Tradewinds 20: Into the Woods by shadesmaclean
Story Notes:
(Though I'm technically still editing the final few chapters, I've decided to get the ball rolling, hopefully in time to get into the good stuff by Halloween. :P )

1. I by shadesmaclean

2. II by shadesmaclean

3. III by shadesmaclean

4. IV by shadesmaclean

5. V by shadesmaclean

6. VI by shadesmaclean

7. VII by shadesmaclean

8. VIII by shadesmaclean

9. IX by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

16. XVI by shadesmaclean

17. XVII by shadesmaclean

18. XVIII by shadesmaclean

19. XIX by shadesmaclean

20. Sole Survivor by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
rough landing
The ocean filled the entire cockpit windows. A field of thrashing waves looming up at them.

The pilot screamed as he hauled the yoke for all he was worth, Roger’s frantic cries mingling with those of his passengers as the Albatross barely pulled up, skidding across the storm-tossed seas with a jolt that would have tossed them around the cabin like rag dolls if not for their restraints. Though it still rattled their modular seats in their mountings, at least they held. The rough waters splashed against the glass so hard they feared it would shatter.

At least one cracked, and the Albatross’ wings and frame groaned and creaked as they rode out every wave, while all any of them could do was hope against hope she would hold together long enough for them to reach land.

Roger moaned as he struggled to work the seaplane closer to the shore, their one remaining engine threatening to sputter out at every turn.

In the end, it was an especially massive wave that delivered them, though, depositing them on a rocky shoreline with a lurch that nearly knocked their modular seats loose. Combined with the engine’s final burst, hauling them far enough aground to avoid being dragged back into the maelstrom.

A particularly brilliant flash of lightning illuminated a nearby building, a lodge of log construction. No lights on, and they wondered if it was too much to ask for there to be anyone in there to step out and lend a hand. The wall of mostly deciduous trees behind it suggesting a certain remoteness, casting doubts about finding any more substantial settlements in the area.

“Well, I’ll be damned, folks! We made it!” Roger Wilco more sighed than crowed, turning back to his passengers. “So, everyone else okay!”

“Yeah…” Justin Black grumbled, struggling with his harness.

“Bandit? You okay?” Max turned to his feline companion, the large black-and-white panther he had hastily strapped in when that mysterious Shadow Squadron started firing on them. It didn’t take a veterinarian to see Bandit had tangled and injured his left front paw in the straps, snarling and thrashing while Max tried to help him, petting and reassuring his old friend as he worked.

“Aren’t you glad you were wearing your seatbelts?” Shades quipped, straightening his namesake sunglasses and shaking his head. “And now that I’m fresh out of public service announcements, does anyone else need clean underwear?”

“At least you’re still alive…” Roxy muttered. For her part, the bounty hunter had already unstrapped herself, and was looking out the windows, surveying their surroundings.

“Told ya I’d get us here in one piece,” the pilot told them, “wherever the hell here is…”

But as he attempted to climb out of the pilot’s seat, he fell back with a sharp gasp and a half-uttered curse, his right leg twitching and spasming.

“Dammit…” Roger muttered, “I think I pulled somethin’ when I was fightin’ with the controls…”

“I’m so sorry…” Roxy told him, turning from her survey, not that there was much to see. “You were right. We should’ve climbed sooner.”

“Damn skippy, lady!” Roger slumped back in his seat. “Still, if the Black Angels were in the neighborhood, I doubt it would’ve made much difference. This Erix bastard has the devil’s own luck…”

At the mere mention of that name, Roxy remembered her tracker, spotting it on the floor, still pinging.

“Be on your guard,” she warned them, snatching it up and double-checking her readings. “According to this, he’s less than a mile away.”

“Where?” Max demanded, Bandit momentarily forgotten.

“According to the signal, he’s farther up the coast.”

“At least he’s not out sea,” Shades pointed out. Where he could attack the Albatross like the sitting duck she currently was.

All of them, especially Roger, took some relief in that they at least wouldn’t have to bug out, injuries or no injuries, and hole up in that deserted-looking lodge.

“Don’t tell me you wanna go after him again…” Justin groaned, checking his guns anyway.

“You know I do,” she replied, “but not like this. It’s too dangerous, in the dark, in this storm, in unknown territory. He’s probably just riding out the storm over there, so we should wait until dawn, try to catch him before he leaves.”

“And try to take his ship,” Max added, “in case we can’t take off.”

“That’s a good plan,” Roxy agreed, “since I don’t think this poor bird’s up to it right now.”

Try as he might, Roger couldn’t get more than a feeble, token effort out of either engine, and the custom mechanism for rotating the wings into makeshift sails appeared to be jammed in the crash.

Since the Albatross could no longer move under her own power, Roger instructed them to draw out some mooring and cargo lines to anchor them more securely against the storm tide. Shades and Max went out, while Justin and Roxy covered them from under the wing as a precaution.

As far as they could tell, just from flashlight inspection, both the hull and underwing pontoons ran aground in sandy, gravelly terrain, and appeared to be intact and potentially seaworthy, though they would clearly need to make a more thorough inspection after sunrise.

Much as they suspected, though, the lodge remained dark and vacant-looking as ever, looming over them as they worked. Shades caught a glimpse of several smaller outbuildings, what looked like log cabins, a little farther back, mostly hidden by the woods, but there was no sign of activity from any of them, either. Just the constant, unsettling feeling of being watched.

That, and their ears were still ringing from all of those strange threats and ominous talk of Forbidden Zones and armed escorts and such, that it was hard not to expect company at any moment, while the clamor of the storm would completely mask the sound of their approach. They were all relieved to make it back aboard without incident, yet they all remained ill-at-ease as they turned their attention to patching up injuries and taking stock of supplies as they awaited the dawn.

At least one of them always on watch, just in case.
Chapter End Notes:
Stay tuned for weekly chapter installments...
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
opening gambit
Meanwhile, Erix spent the night holed up in his own ship, sleeping with one eye open, in case the external sensors conked out on him.

The storm had proven even more turbulent than he expected, especially down below, and his attempts to surface only got him slammed against the rocky shore. At several points, he would almost swear something crashed against the ship, and his sensors seemed to bug out, indicating massive shapes around him at several points, but never with any consistency. He still had no clue what to make of that, beyond a violence and turbulence he had never encountered before down there, and hoped never to see the like of again.

The compact experimental reactor that seemed to supply the Checkmate with unlimited energy was damaged in the crash, with backup power reserves fading fast. As well as leaving a leaky gash in the side of the hull. Barring tools, resources and technical expertise that he lacked, his extended joyride was over.

The final readings from his long-range sensors indicated that the mysterious seaplane that continued hounding him ever since he left Anchor Point had landed a short ways downshore. Telling him all he needed to know about who was onboard. His only guess, that she had planted some kind of tracking device back in Yarbo.

Though hiding out in his ship struck him as a rather cowardly thing to do, he also knew better than to tempt fate.

The woods and rocks along the shore provided solid cover for anyone approaching his position, so he left his remaining auto-gun standing guard with what little auxiliary power it had left as an early warning system. The rain and dark would only increase his peril, so he waited for the storm to blow over before slipping out to do a little recon.

Had to admit he didn’t like the vibes he was getting from those woods, but it was hardly the first time he ever had to rough it. From here, he would follow the shore from the cover of trees; that always led to what little passed for civilization in these backwater realms. Admittedly, there didn’t seem to be any towns or settlements, still the camp he found out that way still struck him as having been abandoned far too long by his reckoning.

What bothered him most was that both the lodge, and the beached plane, were too dark to see into, to tell where his pursuers might be hiding, so he decided to fall back to the ship and let them come to him instead.

Or so he would let them believe.

Once back, he packed up the supplies and gear he’d sorted earlier while waiting out the storm, placing them in a waterproof bag and strapping on the same diving equipment he used to gather salvage back in Yarbo, prepared to disembark. The horizon beginning to lighten, so he doubted he had much time left before the Hunter made her move. To that end, he prepared to leave one last, unpleasant surprise for anyone who came after him.

This Checkmate was clearly a military prototype, and as such, was equipped with a self-destruct system meant for scuttling the ship should the need arise. Now he set it to activate the next time the cabin was opened by anyone not wearing his friend-or-foe transmitter. Rigged to serve him one last time before going out with a bang.

Then, using the ship and some jagged rocks for concealment, he slipped into the water and started swimming around the bend, toward the plane. Staying deep enough to avoid being seen, and the waves would cover up the bubbles from his mask, yet close enough to still see the shoreline, he made his way over.

About halfway there, he froze in mid stroke as he spotted something out of the corner of his eye, farther out at sea. Something about that wavy motion struck him as just plain wrong. Which bothered him, because on closer inspection, it appeared to be just an ordinary clump of seaweed—

Then he caught it again.

What looked like a pale hand reaching out from the tangle of lamina, shifting in and out of sight. Which struck him as a most unusual place to find a corpse, in the wake of such a powerful storm. Though it could be anchored down with rocks or other weights— by no means an uncommon way to get rid of anyone certain people never wanted to see again— yet doing it in the middle of nowhere was a rather strange amount of trouble to go to. Possibly the handiwork of pirates.

He doubted he would be so lucky, that it would turn out to be any of his current foes.

As he turned to resume his sneak attack, the mass of fronds shifted back the other way, and he caught a glimpse of a face staring out at him. A human face, bloodless as that hand, and frozen in a rictus of abject terror. Its cloudy eyes wide open, and staring right at him.

In the face of that dead gaze, he found a moment to wonder why the fish hadn’t picked these remains clean. It just couldn’t be that recent, as long-abandoned as everything was topside. And it didn’t look like the face of any of his adversaries, unless it was the pilot, but this didn’t look like anything Max’s crew would even be capable of, not even Roxy…

He blinked for a moment, his reverie broken by the disconcerting impression that sinister seaweed had somehow drifted closer to him.

That got him moving again, hugging closer to the shore, heedless of the startled burst of bubbles from his diving mask, wanting to be well clear of what he was sure must be some sort of exotic undersea predator, not wanting to find out what it might be able to do to him once he found himself tangled up in there.

He barely remembered to exercise caution poking his head out of the water in his haste to make it back to the surface.

Nearly overshot his mark, but he managed to creep up on the plane’s tail end, its biggest blind spot, to find no one standing watch outside. Resisting waves of relief from being out of the water, and away from that creepy cadaver, he ditched his diving tank and mask behind a large rock and crept up against the seaward side of the fuselage, reminding himself that these enemies required more of his attention than the one he left behind.

Concluding that forward was the only meaningful direction left to him anyway, as going back struck him as most unwise.

Timing his movements against the wash of the tide to mask the sound of his steps in this gravelly sand, he worked his way toward the front of the plane, keeping below any windows and using the curvature of the fuselage for concealment.

Fast deciding that macabre delay actually worked to his advantage, as he spotted Shades and Justin working their way from cover to cover, moving in the direction of his ship, catching Roxy just as she rounded the bend in the coastline, leaving what surely must be only one or two people onboard to guard the plane.

Taking one last look over his shoulder to satisfy himself that creepy thing hadn’t crept ashore while his back was turned, Erix slipped back around, energy blade at the ready to break in through the cargo door he noticed earlier, and waited for the fun to begin.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
check and mate
As the storm blew over, and the sky gradually lightened, Shades continued to scrutinize that lodge, thankful as the others that the Albatross came to rest more or less intact, that they didn’t have to abandon ship and camp out in there after all. All their impressions being of long abandonment and much remoteness.

Roxy continued to monitor her tracker, most likely meaning to rush out if Erix’s ship gave even the slightest hint of movement. Though to what purpose, none of the others were exactly sure. Max and his friends having already resolved to make a move only if that blip actually started moving toward them. After all, even its remaining firepower could do the Albatross some serious damage.

All that talk of escorts and boarding and forbidden ground still ringing in their ears, making all of their sleep uneasy at best.

Whether this ‘Shadow Squadron’ really was the infamous Black Angels, and if they should be expecting company. At first proposed standing guard under the landward wing, to keep the rain off, but ultimately decided against it, since Erix was a competent sniper, and could sneak up or pick off any outdoor sentries one by one. Instead, they stayed inside, with hourly two-on/two-off guard shifts, while their injured pilot tried to get some rest, elevating his leg and using some instant cold-packs from the Albatross’s First Aid kit.

Still waiting for the other shoe to drop after the Black Angels’ ominous threats. Despite their growing suspicion that whatever places they were talking about were a long way from here, and whatever conflict they were babbling about happened long before their time. After hours with no response— no ground troops, no patrol ships, not even a fly-by to locate any wreckage— they began to conclude that they were likely on their own out here.

Trouble enough, given who they were stranded out here with in the meantime.

No other enemies, but also no rescue. As if any of them had any good plan for what to do if any armed patrols did show up. So, rather than some heavily-guarded military secret, they appeared to have been dumped into some completely unrelated situation.

Judging from the absence of any sort of response to their plane crash, they figured the buildings were every bit as deserted as they appeared to be, but chose not to take any chances, based on some of their past misadventures.

“It’s time,” Roxy finally declared, rising from her seat and shouldering her disrupter rifle, with its wicked-looking fold-out bayonet rig.

“Should we really rush in?” Max asked, patting Bandit’s head as he looked up from his fitful nap, front left paw twitching with the pain of the reflexive movement. The big cat’s apprehension mirroring his human companion’s.

“Surely he’s going to be expecting us,” Shades pointed out.

“Yeah, it could be a trap,” Justin agreed, though he kept his crossbow at the ready. “Why not just let him go if he doesn’t come after us again?”

“He has no good reason to hang around here, now that the storm’s over,” the bounty hunter pointed out. Showing them that his blip had indeed remained stationary. “If he hasn’t already left this place, it’s because he can’t. Which means he’s stranded here with us. If that’s the case, we should be expecting him. This isn’t about the bounty anymore, not out here.”

“So our best bet is to strike first.” Shades nodded.

“Exactly.” She moved over to the cargo door, turning back to them. “Max, stay with the injured and guard the ship. I’ll take point. You two,” pointing to Justin and Shades, “cover me.”

“We’ll only get one shot at this,” Max told them, “so stay on your guard. Let’s all come back in one piece, okay?”

They all nodded soberly as Roxy opened the cargo door.

As none of them had seen anyone approach the Albatross, they first turned their attention to the lodge. Shades kept a close eye on it while Roxy and Justin searched ahead. Though they hadn’t spotted anyone skulking around there, the building was big enough to conceal someone sneaking through the woods and entering through the back.

One thing he was able to confirm from this close was that there were indeed several cabins farther back, reminding him of summer camps back on Earth.

As they rounded the bend, Shades turned his attention back to the front, he and Justin both feeling entirely too vulnerable out in the open against a marksman of Erix’s caliber, while Roxy seemed totally unfazed, a model of focus.

Given that Erix could shuffle from a bottomless deck of dirty tricks, it was impossible not to feel like they were walking into a trap, no matter how cautious they were. Mostly just glad that their radios were voice-activated, leaving both hands free for whatever came next.

Up ahead, they could make out the black and grey armor of the Checkmate, beached amid a jumble of jagged rocks, confirming that Roxy’s assessment was right on the money, and they were all glad they stuck to their cover.

The bounty hunter slipping from tree to tree through the woods to work her way around to the far side of the ship.

Justin peering out from behind the crumbling piling of an old dock just past the edge of the camp grounds. The sea breeze through the leaves occasionally bothering him with the possibility of someone sneaking past (possibly up on) him.

Shades crouching behind the massive trunk of a fallen tree, looking out from behind a bush growing in front of it for concealment. Even as he tried to focus on Erix’s ship, he found an ominous weight leaning on the back of his mind from the woods behind him. Through the trees, he could make out the rusty hulks of abandoned logging vehicles and machinery, surrounded by a sagging chain-link fence bearing weathered warning signs.

Struggled against the unexpectedly vivid image of all those old machines coming to life and rampaging after them…

He shook his head, pushing back the creepy image, just in time for the shootout with the ship’s remaining auto-gun to commence.

As he recalled, Erix originally had about five or six auto-guns onboard, but after their last battle in Anchor Point, he appeared to be down to only one. Unless he was holding back before. He silently thanked Justin for that, as he felt no small relief about not having to shoot it out with all of them at once, especially at this range. As it was, their hand weapons were no match for the ship’s prototype armor, and even the auto-gun itself could withstand more than one hit from their power pistols and still remain functional.

Justin ducked back behind the piling as the gun swiveled back to fire on him again, cursing under his breath as he holstered his disrupter pistol and unslung his crossbow. Much as he would have preferred Roger’s quadra-barrel canon for this job, it required a power source like the Albatross’s engines to fire more than a handful of rounds, or a really long extension cord. And there was nowhere near enough cover to move something that bulky within firing range. Instead, he fetched out an explosive bolt, preparing to make another shot when the heat was off.

“Guys!” he called out, “Draw that thing’s fire!”

The main tactical advantage they had going here was that they had the ship surrounded from every direction but the sea, so one lone gun couldn’t target all three of them at once, thus the targeting computer’s priorities were confounded by both Shades and Roxy firing on it simultaneously, giving Justin the opening he needed to take aim.

The explosive bolt finally did the trick, blasting the gun right off its swivel mounting.

All the same, Roxy understood it was too soon to celebrate as she hid behind a jagged rock outcropping, part of the same formation the ship ran aground on. After waiting to see if any more hidden guns would pop out, she raised her cloak on a stick, so when no more energy beams lanced in her direction, she concluded that there were no more auto-guns in reserve. Which brought them to the moment of truth.

The storm, plus the incoming tide, had wiped away any tracks, though she held no doubt that he must have stepped out at least once to reconnoiter. Could see the hull ground up against the rocks, confirming her hunch that he was as stranded here as they were. Was originally half afraid, before finding the ship itself, that they would just find a pried-off tracker bug lying in the sand, and Erix himself long gone.

According to her direction-finder, though, he hadn’t even bothered to search for or remove it, which meant that he didn’t care if his ship was found, a fact that bothered her even as she approached.

The idea of catching him, of all people, flat-footed, just didn’t sound right to her. Though it was possible he was injured in the crash, she just couldn’t picture him defenseless, it was just too convenient to even consider. At the very least, she needed to ascertain whether or not he was still onboard, or merely using the ship’s remaining defenses as a diversion while he widened the distance between them, and their next move would be to try to pick up his trail. Still, if he was too injured to flee, there was no telling what his next wily move might be.

And only one way to find out, she concluded, scrambling for the next nearest ridge while Justin and Shades covered her.

By the time she reached the last available cover, no additional defenses popped up to challenge them, so there was nothing left to do but knock.

Slicing through the lock with her laser staff, she opened the cabin’s side hatch, hiding behind its armored bulk as she hauled it open, lobbing in a smoke grenade to make things uncomfortable for anyone still in there.

Listening closely, hearing no coughing, no cursing, not even a hint of movement.

Wondering if he already flew the coop, and left the ship’s defense systems as a stalling tactic, or if he had some kind of breath mask, she peered inside as the smokescreen wafted out.

The interior turned out to be as Spartan and utilitarian as Shades described earlier, offering no practical hiding places, so it only took a matter of seconds to search the cabin, even the cramped toilet compartment she couldn’t really picture Erix cowering in anyway, turning up the vessel completely empty.

That just left the question of which way he went, without any immediate trail to follow. It was just about then that she remembered what Erix was doing with this ship back in Yarbo to begin with. That perhaps he hadn’t fled on land, but sought to evade them underwater until he got farther away…

As she looked around, noting that any diving gear Erix may have possessed was as absent as he was, she spotted a blinking display on the mostly dormant control panel.

A countdown.

And only bare seconds left to act before whatever nasty surprise he left for her went off.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's 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.”
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Camp Stilton
“Shouldn’t we wait for Roxy to come back?” Justin asked.

“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.

“Any objections?”

“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:

WARNING!
TURN BACK!
DANGER AHEAD!


“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.
Chapter End Notes:
full Peninsula District map on my deviantart page (also shadesmaclean)
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
into the Woods
“Ready?” Max asked.

“Why does everybody always ask if you’re ready right before doing something foolhardy?” Justin wondered aloud.

“Tradition,” Shades answered.

“Good luck out there,” Roger told them. “We’re both counting on you.”

Bandit looking at the three of them as if they were about to wander off a cliff or something, casting wary glances at the camp, and the woods beyond.

They all stood in the cargo door for a long moment, could almost feel the noontime sun edging into afternoon, daylight wasting. Certain that even Max would lose his nerve if they had to enter that forest after sundown.

“But what if Erix comes back?” the pilot asked, as if truly beginning to digest the implications of being all alone out here.

“I doubt he’ll be back unless Roxy fails.” Figured if it was anyone else out there against Erix, he wouldn’t expect much— even survival might be raising the bar too high— but he gave the bounty hunter at least fifty-fifty odds. After all, Erix set a mean trap, yet she still escaped. Thinking quickly, he made up a couple passwords: “Since Erix isn’t around to overhear us, let’s use passwords. When we come back, we’ll call out: ‘Take it to the Maximum,’ to signify that it’s just us, and there’s no danger. But if we say: ‘The Albatross has landed,’ that will be a warning to keep your guard up. That we’re being followed, or held at gunpoint, or there’s some other kind of trouble, and it’s totally at your discretion how to respond.

“You’ve seen for yourself what Erix is like. If no one gives the password, we could hardly blame you for shooting first and asking questions later.” Remembering it from earlier, Shades handed Roger Erix’s dropped power pistol to hold the fort. A weapon once pointed at him, a very personal reminder of what they were dealing with out here. “Now that he knows the Albatross is no use to him, the only thing he might try to double back for would be the supplies. In a place like this, you should think of him as a kind of intelligent savage, and be wary of anyone you don’t recognize approaching this place.”

“And what about Roxy?” Roger pressed.

“I guess she’s on her own,” Justin commented, “since she took off…”

“Try to maintain radio contact as long as possible,” Shades advised. When they checked earlier, the Albatross’s solar panels, at least, were still operable, capable of powering the lights, radio and basic electronics for the time being. “But make sure she replies before giving the password, just blurting it over the radio could allow Erix to overhear it. We’ll try to bring back help, and return with them, if possible. And even if this Pickford place turns out to be defunct, we should still be able to scrounge up a ship, more supplies… something. The return trip shouldn’t take more than a day or so with even the crudest of vessels. And if, for some reason, we’re unable to make it back ourselves, we’ll at least try to pass on the password to your rescuers. I just hope some backwoods bumpkin doesn’t blunder into this mess, but somehow I doubt anybody’s coming out here on their own anytime soon. There’s just something about those woods that gives me a bad feeling…”

Contrary to Shades, Roger found he hoped some local might get involved, hopefully someone who had some idea what the hell was going on out here. In spite of his stubbornness about not abandoning ship, he still fought down an ominous fear of being left behind, now that they came down to it. Then he looked over at Bandit, and seeing Max’s determined expression as he made his own heartfelt farewell gave him hope. Understood that Max, if no one else, would return as long as he still lived, even if he had to drag supplies down the coast on a sled or something.

That resolved, they set out to enter the Woods in earnest.

“Lock and load, guys,” Shades said as they set out, even as it occurred to him that there was no such function on energy weapons.

All of them armed and prepared as one could be for the Unknown.

