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Author's Chapter Notes:
fat birds don't fly
The explosion was about the last thing any of Erix’s foes expected, just as planned, big and loud enough to be seen and heard, even around the bend.

From the way they cried out her name, even aboard the Albatross, it stood to reason Roxy was the one who stepped in it. The only thing he regretted more than failing to draw any of the others into the blast radius, was not getting to see the look on her face. He allowed himself a moment to savor that mental image before turning his attention back to the next step.

Which went over even better than he hoped, as Max not only joined his friends’ alarmed shouting, but jumped out of the plane to go join them in person, leaving the cargo door hanging wide open, paying Erix no heed as he slipped inside behind him. Though he was sorely tempted to shoot him while his back was turned, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself until he was ready to make his next move. Leaving his enemies to speculate if he had fled or not at this point.

A man, who was presumably the pilot, also cried out in horror from the cockpit, so engrossed in the catastrophe unfolding outside, he completely failed to notice Erix until his power pistol was right up to his face.

“Not one word, fat boy,” Erix 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.”

“It’s not that simple,” Roger told him, half afraid to speak, but all too well aware of how a lack of cooperation without any explanation would be construed. Though he kept a revolver 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,” not wanting to go into the whole Black Angels business with anyone who didn’t personally witness the attack, “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 realm 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 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?” Shades’ 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…” Justin pointed out.

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

“Roger,” Shades 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!” Justin called out. “He’s inside with him!”

“He means to maroon us…” Shades realized aloud. If there were any doubts about Erix’s ability to leave this place, that explosion just put them down hard.

“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,” Shades informed him. “That bird won’t fly anymore.”

“Way ahead of you,” 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…” Justin muttered.

“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 the big cat’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, and whatever lurked down there. “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.

“Nice try,” Erix taunted. He already understood that killing Bandit would set all three of them off. That for all his 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.

“Take me instead,” Max repeated.

“But you know he won’t let you live,” Justin pointed out.

“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 crossbow 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 Erix was going to die at the hands of some civilian pilot with almost no combat experience to speak of, 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 started leading him back into the woods, to the left of the lodge, keeping the pilot between himself and his enemies, to serve as a human shield if they tried anything else.

The others kept their distance, while trying to stay 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.”

“Which leaves us at an impasse,” Erix admitted. “That bounty hunter wanted me, but you just want to live, right? I’m going to move over next to that cabin, and I’m going to let him go just before I step around the corner. I won’t shoot any of you as long as none of you shoot at me. Agreed?”

“Very well,” Shades agreed, looking among his friends and seeing even Justin had no objection, though he did start to shift toward the other side of the cabin, just in case this was some kind of trick. Figuring this was their last chance to save him: “As long as you spare Roger, and leave us in peace, you have—”

Not even Erix saw it coming, just a slight rustle in the bushes, followed by an energy beam that pegged him in the arm, even as he belatedly shifted his stance. His gun clunked to the ground as he lost his grip and staggered back, a second shot hitting Roger in the chest and dropping him instantly. Erix cursed under his breath as he fled behind the aforementioned cabin, his stunned arm flopping uselessly at his side.

“Tch!” Roxy popped up out of the bushes, tracking him with several more shots.

“The hell…” Shades mumbled, taking it all in. “How did you?…”

“The rocks,” she replied, still keeping a keen eye on the cabin. Caked with sand and soot from head to foot, hair blown all to one side in a manner that put Shades in mind of old cartoons. “Just barely enough time…” And clearly shielded her from the worst of the blast. “Then maintained radio silence.”

“But what about Roger!” Max blurted. “You just shot him!”

“On stun,” the bounty hunter pointed out. “Now quickly, before he tries anything else!”

Gesturing for them to surround the cabin.

“Shoot the hostage…” For Shades, it clicked, recalling those words from some action flick or another. Roxy wasn’t just trying to get Erix, she was also trying to save Roger’s life. Wounded, Erix could still pull the trigger, if only out of spite, but stunned, he wouldn’t get the chance. Even stunning Roger would make him useless as a human shield.

He couldn’t help but wish he’d thought of that.

Yet Erix was already fleeing into the woods, using the bulk of the cabin to block their shots, and zigzagging to keep as many trees between himself and his foes as possible, shouting back, “This isn’t over, bitch!”

“It is if I have anything to do with it!” And Roxy wasted no time pursuing him.

“Fall back!” Shades called. “We can’t leave the Albatross unguarded! Or Roger!”

Max remembered Bandit and stopped in his tracks.

“But what about Erix!” Justin called back. “What if he comes back?”

“Do what you have to,” Roxy said over the radio, as she was fast moving out of earshot, “but I’m not coming back without his head!”

“She made her choice,” Shades concluded as Max returned, and snatched up the power pistol Erix dropped, one less weapon for their adversary. “Now let’s get him back to the ship.”

As the two old enemies chased each other out into the woods, Max and Shades hoisted the unconscious pilot between them, one propping up each shoulder, hauling him back while Justin covered them as best he could.

Along the way, Shades looked over at the derelict logging equipment fenced in between that cabin and the seashore. Most of it looked as if it had been here at least as long as the camp. A mystery, in and of itself. Though without fresh fuel and parts, as well as skills none of them but possibly Roger possessed, those rusty hulks weren’t going anywhere. Without ground or sea transport, they were reduced to traveling on foot, wherever they went next.

There were no other vessels docked in front of the lodge, only a rack of rotten canoes. Both Max and Shades took one look at them and forgot about it.

It was slow going, worrying about another ambush all the while, and by the time they got back to the Albatross, Roger was starting to come around, groaning as he drifted back up from unconsciousness. If ‘walking it off’ was any good for their situation, their brief excursion wouldn’t have left them both even more hobbled up, both Roger and Bandit worse off for their little tussle with Erix. The only good thing about this whole mess being that Roxy’s return greatly diminished the chances of Erix’s.

As they approached the plane, Shades thought he saw a patch of seaweed top a wave, then lost it as it vanished under the next swell. He wondered for a moment why a scrap of seaweed would bother him so much, especially after such a violent storm. Then he was inside and preparing to shut the cargo door against the outside, and his mind turned to more immediate matters.

Just before they reached the Albatross, Max spotted the diving gear Erix had hidden behind the rocks, nearby, and went over to fetch it while Shades brought Roger aboard. They found Bandit waiting for them back at the plane. Inside the plane, and looking out at the woods with a distrust that even their return couldn’t fully dispel. By the time Roger came around, he seemed to have overheard enough of their conversation to have some idea what was going on as they planned their next move.

“So what the hell do we do now?” Justin muttered.

“We investigate the lodge,” Shades proposed. “Before we can make any useful plan, we should try to figure out where the hell we are, and what’s been going on out here.”