Clouds of inky black smoke hung low like a blanket over the village. Buildings, many ruined by explosions, stood at crazed angles in the gloom like broken, blackened teeth in a skull shattered under a boot heel. A thinner smoke coiled around walls and collected near windows and the ground. It formed a thin fog that veiled both alive and dead while it wound through the village and ran along the dirt paths into the forest. Within the fog, a strange, almost desperate stillness clung to the village like a dew on the ground.
Occasionally, the silence was pierced by a shout as one villager or another finally ventured out to locate a lost loved one. A mournful cry to a loved one that often lay among the fallen, or a shriek of despair at finding someone where they lay.
From downslope, closer to the thick stand of trees, two modest groups of armed figures approached. There were ten in each group, but both followed behind one lone man. Tall and thin with modest shoulders, the leader wore a long wool coat that brushed the tops of his ankles. Beneath was a well-kept – if not rather expensive – linen shirt, trim black vest, and dark trousers tucked into well-oiled leather boots. He walked with purpose, but also with a distinct air of raw arrogance. No closer than twenty paces from the edge of the village, he stopped to coolly glance down at the remains of a bird unfortunate enough to be caught in the initial village onslaught. He tapped it disdainfully with a boot.
“I send you people to recover two children,” Archibald RiBeld said in a slightly clipped, harsh British accent, “herd a band of savages into submission so they are no trouble, and to capture – if not silence – one privateer captain and his misfit crew.” He shoved the body of the bird onto its side with the toe of his boot. “Instead you give me … this. Tell me, what do I pay you people for?”
One of the sailors from the first group, a younger man, looked at RiBeld and spoke up as he nervously fidgeted with his rifle. “Guv’ …”
An older, balding man with a scarred face hit the young man across the mouth with the back of his hand. “Das ist ‘Captain’ to yo’!”
The younger sailor recovered slowly from the blow. “m’sorry Mister Johanssen.” He looked back to RiBeld. “Beggin’ the Cap’n’s pardon, but we’s ha’ na much choice. They’d surprised us on the mountainside.”
RiBeld turned and leveled a gray-eyed gaze as cold as death on the younger man. “Ah, yes, so I understand.” He smiled thinly which caused a wave of involuntary shivers in the sailor. The younger sailor wanted to look away but could not, any more than a rabbit would stare in horror at a hawk. “You were surprised. By two children, and four privateers! One of whom was mortally wounded!” The mercenary leader paused to take a breath and regain his composure. “Certainly … after that news, we were all surprised.” RiBeld turned his head toward the rest of the guard but kept his unblinking gaze on the younger man. “Mister Johanssen!”
The balding, scarred sailor tugged his gray peacot around him a bit more against the cold and stepped closer. “Ja, meine Captain?”
“Take the men and start from two ends of this rat’s nest. Send them in towards that clearing near the middle and shake out any vermin that still cling to their hovels. Kill anything that moves.”
“Ja. Und the kinder, Captain?”
“Bring the children to me … alive. Von Patterson has been so very interested in making these children vanish as a means to control their parents. However, these children have cost me dearly. I’m inclined to see just how much more Von Patterson will pay for them so that he may continue his little family subterfuge.”
“Good man.” RiBeld hesitated a moment, then smiled just a bit wider, if not colder at the younger man who he still held frozen in front of him. “Johnny Tullins isn’t it?”
“Aye,” came the weak reply.
Archibald released the young man from his icy gaze and looked over to his first mate. “Johanssen? Take special care with our young, talkative friend here. Someone with such initiative to speak up should be … molded.”
The older man passed a brief look of sympathy to the younger man then nodded to RiBeld. “Ja … Captain.” The young sailor wilted slightly from fear.
Archibald kicked the body of the dead bird aside and walked toward the village. “Good man.”
Fog played along the ground and around the feet of the men as they split up, then slowly entered the village from opposing sides. The few villagers that saw the group quickly disappeared into the ruins, using the heavy mist as cover for their retreat. Some of RiBeld’s mercenaries sought to give chase, but the Yeti – having a better knowledge of the area – easily slipped out of sight.
At the village center, RiBeld kicked over the body of a dead Yeti warrior, burnt to death from the initial raid. He frowned at the corpse then frowned at the broken walls surrounding him.
Two of his own men joined him. In the distance, muffled shouts, punctuated by the occasional gunshot and shriek of pain, indicated where the rest of his mercenaries were. He mentally took note of the sounds, but gave them no further thought.
“Where … are … they?” He said slowly, pronouncing each word firmly in turn.
The soft metallic click of a gun being cocked close behind him – that surprised him. Carefully, RiBeld kept his hands still and slowly turned. His two bodyguards had already spun around with their backpack-powered lightning rifles brought to aim. Captain Hunter smiled pleasantly at the mercenary as if he were greeting an old friend for tea. Only this was not a friend he pointed his gun at. He took a step closer. Smoke curled along his coat and danced at his feet. The occasional pop of static raced along his brass fingers that gleamed in the dying light of the day.