As they passed the lodge, Shades wandered over to the nearest cabin in their path. Peered in through the dusty window, though he doubted there was anything to stir up inside. Just like the lodge, he saw only signs of hasty retreat, odds and ends left behind, and no return trip for any of it.

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 them as looking more like a tunnel into the woods.

Being the lightest, even with his pack on, Justin tested it first. Though the bridge was old and creaky, and slightly warped, it still held, a testament to the craftsmanship of its builders. They crossed one at a time, just to be on the safe side. Though little more than a trickle ran beneath it compared to the size of the riverbed, the Amarrack clearly at low ebb, which they could easily cross on foot if the bridge was too frail, the last thing they needed was any more injuries, no matter how minor.

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 Shades might have found rustic and scenic, if it didn’t feel so ominous. Wishing he knew why he was so certain it was the woods themselves everyone before was so afraid of. As they moved farther inland, away from the Ocean, the salty, briny smell of the sea became ever more muted, and the pungent, primal scents of the Woods began to take over.

Shades took in the scents around him, wondering. They were essentially the same sort as the smells that surrounded him back in the mountains around Lakeside. Smelling them again after all this time, he noticed them in a rather different way. Of crushed, bruised underbrush, stirred soil, the earthy smells of the wild.

Max, on the other hand, found little to compare with this years on the Isle of Paradise.

A short way down the road, they came to a fork, a leaning, faded wooden sign pointing left for the stricken town of Rannigan’s Wharf, right for Pickford. As if the dense foliage didn’t already put Max in mind of it, he tried not to picture the words Top of the World and Boneyard on that sign, like the one he found at a fork in a forested path on a certain haunted island once upon a time. The sign itself seeming to offer one last chance to change their minds about Rannigan’s, and they all paused for a moment before resuming their original course.

To his dismay, Shades noted that the road the fork connected to was a dirt road, as well, as if none of this Highway 13 was actually paved, a rather trumped-up designation for what looked like little more than one of many old logging roads out in the mountains back home.

Justin took a couple swigs from his canteen before they pressed on, and Shades cautioned him again to ration his water carefully, as there was no way to be sure how long they might be out here, and Justin sighed and put it away.

Knew after a couple days, it could easily be down to only one swig. Then nothing, the way things were going. Unless they could reach the other river marked on the map, which they would have to cross on their way to Pickford, or some other source to replenish their water.

And stop to boil it, holding back the handful of water purifying tablets Roger gave them, unless they had no choice. Knew even ‘clear’ water could be populated with enough bacteria to empty your bowels in a couple hours. And in places where it wasn’t, the alkali or other mineral content would empty your bowels instead.

Along the way, they decided to maintain radio contact with the Albatross for as long as possible, though if their reception within the camp was any indication, they doubted it would last long. And they turned out to be correct, the signal fading measurably once they crossed the river. Since the plane’s radio had a much longer broadcast range, and stronger reception, than their handhelds, they could still hear their last (though hopefully not final) broadcast, intended as both a distress signal, as well as for Roxy’s benefit:

…They’re headed up the peninsula, to a town called Pickford. Your last known direction has you headed for Rannigan’s Wharf, which all evidence indicates you should beware of. Since I’m too injured to travel, I’m staying with the plane, and can give you the password for not getting shot… This is Roger Wilco, of the Albatross. If you can hear…

Recorded for playback at regular intervals.

Like most things around here, it was difficult to pin down just how many years this road had been abandoned. Apparently, long enough for the woods to begin reclaiming it, dwindling to a pair of weedy ruts. Radio contact with Roger quickly gave way to static, despite all of their doubts that they could’ve made it the full two miles yet.

Highway, my ass… Shades thought. Looking back, he could have sworn their signal reception diminished right along with the road itself, leaving them with a pair of subtle depressions in the underbrush that none of them fully trusted.

“The river…” Shades muttered, nearly facepalming. His own words (People build roads, so they always lead somewhere…) ringing in his own ears, mocking him. “We need to go back and follow the river. I know it’ll take longer, but the edge of the highlands upstream should serve as a natural guide to the other river, and that’ll take us to Pickford, even if the roads are gone.”

“Then why the hell did we go this way?” Justin muttered, kicking a small rock.

“Because I thought it would be faster if we followed the road,” Shades admitted. “I didn’t think it would be this far gone…”

“Then let’s go,” Max suggested, wanting to head off the argument he smelled brewing.

And so they turned back, all of them regretting whatever measure of daylight they just lost on this path, but they didn’t get far.

Turning the next bend, what was left of the road not only failed to return, but again faded away, this time with a tree growing in the middle of the path. Looking around, they could see no forks, no place they could’ve gotten sidetracked from the main road.

Justin ended their long moment of silent consternation with, “You said…”

“I know what I said,” Shades mumbled. “I made a mistake, okay…”

“How the hell can you be so damn calm about it!?”

“Justin, I’m terrified.” Though he still wasn’t sure just what sort of games this place could play, he feared they were already starting to find out. This was one of those places. They were still too far in to see even a hint of the covered bridge anymore, so he recommended, “Let’s try following the signal back to the ship, or at least the shore… If we give in to panic, we lose by default.”

“But how?” Max asked. “We’ve been going back, but we still aren’t getting anything.”

“If we can make it back to the coast, we could find the camp, and then the river…” But there wasn’t a shred of confidence in any of Shades’ words by then, as if he already understood somehow it was too late for that. He was never truly lost back in Lakeside; even when he wandered off into places he’d never been before, he quickly regained his bearings. “And no compass directions, either…”

“So what the hell do we do now?” Justin demanded, kicking the tree that was making such a mockery of their sense of direction.

“I don’t know,” Shades confessed. “Back in my world, if you get lost in the woods, you’re supposed to find a safe place and wait for a search-and-rescue party, but that doesn’t apply in our situation. I don’t think anyplace in these woods is terribly safe anymore, and no one is going to come looking for us out here…”

“And you’re supposed to be the wilderness expert, smartass!”

“Justin,” Max admonished him. To him, their voices seemed to reverberate one moment, only to sound stifled and muffed the next. “He’s trying. We all are.”

“That plane crash was too far away from civilization, only someplace with long-range radar could possibly have even noticed it,” Shades thought aloud. “And I really don’t believe that ghost squadron was from anywhere around these parts, either, so it’s pretty safe to say we’re on our own out here.”

“So what do we do?”

“That road had just enough twists and turns to mess up our bearings,” Shades pointed out, trying to piece it all together, “but we’re near a peninsula. We should pick a direction and try to stick with it. We should either hit the shoreline, or encounter one of the two river branches that box us in, or the highlands in between. This is the sort of haunted place where I could picture us getting split up and shooting each other or something… We should aim to stick together, even while exploring.”

Much like the compass readings, he wasn’t even so sure the sun rose or set in the same place in these Woods. In the Twilight Zone.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
campfire dreams
Shades gazed out into those woods, listening.

To the stillness and the silence. Not even the sounds of insects, birds, rustling leaves, something. At first, they had been too preoccupied following, then losing, the road, all the while looking out for Erix, only belatedly did they notice just how dead quiet these woods were.

The forests of Montana were nothing like this. No matter where he looked, Shades could see no sign of any animals. As if to suggest this entire wilderness was deserted, and he wondered for a moment how the laughter of children might sound in this place.

The chill he felt had nothing to do with the coming of dusk.

If a little kid falls down in the Woods, would she make a sound?

Shades shook his head, trying not to dwell on the fact that his mind was already making mental associations with that missing girl from Camp Stilton, whose fate would surely remain unknown after all these years, turning his focus back front and center. Being the most experienced with this sort of forest terrain, he took point, scouting what he hoped was a way back to the coast, having given up on the river for now, while Justin covered him and Max took rear guard. The moss and undergrowth out here proved quite resilient, yielding nothing in the way of a trail. Confounding both his and Max’s tracking experience.

Short of bringing out a bloodhound, even an experienced outdoorsman would have little luck tracking anyone out here.

Though they doubted they would actually pick up any signals from the Albatross, Shades kept one earphone in on the radio. Despite hearing strange birdcalls that he did not hear from the surrounding forest with his other ear. Found he could turn the birdcalls on and off with the radio, and at times he wondered if it was such a bright idea to leave it on at all.

Max wasn’t so sure if even Bandit could follow them anymore, and couldn’t make up his mind about whether or not that was a good thing.

“It weighs on your mind, doesn’t it?” Shades remarked. “Trying to be quiet, to not draw attention to ourselves, yet this silence…”

“You’re tellin’ me,” Justin muttered. “I still can’t believe this.”

“You’re in good company,” Shades replied. There were still moments when he couldn’t help but feel cheated, like some city-slicker rube who wandered off the marked trails and onto the Missing Persons list. As the map was fast proving to be no use against the Woods, they decided to keep striking the river as an outside chance, and instead focus on trying to at least reach the shore of the peninsula again, to follow the remainder of the coast. Even if it took longer, there was no arguing that course offered a better chance of actually getting somewhere. Couldn’t help thinking they could’ve avoided their current predicament if only that note had been a little more specific about the dangers of the forest, but also had to admit that perhaps it originally had been, before parts of it got blotted out with mold. “The only upside I can see is that at least that bastard Erix can’t follow us.”

“And that crazy bitch can’t, either!” Though Justin also had to admit that he would feel a little safer with another sharpshooter on the team. “But I guess I wouldn’t mind if she did for once…”

“I wonder if Erix is even going to be a problem out here…” Max mused, trying to keep his voice down despite being last in line. Most of the time, he hoped Bandit would actually stay put for a change, yet he had no idea if it was really any safer back at the Albatross wreck, so neither possibility offered any relief for his worries. Though he still kept an eye out for Erix, it was hard not to concern himself more with the increasingly apparent wrongness of this place. “Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s having problems of his own.”

“Especially if he continued heading for Rannigan’s Wharf,” Shades pointed out. “I thought Roger was going to put up more of a fight about going that way, but at least his injuries should keep him from trying it himself.”

Much like his friends, the only good thing to come out of this mess was Erix’s diminishing chance of return. Though all he had to do to get back to the Albatross was just follow the shoreline, if he got too far from the coast, he would likely be in the same predicament as themselves. His sympathy was understandably short, whereas he couldn’t help feeling bad for Roxy, who also had no clue what she was getting herself into.

“And you used to do this for fun?” Justin snorted.

“Well, yes,” Shades admitted, “but we knew where we were going, we had better equipment, people who would come looking for us if we were gone too long… and no weird shit goin’ on… So, I guess maybe it’s not so much like hiking back there…”

During the long intervals between realms, he had once tried to explain how navigation worked back in his world. Of lands that stayed in the same place, and magnetic fields stable enough to allow compasses to work reliably in most areas. Even the stars, taking generations to shift gradually, such that only astronomers finally pieced together the full movements of the heavens…

But under this stifling, stuffy canopy, he wasn’t so sure if they could trust the sun to actually rise or set in the same places in this eldritch forest.

“I’ve got an idea,” Max told them, breaking a long silence on his part. “I’ll climb a tree, and see what I can see.”

“Good plan,” Shades agreed, and Justin nodded, so they also kept an eye out for a suitably tall tree as they went.

When they found a likely one, whose trunk was noticeably thicker than its neighbors, and whose top they couldn’t see past the canopy, Max ran up the trunk to the lowest branch, then started working his way up out of sight while Justin and Shades stood vigil below.

Much as Shades suspected, the mighty trunk did belong to an uncommonly tall tree, getting Max above the canopy well before he ran out of branches that could support him.

Though at first, unshaded daylight was heartening, the setting sun was a grim reminder that their first full day out here was nearly over. All around him was a lumpy sea of green, as far as the eye could see, the haze on the horizon, where the treeline met the sky, offering him no clue which way the Ocean was. An ocean of land, more than he had ever seen in one place in his entire life…

Reminding him all too easily of the endless ramshackle roofscape he once encountered within the Harken Building.

At first worried that he was wasting his time up here in spite of the view, then he spotted something useful. Keeping careful track of his direction as he made his way down, relieved to find his friends still waiting for him as they were to see him again.

“There’s a clearing over there,” Max informed them, leading them off to the right of their original heading.

Sure enough, they encountered a clearing about ten minutes later. The break in the trees allowed them all to see just how late the hour had grown, making Shades wish he had paid some attention to which way the sun rose in relation to the shore this morning. Though it might not amount to anything, it was still better than nothing.

The thing that caught all of their attention, though, was the wooden road sign near the edge of the trees. Faded past the outer limits of readability, but still obviously part of the old road system. But try as they might, none of them could find the faintest trace of any road nearby. Only calling further into question anything it had to say.

While his friends started preparing to make camp near the road sign, Shades stepped behind a couple trees to do a little watering. Tied around his waist was a rope, with Max holding the other end, just in case. Having seen for themselves just how quickly this place could get one turned around, even over short distances. After their fun experience with the trail earlier, he could not escape the chilling certainty that getting separated out here could easily prove fatal.

While it was reassuring to still hear his friends talking just a short distance off, he still had a little trouble getting started, despite how bad he had to go.

Just kept picturing Erix sneaking up on him… or maybe just drawing a bead. Even though Shades was pretty sure their old enemy would go for a quiet kill. Tried not to imagine a hand over his mouth and a knife to his throat. After all, no need for hostages out here, when you could just kill somebody and loot their gear freely…

Was also half afraid the others were going to call out for him or something, before he finally managed.

Wanting to get back to his friends before this could get any more awkward, he turned as he buckled up his belt, still looking down, to see a skull near his feet, in front of the next tree, and awkwardness tripped over its own feet into dread. Mostly surprising himself by not screaming, as he half expected to, once it began to sink in, just what he was looking at as he noticed more bones amid the underbrush. Going from the size of the bones, he was quite certain they belonged to a child.

He struggled not to dwell on the horrors this child must surely have suffered through during those final hours in this foul place. Caught a glimpse of a tiny white gemstone earring— most likely zircon or something— next to the skull, in a rare glimmer of setting sunlight peeking through the dense canopy. Which he was quite sure he had seen before, back at Camp Stilton.

As he reached down to pick the earring up out of the loamy soil, he couldn’t escape the cold conviction that both it, and these bones, once belonged to a little girl, and the unsettling intuition that he already knew her name.

What he found most disturbing, though, once he noticed it, was how the arm and leg bones were pinned down by surfaced tree roots. Looking at the grim scene before him, the images rushing together into horrifying coherence as his mind tried to put the brakes on this jangled train of thought. No more details, please, the gist of it was quite enough, thank you…

Finally finding his voice, he called both of his friends over, showing them what he found.

Couldn’t help but notice that neither of them found the sight any less disturbing than he did.

“I don’t like this,” Max finally mumbled.

“This…” For once, Justin was at a loss for words.

“That makes three of us,” Shades concluded as he reached down and picked up the skull, and the last request that came with it. Couldn’t help the cold certainty in his own that these bones were indeed the remains of this Kelly Edwards mentioned back at Camp Stilton. Turning to his friends, he added, “I think it would be a bad idea to sleep near any of these trees.”

“I’m so glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Justin muttered, then asked, “Why the hell are you carrying that thing? It’s creepy.”

“I plan to give her a proper burial,” Shades told him, “when we get to Pickford.”

“Why?”

“Justin…” Max said, wanting to defend his friend’s actions, but not wanting to go into the full story of Chad Owen, whose skull, along with his laser sword, he had carried out of the depths of the Harken Building once upon a time. “What I mean is, no one should be left out in a place like this, not even in death… I mean, what if it was you?”

“Wouldn’t be my problem anymore,” Justin answered.

“For what’s it’s worth, I’d still carry yours,” Shades replied. “Where I come from, it’s just a way of showing your respect.”

“To the dead?”

“Let’s not talk about this anymore.”

Max’s words seemed to settle it, and they turned their attention to moving their camp to the center of the clearing, well away from any trees. Mostly working in subdued silence as the sun set on their hasty preparations, and they finally sat down to eat a modest dinner of rations and boiling freeze-dried noodles. Having also stuck to Shades’ advice and used mostly fallen branches for firewood, instead of cutting them, just in case.

Chose to forgo making tents, since that would involve tying ropes to trees. It also felt too much like a net for tangling them up in if the trees were half as mobile as Kelly Edwards’ final resting place insidiously suggested. Even the fact that none of the trees on the far side of the clearing moved, nor made a sound, did much to ease any of their apprehension after what they just saw.

Having drawn first watch, Shades sat close to the campfire, trying not to remember every spooky story he had ever heard or told around one, and largely failing. This place evoked every single one of them all too easily. He tossed a couple more twigs on the fire, refusing to let it go out on his watch, seeing even his friends also found sleep slow in coming out here, in spite of their exhaustion.

That foreboding feeling that old summer camp nightmares were lurking out there, just beyond the fuzzy circle of campfire light, under a bright half moon. Like so many of the more secluded places they had visited in this world, these woods felt too much like the ideal setting for a horror movie to him. Tried not to think of it as Mirkwood, or the Lost Woods, not to think of Evil Dead movies. Of the Dark Forest from every fairy tale he was told as a boy, but the Woods loomed all around him. Reminding him of that fateful night back in Lakeside, even without any storm.

Just how subtly wrong this place felt compared to any woods he had known as a kid.

Increasingly certain that Erix was going to be the least of their worries out here. Not that he was terribly sure they could trust him as an ally, either. After seeing Kelly’s remains with his own two eyes, he was liking the possibilities of this place less and less the more he turned it all over in his head.

Tried not to let his thoughts linger on just how close to Camp Stilton Kelly met her untimely end. Less than a day’s walk, and he strongly doubted it befell her anywhere near the old road, sign or no sign. If it wasn’t for these Woods, a search party would have had a reasonable chance of finding her in time.

And now he felt ever more certain that her end would be the subject of most of his nightmares, even if he did manage to fall asleep.

Later that night, even as Justin relieved him, Shades found little relief. Simply telling him: Trees don’t like fire, keep it burning, before drifting asleep upstream against the notion of seeing the final grim moments of Kelly Edwards’ life replayed over and over, even as he rested his head on his pack, her skull resting in greater peace than he behind him.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the gloaming
Shades gasped awake with a start at a vision of Kelly’s skull on his chest, staring at him silently as he opened his eyes.

Even the skull’s absence in the waking world did little to dispel his dread, upon seeing the rest of his surrounding. Same Woods. Same clearing. Same predicament.

The sky overhead cloudy, dreary, threatening to rain at any moment.

He groaned as he sat up, finding his back and neck stiff from sleeping on the ground, muttering, “And today’s forecast: mostly cloudy, with a seventy-five percent chance of precipitation. Oh, and watch out for flurries of eldritch bullshit on Highway Thirteen between Stilton and Pickford…”

His sleep plagued by dark visions of cute forest animals with red glowing eyes, and trees that couldn’t keep their branches to themselves. Of a dog or wolf’s jaws snapping and snarling in his face. A harrowing blur, but still he found he didn’t like the look of this place, even in broad daylight.

Woke up at last from what he sincerely hoped were just run-of-the mill nightmares about Camp Stilton. A creepy image of an entire mass grave somewhere out behind the campground. Could all too easily imagine it being dug and buried by those old, rusty logging machines back there…

The only consolation he could come up with was that he mercifully could not remember dreaming anything about Kelly Edwards, and the frightening, final moments of her life.

Thinking about it, though, prompted him to open his pack, finding her small skull right where he left it last night.

“I wonder if Roxy’s doing any better…” In spite of all he’d seen in the last day or so, he found he still couldn’t picture her dying so easily.

“Who knows?” Justin shrugged. “Last we saw, she was headed for that Rannigan’s place.”

“Alas, poor Erix,” Shades told the skull. “I knew him…” But no matter how he looked at it, it lacked any grooves on the left-hand side, and was simply too small to belong to an adult. “That we would be so lucky.”

“Wishful thinking,” Justin agreed.

Then the moment of whimsy passed, and Shades remembered that the skull he held belonged to a child who likely died a very gruesome and terrifying death out here, all alone. Or possibly not so alone, which may well have been the problem.

“Sorry kid,” Shades apologized. “Whoever you were,” though he was already pretty sure he knew, “please do not begrudge our making light of these grave circumstances. Please understand, we’re still alive, and more scared than we’d like to admit… Right, Max?”

Shades put the skull back in his pack, wondering why his friend was so quiet, silently reiterating his promise of a proper burial if— when— they reached civilization. Figured mocking the skull and then throwing it away was the sort of thing Erix would do. Not to mention bad karma, and he figured Max would likely agree.

“Yes, please put the skull away,” Justin said. “Talking to it is just plain creepy.”

Shades frowned openly as he surveyed his surroundings. Now that he looked around, nothing about the clearing where they laid their camp looked the same as it did the evening before. Even knowing that things look different at dusk than in daylight did nothing to dispel that insidious intuition.

Shuddered at the observation that the entire clearing seemed measurably smaller than it had last night.

“You don’t recognize this place either, do you?” Max finally asked, sounding every bit as concerned as his friend looked. After finding those ominous remains, it was impossible to shake off the same feeling as the Harken Building, or that disturbing Twylight derelict. Even his disorienting early days in the Isle of Paradise as a boy were starting to feel like a walk in the park in hindsight.

“You’re shittin’ me, right?” But even as Justin looked around, he could see they were right. Even that road sign from last night was nowhere to be found, not even farther back in the trees, that any of them could tell.

Not that any of them felt like poking around back there to find out.

“I know I heard something during my last watch…” At times, Max occasionally thought he saw a flicker of movement, out beyond the glow of their campfire, but no matter where he shined his flashlight, he never saw anyone or anything. That all of those small movements added up to this, right under his nose… “But I never saw anything…”

“As they would say in my world, you missed the forest for the trees.” Though Shades’ witty tone quickly faltered as an ominous image formed in his mind. Just couldn’t help but picture the Woods slowly creeping up on them, as if waiting for their fire to sputter out. “I think we should leave this place, the sooner the better.”

Before Justin could propose at least eating breakfast before departing, it started raining. That made up their minds for them, and they quickly packed up their camping gear, and Shades showed them how to tie up their tarps into makeshift rain ponchos, looking for all the world like gaudy blue and green cloaks, adjusting them for optimal range of motion, and quick access to their weapons.

“Groovy,” Shades blessed their handiwork, hoping it would stick.

That settled, they left the rain to finish snuffing out their campfire’s dying embers.

In his shame, Shades found he almost wished they’d run into Smokey the Bear, rather than that looming sense of dread that if they were still in that clearing when the last spark of their fire fizzled out, something ugly was going to happen.

They all kept their energy blades close at hand, passing through the widest gaps they could find between the trees. Combined with the scenery rearranging itself behind their backs, and the sky being so dark and overcast, Shades had no idea how the sun might have risen in relation to where it set. Thus, all they could do was try to keep to as steady a direction as they could while they trudged along.

It wasn’t until they were nearly an hour away from that cursed clearing, with no sign of pursuit, that they finally relaxed enough to break out some ration bars and jerky, but continued to walk as they ate while they broke their fast.

Even the fact that they never heard anything back there did little to ease any of their minds, and Shades wondered if that was genuine intuition, or just plain paranoia back there. Catching forty winks in these woods struck him as a very bad idea.

