp stove he kept onboard for emergencies, while Max covered Justin and Shades making one last trip to the lodge to recover some canned goods and other salvaged supplies from the kitchen pantry. Which Shades suggested as a last resort, with no reliable expiration dates and all. Then Max and Justin stood guard while Roger and Shades divided up their packs with their combined supplies.
Leaving most of the canned goods, both his own as well as the camp’s, with the Albatross so they could travel light and make better time with less burdensome foodstuffs. Leaving Roger with the camp stove and most of the fuel gel, as well, but Shades took one can with him, just in case. Each packing a couple canteens, as much water as they could reasonably carry. Leaving the pilot with two full kegs of water that he kept for just such a contingency, as well as a bug-out bag, in case he was forced to abandon the Albatross in spite of himself.
The others equipping themselves with an assortment of supplies Roger had picked up in many realms. A mix of handheld and clip-on flashlights, the crystal-powered kind whose running time still left Shades in awe of much of this world’s later-generation technologies. Four flare guns and a handful of flares between them, with Roger keeping one in case of any passing ships in their absence. Some cargo tarps, rope and utility knives Shades knew how to build makeshift tents and other useful things out of, from both his father’s and Master Al’s wilderness survival training. Leaving some for Roger, they took most of the lighters and a waterproof tube of matches, as well as a few camping dishes and cookware. A camping hatchet, a bottle of insect repellant Roger picked up while visiting some tropical island, as well as any other odds and ends they thought they might need out there.
After that, they settled in for a quiet, somber lunch before setting out into the woods.