Hunter winced as one burning, white-hot sensation lanced through his right shoulder and another lower down through his side. Pushing past the pain he fired his pistol again, stumbling for the cover of a tumbled, smoke-covered rocks that lay only ten feet from him. Ten feet or one hundred, each step seemed to take longer the closer he got. At five feet, Hunter dropped to one knee, his gun smoking and exhausted.
Across from him, RiBeld was doubled over from his own pain. A bullet had torn through his thigh and another had burned a furrow along his arm, knocking the gun from his hand. He watched Hunter fall to his knees in a struggle to reach the only obvious cover. The mercenary captain grimaced at his wounds and drew a long knife from under his coat. In a half-run, half-limp, he charged towards Hunter, knife aimed for his spine.
Hunter turned to see the knife before it fell, alerted by some sound he could not place among the chaos. With a cry of surprise he caught RiBeld’s wrist with his artificial left hand and hammered a hard right uppercut into RiBeld’s midsection. Momentarily robbed of air, the mercenary wheezed roughly and slammed his own fist across Hunter’s mouth. Unsteady already, both men fell into a brawling heap.
It was Hunter who gained leverage first, and shoved RiBeld to one side out of arm’s reach. He looked around. Both Yeti and mercenaries were among the living and the dead that lay scattered across the village. Worry gripped him like a vice. He searched for any of his crew, Angela or Miles. Moira was only ten yards away behind cover and steadily firing at any mercenary unlucky or foolish enough to venture into the open. Of the children he saw no sign, until he heard Angela’s shrill shout of panic. She raced across the clearing to the other side, then down a dirt path. Clothes torn, yelling the entire way, she looked like a diminutive banshee on the battlefield. Try as he might, Hunter could not make out what she said.
He looked in the direction she ran. Across the clearing and well back among the buildings, three Yeti warriors were in a prolonged knife fight with three mercenaries. The extended battle blazed in front of the door. Blades spun and glinted off the fading light while the men sliced and grappled close. So intent on the first three, the Yeti completely missed a fourth soldier that slipped past and raced for the door. He shoved it open and dashed inside.
Moments later, he careened back out of the doorway and into the dirt. A stool followed a moment later, smashing into the sailor with a solid impact. Behind that limped a pale, bandaged, bloodied and enraged Conrad O’Fallon, quartermaster of the Brass Griffin, brandishing another heavy wooden stool like an over-sized bludgeon.
The sailor snarled and got to his feet with a murderous look at O’Fallon. The badly wounded quartermaster spit at the mercenary then limped forward. He swung his stool but his wounds betrayed him as he missed. He fell hard from two sound punches on his bullet wounds that immediately started to bleed. The sailor then grabbed a broken shard of wood as long as a man’s arm, and walked over. He stood over the quartermaster, a nasty sneer on his face, and raised the shard of wood for a killing blow.
Before he could stake O’Fallon into the ground, an ear-splitting roar made the sailor look up. The next moment, a brownish-black wiry, snarling mass of fur, teeth and claws shaped remarkably like Angela Von Patterson slammed the villain from his feet. He fell hard into the dirt, his makeshift weapon skittering across the dirt far beyond his grasp. The man screamed in terror and tried to run, but it was little use. Angela landed in a crouch, cast a quick concerned look towards O’Fallon, then an ugly one back to her prey. She roared again, leaped forward, bounced off the wall of a building and landed in the path of the escaping sailor. He skid to a stop and swung a savage, terror-driven punch at her head, which missed. She grinned and threw herself at him, pummeling the sailor and venting days upon days of pent-up terror and rage.
At the clearing, Hunter struggled to his feet, hissing in pain at the burn from his wounds. He had taken one step towards Angela and O’Fallon when something heavy immediately slammed into his back, nearly bending him backwards in two. The captain fell hard to the ground, devoid of air. He coughed, wheezed, then gasped, but could not get his breath. Rough hands jerked him onto his back. Suddenly, RiBeld was kneeling over him, punching him in the face.
Each punch slammed Hunter’s head against the hard, packed ground. Once Hunter was dazed, RiBeld eased up and reached over for his knife that lay on the ground.
“You were supposed to find the children and then have the good grace to be too stupid to defend yourself when we attacked, then die!” RiBeld growled, his temper far outstripping his aloof, cold veneer.
Hunter tried to blink through the fog in his mind before he grinned ghoulishly through cracked and bloodied lips. “Or perhaps … you are just that inept?”
Seething with rage, RiBeld backhanded the captain of the Brass Griffin and shifted his weight to pin Hunter’s arms down. Because of the poor angle and the wounds both men suffered, he was only partially successful in trapping Hunter’s right arm, but not his left. The mercenary captain jabbed down with the blade. Hunter managed to catch the cloth of the man’s sleeve with his clockwork hand inches before the sharpened tip of RiBeld’s knife could pierce skin. Gears protested at the abuse, but nonetheless held firm.
RiBeld glanced at Hunter, then Hunter’s clockwork hand. “I’ll dare say you’ll lose more than a hand this day. You have been a right proper boil on my backside! One that I intend to lance!”
“Since … you’ve already failed to do so … why would you be … competent enough … to do it now … Sirrah?” Hunter wheezed between gasps for air, struggling against the slowly descending knife.
“Your crew is lost. Your ship has been sent burning in the aether. You’re just delaying the inevitable! Children and Heroes … they die all the same! Alone!”
Explosions filled the air with fire and noise. The ground shook and buildings trembled while a screaming, tangible terror raced like a wild animal through the dirt streets of the village and into everyone there. Two buildings at the outer edge of the village had collapsed in on themselves as steaming grapeshot rained hot deadly metal on mercenaries and Yeti alike. Overhead, RiBeld’s airship moved closer, her gunnery crews already preparing for another volley.
“Your people!” Hunter exclaimed incredulously while he struggled to keep the knife from his throat.
“Are… expendable! Any that are intelligent enough to find a way to survive I’ll promote immediately.” RiBeld answer him coldly. “You’re lost. There’s nothing left! Now why won’t you and your cheap heroics die!”
The second volley fired upon the village. Immediately, that explosion of fire was followed by a second, then a sharp crack of lightning. Above, a bloom of fire erupted on one side of the massive airship. In shock, RiBeld and Hunter looked upwards, their own fight forgotten for the moment. There, rising behind and to the side of the mercenaries now-burning airship, the glint of the waning sunlight shone on brass and steel as the Brass Griffin soared up and around. Her lightning cannons fired, and high pressure salt water – powered from an airship’s pump and charged by her store of batteries – tore huge gouts in the larger vessel’s dark, nearly black hull. What the deadly lightning spared, the smaller cannon, filled with hot scrap metal shards, did not.
Using the momentary distraction, Hunter shifted to the right and let RiBeld’s knife fall just beside his neck. He then changed his grip and latched onto RiBeld’s wrist with his clockwork hand. The artificial fingers tightened, then locked into place with a dull grinding of tiny, protesting gears. Somewhere, deep within it, a spring popped angrily free with a sharp twang.
“Because Sirrah …”
The captain squeezed his metal fingers and twisted. A series of pops, like wet sticks being broken, echoed in the air while arm bones just above the right wrist snapped cleanly in two. RiBeld’s eyes and mouth went wide and his face ashen. He wanted to scream, to cry out. Pain clutched at his throat and refused him a single sound. The man struggled frantically, which allowed Hunter enough room to get a leg free. He savagely rammed a knee into RiBeld’s groin with a angry growl.
“We’re not nearly done!”