For the first time since they left Anchor Point, Justin found himself reconsidering the act of throwing away that black duster Roxy gave him. Surprised he would regret it so soon. It also dawned on him that it had been almost two days since he even thought about Jesse Fletcher, and all the trouble his use of Justin’s name had left waiting for him out in the world, like some convoluted karmic minefield.

Not that there was anything he could do about it out here.

At first, they were still worried about Erix, but found him increasingly lurking on the backburner against what they currently faced. A tough decision, opting for pace over stealth, but if they wanted to cross the peninsula in time to help their friends, they could not afford to slow down and sneak without a discernable threat to avoid. As if playing Red-Light/Green-Light with rogue foliage wasn’t unnerving enough. Increasingly certain that if Erix was still alive out there, he surely had problems of his own to deal with.

Along with wondering if Roxy was still alive, Max also wondered aloud, “If Roger failed to keep him locked in, would Bandit even be able to find us out here?”

“I doubt it,” Shades replied. “These Woods are nothing like my old home.”

And the weather would have had the final word.

“That bad, huh?”

“Back there, the woods were my friend, and never betrayed me,” Shades tried to explain. Before now, he had never seriously considered just how old the forests of the Flathead Valley truly were. Older than the original peoples of those lands, and long before his own ancestors ever found their way to that continent. Yet even on the night of the Flathead Experiment, it had still remained the natural wood it always was, the one thing that hadn’t scared him.

But this forest was different.

It all came back to that camp. That abandoned camp. Though he had to admit that he had always been simultaneously intrigued and unsettled by abandoned places. It was the love-hate relationship of the habitual loner, but he also wondered at times if it wasn’t also instinct and perhaps a little premonition.

Was that camp built on an Indian burial ground or some shit?… Shades’ rational mind reminded him that he was in another dimension. The other half of his mind pointed out that there were other indigenous peoples in this world, and he doubted all of them came out as well as the Kona. You’ve watched too many horror movies.

And, he reminded himself, seen a couple too many real haunted places for your own good.

This whole place smelled of primeval odors, of moss and fungus and rotting wood. A fairy-tale forest even the Brothers Grimm themselves could never have imagined. And it looked as if he and his friends might soon find out what haunted these woods, for it stood between them and the rest of the world.

Yesterday, they used Max’s radio, now Shades’, to conserve battery power, leaving it in receiver mode, in large part because none of them cared to actively listen for very long. Sometimes, Shades would hear deep grunts and snorts and snuffling. As if from some massive beast, so great and terrible, even all of their firepower might not be enough to bring it down. Recalling some tale he once read, about a cursed camera that kept showing grim pictures of the subject’s future, he grappled with the irrational, counterintuitive notion that ignoring it was the safest course of action. That listening to it might summon it, might somehow get its attention in some way he didn’t even begin to comprehend.

At random intervals around them, distant sounds beyond their limited line of sight. Groaning and creaking to snapping and breaking. But not a hint of movement to go with. Both the rain-washed visibility, and the pattering hiss of rainfall obscuring distance and direction, fluctuating in waves from downpour to drizzle, just when their senses were starting to adjust to one extreme or the other.

Producing a constant feeling of being watched by something as unseen as it surely was unhallowed.

Shades found yet another moment to wonder how he got from Anchor Point, where he was merely having nightmares, to this eldritch forest, where he was also living one.

Justin struggled not to imagine his own twisted dreams last night. The same dark sky, dreary trees, only with butchered shapes dangling from ropes and chains. Some skinned and gleaming, others wrapped in sack cloth. Swaying, twisting, creaking. Like a thawed-out version of the meat locker he passed through in the frozen storage rooms of the Harken Building.

Max kept trying not to see Bandit’s mangled remains around every turn.

They even ate lunch on the move, as stopping to rest anywhere for more than five or ten minutes at a time left them all feeling too edgy to relax anyway, at the memory of that creepy experience back in the clearing. Each of them knew they would need to rest soon, that they couldn’t keep this up forever, yet the lack of anyplace that felt safe kept them moving. No way to be sure if all trees were a threat, or just some, more fear than anything keeping them moving by then, leaving them with grave concerns about where they could even camp after dark.

They stopped for another short while in another clearing to refill their canteens with clean rainwater, but refused to linger long.

No matter how much time seemed to stretch out like temporal taffy as they trudged through the rain and soggy terrain, they were still taken aback when the clouds finally blew over to reveal a late afternoon sunset. The bruised yellow stormlight a revelation of just how long they had been marching, with scarcely a few five- or ten-minute rest breaks, even eating lunch on the move. Afraid to lean on any tree for long after all they’d seen.

Even an end to the rain offered little consolation, as the forest was sopping wet, and so were they.

Thus they were surprised to stumble upon an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere. Had to admit even its sagging shingles and broken windows still afforded more shelter from the weather than crudely-rigged tarp tents. The chimney promising a blazing fire to warm up and dry off in front of, to say nothing of a hot meal.

All the same, they all paused in front of the place for a moment, as if harboring identical suspicions. The cottage just felt too convenient, too much like a trap. Yet Shades, especially, felt increasingly certain that one, if not all of them, would soon catch a chill if they continued to blunder around and exhaust themselves out here, cold and wet, without at least a little rest.

Tired, footsore, and damp, they wordlessly admitted defeat, and on some unspoken agreement, all decided to turn in early today since shelter, no matter how dubious, had presented itself.

In spite of their fatigue, though, they still checked around the outside of the house, finding no cause for alarm. They found a path leading from the front door. Right over to a dense wall of trees and underbrush. About as they expected.

“You know,” Justin declared, “I’m really starting to hate this place.”

“We should totally start a club,” Shades replied as they turned back to the cottage.

Drawing their weapons, Shades opened the unlocked door on rusty, squawking hinges, while Max and Justin entered guns first, finding the place as deserted and dilapidated as it appeared from the outside.

Inside, Shades could discern the decrepit remains of an herbalist’s apparatus ranged around the main room. Drying racks of shriveled plant parts, mortar and pestle, cracked alembic and retort, rusty strainers and clippers, screw press, a large tarnished calcinator, scales, rows of dusty bottles and jars, sagging baskets, and other tools of the craft which the house’s original owner apparently fled in too much haste to pack up. The roof proved to be even more leaky than Stilton Lodge, so they quickly set themselves to the task of starting a fire.

The chimney turned out to be surprisingly clear of debris, and there was some firewood stacked inside near the fireplace, so they started with that, then hauled in some damp wood from a pile against the outside wall to dry near the fire. Shades found a ratty old straw broom, and swept away the dust and detritus, while Justin used a can of nails and an old hammer to board up the windows. There were two doors in the back, one leading to a small, empty bedroom, the other to a funky-smelling pantry that they quickly slammed the door to and stuffed the cracks with old rags to shut out the stink.

Shades rigged up some old pots and pans to the bedroom door in a fashion he recalled Erix using as a makeshift intruder alarm at the late Mr Larson’s house back on Kon Kimbar. They propped an old rickety chair under the front door latch; though they doubted it would hold for long against anyone (or anything) serious enough about breaking in for long, it would at least make plenty of noise. Figured that if any trees came after them in here, they might at least have a fighting chance, even if the structure wouldn’t offer as much resistance as it could have even five or ten years ago, it was still better than nothing.

By then, they had a good blaze going to dry their sodden boots and gear. To say nothing of their first cooked meal since last night. Since there was no accounting for the weather, Shades rigged up one of their tarps, hanging it from the corners of the ceiling on their side of the room.

“Slant it that way,” he instructed Max as they worked, “so even if it rains again, we’ll stay relatively dry over here.”

That resolved, they settled in for a grim supper and early bed, even less sure than last night if any of them would get much sleep between watches. Even so, the lumpy ground outside made modular seats feel like five-star accommodations, and even the slightly warped floor of a cottage was an improvement from wilderness terrain, especially now that it was all soaked. Much to their chagrin, they all fell asleep more easily than they expected, exhaustion finally taking its toll.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
blue moon
They all awakened to chaos as the tarp fell down on them in the small hours of the morning.

During Max’s watch, and all he could remember was staring at the flickering flames in the fireplace, struggling to keep his eyes open. No more immune to fatigue than his friends, after yesterday’s relentless march. The last thing he recalled, only vaguely, was the sound of an old man’s voice:

This can’t be right… There’s a bad moon rising out there…

Now the sound of Justin cursing and muttering as he fought his way out from under the tarp.

Shades woke up in a cold sweat as the damp, clammy tarp touched his skin. Delivered from the ominous mutterings of an old man, whose words he couldn’t make out most of, as well as a strange tremor in the ground, right before the tarp fell on him.

“Hey!” he muttered, “What happened to the fire?”

“I don’t know…” Max stammered, offering no excuses. “It was there a moment ago… There was this voice… saying something about the moon…”

“Let’s try to get the fire started,” Shades suggested, even as it dawned on him that none of them were using their flashlights.

“Moon…” Justin mumbled, looking up at the sky overhead.

For his part, Shades was already more than a tad unsettled at the thought of his friends also hearing voices muttering about the same thing.

Even as his two friends looked around the ruined walls of the cottage, finding the ceiling and rafter beams they originally fastened the tarp to gone as if they’d never been there to begin with. Leaving them sitting under a partly cloudy sky, with a blue-grey crescent moon hanging over them, providing the cold light by which they were now seeing.

Max switched on his flashlight to examine the fireplace, only to find a pile of cold, soggy ashes, as if there had been no fire in that hearth since long before they came along.

“Hey!” Justin called out, pointing up, “What happened to the moon?”

“The moon?” Shades pointed out. “What the hell happened to the roof?”

Only a couple broken rafters jutting from the ragged walls, yet not a hint of debris anywhere on the tarp. Yet the floor was dirty and grimy, as if he had not only not swept it just a few hours ago, but as if there hadn’t been a roof here in years.

Still, it was hard to ignore the moon, once either of them saw what Justin was staring at. A cold, blue-white crescent going on half moon. Or perhaps half was all that was left of it, for instead of being eclipsed from the light by an unseen object, the shadow inside that curve looked more like the shattered edge of something that had a huge chunk smashed out of it by some cosmic concussion. Like someone took a sledge hammer to a pumpkin on Halloween night, for they could even see glimpses of faint stars through its ‘dark’ side.

“That’s…” Max fumbled, “that’s just not right… Is that a bad moon rising?”

“What did you just say?” Justin blurted. “You heard that, too?”

“The old man?” Shades mumbled, liking the feel of this less and less, if his friends were hearing these things, too. Even as he pulled his eyes away from that ominous moon with an effort, he looked around the ruins of this hermit’s cottage, wondering if they hadn’t just heard an echo of its original owner’s last words in this place.

Which was likely why he saw it at all, the pale face pressed to that one remaining, cracked window. A little girl’s face, looking just like that old photo from Camp Stilton. Except that her eyes and mouth formed great O’s of shock and horror.

As if she already knew what was going to happen next.

Even as he gasped and fumbled for words in the face of this ghastly apparition, he blinked, and the face was gone.

He was still trying to figure out if what he had just seen was real, or just leftover nightmares, when she was replaced by what looked like a bare branch punching through the glass, groping around the window frame.

His friends, though, had little need for any warning, as rough brown tendrils started climbing over the edges of the walls, with a slithering, scratching noise that caused them all to shudder in spite of themselves. The creaky, rotten, floorboards began to tremble, as if something massive had awakened beneath the cottage. The vibrations of their staggering footsteps seemed to attract the tendrils, which immediately surged toward them.

Each of them reached for their energy blade, even as the tendrils tried to wrap themselves around each of them, glad that they slept with their boots on after they dried out a bit, and kept their weapons close at hand. Upon closer inspection, these arboreal appendages looked less like tree branches, and more like roots, their touch raw and rough, yet as flexible as tentacles.

Shades, especially, now certain that they were experiencing Kelly Edward’s final moments, and wished he’d been able to stick with bad dreams.

Screaming and cursing as they hacked and slashed to free themselves, barely mindful not to hit each other in this confined space.

Yet even as the tree-tentacles started to thin out, the floor and even the walls started to shake even more violently. The only thing Shades could compare it to was a five-point quake he had experienced in Alaska when his family was stationed there. The far side of the cottage, with the pantry and the bedroom, started leaning toward them, as if that side of the house was being lifted right off its very foundation.

“Out! Out! Out!” Shades cried as they scrambled to grab their packs, climbing over the ruined front window or out the front door that fell right off its rusty hinges. Once again, glad to have kept everything but their weapons and flashlights packed-up, in case of a hasty departure, and they kept right on going.

Ran right past the shattered remains of the roof, strewn across the ground outside, as if some terrible force swept it aside long ago, out under the light of a dreary bone moon as they put as much distance as possible between themselves and whatever just finished demolishing the place, the roaring crash still ringing in their ears.

As they spared a glance back through the trees, all they could make out was a great hoary shape rearing out of the ground, the remaining walls of the cottage falling aside like a break-away film set-piece. Unlike the thin tendrils that still clung to them, twitching and convulsing feebly, this looked like the mighty core root of something that could rival a redwood, thick and powerful enough to tear the old building apart like cardboard. A great rending maw that seemed to bellow its frustration to the bleak heavens with a boom that overwhelmed their own cries of panic until they were well away from it. Such a thing would have crushed the life out of them before they could even begin to free themselves from it, and they very understandably chose not to stick around to see what it would do next.

Once the tremors diminished with distance, they all slowed down a bit to take stock of their surroundings, which had changed considerably from what any of them remembered. Couldn’t tell if the terrain was really changing that drastically, or if they were even walking through the same forest anymore. The trees themselves growing in sparse patches, much smaller and lower than any they had seen thus far, the terrain more hilly and rocky, with small patches of grass and underbrush, illuminated by the bluish glow of that dread moon above.

Finally stopping to catch their breath, they sat down on a large hump of rock, well away from any trees.

“Holy shit!” Justin panted, leaning forward with his hands braced on this knees. “What the fuck was that!?”

“I hope we never find out,” Max replied.

“I’ll second that,” Shades added. Their utterly unfamiliar surroundings strongly suggested they weren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak. It was hard to stop trying to look everywhere at once after that, despite the sigh of breeze providing the only movement in the immediate area as he looked up. “And that moon…”

He could tell from his friends’ expressions that they didn’t like the look of it any more than he.

In addition to looking as if nearly half of it was blown away in some cataclysmic event none of them could quite wrap their head around the scale of, they could also make out the edge of a massive crater on the upper hemisphere of the remaining half. It’s shape distorted by unknown forces, a deep impact that left it mostly in shadow. If it was anywhere in the same size range as Luna, that crater would be large enough to swallow a small country, wiped right off the map.

The only thing Max had to compare it to was the strange moons he witnessed during his surreal stay aboard the Sweet Lady of Twylight, or, to a lesser extent, the paradoxical sky overhead in the ‘outdoor’ portions of the Harken Building. Neither of which he found at all reassuring. After all he had seen in the last day or so, he hoped with all his heart that Bandit stayed with the plane. Though he had no proof it was any safer there, the fact that their first stormy night was safe enough— Erix not withstanding— offered hope that it might at least be less dangerous than the peninsula’s interior.

Which was more than he saw anywhere out here.

Justin found it hard to take his eyes off that creepy moon for long, in spite of his rational mind telling him he should be on the lookout for predatory plant life. There was just something about its remaining shape that bothered him on an instinctive level the longer he looked at it, something he just couldn’t quite put his finger on. Only the sense that he should know what it is.

While Shades wished he could rotate the moon to see what he was sure he didn’t really want to. So when he noticed he could see a little more of the far side than he could a couple minutes ago, it was with a dawning horror that he was getting just what he asked for. The moon was apparently rotating, slowly but surely, revealing a form he wished he could unsee, as if everything else wasn’t enough.

“Justin, do you see what I see?…”

On the fractured edge, a ridge taller than any mountains on Earth had been pushed up, carving a deep triangular shadow between the edge and that distorted crater. Below that, a jagged crack across the lower hemisphere, looking for all the world like one half of a gaping death-grin. Both of them in their own way cursed the human mind’s mechanism of pattern recognition, especially for discerning faces.

“Tell me I’m seeing things…” Justin moaned.

By now, their alarm had broken Max out of his own grim reveries, and he saw it, too.

A cold moon of bone, like a pie-faced skull fragment hanging in the sky. Like nothing that ever loomed over any of their worlds, leering down with its big empty crater of an eye-socket. That sliver seeming to slowly turn its gaze upon the bleak landscape below.

Before Max could speak, they all felt a great stirring in the earth around them. Much to their horror, they could see those clumps of bare trees heaving and lurching, even if still anchored in place, and that set them running again. Not wanting to be caught standing still again after what happened back there.

On they fled, over the rocky terrain, occasionally stumbling and catching themselves under that cobalt moonlight, steering as far clear of the frenzied foliage as they could manage.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the trees began to settle down, and they slowed down to catch their breath, Shades suggesting they tread lightly so as to avoid drawing the things’ attention, if possible.

Justin was the first to notice that it was also dimmer, as slowing down was about the only way to avoid missing his footing every other step on this rough terrain. He glanced up, and, sure enough, a tattered veil of clouds had drifted in front of that morbid moon. It was hard not to think of them as somehow shrouding its vision, a most disconcerting analogy.

Much as they feared, when the clouds passed, and that bone moon was exposed again, the trees once more became active. This time, they stifled their terror as best they could, sticking with Shades’ strategy of moving quietly and keeping their distance. For it felt like there was nowhere to hide from that ominous gaze between the clouds’ passing.

Shades wished it was just his imagination, but at times that nightmare moon seemed almost to lean in close, and it was impossible to discount the notion that it was somehow directing or influencing these creatures. Tried to tell himself they were merely stimulated by moonlight, but couldn’t even sell it to himself, let alone the others.

When they found themselves trudging uphill, Max suggested they keep going, in spite of Justin’s grumbling, that high ground was about the only advantage left to take.

As they topped the rise, they looked down at the lay of the land beyond, seeing more of the same ahead. Until Max pointed out what looked like some sort of circular rock formation off to their right. Lacking anything else to go on, they headed that way.

Naturally, that was about when the last of the clouds parted, leaving the three of them exposed, out in the open.

Once again, they saw the plants stir, this time even more violently than before, as if they might totally uproot themselves and give chase or something, and they abandoned any pretense of stealth to make for the rocks with all haste.

As they drew nearer, they saw that the stones really were in a circle, most of them crumbling and broken, save for one lone arch, and their hopes of entrenching themselves quickly faded in the face of such ruin.

“The circle stones?…” Shades breathed, trying not to think of them as Stonehenge back in his own world. At least as it might look in some distant future, for even the arch was constructed of a single massive slab of stone bridging two colossal pillars. Raising more questions than he suspected this place would ever answer.

He was about to suggest going there anyway, just on gut instinct, when he spotted a vague, shadowy figure, about the size of a child, duck through that archway, beckoning for them to follow, and Shades urged them on, hoping he knew what he was doing.

As they ran through the arch, the felt everything waver around them, and even some fundamental quality in the air itself seemed to change. Instead of arid, stony ground, they ran knee-deep through grass. Though still night, the light changed in some subtle way, becoming warmer. Even the smells were different, more lush and verdant.

As they stumbled to a halt near the center of the circle, they also noticed one other major change, as well.

The circle stones themselves. No longer ancient beyond measure and toppled, but seeming almost brand new, all arches intact, looking for all the world as if it might have been completed just last week. Rough hewn, without a hint of the eons of erosion they displayed only moments ago, with only one arch still standing.

They all looked about, slack-jawed, for this circle stood in the midst of a vast clearing, surrounded by a forest of primeval conifers. None of which moved, save for the occasional puff of breeze. Finally, Justin thought to look up, the first to see an ordinary, if slightly greenish, half moon overhead, more like the one they saw the night before.

Shades also noted no sign of that child specter from before, leaving him feeling totally lost in the face of all those archways. Which he couldn’t help suspecting might be doorways to other places like that last one. Along with that same intuition their deliverer had slipped through one of them while none of them were paying attention, possibly costing them the simplest path back to the Woods they started this cursed expedition in.

“What the hell just happened?” Justin demanded at last.

“Don’t look at me,” Max replied.

“I think we’re in bigger trouble than I even want to think about,” Shades told them. Recalling what he could of various books he had read during their voyage aboard the Maximum, he explained: “There are some schools of thought that hold there to be more than one layer of reality, and anymore I think that’s why we’re having such a hard time navigating out here. Max, you experienced something similar to this on that Twylight derelict, right?”

“You just had to remind us,” Justin muttered.

“I don’t know what I experienced,” Max admitted, “but this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to its like.”

“It’s creepy to think about this, but with all the crazy shit we’ve seen in this world, it’s not much of a stretch to concede trees moving on their own,” Shades admitted, pondering how drastically moving a few trees can alter the same piece of terrain. “Still, trees are one thing— if it can rearrange the entire landscape, then we’re in deeper shit than I even want to think about…”

“But how?…” Max, like his friends, couldn’t even figure out how to frame such a question.

“I have no idea what could’ve caused something like this, but I have no trouble seeing why it drove everyone away.” Shades, could see no trace of the foul things hunting them bare minutes ago, and neither could the others, but also had the intuition that stepping back through that arch going the other way might well dump them right back in their previous predicament. “I’m not even so sure they understood it well enough to properly warn anyone about it…”

“Then what the hell do we do now?” Justin pressed him.

“For now, I think we’re safe here, as long as those things don’t follow us…” Shades shuddered in spite of himself, and wasn’t sure how much comfort he found in their doing likewise. There was something about these stones, a sense of lines of force, somehow distorted, yet still converging here. Fractured realities… it was no wonder this place became shunned. He could make out runic characters carved into the stones in regular sequences and intervals, and each arch was marked with a pictograph on its lintel, but they could find no clue to their meaning. “Our biggest challenge might just be getting back out from the same Woods we came in.”

“Could you just for once have some good news for situations like this?” Justin asked.

“So far, nothing’s chased us in here, and that creepy moon is gone,” Max pointed out. “I think that’s pretty good news, don’t you?”

So they waited, counting fifteen minutes by Shades’ watch, figuring that was more than enough time for anything back there to catch up with them if it was going to, then started setting up camp. As far as they could tell, this was quite possibly the safest place out here, so they might as well take advantage of it and rest. In spite of their terrible scare from not so long ago, exhaustion won out, watch or no watch.

Under a peaceful moon, they all fell asleep on the fluffy, springy grass, dozing off to the twittering of strange birds.
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
bogged down
None of them knew exactly how long they were out, but the sun rode high in the sky, suggesting late morning, at the least.

Justin awoke with a startled yelp, as if it just dawned on him that he nodded off on his watch, looking around frantically after last night’s delightful excursion.

Delivering Shades from a nightmare of his own. About a dead, shambling Erix stalking him through the Woods, under a hellish red night sky. As well as that dream-certainty of a mass grave of dead campers clawing their way back out of the earth, stumbling and fumbling their way in slow, but sure, pursuit…

When Erix finally caught up with him, he was all alone. Just the two of them. Face to what was left of his. The unscarred half completely missing, half a skull of gleaming white bone. That dull, glass eye moving in a way no inanimate object should.