Around the captain, Yeti warriors emerged from where they lay hidden behind ruined walls, beneath seemingly scattered blankets and other debris around the clearing. They moved as shadows and without any sound, like angry wraiths drawn to the source of their hatred with bows and arrows drawn.
“I’d say ‘right here’, though the statement would be redundant at this point.”
RiBeld forced a thin smile. “Quite. The infamous privateer captain – Hunter isn’t it?”
Hunter inclined his head a moment in agreement, “The same. You, Sirrah would be would be Archibald RiBeld?”
“You appear to have the advantage.”
“As if I wouldn’t take it, since you invited so many friends.”
RiBeld forced that thin smile again. “I dislike small talk. So, shall we dispense with the pleasantries? What are your terms?”
Hunter adjusted his grip slightly, still worried his clockwork hand would stop functioning at any moment. “Right to the point. Indeed, I like that. My terms? You and your men to leave the area. Leave myself and my crew to our ship, and we go our separate ways.”
“I’ll not assume you are stupid.”
“That would be wise.” Hunter interrupted.
RiBeld scowled. “What of my contract with Von Patterson? I’ve made an agreement.”
“Break it. This is a large, empty space on the Continent, Sirrah. Say we were lost among the snow, or at least lost from you. It wouldn’t damage your reputation any, and I doubt it would be the first time you’ve lied on a contract.”
That time, RiBeld’s thin, bemused smile was not forced. “Indeed. What of the children?”
“They leave with us, naturally.”
“Ah, I’m afraid that is out of the question. They are specifically what our contract is over. You? Your crew? You’re all incidentals and expendable. Perhaps a mild amusement for my men at best. No offense, mind you.”
Hunter’s jaw clenched at the comment. “None taken, though the children are not leaving with you. May I ask why they are so important?”
RiBeld chuckled nastily and shifted his weight. From behind the group of Yeti, RiBeld watched as a small knot of figures approached, then pause in the fog. After a moment, they slowly eased forward with weapons drawn. The mercenary captain cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow at Hunter. “You don’t know, then? Well I suppose Von Patterson wouldn’t have told you. They are a key, nothing more. Through them, he gains control over the children’s parents. I doubt he minds much if the two cherubs are even delivered alive. Which is all the same to me. Dead weight is dead weight, as they say.”
The captain choked on the rage that slowly built like bile in the back of his throat. Hunter had a strong dislike for snakes, even the kind that walked on two legs. He took a deep breath and bit back a string of harsh comments. Instead he choked out, “Why?”
“Why? Well, Von Patterson was rather reluctant over those details. Not that I mind, so long as I and my men are paid. I would assume some position of power, money, or perhaps both. As I said, that is not my problem, or yours, actually.”
“Oh? And why isn’t it mine? I daresay I think it is.”
RiBeld’s smile turned into a cold sneer. A malicious, cold gleam shone in the man’s eyes. “You have far greater worries, my dear captain.”
“Hunter!” The shout broke the tension in the air – and the conversation – like a rock shattering glass. Moira, suspicious over not hearing any message from Hunter within the past few minutes, had carefully stalked a winding path through the empty buildings. She was concerned he had done something rash or foolish and therefore was in trouble.
At her shout the knot of RiBeld’s men – who had remained outside the clearing and behind the Yeti warriors – shouted in turn, a wordless cry of rage and battle lust. They released a deadly volley of gunfire at the Yeti warriors who had been around RiBeld, Hunter and the two guards. Warriors jerked and fell into the dirt. Some screamed at bloodly wounds, others lay motionless bleeding quickly out. The remaining Yeti released their arrows into the small group of RiBeld and his guards, the dove aside just before bullets tore the air and stone around them.
RiBeld dodged, then stepped behind his guards who took the brunt of the attack. One guard jerked and spasmed as arrows peppered his chest before he could move at all. The second fared only slightly better as he fired a stream of high pressure salt water charged with electricity at Hunter before attempting to dodge the arrows that had missed his companion. Slowed by the backpack of salt water, he avoided any lethal arrows to his chest, but instead suffered them into his left arm and leg. Both from the shock of the wounds and unwieldy backpack, the man fell to the ground with a hard impact. His rifle fell from his grip into the dirt.
More arrows flew from Yeti hidden throughout the village. Several mercenaries, caught unaware, fell quickly before the rest scrambled into cover and returned fire with a deadly hail of bullets.
Lightning crackled along its stray jet of salt water and landed where Hunter had been. He had sidestepped just before the jet of water reached him, moving through the smoke that wound and danced between him and the guards. When the arrow felled the second guard, salt water sprayed into the air and created a shower that crackled with stray electricity sparking angrily in the air.
Hunter backed away, unable to see anything but the brief curtain of water in front of him. Once the shower dissipated, he saw RiBeld on the other side. In a blur of motion, the mercenary’s hand flew to his gun, drew it and brought it to bear on Hunter faster than the eye could follow. Hunter’s eyes went wide as he moved again, raising his own pistol at RiBeld. Smoke blossomed as they fired at point blank range.