Thought you’d seen the last of me, did ya? his voice rasped, his tongue a bloody mess. These Woods will be your grave. You fools lost your chance when you lost her…

Even as he struggled, knowing somehow he was already doomed, Erix carried on: Heroes die young, you know. There’re worse things in these Woods than I, and soon you will meet them…

Of that much, Shades had little doubt as he sat up, taking what relief he could from the clear blue sky above. Strangely, the last thing he recalled was his own foot getting sucked into a gaping black hole in the ground, and an excruciating pain in that leg as he snapped awake. Somehow knowing that dream-Erix took grim amusement and satisfaction in this.

Max also looked about, seeing that they were still sitting in the middle of the same circle of stones, in the same clearing, shrugging and figuring they must’ve needed the rest.

Upon closer inspection, though, they could see it wasn’t exactly the same circle stones. The runes and symbols may well have been the same, but were also worn and weathered, though still readable, the stones themselves all upright and unbroken, yet still looked less raw and rough-hewn than they had in the moonlight. It was even more of a shock to look around at trees that were more the same type they saw when they first entered the Woods, as far as any of them could tell, rather than the prehistoric giant ferns from last night, which looked more like illustrations Shades once saw in a book about dinosaurs.

Shades shrugged, wondering if that was also a different moon, and why he couldn’t have dreamed of mining green cheese, instead of being hunted by Erix.

All the same, there was a feeling of safety inside the circle, so they decided to sit down for a proper breakfast before they set out again.

“That’s odd…” Shades remarked as he examined their map. “If these stones are located anywhere near where they’re marked on here, then we’ve gone way off course from the road.”

“Any other good news to share?” Justin muttered.

“It’s not all bad,” Shades explained. “It also means that if we can keep pushing the way we were already going, we might strike the coast today.”

“That almost sounds too easy,” Max pointed out.

After all, the geographical differences between layers offered no guarantees.

“Still, you have to admit, we can’t sit around here all day,” Shades reminded him. Even if Roger and Bandit, possibly even Roxy, weren’t counting on them, they had only a couple more days’ worth of food left. “This circle is almost starting to feel more like a cage.”

“You’ve got a point,” Max conceded.

“Then let’s get going,” Justin proposed.

With nothing else to discuss, they packed up their dwindling supplies and took off.

Shades was fairly sure he remembered which archway they entered this place through, so they continued to head away from it. Mindful not to walk under any of the other arches, just in case. Thinking of the skull he still carried with him, Shades wished again that he had seen which way that spectral little girl went after they entered.

It was impossible to tell if the tension that settled over them was purely psychological, or if the Woods really did exude their own aura of menace that once again loomed over them once they left the circle. If nothing else, the trees didn’t seem so densely packed in this region, yielding greater visibility, and more accommodating terrain.

At least at first. Though as they continued their trek, they found themselves passing through ever more swampy, boggy land, which none of them liked the look of, even in broad daylight. Each found it less than reassuring that their friends shared in each others’ dismay, none of them having any desire to still be slogging through this marshland after nightfall.

“We should try to skirt the edges,” Shades suggested. “Rivers often drain into and out of wetlands, so even if we don’t hit the coast, we could at least find the river…”

By then, they had taken to tucking their pants into their boots to protect against leeches. Figured it would be about par for the course if there were leeches in this muck, probably the most benign things in there, if the rest of the Woods were any indication. And a small cloud of midges and gnats, just enough to get on one’s nerves. Fortunately, they packed an old can of repellent Roger gave them, and it worked better than expected, about the only thing that seemed to be going in their favor, thus far.

At first, his plan seemed to work, but soon a fine, wispy mist began to rise, and it seemed that, no matter which way they went, it only seemed to draw them deeper into the swamp.

All the while, the mist continued to rise, obscuring the surrounding terrain, whose uneven footing already made a bad joke of keeping any steady direction. Soon, they struggled to keep together as the fog thickened, finally pausing at one point to tie a rope between each other. Giving one another about ten feet of slack, as far as they dared, as any farther might reach out of sight in this murk. The sky darkened with clouds, but at least no rain fell as they trudged onward.

Though they all understood rain might be a double-edged sword, even as it would wash out the fog, it could sink them up to their waist or worse in mud.

As the mist intensified, so did the humidity, the air becoming more stifling, leaving all three of them soaked in sweat instead of rainfall. The trees having thinned out as the mist thickened, the scattered reeds and cattails sticking up out of the ground fog too varied in height to provide any indication of land elevation. Instead, they strove to make their way by the shortest paths between hummocks, even as the rising haze made them harder to find.

Along the way, Shades gathered some cattails, bundling them against the space between his back and his pack, telling his friends that they were good for emergency torches, and smudges to keep the bugs at bay.

Their footing also became ever more treacherous, the mud beneath the shallow water, which ranged from knee- to waist-deep, tugging at their boots with every step.

Justin stepped lively, in spite of the cramps of protest from his hips and the back of his legs, not wanting to let his feet linger in that murky water, fearing dead hands, or other unwelcome appendages, grabbing him. The sucking of the mud creeped him out enough as it was, even without Shades’ grim dreams about the walking dead.

For his part, Max found himself recalling his brief glimpses of the swamps on the island of Makando back in Layosha, and his parents’ stern warnings about quicksand. About the only place from his childhood that left him with genuinely mixed feelings. Also remembered their warnings about swampwater. Much like Shades, he, too, understood that watery bowels was about the most benign thing it had to offer.

For a time, they made for the only landmark they could discern, a hazy silhouette of stark, dead-looking pines sticking out of that blurry horizon, that none of them particularly liked the look of. Yet even an hour or so later, they had managed to draw no closer to it.

“Come on, guys! This is bullshit!” Justin moaned as he steeled himself for another trudge up another hummock. The shortest of the three, this boggy terrain was taking the hardest toll on him. “Why don’t we try going some other way?”

“I don’t like it either,” Shades admitted, sharing his friends’ fear that it might be some sort of mirage, “but I haven’t heard any better ideas.”

“We should try for a bit longer,” Max agreed, “and if we don’t get any closer, we’ll stop and take a rest. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to still be out here after sunset…”

“You got that right,” Justin muttered as he started forward again.

Or at least he tried to, nearly falling flat on his face in the muck as his right foot began sinking deeper into the mud.

“You need a hand?” Max asked, concern and anxiety showing in equal measure.

“Damn skippy!” Justin cried, his jerking attempts to free his foot becoming increasingly frantic. “Help! It’s got me!”

Shades had no idea what ‘got’ him, quickbog or something else, but he immediately reached back for his friend, finding little leverage or purchase on the hummock slope. Max, who was a little farther up, on somewhat more stable ground, turned back, lending Shades his strength as he pulled Justin. Together, they strained against whatever held their friend back, as it yielded inches only grudgingly.

“Justin!” Shades warned him, recalling an incident from his last visit to Eastern Montana a couple years ago, in which his foot sunk into half a foot of spring gumbo, losing his boot and having to pluck it out of the thick mud after it slipped off his foot in the struggle. Though he doubted any footwear sucked into this dreck would ever be seen again. “Angle your toes up! Don’t let it get your boot!”

Justin’s horrified expression told him he got the message— the very idea of slogging barefoot in this place redoubling his desperation— even if doing so made it that much tougher to haul him up.

With one final heave, they dragged him out of the sludge and up onto the hummock, and for just a split second, Shades could have sworn he saw a pale hand reaching out of the mud, then the dirty water washed over it, leaving no trace.

Though refraining from panicking his friends any further without proof, Shades also wasted no time dragging Justin up to the top, keeping a wary eye on the misty water on that side of the hummock as they caught their breath.

After that episode, they turned their attention back to that grim treeline, almost surprised to see it was still there. The hummock they now stood atop appeared to be a long, winding ridge that snaked off in that general direction. Still bereft of any better ideas, they headed that way, with one last precautionary glance back at where Justin got stuck.

This swamp didn’t feel safe enough to stop anywhere for long, so they ate as they went, the fetid smell ruining their appetites every step of the way.

For his part, Shades found himself contemplating the places he’d seen over the last day or so. Not liking the possible implications of this swamp. At first, it started out like the same Woods they’d been trudging through the day before, but then, under that bone moon, it had seemed more like they were marching through highlands, like the ones mentioned farther ‘north’ on the map. Then they found the circle stones from the map, as well, which were suggested to be somewhere near the beginning of the peninsula, a more heartening thought. Now, he was trying not to think about those saltwater marshes, which would lie out beyond Rannigan’s Wharf.

Too much contradictory terrain in less than a day, and the only things that gave him any hope was the absence of any sea smells in the air or water, as well as the less encouraging thought that this unmarked swamp might not even exist on the same layer of reality they started on.

As they continued, the cloud haze continued to darken, making everything murkier. Even with the high ground, this place still kept them on-edge. Shades could tell from their apprehension that his friends were also seeing at least some of what he was seeing out there, much to his dismay.

Shapes shifting and writhing out in the mist, never long enough to get a good look.

Not that any of them particularly wanted to, yet Max thought he spotted a pale tentacle drift on the surface, where the fog briefly parted, and shuddered at the memory of the devilfish from his childhood rising out of the depths of his recollection to assail him, ever more convinced that Bandit was better off back at the plane.

Justin silently hoping they could make the rest of their way out of this place without having to go wading in the murk again.

The sun above reduced to a hazy red ball, whose lighting reminded Shades a little too much of his nightmare from this morning. That dead hand he may or may not have seen earlier bringing back Erix’s ominous words, and the image of the dead crawling after him. Found this swamp entirely too apt scenery for it.

He also thought he saw faint glimpses of a little girl on some of the nearby hummocks, always heading off in different directions. While a part of him wanted to believe they might be trying to help, the inconsistency of their direction made him wary of mentioning it, especially with Justin’s disposition to their current direction. Understood that either the ghost girls, or the trees, might be some kind of illusion, might potentially steer them wrong, and decided to stick to the steady landmark until they had something more solid to go on.

On the plus side, though, they did finally seem to be drawing nearer to that stark black wall of trees, which they all hoped would mark the end of this unsettling swamp.

Of course, just when it looked like they were nearing the end of this particular ordeal, that was about the point where the hummock simply petered out, dipping into a long, misty gap of swampwater between them and anything that might be mistaken for solid ground, the treeline hovering just out of reach on a deadfall-strewn ridge above the misty water.

“I don’t trust this…” Shades mumbled, recalling a patch of marshland near a summer camp he stayed at in middle school. No way of knowing how deep it could be. Back then, they had to cross a place where the waist-deep water took a ten-foot dip across a channel leading out to the river near the camp. Though he avoided the fall by doggy-paddling across that section until it was shallow enough to touch the bottom again, he also saw some girl in their group unwittingly step right off the edge in spite of their guide’s warning, her startled yelp cut off as she plunged right down before she popped up a few seconds later, coughing and sputtering.

Except here, he found he couldn’t really picture her coming back up…

“We are not going back there,” Justin declared.

“I’m with him,” Max seconded. Looking to either side, they could see a similar pea-soup gulf between their position and the next nearest hummock. “If we go back, there’s no telling how long we might get lost in there.”

“I don’t want to, either,” Shades admitted, “but that water looks a lot deeper than what we’ve been wading through, and I think we all agree there’s no telling what might be down there.”

Though his rational mind started off with alligators, despite finding no evidence of them thus far, last night’s arboreal assault quickly led to more disturbing speculations. Justin still harbored a lingering memory of feeling something more substantial than the suction of mud pulling on his foot back there. Despite the fact that none of them were sure if they’d seen any real tentacles, or if it was just some trick of the fog, Max still didn’t trust those stagnant waters not to produce one, could all too easily picture a mass of tentacles bursting out to ensnare them if they disturbed those waters by swimming.

“If only we had a boat…” Max pondered, though there was nothing on this side to even make a raft out of, and even if there were any fallen logs nearby, they would be too waterlogged to float. Of course, Roger had an inflatable life raft— back at the plane wreck— but it would have been too heavy to pack inland with them.

“Or a bridge…” Shades mused, but all of the trees were on the other side, looking too dead and rotten to build any sound structure out of anyway.

“Maybe I could pull us across!” Justin proposed, whipping out his crossbow. “My grappling line can easily reach over there!”

“But could it hold all of our weight at once?” Max cautioned, recalling that the power winch built into its butt-stock was only designed to lift the weight of one.

“Well, it would be pulling us sideways instead of up…” Justin pointed out.

More like a river ferry Shades had seen once in Alaska, crossing a dangerously swift current.

“Maybe it doesn’t have to,” Shades concluded. “All we really need to do is get one of us across, then they can chop down one of those trees to use as a bridge.”

“That could actually work!” Justin agreed.

Untying the safety lines between themselves, Justin prepared to cross. Just beyond that water’s edge was a tangled deadfall, marking the place where the ground sloped down from a higher elevation, well above the swamp’s waterline. The skeletal pines beyond most likely starved of important nutrients from the declining soil quality near the swamp, so Justin aimed for the thickest, sturdiest-looking trunk within grappling range.

The barbed grappling bolt buried itself deep in the wood, and the three of them all hauled on the line at once, putting all of their weight against it; if it was too rotten to support towing someone, it would also be too weak to walk across.

The tree held firm, so Justin braced himself, then activated the winch. The force immediately yanked him into the tepid water as he hung on for dear life, the pull skimming him across in a matter of seconds, much faster than any of them could swim. He thought he felt something in those murky waters brush past his leg, but then he was across, crashing through deadfall branches as he turned the winch off, then on again in spurts to climb the rest of the way up.

Keeping one hand on the crossbow for an occasional pull, he drew his laser staff to clear a path through the heavier deadfall as he made his way up to the ridge, careful not to accidentally cut the line while he was at it.

Once there, Justin manually released all of the line, as the grappling bolt was lodged too high for him to reach, then turned to the tree itself. Firing up his energy blade again, he angled his cut so that the tree would fall in the right direction as he sliced through. All the while, Max and Shades covered him in case of any unexpected arrivals.

The tree came crashing down on the tip of their hummock with a loud crack, splintering withered branches, yet the trunk held fast.

Still both of them eyed it with no shortage of trepidation, as the terrain left their new bridge with a pronounced uphill grade to the embankment where Justin waited. Most of the way, it hung several feet above the misty surface, then rising sharply over the deadfall near the end, except for the upper portion, which it smashed flat. Branches stuck out of it at random angles, though both of them doubted any of them would make for reliable handholds.

Shades swallowed hard, wondering if he would have bothered getting out of bed the morning of the Flathead Experiment if his horoscope had hinted at even half of this. Reminded himself that he didn’t read horoscopes as he set one tentative foot on the trunk. It rolled just a fraction, while Max and Justin did their best to hold each end steady, driving their energy blades through into the ground then solidifying them, and Shades tried to focus only on the log, not the swirling mist below.

Tried not to look down at all, though his eyes kept trying to wander that way.

It was every bit as treacherous as he expected, struggling to keep his balance on the slightly shifting tree trunk, which was barely a foot wide at this end. As he neared the midway point, the trunk started to widen noticeably, becoming less wobbly, as well. The trickiest part turned out to be stepping past a large branch that stuck straight up, as he had to hold on to it for balance, but it snapped just as he was almost past it.

He swayed and shimmied for a long moment, flailing his arms before falling on his hands and knees with a horrified wail.

Thus he barely managed to avoid falling off as the branch splashed into the water below, and he was forced to crawl the rest of the way up. At Justin’s insistence, he stopped just above the deadfall to free his grapple, prying carefully to avoid any further damage to the trunk. He was sorely temped to kiss the ground in spite of its filth, just to be back on terra firma as he rolled off the dead log and onto the musty earth.

Now it was Max’s turn.

Shades’ crossing offered hope that it could also support him, as well, being the biggest of the three, and also bearing the heaviest pack. At first, Max did well enough, his balance honed by years of similar training back on the Isle of Paradise, but as he neared the middle of the trunk, there came another loud crack, and the trunk started to snap almost right underneath him, rotten bark chipped and fell into the water. The half-foot drop nearly dumped him, and even he was amazed he managed to keep his feet, barely hearing his friends’ cries of alarm as he steadied himself.

Just when it looked as if Max might have a chance, treading lightly, as each step caused the trunk to dip another inch or so, his own dread premonition proved to be the most accurate.

Even up on the slope, well out of reach, Justin and Shades backpedalled in terror as a snarl of tentacles splashed out of the water, groping for the fallen tree and seizing it, ripping the whole thing in half as Max made one last, desperate attempt to leap for what was left of the bridge. Though he landed on the other side of the log, it was already crashing down on the edge of the deadfall, the impact knocking him back into the water, where one tentacle was already snaking for him. Even as he struggled against the muddy water, and one of the scariest memories of his childhood, he fired up his laser sword, chopping the foul appendage as it reached for him again.

In the center of that writhing maw, he could see the dead wood cramming its beak, and suspected that this would be his only chance as he turned to climb the bank.

Deep in the murky water, Max failed to spot another tentacle, this one grabbing his ankle and dragging him under as his friends screamed on his behalf.

A moment later, it dragged Max out of the water, hoisting him overhead as he clutched his energy blade as surely as his life depended on it, flailing it at the tentacle that hung just out of his reach with every swipe.

Shades stood, power pistol drawn, frozen in indecision, for fear of hitting Max. He watched the tentacles flailing around as that fell beak finished chomping through the rotten remains of the trunk section, finally turning its attention directly to its next meal. In a sudden burst of inspiration, recalling Roxy’s tactics from the other day, he switched to stun mode and opened fire on the mostly submerged main mass of the creature.

This caused the monster to start thrashing about, trying to fend off an enemy it could not perceive, though much to Shades’ relief, its movements became ever more sluggish with each hit, which meant he was at least having an effect.

Justin, meanwhile, having retracted his grappling line while Max was crossing, now aimed it at the tentacle holding Max, finally able to take advantage of their attacker’s sluggish movements.

“Max! Grab the line!” Justin shouted as he saw his shot hit home, puncturing the lethargic limb still dangling him over the churning waters.

Max, unable to reach the line, managed to go one better, finally having a clear angle to slice the tentacle itself. Even as he fell, the thing still wrapped around his leg, Justin started up the winch, digging his heels into the dirt, and Shades holstered his gun and grabbed the crossbow to help anchor him as they reeled Max in. Max skipped across the water, crashing into the deadfall just as the winch ran out of juice.

Max scrambled up the rest of the way through the tangle of dead branches and shrubs, coughing up swampwater as he grunted and panted in spasms of revulsion. Clutching his weapon hilt so hard, his muscles were beginning to cramp. Once he was up top, Shades used his stun-sticks’ shorter energy blade to cut away most of the twitching tentacle, the last part of it whose suckers hadn’t been loosened by his stun shots stubbornly clinging to Max’s boot, and his stun blade finally put an end to that, using a dead branch to fling it back into the water.

For his part, Justin ejected both power clips, exhausted from such extensive use of the winch, and shoved two new ones home even as he watched the betentacled behemoth sink back into the murky waters from whence it came, leaving a cloudy patch of inky blackness behind.

Even as they began to catch their breath after that harrowing ordeal, they already started climbing the rest of the way up the rise, paying little heed to the dead pines they now walked among, the fog left below, but the hazy sky overhead still blotted the sun red as they watched the hazy sunset shimmer on the horizon while they more fully regained their composure.

And couldn’t help but wonder if this dread forest would prove any better than that swamp after dark as they trudged on.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
red moon
For a time, they were relieved to be past that dead stretch of forest, with its stark black pine skeletons, even finding the mostly deciduous stretch they strolled through as the sky darkened might have looked pleasant and scenic if not for the horrors hidden behind every other corner of these Woods, and they naturally expected this part to be little different.

Everything bathed in deep grey shadows as they trudged on, muddy boots and pantlegs dragging at them with every step. Justin kept glaring at Shades, the only member of their party who didn’t get soaked past his waist back there, and all he had to offer was a sheepish grin.

Much to their apprehension, Shades insisted on stopping before they departed that place, using both his energy blade, and the camping hatchet from the plane, digging deep into the heartwood to carve out some fatwood from a rotten trunk. In the end, he justified the stop by explaining that the resin-soaked pulp would light even sopping wet, something all them understood the value of, especially with nightfall nearly upon them. All of them dreading the coming moonrise, and whatever new perils it would bring with it. Though the clouds were parting, the air remained balmy as the last of the haze-reddened sun sank into the trees.

It was only as a broad and unexpectedly bright moon began to loom over the treetops that they started to notice something equally unexpected about the trees themselves. Observing that the leaves here were all red, orange, gold. Autumn colors.

Their flashlights only serving to confirm this peculiar state of affairs.

“Are all of these trees dying?” Justin asked, suspicion written all over his face.

“I should hope not,” Shades replied, though acutely aware that his knowledge of his own world was of precious little relevance in any of these ones. “At least in my world, this is a type of seasonal change that comes over some kinds of trees. The thing that bothers me is that this type of change only comes in autumn…”

“That’s right before the cold season…” Max recalled some of what Shades had told him about it. “Um, winter, right?”

“You mean it’s gonna get colder?” Justin muttered.

“Perhaps,” Shades admitted, “but even then, winter usually didn’t just snow you in all at once. And it’s still pretty warm out here, even after dark, so there’s really no telling with this place…”

And so the discussion went until the topic wore itself out, and all the while the moon continued to rise.

Looming large over the horizon, a vast coppery moonscape that reached almost across half the sky, casting everything around in its baleful red-orange glare. A harvest moon, the biggest, brightest any of them had ever seen. So big and impossibly close, or else larger than Luna, looming over everything around them.

Shades found a moment to ponder just what hellscapes these moons belonged to the skies of as it continued to rise.

In addition to serving as an impressive, if ominous, source of light this late at night, it also left them feeling exposed under this region’s sparse, more frequently broken, canopy. Thus it was a boon each of them wondered if they couldn’t do without, as that light it cast also shaded everything red-orange, a tint none of them found terribly reassuring. Least of all Shades, who couldn’t help but notice that they now walked under that same hellish red sky from his nightmare this morning.

Which felt so long ago, and not just to him; their dreary trek through the swamp had burned up a good deal of daylight, and now all three of them were feeling the burden of so much mileage, and so little rest.

Now that they were out of that swamp, Justin found himself recalling a dream from early this morning. Something about all the knots in the trees opening to reveal wildly darting eyes… Figured it had to be standing the midst of so many trees right now that was doing it, and wished he could forget all about it.

When they came upon a fairly substantial clearing, they found themselves gazing awkwardly back and forth at each other, as if trying not to be the first to say aloud what they knew one another was thinking. Along with the other point that followed on its heels, about the last time they camped in a clearing out here. The inconclusive conclusion of that episode serving to muddy the waters of such a debate, and they had already had their fill of muddy waters today.

Exhaustion cast the deciding vote, made all the more obvious by the fact that none of them had put so much as one foot in front of the other in any direction leading back out of this clearing since they arrived.

Thus resolved, with what resolve they could manage at the moment, they started setting up camp. Max dug out a spot near the middle for a fire, affording them the most distance, and the widest field of view, in all directions. Shades actively test-cutting a branch, watching that wooden stub vibrate for a moment at the abrupt release of its natural burden, the only movement it made, offering hope on that front. Justin gathering stones for a firepit, while making sure to stay in sight of his companions at all times.

By the time he brought enough over to form a partial ring, Shades had cut enough wood to get a small fire started, using some of the fatwood he dug earlier as a firestarter, and Justin turned to collect a few more to complete the circle.

Returning to the patch where he had already found some partially exposed stones to dig out, he reached down to brush some damp, clammy dead leaves aside—

Which was exactly when he saw it.

At first glance, he might have mistaken it for the shifting shadows of their growing campfire, but his own shadow blocked the fledgling firelight, so the movement occurred within the more stable circle of his flashlight beam. As if some shadow detached itself from under the leaves to shift in his direction. Holding still as he froze in his tracks confirmed it, his skin crawling at the mere sight of it.

Whatever it was, it was fluid, and blacker than the shadows, an inky, amorphous glob oozing toward his feet with alarming alacrity, absorbing dead leaves as it came.

Justin backpedaled with a cry of horror and disgust, dropping the stone he just removed splat in the middle of it. The oily mass just glommed around it, and he was fairly sure the portion under the stone slid out from under it, while the rock scarcely budged in its wake. Even hopping from side to side, toe to toe, it still advanced in his direction, making a faint squishing sound all the while.

His friends heard his alarm, Shades bolting over, stun-sticks fired up. Though it took him a second to figure out his friend’s bizarre situation, he wasted no time with a downward slash that gouged the ground, slicing the thing roughly in half, and it continued to twitch and quiver, as if each half was trying to go after one of them. By then, Justin regained his initiative, drawing one of his double-barrel power pistols and blasting the nearest one with a half-uttered curse.

His shot instantly igniting the inky puddle, sending it writhing and squirming, hissing as it burst into flames.

Shades danced backward, the other half still slithering toward him with frightful speed, until Max shot it just before it could catch him. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt to snub the flame. When he turned back toward the campfire, he could see even in the firelight that his brief exposure to the creature before Max shot it was enough to eat away a tiny hole in his boot.

All too much like the end of his horrible dream this morning for comfort.

“What the fuck was that!?” Justin screeched.

“I don’t know,” Shades mumbled, “but it looks like we’re about to find out…”

In between his words, they could all hear a crinkling, crackling sound, spotting random patches of leaves and detritus shifting as at least a dozen more of those puddles of shadow came forth, dead leaves and floor flora sinking and dissolving into them as they approached. All of them steering clear of their charred fallen fellows as Justin and Shades opened fire on them, backing up against the campfire, only to find themselves slowly surrounded. Each of them realizing with dawning horror that they surely had nowhere near enough power clips to keep this up as long as those things could, and the grim intuition that even inevitably stopping to reload might be fatal.

The only thing working at all in their favor was that the new arrivals seemed to pause even as they massed around the clearing, as if hesitating in the face of their smoldering first wave.

Giving Shades just enough time to think up a desperate defense. With no time to prepare anything stronger, he snatched up a branch from the kindling they’d gathered, sweeping it through the flames and turning it into an impromptu torch, which he handed to Max.

Who then brandished it at the dark globs on his side of the camp, from which they immediately backed off, and Shades quickly cobbled together another torch for Justin, driving them back just enough to holster one of his guns and take it.

Shades spared only the cattails he had gathered earlier, tossing the rest of their meager tinder on the flames, with a dash of fatwood to turn up the heat, mind racing. These creatures seemed fluid, even capable of dividing themselves, but were vulnerable to intense heat and open flames, while using energy blades on them only made things worse. He also shuddered at the creeping intuition that these things were also drawn to body heat, along with the grim implications of what would have happened if they had fallen asleep out here, unawares…

Starting a fire may have drawn their attention, but also may have summoned them while he and his friends were still awake to see them coming. Even so, they had nowhere near enough fuel gathered to keep the fire blazing until dawn, and no guarantee the foul things would even leave at sunrise. The campfire was burning hotter than ever, even as his friends’ cheap torches fizzled out, and they fell back, while their attackers hung just near the edge of the ring of firelight.

“It’s getting hot around here!” Justin declared, feeling the flames against his back.

“But not hot enough…” Shades thought aloud, glancing around to see that they were now fully surrounded. “We need better torches!”

“We need more fuel!” Max also noticed that both the campfire, and the burnt husks of their fellows, seemed to be the only things holding them back for the moment, as they either hesitated, or else somehow found it difficult, to pass over their own dead. A moat of oily night forming between and any more wood.

“I’ve got an idea!” Recalling everything he could of his survival training, Shades snatched up one of the cattails, trying not to dwell on the risks as he sprayed their remaining insect repellant on the fluffy end. After thrusting it into the flames until it lit up, he handed it to Max, pointing to the tree nearest their position, telling him, “Try to make it fall toward us, but be careful!”

Max ran toward the tree, waving his torch near the ground as he went, driving them back. Once he reached the tree, he fired up his laser sword, cutting it down at an angle that caused it to fall toward the center of the clearing. As he scrambled back, he noticed that he could step on the burnt ones with no harm, though under this glaring moonlight, it was dangerously difficult to tell which was which.

“Now we can make a bigger fire!” Justin crowed as Max stumbled to a halt close to the campfire, the tree having landed only a few feet from the fire.

“Yeah, but not the way you think…” Shades thought fast, seeing possibilities here. He doubted those things would give them time to do it any other way. “Do you still have your flare gun?”

“Yeah!” Justin answered.

“Good!” Shades pointed out a section of the tree. “Aim for that knot! It’s got a shitload of sap!”

Sure enough, that section of trunk fairly exploded, the hot-burning pitch quickly igniting other parts of the tree in a splattering of flames. In a matter of moments, a growing portion of the fallen tree went up in a merry blaze. For their own part, the rest of those living tar patches backed off noticeably, giving them some much-needed breathing room.

While Max and Justin stood guard, Shades set to work on the next phase of his dire plan. Knowing that the cattails alone would only burn for a couple minutes— even with flammable bug spray, Max’s was already flagging— he had one chance to make them useful. Keeping his back to the fire, to protect against both the full heat and stray sparks as he worked, with only his flashlight to compensate for the deep shadows, he set to dabbing the remaining cattails in their one can of fuel gel.

Thinking: We’re starting a forest fire in another dimension… Is this what we’ve come to?

Recalling his old friend, Arthur LaRoch, their resident tinkerer and all-around Renaissance Man, ‘stoking’ the fire in his wood stove with a can of hairspray, Shades knew he was getting into some serious Don’t Try This At Home territory.

“Max!” he called as he worked, “Which way is the wind blowing?”

“That way!” Max answered, pointing back in what he was almost sure was the way they originally came.

“Why?” Justin demanded.

“Because we’re going the opposite way,” Shades explained, relieved not to have to go back in the direction of that dismal swamp. “If this starts a wildfire, we’ll want to move upwind from it.”

“Are you nuts!?”

“We don’t have much choice,” Max conceded. “Even if that tree burns up in only a couple hours, it could set the rest of this place ablaze at any time!”

“And once the fires burn down, they’ll just move in for the kill anyway,” Shades pointed out. “Aim your other flare that way, to give us an opening to get past them!”

Sighing with resignation, Justin fired while Shades started lighting them fresh, longer-burning torches for the road.

Their opening lit up immediately, and they snatched up their packs and ran for it, waving their torches at the ground to clear the gap as they went.

It was touch and go for the opening yards as they dashed away from the burning clearing, but most of the creatures in the area seemed to be congregating around the fire back there. The biggest heat source, which also stopped them in their tracks at its sheer magnitude once they arrived. Although whether this was because they really were drawn to heat, or due to something else entirely, there was no time to ponder then, as watching the ground ahead of them quickly consumed all of their attention. Even after they put some distance between them, that garish moon still dappled the forest floor with a treacherous array of inky black shapes, and even the fact that they held still, for the most part, did little to inspire trust.

By now, they were all pretty sure they’d be jumping at shadows for a long time to come.

It was only as their desperate sprint began to stumble, and their cattail torches began to fizzle out, as they struggled to catch their breaths, that Shades found a moment to conclude that he’d rather deal with the zombies from his dream this morning than this.

Stubbing out their spent torches in the dirt, they pressed on, struggling to maintain a stern stride, fear fighting fatigue every step of the way. Max watching ahead, Justin and Shades scanning their flanks. Swampy, sooty, and certain that stopping for any length of time out here was an open invitation to be surrounded like that again, this time without the benefit of fire.

None of them knew for sure just how long they trudged through those red woods before they eventually staggered out into a wide open hillside, nearly falling on their faces on the downhill slope. Though some sparse shrubs grew along the hill, the thing that stood out most was a massive boulder, which they all made their way over to more by instinct than any conscious strategy. Looking back to see none of the insidious shadows slinking down the hill behind them, they scrambled up the lowest face, which was still vertical and slightly convex.

Mostly just hoping those things couldn’t climb.

Even so, the three of them placed their packs in the middle of the flattish space on top and sat in a triangle facing outward. Setting a two-hour alarm for watches, and they ate a cold, delayed supper in silence, staring out at the surrounding hillside. They doubted they’d be able to rest here for long, but knew all too well that collapsing from exhaustion could easily be fatal on such unhallowed ground.

Then settled in for what might be a lengthy vigil against both shadow and flame.

More than ever, Max found himself wishing Bandit would stay put for a change. After all that, he thought, surely it must be safer back at the plane.

Shades looked up at that vast moon, seeing what looked like tiny black shapes crawling around on it, too. Now shimmering as if the sky itself was underwater. The last thing he would remember before he would wake.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Ellay River
Shades drifted awake with a vague sense of alarm, though he wasn’t quite sure of what.

Before he drifted off in spite of himself, he recalled seeing what looked like little black dots scuttling around on that huge Halloween harvest moon, shimmering as if underwater. His conscious mind shrugging it off as just his tired eyes watering, which they tended to whenever he yawned, but when he looked back up, those tiny bug shapes appeared to be coming closer. As if flying across that gulf, the moon itself just a hungry hive, seeking to devour the hapless world below, droning death drifting down on whirring wings…

Yet when he snapped his eyes open, neck craning up and around, he could discern no sign of that massive moon which haunted his uneasy sleep, only the pale sky of early dawn.

Still, even as he breathed a sigh of relief, he noticed an odd, sinister slithering sound off to his right, and when he looked over, what he saw dropped last night on his spine like a bucket of ice water.

Black patches, not mere shadows, drifting across the ground, out of the trees uphill from them, heading right toward their perilous perch, leaving dead brown dirt in the wake of any grass in their path.

He looked around, horrified, to see his friends still fast asleep, oblivious to the threat now encircling their boulder.

A cry of alarm finally reached his numb lips as he elbowed his companions and fumbled for his power pistol. Justin drew both double-barrel power pistols almost in his sleep, cursing and sputtering as he took aim, while Max took a moment longer to gather his wits, then joined them. Not waiting to see whether the foul things could climb or not, they opened fire on the ones closest to their refuge first, but before long, they were surrounded by an inky black moat of death.

The only thing working at all in their favor was that it turned out they couldn’t climb after all, at least not vertically. That meant focusing their defense around the couple sloped sections, where they appeared to be massing and pushing on each other. It also meant that, even if their position was technically defensible, it was also completely surrounded.

No way out.

Their desperate need to hold back the tide of corrosive carnage about the only thing holding off any argument about who fell asleep on watch this time as they wondered what would run out first, their attackers or their power clips. Max calculating no possible way to jump far enough without being overtaken, or else injured and then overtaken. Justin wishing they had any sort of fuel left to light up the whole lot of them. Shades wishing they had any framing materials to rig their remaining tarps into a glider, with which they could float down the remaining hillside to a sporting head start…

To conserve charges, they took to waiting for a big glomp to form at one of the slopes, to ignite a bunch at once with one shot, yet even the thinning numbers from up on the hillside left little hope of clearing out enough to escape.

“Why the hell did we stop here again!?” Justin demanded.

“Because we were dead tired!” Shades reminded him.

“Guys…” Max pleaded.

Thus, none of them noticed the sun creeping up on the horizon, not until some of the black patches they weren’t shooting started to smoke and smolder.

By then, the trickle of splotches on the hillside had dried up completely, and any caught out in the open burst into flames, little flares lighting up all around them as the remainder tried to glom together in the boulder’s shadow. A few also tried to squeeze underneath a few clefts where the boulder met the ground, with varying degrees of success. Instead of a writhing black mass, they found themselves surrounded by a loose circle of dusty ashes.

In a matter of moments, the attack petered out just as abruptly as it started.

After taking a couple minutes to collect their gear— to say nothing of their composure— they carefully climbed down on the sunny side of the boulder. Careful to keep their feet well clear of any cracks along the ground, just in case. Then, wanting to be as far away from this region as possible before nightfall, they set out again.

Once they reached the bottom of the hill, they kept to mostly open stretches, unsure just how much shade those foul things could survive in. At the very least, they could be sure they were safe from at least one threat walking in sunlight, but were all too well aware that this place held its share of daylight horrors. By now, they were becoming accustomed to eating on the go, as that circle of stones was the only place they’d been that struck any of them as terribly safe to linger very long out here.

Everyplace else left them feeling like sitting ducks.

It was only once they were well clear of that area that any of them thought to remember that they may have started a forest fire last night. Yet when they looked back, they could see not a single ribbon of smoke above the forest above the hillside, let alone the horizon-blotting pall Shades had witnessed in Montana wildfires. As far as any of them could tell, the Woods had swallowed the fire whole.

As whole as it seemed to have swallowed them.

Their breakfast was down to slim pickings, their morale dwindling right along with their provisions. Despite having tagged along on a couple hunting trips in his day, Shades had no personal experience dressing or butchering, even if there was a hint of any game to hunt in the first place. And the suspicion that anything they found under those other moons would be poisonous anyway.

A couple hours later, they were all hungry again. Combined with roller-coaster sleep patterns and an endless parade of crises, this eldritch forest had long-since proven itself the perfect-storm setting to naturally sow the seeds of discord among even the most steadfast of friends. It was hardly a surprise to any of them when the grumbling started again.

“Do we have the slightest idea where the hell we’re going?” Justin muttered.

“No,” Shades muttered back.

“Well, at least you admit it…”

“This isn’t helping…”

“Guys…” Max implored.

“And what if this Pickford joint’s just as fucked-up as the rest of this place?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Max pointed out.

“Neither here nor there,” Shades agreed, though he doubted it would ease Justin’s frustration. “The only thing we know for sure is that staying out here will be the death of us. At least if we found Pickford, we’d be back on the coast…”

“That’s not what I mean!” Justin screamed. “We don’t have any kind of plan! We could just be going in circles for all we know!”

The three of them stopped for a moment of long, awkward silence, with only those words ringing in their ears.

Shades bit his tongue, not daring to ask aloud what all Justin’s tirade may have just announced their presence to.

“Guys…” Max finally spoke up, listening intently, “do you hear that?”

At first, they heard nothing, but after a moment, they caught it, too.

The sound of running water.

Keeping an ear out, they carefully followed the sound, growing gradually more audible as they drew nearer. All but holding their breath, they made their way through the trees, any previous threats all but forgotten for now. It just seemed too good to be true, yet it could also very well be their last chance.

When at last they came upon the river, they were speechless, refusing to believe it until they dipped their fingers and came back wet, at which point even Justin couldn’t help cheering with them.

Now that, for the first time in days, they actually had something to work with, they headed downstream, wanting to work their way back to the coast. Sticking to the bank, making sure to keep the water in sight at all times, they found a spring in their step that had gone missing ever since they started this ominous journey. They were by no means out of the woods yet, but for the first time since the road vanished, it looked like they might be on the right track.

As they strolled along the riverbank, Shades tried to hold back the suspicion that this was all just a cruel illusion that totally clashed with this rustic scenery, telling himself to heed his own advice to Justin and think positive.

Due to the dense canopy above them, and the thick screen of trees along the river, they didn’t see a hint of the abandoned lumber mill until they were almost on top of it.

At first, all they saw was a large open-frame wooden structure with a roof around the bend, sitting right along the riverbank, housing a broken waterwheel and a rusty old circular saw. Set a little further back was a tall main building, at least three stories, the top most likely housing the mill office and private quarters, and they wondered at how they failed to spot it, trees or no trees. The greyish paint was faded and peeling, but they could still make out the name running down the full height of structure, along one corner.

Rigby Millworks.

Max and Justin covered Shades as he brought out the map, glad that he had kept it in the top of his pack during their trek through the swamp. Sure enough, it bore the same name as the location marked on it, along one Ellay River. Presumably meaning that they were currently on the same layer as they started on. Just as important, this was the river that ran almost straight to the coast, veering away from the peninsula and near their destination, Pickford.

And, based on the distance they had already traveled, offered the hope of less than a day’s walk to get there.

Struggling not to let their guard down in the face of the best news in days, they searched the area, both as a precaution, as well as scavenging for any useful supplies, not that there turned about to be much of anything. The building itself was as long-abandoned as Camp Stilton, full of rusty dusty old logging equipment and general tools, that they could see through the gritty windows, with some rotten piles of unfinished lumber nearby. Though, much like Stilton, Shades couldn’t help that hint of unease at how thoroughly the trees had hemmed the place in, given the place’s original purpose and all.

But at least no discernable signs of anything else having taken up residence in there.

Behind the main building, they could make out a few cabins, of similar design to those at Camp Stilton, looking every bit as forlorn and abandoned as they had. And every bit as hemmed in by more trees than Shades would expect so close to a lumber operation. Seeing no sign of recent use, they decided not to venture away from the river now that they had actually found it.

Finding no immediate threat, they sat down at the sawmill for a proper lunch, or at least as proper as they could manage with their dwindling provisions. They also boiled water from the river, both to cook, and to replenish their nearly exhausted canteens, saving their handful of purifying tablets as a last resort. They also took the opportunity to wash up as best they could in the shallow stream, flushing some of the swamp muck out of their boots, though it was plain to see that their footwear had taken on a great deal of mileage these past few days. Taking turns washing each others’ boots while still wearing their own, just to be on the safe side. When the water proved itself safe enough for wading, they also washed their feet and clothes as best they could before settling down to eat. The only sounds to accompany their subdued conversation, the breeze through the trees and the lapping of the stream.

Combined with a full meal, this unexpectedly relaxing atmosphere was starting to lull them to sleep in spite of themselves.

Wanting to avoid their past mistakes, if possible, Shades found a rickety old ladder by the side of the main building, which surprised them all merely by supporting their weight, and climbed up onto the roof of the sawmill, which turned out to be a shallow enough grade to lay down head-up, feet-down against the incline with their packs on either side to curb rolling off the edge in their sleep. Pulling the ladder up behind them, and using the flat of the hatchet to pound in some rusty nails they found below as pegs to hold it up, they settled in for a nap while their boots and gear dried out next to them.

While they could still drop down in a pinch, they had seen for themselves by now that even a minor injury could have been fatal trying to escape the things that dwelt on some of the other layers, and they certainly didn’t want anything just strolling up the ladder, either. They also banked the campfire, and left a couple makeshift torches at hand. Though they only meant to nap for only a couple hours, they contemplated resting for the night— if nothing crashed their party in the meantime— and making one last push for Pickford at dawn. Though they had no way of knowing if those things from last night could swim, they were in no hurry to take a dip if they didn’t have to.

Staring up at a clear blue sky, with a soothing breeze blowing, and the calming lapping of the river, even in such an eerie peace, it was all too easy to dismiss their entire experience the last few days as a result of eating the wrong mushrooms or something, making things as awkward as they were relaxing up on the roof.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
no moon
By the time any of them awakened, it was already late afternoon, still Justin found it was an immense relief to not find anything lying in wait for them.

For his part, Shades drifted back up slowly, from swimming— drowning— in a dark void. Listening to a raspy, skittery old man’s voice, rambling in some long-forgotten tongue. Eventually, the voice of a little girl chimed in, as if to serve as his interpreter. And what he could recall of her words was any-thing but reassuring:

Stole the sun… Stole the moon… Stole the stars…

Then a final image, somehow darker than black, the silhouette of a hulking, misshapen form, crowned with a hoary tangle of antlers. Looking for all of this world like a grotesque travesty of Native American imagery from his own. A personification of death and entropy, and somehow he understood that they were running out of time, awakened to the feeling of being stalked, that even the quaint sawmill scenery he fell asleep to failed to dispel.

“Guys?” Max spoke up, having spotted something that immediately bothered him. “Did any of you leave that door open?”

And Shades found a moment to marvel in dismay at how the unconscious mind always picked up on critical details the conscious mind could easily overlook.

“No…” Justin shook his head, already visibly dreading where this was going.

As far as any of them could remember, that door had been closed all along, none of them wishing to needlessly disturb the place more than it took to examine it. Now it hung partway open, a yawning portal into musty darkness that had been staring out at them for who knew how long while they slept. Judging from one another’s expression, it was safe to say they all felt something icy trickling at the nape of their necks.

A cursory scan of the surrounding area revealed no immediate threat, nor any particular explanation for the door being open, so they took turns covering each other as they gathered their packs and climbed down. Despite having already verbally lampshaded it, they still approached quietly, weapons drawn, not wanting to be caught flatfooted by anything else out here. Justin and Shades covered Max as he stepped inside, seeing the roomy, gloomy interior in greater detail than they could have through the dusty windows.

And it was the dust he took note of first.

Footprints— boots, by the look of them— two distinct sets, both going in. Though they quickly became a mixed-up mess near the middle of the floor, as if a scuffle took place there. Ending with more footprints leading deeper into the building, into shadowy, creaky spaces none of them cared to venture into after all they’d seen out there.

“Do you think…” Shades hazarded a guess, though he dared not answer his own unspoken question aloud.

“Yes,” Max replied, pointing out something else he just noticed a moment ago, about a nearby piece if machinery. “I doubt it was anyone else.”

Clean-severed metal, as only an energy blade could cut.

Since they saw no prior signs of recent entry, they only looked in from outside. Realizing with a cold sweat that they were no longer even looking for human signs anymore. That this might have been here all along, unseen through grimy glass.

“But how…” Justin stammered. Figuring if it was Roxy, she would have revealed herself to them, and Erix would have killed them in their sleep.

“I’m thinking they’re long-gone,” Shades hypothesized. “About the only possibility that makes any sense is that the wind blew that door open while we were sleeping. I fail to see how either of them could’ve missed us, sleeping up there in the open…”

Shades quietly closed the door as they exited, placing a rock in front of the door to prop it closed before they walked away.

That ill-at-ease feeling of someone dancing on their graves only intensified as they returned to the sawmill to finish packing up their gear, only to find deep claw-marks slashed into the support beams on one side.

“I don’t remember that,” Max pointed out.

“Neither do I…” Justin seconded.

“This place isn’t safe,” Shades concluded. Well, no safer than anyplace else they’d been out here, at any rate. Though he had considered staying the night, and making one final push for Pickford in the morning, these last couple revelations changed everything. In light of recent developments, he proposed, “Let’s get going. We’re surely too far from Pickford to make it before dark, but we should try to get as close as we can, as fast as we can.”

They all nodded and set out.

Shunning another dirt logging road leading away from the mill, they resolved to continue following the river itself.

Cutting a trail along the bank, they tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, only firing up their energy blades when necessary to keep the river in sight at all times. Each of them quietly wondering exactly when they stopped worrying about Erix, or which way he and Roxy may have ultimately gone. All the more so at how that scene provided no clue if either of them still lived, or where they might be now.

As if the Woods themselves didn’t pose enough of a threat as it was.

They stopped only a short way from mill to try the radio, see if Roxy was anywhere within range. No response, just the usual static, and something that sounded like the chirping of crickets. Worse than nothing, Justin pointed out, at the possibility that Erix might now possess the radio, and they were all glad they had taken care to mention nothing about the river or the mill.

Even so, they picked up the pace, not wanting to potentially be in radio range anymore if Roxy wasn’t answering.

As the late afternoon sun sank into the trees, though, their accustomed dread of this place crept back to the fore, the gloom and shadows deepening around them with every step. After last night, every shadow appeared more menacing than ever, all of them determined to stay moving all night, if need be, unless they could find anyplace at least as defensible as that boulder or the sawmill roof. Flashlights and flare guns at the ready, as well as a couple hastily-crafted torches.

None of them in any hurry to see whatever fell moon rose this night.

Though a cloud front drifted in as the daylight faded, it offered no comfort.

It was in the midst of this dusky twilight that they heard a rustling from some nearby bushes. Each of them snapped to, weapons covering the foliage against an unseen threat. Flare gun, power pistol and laser sword all brought to bear against the Unknown.

“We know you’re in there…” Shades warned.

“Roxy, if that’s you, now would be a good time to come out…” Max advised.

“You’ve got a count of ten to show yourself,” Justin declared. “Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven…”

They all jumped back as something emerged from the bushes. In the dark, none of them were ever quite sure what it was, looking more like a skittering jumble of twigs than anything else. Justin nearly tripped on a stone, his shot going wide, while Max lunged in, energy blade cleaving the creepy thing in half.

Flashlights concentrated on a twitchy pile of branches, dripping ichor into the dirt. The closest any of them could come to forming a coherent picture of what they beheld was Shades trying to visualize some bizarre, mismatched stick bug, with no underlying symmetry to its form.

Before any of them could regain their words to comment, they heard more rustling in the underbrush, accompanied by loud clicking sounds.

The three of them were on the run before any of them could catch up with what their feet were already doing, kicking and stomping at any stray vegetation in their path.

“Stay together!” Max called out.

Keeping each other’s lights in sight, they struggled to do just that as they sought to evade an enemy they couldn’t always pinpoint as they fled this new menace.

Some time later, they all stumbled to a halt to look back, straining to hear the sound of any pursuit through the blood pounding in their ears, forming a circle, back to back to back.

Hearing nothing, they turned off their lights and stood as silently as they could while they tried to catch their breath.

“Are… they… still after us?” Justin panted.

“I don’t think so…” Max sighed.

“Hey guys…” Shades huffed, looking more closely at their surroundings. “Is it just me… or does this place look really… dead?”

Much to their dismay, all of the trees and shrubs around them were black and bare, the ground ashen and dusty, without a hint of grass or underbrush. It was also colder than any of them recalled, as well, now that they were no longer running for their lives yet again. Not to mention, now that they stopped for a couple minutes, even Max was having trouble catching his breath, as if the air itself had somehow grown thinner.

As if all having the same horrible thought at the same time, they looked skyward.

The clouds had steadily parted during their flight, so now they could see the sky clearly. If any of them could find words at that moment, it would likely have been a wish to see a moon. Any moon at all, rather than this.

No moon, no stars, only a dying sky.

Just the faint glow of nebulae and the shadows of galaxies, which all seemed too close to be real. On closer inspection, they could make out tiny pinpricks of black where the stars ought to be, darker than the space around them. Against the red and violet shifts of their slow turning, somehow barely discernible in the stillness.

The only thing worth looking at in these deadlands, the sky. The heavens as no one had ever seen from Earth. Nor anyplace else they’d ever been, or likely ever would.

Yet even this seemed to be slowly winding down, a cosmic clock with worn-out springs.

A dead wind blew, stirring only dust.

“Is this… how it ends?” Shades murmured as he looked around. “Galaxies close enough to see with the naked eye… black hole suns…This makes no sense…”.

“It’s all… dead?” Max breathed.

“We’ve gotta get out of here…” Justin moaned.

That was about when Shades’ dream from earlier snapped back into his head. That thing he thought of as ‘Antler’. Those ominous words: stole the sun… stole the moon… stole the stars…

And apparently also stole the river, as they looked around, neither seeing nor hearing it.

Even fleeing those creatures, they had kept close to the riverbank, hoping desperately to avoid losing their way any further. Yet there was no guarantee of any similarities between layers in these Woods, a fact they were all painfully aware of anymore. The sense of defeat perfectly complimented the ashen tang in the air.

“This… can’t be happening…” Justin gasped.

“Seriously?” Shades muttered, looking around in desperation.

“We can’t give up,” Max said, as much to himself as to his companions, as if in defiance of this grim place, rather than just their current predicament. “There’s gotta be a way…”

Just when it looked as if they were doomed to repeat more days of aimless wandering, Max spotted something off to the right. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a dried-up riverbed. As far as they could figure, it also seemed to run in the same general direction as the river they were already following before their run-in with the killer shrubbery.

With no better plan, they set about following it.

Along with not wanting to wait around for anything else to attack them, walking was also a good way push back against the stark chill in the air. As well as calm their nerves so they could concentrate. Though it also served to confirm their suspicions that the air really was thinner in this place, leaving even Shades, who grew up in the mountains, winded and slightly lightheaded.

They didn’t have to trudge very far to begin to understand that they weren’t going to make very good time in this place, having to stop every ten or fifteen minutes to catch their breath.

The closest thing any of them could compare it to was accounts Shades once read of Mount Everest expeditions, of adjusting to high altitudes. Only he could no longer spare the wind to tell them anything about it. Found himself thinking of Erix’s diving gear, only to realize that it would be heavier than his backpack, and offered only about an hour or so of oxygen, but still…

For the first time since they set out, Max found he feared for his own life even more than he feared for Bandit’s, and that bothered him even more than this morbid scenery.

The more Justin looked around at this dead world, the more he found himself thinking about that eerie sky bridge from the Harken Building. The one that crossed through a cavern, and whose mysterious collapse, or at least breach, seemed to suck all of the air out of that section. As well as the feeling that he might just meet whatever he suspected resided on that side of the glass somewhere in this world, despite the utterly sterile atmosphere of this place…

So they continued plodding against the cold, the thinness of the air, and the unnerving impression that if they slowed down, the entropy of this place might just catch up with them.

Much like his friends, Shades was unsure exactly when he first noticed the hair on the back of his neck shifting, as if feeling a draft, despite the sparse wind out here, and that dread sense of something approaching.

Along with an instinctive, gut knowledge that whatever it was, they weren’t going to like it. All three of them looked over their shoulder in almost perfect unison, each nearly stumbling under the ominous sight looming behind them. A shadow on the horizon, blotting out the dim lights of that dying sky.

At first, it would be all too easy to dismiss it as a front of stormclouds, troublesome enough in the absence of any shelter, yet further examination revealed that shadow was also blacking out the barren lands beneath it. An advancing wall of darkness, devouring everything in its wake. The worst thing about it, though, was the resolving shape that rode atop it.

A hoary mass of antlers, made of solid shadow, beneath which two dead orbs hovered, both darker than black.

Antler.

A silly name, for such a terrifying sight, one that nearly sent Shade into fits of hysterical giggling. Though he knew it had another name, ancient beyond history, one he was certain mortal ears were never meant to hear…

None of them recalled exactly when they took off running, only that their feet had taken on a mind of their own, and most certainly had the right idea. That whatever stalked these deadlands was more dangerous than everything else they’d encountered in the Woods combined, and utterly, hopelessly, beyond them. Right about now, wishing more than ever that the plane was still working, and they were aboard it right this moment.

Though Shades, at least, struggled against the image of that vast shadow reaching out somehow and swatting them right out of the sky. That even an airplane couldn’t hope to outrun this thing. This shadow of death loomed over the whole land, and none of them believed there was anyplace to hide from this, by now running on nothing more than primal panic, even as it casually closed the distance between them with every frantic backwards glance.

Lungs burning, straining for air that wasn’t there, running on adrenaline and cortisol.

From an advancing wall of doom, as inevitable as death itself.

Such was their panic, that it wasn’t until a complete lack of ground under their feet sent them tumbling headlong that any of them realized they were no longer paying any attention to where they were even running. That they just ran right off a cliff. Screaming into the thin air as death behind gave way to death ahead and below.

Shades almost thought it might be better this way, before finding himself stricken with the horrible intuition that even death would be no escape from that thing…

Still flailing, they splashed into deep, cold water, what little breath was left in their lungs knocked out of them as they thrashed about and sank.

The shock, though, served to snap them out of their previous blind panic, even as they struggled back upward against tired limbs and soggy clothes, lungs straining for air even more than before. Though they would never be sure if it was just the bubbles of their own impact and the current itself, after all they’d seen, it took little effort to imagine other things down there with them. Adding even greater desperation to their efforts.

Coughing and gasping and shuddering as they dragged themselves up on the bank of what turned out to be a wide plunge pool, where waters at the bottom of a waterfall gathered before taking another, smaller, dip to resume the river’s course. As they at last started to catch their breath and regain some semblance of composure, they noticed there was indeed a waterfall back there, marking where the terrain took a sharp drop. At least twenty or thirty feet; high enough for a bone-shattering drop, if there had been no water below to break their fall.

From up there…

As if all having the same terrifying thought, they all looked around the sky, seeing no trace of the horrible wall of black that so nearly drove them to their deaths. Instead, they saw trees with broad leaves, and underbrush that looked like oversized ferns. As well as more of the same up top, the sky itself sprinkled with stars.

The thing that most quickly grabbed their attention, though, was the moon. Both of them. One lavender, the other pink, and slightly larger. The former at a quarter, the latter nearly full.

Breathtaking beauty on the heels of such breathtaking horror, leaving them at a loss for words.

After a few minutes, though, they arrived at a tacit agreement that none of them felt like hanging around the water’s edge to see what might pop up next. They set out, quickly finding where the river resumed its course, and resumed theirs.

Cold, wet, tired and wary, yet also all too aware of how close they just came to total annihilation only a short while ago.
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
out of the Woods
The three of them stumbled along the riverbank, all but sleepwalking anymore.

After last night’s horrific experience, they were all afraid to stop, afraid to sleep, and Shades suspected by now that he was not the only one menaced by things only half-seen out of the corner of bleary eyes. Even still having the river failed to inspire any confidence in the face of all they’d learned of this terrible place. If they didn’t find a way out of the Woods today, none of them were sure if they could keep this up tomorrow.

Shades wondered if this was what it was to fear sleep. Both the vulnerability of the act, as well as the nightmares. Even the fact that some of them revealed the shape of threats to come seemed poor compensation.

After last night, he found himself haunted by visions of his old home, the Flathead Valley, ending up like this, an insidious voice from the back of his mind insisting that something like this was what was really happening the night of the Flathead Experiment, and he was no longer sure he had the strength or conviction to oppose it.

At high noon, they finally stopped to take a late breakfast. Though in desperate need of the energy, this place had taken its toll on their appetite, and they munched mechanically, absently. All too aware there was next to nothing left, that today would see their last meal.

It was only when they stopped to take stock of things that Shades realized, much to all of their dismay, that the map from Camp Stilton got soaked when they fell in the river last night, the folded paper now a soggy, pulpy mess that fell apart between his fingers when he tried to open it. Not that it had been doing them much good before, it was the principle of the thing.

Shades tried not to look at Kelly’s skull as he put it back in his pack. Back then, there was barely room for it, but as their supplies dwindled, it now had room to shift around. A burden that somehow grew heavier even as his pack grew lighter.

Among the last of their provisions, having sunk to the bottom of his bag, he found something he only vaguely remembered packing. Metal tins from Roger’s emergency stores, military rations Made In New Cali, according to the label. Though he could just as easily picture a different label on similar items from back on Earth.

“MRE’s…” he mumbled. “Well I’ll be damned!”

“What’s that?” Justin asked, staring at them.

“Meals Ready to Eat,” Shades informed him. “Soldiers carry these back in my world.”

“Like your father?” Max recalled.

“Yes,” Shades replied. “Even before Master Al, Dad taught me most of what I know about wilderness survival. And this place has turned most of what I learned into a bad joke…”

“Not all of it,” Max told him as they prepared to resume their tired trek. “Your instincts have saved us several times, and that’s gotta count for something. We’re all still alive, aren’t we?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s go,” Justin said, surprising both of them by being the first to rise.

Their march continued into the afternoon, eyes sandbagged as their feet as they continued their troubled expedition.

An hour so later, they wandered past another abandoned cabin, right on the river. The mostly useless length of dock and grounded rowboat a testament to how much fuller this river could be in different seasons, certainly more use to the lumber mill back there. The dirt path behind it presumably a tributary to that so-called Highway 13.

Justin and Shades both spat in its general direction in almost perfect unison.

“We’re not fallin’ for that shit anymore…”

Though not quite as dilapidated as the cottage from the other night, even its proximity to the river felt more like temptation than hope.

Max scarcely noticed, lost in his own brooding ruminations; this was by far the longest he and Bandit had ever been separated, and with every day— and every night— it became harder not to dwell on an ever growing list of grim possibilities.

Justin struggled not to let the distance wear on his mind, more land than he had ever believed existed in any one place, and much like Max, the miles were starting to get to him almost as much as the Woods themselves. That, and recalling fragments of a nightmare from the other night, about all the knots in the trees’ bark opening up to reveal staring eyes…

For his part, after five days out here, Shades was beginning to question whether they could even begin to convince anyone to come back with them, recalling the map and note, with all their dire warnings.

As they came around another bend, Shades was positive he saw a spectral figure, a little girl, beckon them toward a tree standing out on an embankment. Passing between the narrow gap between the tree and the water before vanishing. Unlike some things he glimpsed, this one looked just substantial enough to actually be something.

Upon closer inspection, he noted that the tree appeared to cast two shadows. As if straddling two different realities. Of course, most of the Woods proper were too shrouded in shadow for this knowledge to avail them much, now that he thought about it, thus it was really only useful here along the river.

Walking up to the tree, he couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other signs for them to find. Leading to a grim thought. After the other day, they had been too spooked by the radio to bother much with it since then, but now he switched his on as he stood before the tree.

Moving toward the landward side of the tree caused a sharp rise in static, while the river side remained faint and quiet.

Explaining to his friends what he had seen, he led them through the narrow gap between the tree and the river, to a riverside forest that looked exactly like the one they saw ahead of them, but, most perplexing, that the tree now had only one shadow from this side.

“Where the hell has that ghost-girl been lately anyway?” Justin muttered.

“Don’t know.” Shades shrugged. “I think we lost her for a while back at the circle stones. Maybe she was in the swamp, but I wasn’t completely sure. I’m just glad to see she didn’t follow us into those deadlands. I don’t think even a ghost is safe in that world…”

Even mentioning it, at high noon, in broad daylight, didn’t feel very safe, so he tried to put it out of his mind as they resumed.

Armed with two pieces of intel they wished they had days ago, they continued, Shades tuned in to the radio with one earphone, while Max tried to keep a weary eye out for any anomalous shadows as they went.

After another harrowing hour or so, they came upon more derelict millworks, this time a much more extensive complex, yet just as run-down as Rigby Millworks, so they didn’t linger.

Simultaneously dismayed and heartened to find an old dirt road on the far side of the place, running right alongside the river. Though deservedly distrustful of roads out here, they decided to walk it only if its path kept in sight of the river. If nothing else, it did make a smooth path for numb legs and sore feet.

A short walk around the bend, and the road turned left onto a bridge. Wider, longer, and of metal and concrete construction, unlike the covered bridge back at Stilton, clearly designed to bear heavier loads, as well. Despite being left to rot presumably as long as everything else out here, it seemed to have held up better, and they could cross it without a hitch.

The thing that held their foremost attention, though, was an end to the Woods on the other side, and a glimpse of old, crumbling houses just beyond it.

Anymore, it was hard to tell where to focus their eyes as they made their way across. Caution made a strong case for itself, but also the fear that if they took their eyes off that view for even a moment, it might vanish. Though none of them could quite articulate why, they still felt as if they just crossed some unseen border as they set foot on the other side of the river.

Looking back in spite of their trepidation, they could see that in their tunnel vision, they had walked right past several red-lettered signs on and in front of the bridge, warning travelers to stay out of the Woods. Such delightful gems as No Return! and No Search Parties! that looked right at home in any horror movie. As well as several runic symbols painted on the bridge itself.

“For all the good that did us…” Shades muttered.

Shades also noted the road on this side of the bridge was actually paved, if long-neglected, the first thing they had encountered out here that even started to match with the trumped-up highway markers on that map.

Trying not to imagine every horror they encountered back there rushing the bridge in one final last-minute attempt to claim them, they turned to face the moment of truth. Hoping the town ahead wasn’t just a mirage, some final, cruel joke on the Woods’ part. And no small dismay about their chances of finding help, as all of the houses they saw so far appeared as deserted as everyplace else they’d been to.

Dirty outskirts, giving way to abandoned streets, vacant windows staring out at them like unwelcoming eyes. An eerie silence hung over the place, betraying not a hint of any observers. They could also see more of those runes painted on buildings, fences and old, weathered signs at regular intervals.

As they moved in deeper, they began to notice more of the area surrounded by tall severe-looking fences that all seemed to be connected to each other. Forming a broad barrier between the outskirts and the town beyond. Farther in, giving way to stakewall palisades with sharpened points across the top, stockade style.

The whole thing narrowing the street they walked into a walled corridor funneling them into the town proper.

As if, over the years, the Woods had slowly encroached on their community, and people gradually, grudgingly, moved inward, closer to the coast. Leaving layers of derelict fortifications in their wake. And leaving no clue if any of the inner defenses still defended anything.

“I knew I was bein’ followed…” a gruff voice proclaimed from their right.

They turned to see a shabbily-dressed, thick-bearded man, of squat build and wide features, step out from behind an old, leaning stretch of pre-Woods fence. Pointing at them what appeared to Shades to be some manner of shotgun. Eyes wide, hands barely steady, looking for all the world like he no more wished to be out here than they.

“You… you just came from the Woods, didn’t you?” Looking from one of them to another as if he half expected them to be some sort of phantom or hallucination. “Don’t you know there’s a great Evil out there?”

“We noticed,” Shades assured him.

The man made no secret of his suspicion as he demanded, “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” Justin asked back, clearly not liking that this guy had the drop on them.

“I live here, you don’t,” the man countered. “Now, who are you?”

“My name is Max,” Max told him, hoping to defuse this confrontation.

“Shades MacLean.” Just hoping this fellow might actually be a sign of hope, that there might still be someone here who could help them.

“Justin Black…” Then, for the first time in his life, wondering if he just made a big mistake, blurting his real name like that. Now that they had found their way back to some semblance of civilization, he realized that, in the midst of surviving one crisis after another, he had managed to forget about Jesse Fletcher for three whole days. “If it’s any of your business.”

“Jarvis Tully,” he said, lowering the gun, but still keeping it handy in the face of three visibly armed strangers. “Where’re you from?”

“Around,” Shades replied, not wanting to go into the Black Angels, and their unknown implications. “More specifically, we ran aground near Camp Stilton about five days ago.”

“And we had a bitch of time getting here,” Justin added. “I mean, what the hell happened to the road?”

“We came here for help,” Max reminded him. “Let’s try to keep this diplomatic.”

“We have a couple injured friends who are still stranded out there.” Shades could see they were pushing the limits of their credibility, most likely just by being here at all.

“They’re probably long dead by now.”

“We survived,” Max pointed out. “I’m not going to abandon my friends, even if we have to go back around the peninsula ourselves to get them.”

“Then you’re bigger fools than I thought. Even the coast’s no safe place to travel.”

“There must be a way,” Max insisted.

“Please tell me the rest of the town’s not…” Justin moaned.

“No, no it ain’t,” Jarvis informed them. “Pickford ain’t what she used to be, but we still stand. Ol’ Sister Clarice still maintains the wardings, but she’s not well, so I had to come out here all alone to check on ’em…”

“Wardings…” Shades recalled the runes they kept finding all the way in. “And you came out here all by yourself?”

“I’m the caretaker,” Jarvis answered, “it’s my job.”

“Caretaker of what?” Shades wondered aloud.

“None o’ your business,” he said, turning toward the way into Pickford. “If you promise not to cause any trouble, you can come with me. Even in broad daylight, folks’ve been known to go missin’ if they wander past the edge o’ town.”

Seeing he was no more inclined to linger than they, they nodded and followed him around a bend in the corridor, with a tall gate barring the way about a hundred feet ahead.

As they approached, a man popped up next to the gate, calling, “Who goes there?”

“Jarvis,” he called back, “and some unexpected guests. They came all the way from Stilton, so don’t keep ’em waitin’.”

A moment later, the gate ground open, sounding as if it was opened as seldom as possible. Inside, the man from before greeted them, and they could see he wore a uniform and badge that denoted him as law enforcement. Another man, wearing plain clothes, helped him close and bar the gate, both staring after them as if unsure any of that just happened as they walked away.

“What now?” Max asked.

“Now I take you to the inn,” Jarvis explained. “Sheriff Duhan will want to have a word with you later, but there’s other folks who’ll want to talk to you first. You’re the first to come back from those Woods in years, an’ about the only ones not driven mad with terror an’ exposure. Stilton’ll be keen to hear you, I’m sure, an’ I know a couple others, too…”
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Pickford
Inside the perimeter, there were still a share of abandoned houses, at least at first, but as they continued, the homes showed more signs of habitation.

They soon noticed faces staring out at them from mostly curtained windows. Watching them with a mixture of awe and apprehension, given the direction they just came from. Turning to look at any of them mostly resulted in those faces vanishing in a blink, or a flicker of curtain.

Jarvis led them out near the harbor, where curious onlookers tried not to look like they were gawking, even while keeping a respectful distance.

“There’s been talk for years of tearin’ down that bridge,” he told them, “but after the wall went up, no one cared to go out there no more.”

“I can’t imagine why…” Justin muttered.

Along the way, they saw for themselves a measure of the toll the Woods had taken on their community, and Jarvis mentioned some more. Of missing livestock, missing pets, missing children, occasionally even missing adults, before the walls were finished. In the early years, that even included a few drunken wagers, and later on, foolhardy travelers and would-be adventurers. By now, most wise and experienced wanderers knew to take heed and leave well enough alone, just from the locals’ own avoidance, that this was no idle tourist prank.

“Heaven knows,” Jarvis rambled, “we have enough real trouble out there, to go makin’ any up…”

At last, they arrived at an inn called Pines Lodge, where he brought them inside. The place itself appeared welcoming enough, its bar most likely a local watering hole, its handful of rooms accommodating the occasional traveler. Enough tables and chairs to function as a small restaurant, with batwing doors connecting to a proportionately sized kitchen.

“Moira!” Jarvis called, and an older woman at the bar looked up from the mugs she was cleaning. “You have guests.”

“Jarvis.” She looked up from her work for a moment to take in these three outlanders, noting their dirty, disheveled looks. “Since when did you ever keep the company of strangers? You’re not seafarers, are you?”

“It’s as you think,” Jarvis told her. “In fact, they came all the way up from Camp Stilton.”

Moira fumbled and nearly dropped the ceramic mug, gasping at that name, looking at them in a whole new light.

“Is this true?” she asked them, her voice shifting from wry and world-weary to alarmed and intense as they walked up to the bar. The three of them certainly looked— and smelled— as if they had been out in the wilderness rather than on the high seas.

“Yes,” Max answered, his friends nodding in solemn agreement. “And we have two friends who are still stranded out there.”

“How long?”

“Five days.”

“Surely they’re dead by now…” Moira turned away from them, visibly uncomfortable making such a grim pronouncement to strangers.

“With all due respect,” Shades pointed out, “I would like to remind you that we’re still alive.”

“No thanks to those damn Woods!” Justin added. “What the hell is the deal with that place?”

“Well, it’s not something we like to talk about anymore,” she told them, back still turned, “especially with outlanders…”

“I daresay we’ve earned some answers, don’t you think?” Max intoned.

“You’re right,” Moira sighed, turning back to them, “but I suppose I should start with some manners. I’m Moira Stilton. My late husband used to run the camp. That’s why Jarvis brought you here first.”

And here I thought there might be some hospitality in him somewhere… Shades thought.

Moira looked around as if to make sure there was no one on hand to object, then continued: “For many years, this town was run by a powerful family, the Rigbys. They built a mansion on the far side of Pickford. Vineholdt.”

“Caretaker…” Shades mused, “Is that what Jarvis meant?”

“Yes,” Moira admitted, “that’s why he looks after the grounds and such, much as he used to when he worked for them. The last head of the Rigby family was always said to have studied dangerous and forbidden knowledge, and about ten years ago, something she did one night went horribly wrong. Since that night, the Woods have been a deathtrap, and that estate has been haunted ever since. No one has seen hide nor hair of anyone who was there at the time, and the younger folks have taken to calling it the Castle.”

“Strange…” Max remarked, guessing from the look on Shades’ face that he shared his relief at no mention of Camcron. That a dimensional anomaly of this magnitude would surely have the Institute’s name written all over it.

“My husband and I put a lot of work into rebuilding and organizing that camp after the logging operation shut down out there,” Moira explained. “It was supposed to be a place for the children of Pickford to enjoy, like the camps we’d heard of in other lands. After that night, we ended up abandoning everyplace out on the peninsula, including Camp Stilton, when people started to go missing…”

“Like Kelly Edwards?” Shades asked, seeing her eyes widen noticeably at that name.

“You saw the poster?”

“That’s not all we saw,” Shades replied, shrugging off his backpack and setting it on the nearest table, remembering what else he brought all this way.

“Kelly?” a woman’s voice demanded from the front door. “Did you see our daughter?”

An older couple strode in, both looking aged beyond their years with grief. Anxiety, dread, and even a hint of hope competing for their dominant facial expression. Jarvis hovering right behind them, near the door. In the course of their intense conversation with Moira, none of them could even recall seeing him leave.

“Shelby and Lorna Edwards,” Jarvis introduced them, then stepped back. “Kelly’s parents.”

“Please don’t get your hopes up,” Shades cautioned them as he opened his pack and unwrapped the skull. “While we were out there, less than a day from Camp Stilton, we found the remains…” choking up in spite of himself, “the remains of a child…”

Shelby gasped, but Lorna objected, “How? How do we know if it’s her?”

“I also found this…” Shades reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and fished out the gemstone earring, half surprised it was still in there after all that, and handed it to her.

Lorna only looked at it for a moment before she broke down, long-dammed floodgates opening as she slumped in the nearest seat, and her husband leaned over to comfort her, one lone tear rolling down his somber face as he put his arm around her.

Shades bowed his head and Max followed suit, while Justin tried to look around at nothing in particular.

“We gave those to her for a ninth birthday present, just a few days before she went to camp…” Shelby stammered. Though already slightly stooped with the weight of years and loss, he seemed to slump just a little more at this final revelation. “She couldn’t wait to show them to all her friends…”

“Somebody found her…” Lorna sobbed. “After all these years…”

For his part, Jarvis simply grunted, bowed his head, and ducked out the door.

“Little Kelly was the first to disappear,” Moira told them, her face as ashen as either of the girl’s parents. “Then the search party…”

“It was the Evil in the Woods that got her,” Shades said, deciding it was better not to mention the roots, “of that I’m certain.”

All three of them tried to conceal their relief that no one asked them to elaborate.

“We couldn’t just leave her out there…” Max began, then remembered what else they came here for. “We also came here for our friends, who are still stuck out at Camp Stilton. This was all we could do for your daughter, but there is still hope for the living.”

“Five days?” Moira piped up. “Surely you can’t be serious…”

We survived,” Justin countered, “and they have a ship to take shelter in.”

“For all the good that would do ’em,” Shelby muttered. “No one from the original search party was ever heard from again. Trying to rescue anyone from those Woods is suicide…”

“Roger Wilco saved our lives, getting us ashore in that storm,” Shades explained. “That’s a rather poor way to return the favor, don’t you think?”

“Surely they’re all dead.” There was no mistaking the terror in Shelby’s eyes. “You should be grateful for your lives, and the chance to continue on your way.”

“Bandit’s my oldest friend,” Max declared, surprising even himself with his own determination after all the horrors they endured. “I’m not going anywhere without going back for him first.”

“But no one’s been out there for years…”

“They brought back our Kelly,” Lorna told her husband, her long-denied grief hardening into a stony resolve. “How could we ever face her, if we do any less for them?”

“You don’t even have to go,” Max offered. “All we need are enough supplies to go around the peninsula, and any old boat you might be willing to part with. We don’t have much money, but…”

“Even the peninsula isn’t safe,” Shelby warned them, but his tone sounded more resigned than anything. Even as he spoke, he stood up a little taller. “Your money’s no good with us. You brought back Kelly’s remains, and that’s more than anyone could’ve hoped for. We owe you something for that, and if this is what she wants…”

Lorna nodded.

“Then you’ll help us?” Justin pressed.

“Yes, but not this late,” Shelby cautioned them. “It’ll be sunset soon, and it’s far too dangerous sailing the peninsula after dark. We’ll set out at first light tomorrow. I just hope this isn’t all for nothing…”

“I’m coming too,” Lorna added. “There’s enough room aboard the Shorewind for all of us.”

“But you don’t even like sailing,” Shelby balked, “you always get seasick…”

“We have to see this through,” Lorna insisted.

“Please,” Shelby pleaded. “Stay here. With… Kelly. I promise I’ll come back, and we will bury her together…”

“I’ll hold you to that.” She then turned to the three of them. “When this is all over, you are also welcome to attend.”

“It’s the least we could do,” Max nodded.

“In the meantime,” Moira stepped in, “you’re welcome to stay the night here. My husband, Ethan, was the leader of the search party, and I feel he would want it this way. You’ll be safe enough here in Pickford. Sister Clarice still maintains the old wardings around town…”

“We thank you for your hospitality,” Max told her, all three nodding in heartfelt accord.

“First thing’s first,” Moira resumed, “you boys should go wash up while we prepare dinner.”

“Good idea,” Shades mumbled.

After the better part of a week in the Woods, and being cooped up on a plane for a couple days before that, they all naturally smelled of an overabundance of testosterone, and a shortage of deodorant. A hot shower did much, both to wash away sweat and grime, as well as to sooth sore muscles and stiff joints. Moira provided some spare robes she scrounged up from the storeroom, and Lorna offered to wash their clothes that night.

Though every bit as polite and gracious as the Royal Treatment warranted, each of them held on to at least one holdout weapon, just in case things were not as they seemed in the quaint little town of Pickford.

By the time they had all washed up, dinner was ready. From the array of dishes and cookware on display, they gathered that Pines Lodge was most likely frequented by locals, and the occasional seafarer on shore leave. For the next couple days, that was all about to change.

That was not to say that they didn’t have their share of visitors throughout the evening. Most of them a touch quiet and subdued, each with some trivial pretense for catching a glimpse of the first people to survive the Woods in years. Years of eldritch encroachment had shrunk Pickford into a rather small town, and even the local sheriff, Willard Duhan, who happened to be taking a shift at the gate, just like his deputies and local volunteers, dropped by to ask a few questions.

Reminding Shades of a very important matter.

“For the sake of disclosure,” he brought up, concluding that these folks really did have a right to know, “we originally ended up here in pursuit of an outlaw named Erix.” The lawman nodded, having apparently heard the name before, even if most folks in these parts had not. “There was a bounty hunter with us, as well. But the last time we saw Roxy, she was chasing him out toward someplace called Rannigan’s Wharf…”

“Then you’ve surely seen the last of them,” Sheriff Duhan told them, and Shelby shuddered.

“By any chance,” Max chimed in, figuring it was safe enough to ask at this point, “have any of you ever heard of anyplace called Deltania? Or Cyexia, perhaps?”

Heads shaking all around.

“Not anywhere in these parts,” Moira told them. “This whole land used to be called Sinovia, but I’m not sure how it is on the rest of the coast anymore…”

“The Commonwealth…” Shelby added, “isn’t what it used to be.”

“Wherever did you hear such odd names?” Lorna asked.

“On the radio,” Shades shrugged, not wanting to bring the Black Angels into all of this, “back when we first arrived.”

“You shouldn’t trust anything you hear on the radio out there,” Shelby advised them. “It’s all wrong, every bit of it…”

“You’re tellin’ us!” Justin laughed.

And so the discussion changed to less morbid topics. Much to their relief, no one at the table wanted to hear about the Woods, likely having already seen and heard more than they ever cared to, so the three of them provided tidbits of what was happening in other realms they’d passed through. It helped take the edge off the awkwardness of dining with hosts who had lost so much to the place they just survived.

That night they dined on a hearty stew of fish and veggies, fresh-baked bread, and crab rolls for dessert. Washed down with warm tea and cold cider. A blissful blur of down-home cooking, and a panacea for dwindling packs of provisions and days of deprivation.

But also no small helping of guilt, wondering how much food Roger and Bandit might have left back at the plane wreck. Or if Roxy had found anything at all to eat, wherever she was. Even for the likes of Erix, exposure and starvation seemed a terrible fate, with the memory of their own gnawing hunger still so fresh in their minds.

In spite of tomorrow’s grim and uncertain prospects, they thanked their hosts graciously before retiring.

Though it was the first time any of them had slept in a proper bed since their last night aboard the Excelsior back in Anchor Point over a week ago, sleep would not come easy, in spite of their bone-weary exhaustion.

Max worrying about Bandit. Justin, that the town and everything in it was just a delusion or ruse of some sort, too good to be true. Shades, worse still, that they might all be the victims of some lotus-eating trap, a creepy thought that even crept into his dreams.
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
rescue party
The first thing Shades noticed was that he could not move.

With an effort, he blinked his eyes open, getting his first blurry glimpse of the forest floor. Followed by a tangle of roots and vines binding him. Unable to move his head, he had to strain his peripheral vision, almost to the point of seeing spots, to see Max and Justin similarly bound.

A vaguely familiar, delicious, welcoming aroma crowded out the smell of the Woods, feeling totally out of place in such remote surroundings as these.

Justin lolled his head as far as he could, mumbling, “Breakfast, man…”

The sudden jolt of vines shaking him…

Then he woke up for real.

“Come on, man, you’re gonna miss breakfast,” Justin told him again as he threw on freshly washed clothes to go get it while it was still hot.

Shades rolled over, stumbling toward the bathroom. Realized, now that he was more awake, that that was breakfast he was smelling. Even so, he still couldn’t shake off that image, and the insidious question it left him with.

Was that just a dream, or a glimpse of truth? he pondered as he splashed his face. It didn’t come as any surprise that he wanted that creepy experience to just be all a dream, but also feared they might still be out in the Woods, and this might all just be some sort of hallucination caused by some foul species of lotus-eater plant. Couldn’t help the grim certainty that this was also Kelly’s fate, and it chilled him to the bone to even think it. Not being able to tell was making his eyes dart around the room, questioning everything around him with a degree of paranoia he would have found ridiculous yesterday.

He splashed his face again, practically slapping himself as he did so.

The sensation certainly felt real enough to him, but he also knew he had experienced pain in dreams before, so that wasn’t good enough. At least it calmed him out of his near-panic state, and in questioning, he found himself recalling his talks with fellow Zero Hunter Roulette, Rod, back in the Isle of Castaways. About how ‘shared’ dreams only seemed to happen deeper down, and he hoped he could remember to ask his friends about their experiences out there, to see if there was any consistency to their experiences together. Of how, back in No Man’s Land, one of the most fiendish traps the Zeroes laid was tricking him into thinking he woke up, so he would let his guard down while still on the dreamplane.

Closing his eyes, he remembered the details of the room, then opened them again. Seeing the room unchanged, he jumped in place, feeling gravity drop his feet solidly on the floor a second later. Stared hard at the mirror, but knowing that he had seen clear reflections in his own dreams before left him with no confidence in that test.

Two for three, he headed downstairs to eat.

Found Max was already finishing up, in no small hurry to get going. In his dreams, he came upon the Albatross, still on the beach. Old and weathered, sun-bleached and sandblasted, rusting in a couple dozen different places. As if she had lain there for years, rather than days.

But when he reached for the rust-pitted cargo door handle, dreading what he was already certain he would find, that was when he woke up.

Justin, meanwhile, dug in, trying not to dwell on his own creepy dreams. Of waking to find the inn long-abandoned and decaying. All alone in a filthy room, but hearing strange chittering sounds somewhere beyond his door. As well as a creepy, fishy smell he also tried not to recall as he ate.

In the end, fresh-cooked breakfast won out, and he chowed down.

Shades took his place and tried to do more than just poke at his food as he grappled with this existential puzzle. After all, Moira had whipped up a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, toast, even bacon, and he suspected most of this stuff was at a premium out here. True to her word, Lorna had washed their clothes as well as could be while they slept, and Shelby had made some preparations of his own. Thus he very much wanted these things to be real as much as he wanted that dire dilemma from earlier to be just a dream.

Even so, he feared that desire alone might be enough to sustain a convincing illusion, so he scowled at the table as he shoveled food. Found himself tracing the patterns in the wood grains, blinking to find them unchanged. Encouraged by this, he pressed his palm into the tabletop, tried to push through it, finding it solid and unyielding.

Shades tried willing Roger and Bandit to appear before them, as well as willing random people in the lobby to disappear, even tried to will his eggs to turn into pancakes, to no avail, further establishing the immutability of the world around him.

Glanced at the map Shelby scrounged up the night before, further heartened to see the letters and words remain the same from one moment to the next.

Remembering another trick Rod mentioned, he started adding and subtracting spontaneously chosen numbers in his head, relieved that he was getting mathematically sound results.

“Shades,” Max piped up, noting the expressions on his face throughout breakfast, “you look intense. What’s on your mind?”

“What was the first thing I said to you when we first met?” Shades asked point-blank.

“Um, somethin’ about fries being bad for Bandit, right?” Max frowned, taking several seconds to answer. “Somethin’ about him having a… heart attack, wasn’t it?”

“Justin,” Shades turned, trying to move even half as fast as he was thinking, “What’s the capital of the Triangle State?”

“Crawford…” Justin blurted, then paused for a moment, staring at his friend. “Are you alright, man?”

Max also looked at him with growing concern.

“Yeah, I think I’m alright now,” Shades replied. “I just had a really bad dream, and wanted to be sure I wasn’t still having it.”

Both of them nodded, making him wish he could find the words to ask them about the matter without alarming their hosts. And he was sure talking about the things they found out there right now would definitely make for a most unwelcome conversation topic at this table. Still, Rod had told him his own definition of ‘dreaming’ was blind acceptance, so he took heart from his own sustained questioning of his current experiences.

Feeling much better, he focused on the taste of his breakfast, regaining his appetite in the process. By the time he finished eating, their supplies were already packed and ready to go, as the first hint of daylight was starting to appear on the horizon. Moira saw them off, as the Edwards led them to the harbor.

“I wouldn’t trust to hope,” Moira advised them. “It died a long time ago out there… Just… come back alive, please.”

It didn’t take a detective to see that neither of them got much more sleep than themselves, but their expressions showed a solemn determination to see this through.

The early morning streets of Pickford were nearly deserted. Lorna explained that, wall or no wall, most folks didn’t like to be out after dark, and seldom walked alone if they had to be. Many people had gradually drifted up the coast, to the port town of Hawthorne and parts beyond. Even periodic Town Hall talk of just packing up the whole town, but such proposals always met with resistance, both from within and from without.

The economy upshore wasn’t doing all that much better, so there was no shortage of opposition to anyone else moving in.

By the time they reached the docks, the sun was just peeking over the watery horizon, and a small gathering had shown up to say their farewells, or likely pay their last respects. Much as Shelby expected, a decided shortage of volunteers for what most saw as a suicide mission. Thus they would see him off with a mixture of respect, dismay and pity.

Even several men who appeared to be his regular fishing crew looked at him as if he was about to embark on a voyage over the edge of the earth.

When Shelby apologized, Max simply told him, “We’ll be your crew on this voyage.”

As they prepared to embark, Lorna held Shelby tight, whispering, “Please make it back…”

“We’ll be home by sundown,” he assured her, though there was no mistaking his lapse of confidence as he spoke.

Lorna then turned to them, saying, “I hope you have better luck finding your friends.”

“Thank you,” Max nodded, both of his friends welcoming her blessing.

With that, they boarded the Shorewind, a fishing boat of similar design to most of those that remained in Pickford’s sparse harbor.

After grueling days of trudging through hostile territory, it felt almost surreal to be back out at sea, but also very natural. Enough to dispel the lingering traces of that feeling of being trapped in some insidious web of illusion. Feeling the waves rolling under him, smelling the brisk sea air, helped shake the remaining cobwebs from Shades’ head, which suited him just fine; they would need him fully focused if he was going to be any good to them out here.
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
on Rannigan's Wharf
As they cast off, Shelby turned to them, saying, “Even with our engines, a trip around the peninsula and back is an all-day voyage. We’ll be lucky to make it back by nightfall. From here on out, we’re going to be using the buddy system. No one walks the deck alone. Out on the peninsula, people have been known to drop overboard without any explanation. Just leaving a hat or something drifting behind…”

Shelby shuddered, and they couldn’t help but conclude that he had witnessed such a thing himself somewhere along the way. Max and Shelby formed one team, Justin and Shades the other. Both agreeing to keep one another in plain sight at all times while on deck.

Despite being ill-at-ease about returning to Camp Stilton, each for their own reasons, they could at least take some heart from a common determination to finish what they started.

“Used to be good fishing out here…” Shelby lamented, shaking his head. “After the peninsula went bad, it became too dangerous. Things in the deep, that never used to be there. Vast, terrifying shapes that sometimes drift near the surface, some could swallow this ship whole… No telling what foul things might turn up in your net, or drag you overboard. And unhallowed things sometimes wash up on the shore up in Pickford, too. We show ’em to the kids as a warning about how dangerous the peninsula really is.”

“Aren’t we drifting a little close to the shore?” Max pointed out.

“Not in these parts,” Shelby told them. “It’s best to hug the coast out here.”

Justin recalled such a warning from the map they found back there.

“You’re lucky you folks ran aground in such a shallow inlet. Still, we have to be watchful. You know better’n most, this is no place to get stranded…”

As if to illustrate his point, they passed the first of at least a dozen houses and unmarked settlements along the shoreline, all of them as abandoned and forlorn as Stilton.

“Did anyone ever make it out of there?” Shades asked.

“Some,” Shelby answered, “but those what tried to hold out were never seen again…”

None of them cared to contemplate any of those residents’ fates.

“Leaving Camp Stilton was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Shelby sighed. “I still don’t know how I could face Lorna after that, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to look anyone else in the eye if I didn’t try to save the others…”

Staring out at the horizon for long moment before he pulled himself together and continued.

“Truth be told, I don’t even like running the motor in these parts,” Shelby admitted, “but I don’t wanna still be out here after dark. All the same, it’s safer to ride the winds and the currents out this way. Of course, the radio’s also risky. Seems to draw attention from things you’d rather not notice you.”

Shades remembered their own creepy experiences with their radios out here, that these folks had little use for making up superstitions, what with all the paranormal problems lurking right on their own doorstep.

“Such a shame about Camp Stilton…” Shelby sighed. “We built that place for the kids when the lumber industry around here was in decline. The old foreman, Mr McKenzie, used all his influence with the Rigbys to grant the place, and most of us gave somethin’— time, money, effort— to keep it running. His own daughter never even got to go… ’Course, most of us were pretty sure all Rigby was doing was letting us maintain her property until she thought she could open the mill again. Ol’ Horace’s widow, Veronica Rigby swore she’d reduce that whole peninsula to nothin’ but stumps, if that was what it took… But you never saw a single clearcut out there, did you?”

All three of them shook their heads.

“It was a terrifying thing to behold, how fast those Woods grew back,” he remarked, “just about overnight. Cut it, and it would reappear a day or two later, like magic. Folks won’t touch it, for fear it might be cursed. We lost a lot of good farms out that way, so we’ve had to lean even harder on fishing. But no one in their right mind would try to fish out here, so we’re always having to go farther upshore, and their fishermen keep tryin’ to run us off…”

Shades suspected the poor fellow was getting a load off his chest, as well as distracting himself from his own fear, so he decided to see what he could learn while the old man was being so talkative.

“We didn’t see any clearcuts, but we did find a strange circle of weathered stones.”

“The Stones?” Shelby gasped. “You saw ’em? Even Ol’ Tobey seen ’em maybe a handful of times, and he lived out there his whole life. Somethin’ of a hermit, liked the woods more than he did towns. Not even he ever figured out their exact location…”

“So they do exist on more than one layer…”

“People used to look for them?” Max asked.

“Don’t forget, the peninsula used to be safe enough back then,” Shelby reminded them. “Even children could travel safely with an adult guide. It was about a two-day walk on the road without a truck, so we often camped out along the way.”

“You don’t say…” Justin muttered.

“Ol’ Tobey lived about the halfway point,” Shelby elaborated, “used to be a guide himself. Knew those woods like the back of his hand…”

“He was also an herbalist, wasn’t he?” Shades recalled the name from the map.

“Yes, he was. But how did you know that?”

“I think we may have tried to spend the night at his old place.” Max was pretty sure he saw where his friend was going with this. “It didn’t end very well.”

Shades wasn’t sure how to tell him that his daughter’s ghost may well have saved them from ending even worse.

“Poor Ol’ Tobey, caught right spang in the middle of it…” Shelby shook his head. “With the Woods cutting him off from both sides, he was all on his own out there. I know how that sounds…”

“We know,” Max assured him. “We just spent five days out there, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

“Actually,” Shades pointed out, “I think that did just happen to our worst enemy. It’s just too bad Roxy also wound up out there…”

“No one knows for sure,” Shelby told them, encouraged by the lack of blame or judgment in his midst, “but there was some talk of him being seen on the old Coast Highway, with his big rack of herbs on his back, but when any of us asked around up in Hawthorne, no one ever saw anyone who matched his description…”

“Creepy…” Justin commented.

“That reminds me,” Shades added, “the whole reason we walked to Pickford was because the map warned us not to go to Rannigan’s Wharf.”

He had already cautioned the others not to bring it up before, as they were already pressing their luck just getting anyone to take them out here in the first place. Now that they were well underway, it was time for some answers. If there was no chance of following up on Roxy out there, they wanted to at least know why.

“And with good cause,” Shelby warned them. “Rannigan’s was the first to fall. It was where we first tried to evacuate, since it was closer, but the group that went for more ships never returned. We also never got any further radio contact, either.”

“So, nobody knows what happened?” Max pressed.

“By that point, nobody wanted to know,” he answered. “No survivors made it out of there, so when more ships came from Pickford, we picked up anyone along the peninsula who had the good sense to get out of there, and we never looked back. Far as we know, only one person ever made it out of Rannigan’s, and that was years later.”

“What happened to him?” Shades hoped it might shed some light on what anyone else who went out that way might be up against.

“It didn’t end well for him,” Shelby told them. “See, he was part of a crew what stumbled onto the coast out there, near the Saltwater Fens, and when they found Rannigan’s, they decided to do some scavenging. By then, the whole town was in ruins, but they must’ve figured there was somethin’ worth pokin’ around for. Said there was giant mushrooms growin’ out near the Fens, big as trees, and you’d think that’d be cause for second thoughts, but not those folks. He got left behind on the ship as a lookout, while the others disappeared one by one. Lost all radio contact, and even when the rest tried to run back to the ship, none of ’em ever showed up…

“Said it was creepy, felt like he was constantly bein’ watched. Even farther in town, the others kept sayin’ somethin’ about a ‘fishy’ smell everywhere they went. The very last thing he heard on the radio— what scared him into abandoning the others— was one last, garbled call for help from one of his mates, just screaming and strange gurgling, sloshing noises…”

He could tell from the looks on their faces that he had already talked his passengers out of any foolhardy plans to venture beyond Stilton, yet still he continued.

“After that, he said he tried to put out to sea, despite having to run the ship all alone, but somethin’ hit it from underneath. Smashed the hull, ship started sinking. With no other way out, he hopped on a lifeboat and tried to row back to the peninsula.”

Even as he said this, they passed by another shipwreck. The largest vessel they’d seen out here, and snapped in half like a toy. As if by a child in the world’s largest bathtub.

“By the time he drifted out near Pickford, where a fishing boat found him one morning, he must’ve been out there for at least a couple days. By then, he was raving mad with fright and exposure… and maybe somethin’ else. He had scrapes and bruises, and a really bad gash on one arm, though no one could figure whether he was infected or poisoned. It all amounted the same. All we knew, he had a really high fever, and was only making much sense for a couple hours that first day. Confessed to runnin’ out on his mates, doomed as they surely were, sayin’ he was cursed. The rest of his tale we had to piece together from his fevered ramblings…

“Despite our best efforts to nurse him back to health, he died a couple days later. Whatever was in his arm kept spreading, and was too close to his shoulder to amputate. A lot of folks wanted to dump his body back in the sea, fearin’ he was plagued or cursed, but in the end, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do that. Instead, we had a funeral pyre, like in some outland customs, and that at least quieted any talk of plagues. We even buried him in a local graveyard, out of respect, that his soul might find some peace after all that horror…”

By late morning, they were rounding the peninsula, passing a few more abandoned settlements, and a couple shipwrecks. Out near the tip of the boot, they cruised past a small island with a squat-looking stone house facing the mainland, and a lighthouse up on the highest elevation. Shelby only commented that it used to be a resort home of the Rigby family, Woodbine.

Not long after that, they neared Camp Stilton.

Ever wary in these waters, Shelby insisted on slowing down, taking out an old spyglass to scope out the situation onshore.

“You boys were serious…” Shelby breathed. “That thing actually flies?”

“It did before,” Justin assured him.

And perhaps she might again. Though Shades kept that part to himself for now. Lorna had told them that the Shorewind, like all motor-powered vessels in Pickford, was required to carry tow cables for emergencies, to keep any of their few fishing boats from drifting downshore to the peninsula.

Much to their relief, the Albatross was still moored on the beach where she ran aground, but everything was dead still. Of course, with the Woods at your back, staying inside would be the wisest course of action. Against Shelby’s better judgment, they also tried the radio, but no one answered their hails, which was also perfectly understandable if anyone over there was hearing the same ominous tom-tom drumming they were.

Which left only one option to investigate things any further.

Shelby brought them as close as he dared, before the water became too shallow for a ship of Shorewind’s size, then dropped anchor. They then lowered the lifeboat so they could row ashore. Though their chaperone was loathe to be left alone out here, he made no secret of being even more afraid of the land beyond.

“Somebody needs to stay with the ship,” he said, visibly shaken at how thoroughly the Woods had pushed back into the camp site. “I ain’t settin’ one foot in that accursed place…”

So the three of them rowed over to the beach, hauling their craft well ashore and mooring it to a narrow rock outcropping when they disembarked.

Max, at least, taking some small comfort at seeing the seaplane looking no more aged than when they left it, but as they drew nearer, all of them could see where the paint had been scratched away by unknown claws, and all the windows were blocked from the inside, the cargo door shut up tight.

Steeling himself, Max stepped up and knocked on the cargo door, calling out, “Take it to the Maximum.”
XVIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
meanwhile, back at the ranch...
Aboard the Albatross, Roger Wilco sat in the rearmost modular seat, on the seaward side, power pistol in one hand, and his revolver on the seat next to him. Bandit slumped near the tail between a couple crates, trying to sleep in spite of himself.

By the fourth day, he had drained his last flask of liquid courage. Even his stash for celebrating shore leave after particularly lucrative hauls. So for the last two days, he had faced the Woods cold-turkey sober.

Found himself occasionally recalling a snatch of some old saying, something about staring into the Void, and the Void staring back at you, an all too apt description of his six spooky days out here.

Years ago, he had managed to finally quit smoking, only a matter of months before he wound up in the Sixth Dimension, and he usually thought of it as being for the best, if for no other reason than that cigarettes were hard to come by in most realms anyway. Back then, one of his pilot friends lost his license because of heart problems. It was a tough call, but Roger decided he preferred the pleasure of flying more, so he rode out the worst storms of withdrawal to kick the habit, topping his several years of fundraising to acquire his Albatross as the toughest thing he ever did.

Though he would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he could use a good smoke right about now.

That first day, after their argument about the rescue plan, he nearly talked himself into dragging one of the modular seats out onto the beach as a makeshift lawn chair, because he didn’t want to buy into all this talk about Rannigan’s Wharf and the Woods. At the time, he talked himself out of it only because of Erix, figuring that it would amount to making a sitting duck out of himself against a marksman of his caliber. Much to his chagrin, though, it didn’t take long for the Woods themselves started getting to him in earnest.

Awakened that first night by a terrifying dream about the logging vehicles Shades mentioned all coming to life and tearing down Camp Stilton, before turning their wrath on his poor Albatross.

Shocked at how vividly he could imagine things someone only described to him, yet somehow he knew he was seeing the exact same machines they saw.

By the second day, Erix was fast fading to a secondary concern. After all, Erix could enter at will with those energy blades, so if he was still in the neighborhood, he surely would have by now. Mostly, he was just glad that hadn’t happened, that at least the hull and the rest of the airframe were still intact and presumably seaworthy, the damage mostly cosmetic.

Based on the others’ accounts, he marveled at how he managed to land on about the only section of the coast in these parts that wasn’t strewn with clumps of jagged rocks. A sweep of mostly sand and gravel in this small inlet. Probably why this site was chosen for setting up the lodge and docks in the first place.

The second night, he was awakened by the sounds of scratching outside. Certain it wasn’t anything he cared to meet, he held still and kept his weapons close at hand. Every time he started to doze off in spite of himself, it would start up again.

Later that morning, after sunrise, he stepped out to take a look, hoping against hope that it was all just a bad dream. And nearly wept at his poor paintjob. At streaks of long, gouging scrapes that even scratched the metal.

He tried to tell himself it was just the local wildlife, not that he’d actually seen any.

Unless the trees counted.

The third night, he miscalculated, pouring himself a little too much, and passed out. Worse off the next day, knowing that he could ill afford to be hung over out here, he cobbled together what remedy he could from his First Aid supplies, and tried not to deplete too much of his water supply. By noon, he was feeling little better, not sure he even wanted to see the aftermath of whatever he was sure he managed to sleep through, and even the thought of his own good fortune that nothing broke in while he was unconscious was less relief, and more the feeling that something unknown had surely danced a full Broadway musical on his grave, possibly with a side of Thriller, just to spite him for not waking up for any of the show.

By the fourth day, he swore the trees were moving behind his back. Seemed to be in slightly different positions every time he turned around. The fact that he had been drinking each night for three straight days did little to resolve the matter.

Sometimes he saw movements out in the Woods. Herky-jerky, like old stop-motion film. Stuttering and blurring in ways that hurt his eyes to look at.

Things outside, which his eyes refused to dwell on. Tangled tree-shapes that moved like stop-motion in fast-forward. At times they would rush toward the plane at jarring speeds, even as he fumbled for his weapons, only to stop just short of the water’s edge and vanish.

By late afternoon, he took to drawing the window shades, even during the daytime.

Of course, he still had to let Bandit out periodically to do his biz. Noted the big cat never stayed out for long, nor moved very far from the cargo door. Anymore, he was just glad there was so much sand out there for his feline charge to bury it in.

A game of cat-and-mouse, where he timed their moves by Bandit’s instincts, as there was clearly something out there he didn’t like the smell of, and which he did his best to cover the big cat against while he was vulnerable out there.

The fourth night, he no longer had enough booze to knock himself out like he had the night before. All he got out of it was a dream conversation with Erix on the radio. Talking about things he never wanted to talk about, and he considered it a mercy he couldn’t remember anything coherent about it after he woke up.

His radio could pick up a wide range of bands and frequencies, but he only tuned in intermittently, as he found he could not bear to listen for long to all the creepy noises it made. The ones that stuck with him most being the one where he heard only heavy breathing, hard footsteps, and the occasional snapping of twigs, or hearing the distorted croaking of frogs. At least that’s what it started off sounding like, before it started to sound like some form of bestial speech.

At which point, he turned it off, fearing he might start to understand it if he kept listening…

By the fifth day, he found those .38 Specials seeming to beckon to him in an unhealthy way, introducing thoughts he’d rather not finish. Didn’t want to believe Erix was encouraging him to do it last night, but one of the few things he at least thought he could remember was him saying, It did wonders for me! And then hysterical laughter.

Made a point of keeping both Erix’s power pistol, and his old revolver on his person at all times. While ammo for the latter was scarce, energy weapons tended to be back-engineered from the same handful of mostly bootleg schematics, which meant that most power clips would be compatible with most energy weapons. All the same, he still felt the revolver was more reliable.

It had seen him through some troublesome situations back on Earth, even before he had to deal with any troublesome situations in this world. Back then, he would sometimes be approached by some rather shady clients, most likely drug smugglers. Only occasionally threatened for his refusal to do business with them, once by some folks who claimed ties to one of the nastier cartels. Though nothing came of it, he still had every intention of defending himself if corned, in that world or this one.

Told himself that for most things that prescribed cold iron, hot lead would do the trick just as well, and now he hoped that would hold true.

That fifth night, he woke up from more nightmares. Of crashing noises, and huge, hoary, angry trees smashing Camp Stilton to splinters. Then turning to the Albatross

He never really made it back to sleep after that, just sort of hovered on the edge of dozing, slipping back up toward consciousness at every little sound out there.

By the sixth day, his leg was doing somewhat better, and he struggled with the temptation to just hop out and hoof it over to Rannigan’s Wharf. Still he could tell, just from how much trouble he still had getting around the cabin, that even with a crutch he would make piss-poor time on that gravelly, sandy shore. Would be all but guaranteed to get caught out there after dark. Not to mention that Bandit was still having trouble, and he had no clue how he would ever face Max, in this life or the next, if he just abandoned him.

That, and after each successive day out here, Shades’ dire warnings seemed more and more to have the right of it. The fact that he had neither seen nor heard from Roxy, and Erix’s only appearance was in a bad dream, was just another nail in that coffin. Though he had no way of knowing if either of them actually made it over there at any point, the things going on over here inspire little confidence about anyplace else around the peninsula.

Now, when he let Bandit out, he kept expecting to find one or the other of them— occasionally Max or the others— nailed-up or dangling from the porch beams of the lodge, and feared he would lose what little sanity he had left if he saw any such thing out there.

Over the intervening days, he had also kept an eye to the sea for any passing ships, having seen nothing of the sort, though sometimes he thought he caught glimpses of other things drifting out on the tide, but always too brief to confirm.

His original food rations were still holding, though his appetite was lacking, so at least he didn’t have to worry about resorting to the dubious canned goods the others retrieved from the lodge for at least another two or three days. Knew he wasn’t up to crabbing or fishing, even if he thought for one moment that it was safe out there, though he feared he might have to risk it if the food was no good. Unless his leg was healed enough to try hiking the peninsula coast by then, but he doubted it.

Rubbing his face, he noted for the thousandth time that his usual five o’clock shadow was getting downright furry. Not that he didn’t want to shave, but he needed to conserve water. Though he knew from the map that there was a river on the far side of Camp Stilton, he was loathe to set foot outside the plane anymore, despite the certainty that he was going stir-crazy in here.

After five nights with so little sleep, he was starting to fear he was losing his mind in this remote outpost. When he first heard the drone of a motor in the distance, he was half afraid he was hearing things. At least until he noticed that Bandit heard it, too, snapping the big cat out of his own fitful napping.

Slipping open the nearest window shade, he watched an unfamiliar ship anchor just offshore in front of him, and several people board a smaller craft to come ashore. But as they approached, they angled toward the rear of the plane, so he lost sight of them before they drew close enough to get a good look at any of them. A few minutes later, he could hear a boat being dragged ashore, and some muffled conversation just before things went silent.

For a long, horrible moment, Roger feared that potential rescuers might have just decided the wreck was a lost cause and turned back, so he snatched up the flare gun and limped over to the cargo door, certain that this would be his last chance to survive this mess.

As he reached for the door latch, though, someone knocked, and he nearly fumbled the flare gun as a familiar voice announced, “Take it to the Maximum.”

Unable to believe his ears, he slid the cargo door shade up a crack, just to be sure.
XIX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
too soon to celebrate
At the sound of Max’s voice, Bandit practically tackled him when Roger opened the cargo door.

“I missed you, too, old friend…” Tears of joy and relief streaming down Max’s face. As he struggled back to his feet, he turned to the pilot, still wiping his eyes. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you so much for watching over him.”

“Um, sure thing,” Roger mumbled, “we were kinda in the same boat anyway. I was startin’ to think stayin’ with the plane was a mistake…”

“The Woods were no picnic, either,” Justin remarked. “With your leg, you wouldn’t’ve survived half the shit we ran into out there!”

“There are worse mistakes to be made in this twisted place,” Shades assured him. “We were half afraid you might’ve tried to go to Rannigan’s Wharf anyway.”

“Speaking of which,” Max brought up, “any word on Roxy or Erix?”

Roger shook his head.

“I see,” Shades replied. “We don’t have a lot of time, so we’re here to pick you up.”

Roger shook his head again, frowning.

“You can’t be serious…” Justin muttered.

“I’m very serious,” Roger told them. “That ship is big enough to tow my Albatross, so I ain’t leavin’ without her.”

“Fine,” Shades said, nodding to the radio. “You get to argue with Shelby about it. Max, you stay with him, we have some unfinished business with Stilton Lodge.”

For reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he kept thinking about that haunted island where they originally found the Maximum. Of wanting to leave some kind of warning for any passing travelers. Couldn’t help thinking of this as a chance to do it right this time, perhaps save the lives of anyone else unfortunate enough to find this place.

He and Justin wasted no time entering the lodge, trying to shrug off how surreal the place felt, now that they knew the truth, or as much of it as anyone was ever likely to find out. After traveling so far to get away from this place, after all they’d seen, nothing looked the same through their opened eyes. Once inside, they made for the bulletin board, finding it exactly as they left it. Shades reached into his jacket pocket and unfolded a new map Shelby found him to replace the one that got ruined when they fell into the river the other night.

Even added all of the original warnings, plus one about the Woods themselves (Woods are death-trap – stick to coast), for the benefit of any future castaways.

Skipping the upstairs office, he simply tacked it up on the board next to the missing child poster. He then picked up Kelly Edwards’ photo and tucked it in his pocket for Shelby and Lorna. According to Shelby, the photo was originally a birthday portrait from a small family party. There was supposed to be a bigger camp birthday party, that would have been held only a day after the disappearances started. In the blank space on the poster, he whipped out a permanent marker and quickly added: remains found – trees got her.

All the while, he tried not to think about all that old logging equipment left to rust nearby. Kept telling himself that if it could have, it would have by now. Still, he remained tense, ears straining for the faintest sound of engines starting…

Mission accomplished, they made a hasty exit, stopping only long enough to prop up the weathered warning sign on the floor next to the door, where it could readily be seen.

Though it was hard for Shades not to imagine that some malevolent force would soon be hard at work to remove the new warnings…

By the time they got back to the plane, Roger had apparently convinced Shelby to have a go at towing the Albatross, so they rowed back to the Shorewind to haul out some lines.

Turned out the fact that the tide was coming in was the only reason Shelby agreed to the attempt at all. After retrieving the mooring lines, they attached the tow cables, Roger supervising while the three of them did the legwork. When all was in readiness, they also got out and pushed while the Shorewind pulled, though they had their doubts about how much help it would be.

In spite of the Albatross having the better part of a week to settle in the sand, they just barely managed to pull the old bird free. One pontoon was slightly waterlogged, listing to port, but still stable enough to tow.

Still cheering, Justin and Shades rowed back to the Shorewind, Max and Bandit staying on the plane with Roger, who refused to leave the cockpit now that his bird indeed proved seaworthy. After reattaching the lines to pull the Albatross forward for easier maneuvering, it was already past noon by the time they were ready to return to Pickford, and Shelby was sounding more and more anxious to be on their way, as he hadn’t counted on towing anything.

Justin and Shades were making one final check of the tow lines as they got underway, Shades looking back at Camp Stilton. Wanting to sigh with relief that they were now out of range of any rampaging machinery, not wanting to speak too soon about dodging a bullet with a menace that never materialized. Much like at the bridge to Pickford, yet still felt as if he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As he turned his attention back to the tow lines, Shades spotted something drifting up toward them. For a second, he almost started laughing, because on closer inspection, it just looked like a clump of seaweed that spooked him. Still, something about it just didn’t sit right with him, and even as he wondered why it was coming loose from that depth, he saw a pair of chalk-white hands reach out from that eerie swirl of fronds, still more parting to reveal a pale dead face staring up at them as it approached the surface, reaching in their general direction.

Its mouth slowly opening to reveal rows of needle teeth.

“The fuck is that!?” Justin screeched, already unslinging his crossbow.

The creature, meanwhile, started groping one of the propeller screws, seaweed wrapping around the blades.

Justin opened fire at it, shredding the marine monstrosity with a laser barrage.

“Don’t look now, but we’ve got company!” Shades alerted them, sighting more of the foul things drifting up from the deep.

“Don’t let those things damage the screws!” Shelby warned them. “If they do, we’re down to sails, and we’ll have no power to tow your friend’s ship back!”

There was no mistaking the look of abject horror on Roger’s face as he looked on helplessly from aboard the Albatross, at the very idea of being left behind after coming so close…

Justin and Shades both opened fire on the creatures as Shelby opened up the throttle. With another vessel in tow, the Shorewind was slow getting up to speed, so it was a constant struggle to push back the unsettling onslaught. Especially while taking care not to shoot out any of the tow lines while they were at it.

Just when it looked like they were about to get tangled in a glom of seaweed and dead limbs, both Shades and Justin having to let up to reload, they finally started accelerating enough to pull out ahead as their twisted attackers began losing ground by the second.

In the Albatross’s wake, a few of them tried to cling to the pontoons, but Max popped out a couple windows with his power pistol to clear them off.

Having narrowly escaped that macabre mess, they angled back closer to the shoreline and resumed course, Shelby informing them that they would be lucky to make it back to Pickford by nightfall at this rate.

Too soon to celebrate, they all understood, the whole way around the peninsula, as they braced for the worst and hoped for the best.
Chapter End Notes:
-rough draft: July 05, 2015 – Sept 19, 2016
-word draft: March 14 – Oct 09, 2016
-additional revisions: October 2016

Whoops, can’t believe I forgot to post this before. Boy is my face red…

Well, here we are again, at the end of another tale. Given how making projections and predictions always seems to end in disappointment, all I will say concerning Tradewinds 21 is that it is coming along, and I will post progress reports when it’s close enough for me to measure with some accuracy. Though there have been some supplemental points, the basic world-building for this portion of the series is mostly concluded, so if nothing else, I can focus more of my attention on the story itself.

When I first came up with the basic premise for “Into the Woods” many years ago, it was mostly provoked by [I]The Blair Witch Project[/I] (over time by other “Dark Woods” sort of tales, as well), and my sense of disappointment with the results. As someone who grew up in the mountains, I found myself constantly facepalming at the continual folly of a group of city kids who clearly didn’t have enough prior wilderness experience between them to find their way out of my back yard, let alone more remote forest. In hindsight, I think my old project goal of “Blair Witch Done Right” was a bit too arrogant, presumptuous, and rooted in my younger self’s easy disappointment with others’ failure at things I saw myself having little difficulty. Even my old “Follow the river, dumbass!” response to every other leg of the movie left little consideration for whether or not my strategy would have worked any better if there were indeed eldritch and possibly unnatural forces working against me every step of the way. Though I would still hold that in the real world, without such entities or phenomena, following the river would’ve gotten me back to civilization faster than walking around in circles ever would have.

As for the Woods themselves, by the time I got to writing this portion of the series, this region had become tied to larger world-building endeavors, that would dovetail into the next couple tales, as well. Camp Stilton, Kelly Edwards, Rannigan’s Wharf, all of it needing to be more menacing than just “spooky” to explain the region’s long-standing abandonment. From there, a blind woodsman could surely spot the Lovecraftian influence from a mile away, though much of it came up in the course of writing each chapter, as almost as much of a surprise to me as it was to our poor protagonists. All I started out with was just the premise of fractured layers of reality, and just sort of let it run its course as they struggled with each obstacle and adversary. Though the phases of the moons started out inspired by a bit from the Blair Witch video games (I’m afraid I have no idea if any of the games themselves are any good, but if you can find any of the soundtracks, the best stuff is almost— almost, mind you— on par with Yamaoka’s stuff from the original Silent Hill trilogy, and at least worth a listen in spite of the cornier tracks), they quickly took on a life of their own as I found myself imagining moons I would not care to walk under myself. As for Roxy and Erix, all I can do is apologize for now, as they have both proven too stubborn to die, save perhaps by the other’s hand, and only time will tell what became of either of them.

Even the town of Pickford showed me a thing or two, as the nature of the anomaly required them to be more proactive in their own defense than I originally would have imagined, but it does set the stage for a lot of what comes next, when Shades’ feet have a mind of their own, leading them all into trouble…

-03/11/17
Sole Survivor by shadesmaclean
Author's 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.

“Bandit…”

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:

WARNING!
TURN BACK!
DANGER AHEAD!

“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.


This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=11466