Mushrooms of fire vomited from the mercenary’s airship with each new cannon blast from the Brass Griffin. Hot, bitter smoke burned the air as explosions reached out with fingers of flame. They brushed – but never quite touched – the swift Griffin that screamed alongside its larger prey. Aboard her the crew cheered like madmen at each successful volley, exuberant at being able to pay back the mercenaries for just a little of the pain they had caused.
Krumer leaned on the railing to peer out at the larger craft after another explosion rocked both ships. “Damage report!”
A gunner raised his goggles and ran an appraising look over their large target. “She’s burning hard, Mr Whitehorse! We surely caught’em wit’ their trousers about their ankles!”
Krumer nodded in agreement. A savage grin brushed across his face, accented only by the wild spark that danced behind his eyes. Despite his usually calm demeanor, it was at moments such as this he felt the encouragement of ancestral war drums in his ears, calling him to battle. “Very good! Any other sign?”
“Aye! Fightin’ below! These buggers are still trying ta butcher and barrage the village! Men, women, they’re sparin’ nothing!”
“Damnable monsters,” Krumer growled. “They’ll pay for each pain they give!”
Unaware of Krumer’s comment, the gunner continued, “They’re at it tooth and nail… and… Ah see the Cap’n! He’s givin’ some ‘ristocrat what for!”
“It’ll be RiBeld! Its gotta be who the Cap’n has got his hands about!” Tonks shouted.
Cheers deafened Krumer’s attempt to reply, and eventually he gave up and let the crew have their moment. Fortunately, the impromptu celebration lasted only briefly. He moved to where he could face most of the main deck from the stairs that raced up towards the quarterdeck.
“Right then! If the Captain’s below in the mix of this, we’ll need to lend him a hand!” The first mate looked over his shoulder towards the wheel where Tonks stood. The pilot was like a statue. He stood, legs braced and hands firmly on the wheel, with a look of hard stone.
“Mr Wilkerson!” Krumer shouted.
“Make for another pass!” Krumer ordered, and looked down the line of cannons and crew. For the non-lightning cannon, the two- person crew rushed to pour more scrap metal into warm, copper bound iron cannon barrels. Once loaded, the tethers for each were pulled to drag the cannon back into place. On the lightning cannon, while similar in outline, the process went much more differently. Their ‘ammunition’ was a hose and a set of insulated wires. The hose snaked off to a modest sized storage tank and the wires to a set of barrel-shaped batteries. The only delay was to wait for the charge to build up in the capacitors between each discharge of lightning.
Krumer shouted again, “Goggles down! Ready the cannons to fire at will! Find me the neck of that bloated beast! I want her taken to ground!”
The cheers and shouts of encouragement drowned out any further orders from the first mate. Not that they were needed – the crew knew their job well. On the quarterdeck, Tonks grinned and spun the wheel hard to the right. As if in answer, the Griffin‘s bow rose and an angry howl of wind rushed through her rigging while she turned, ready for another slice at her prey.
The Griffin turned to face the rear of the mercenaries’ craft and leveled out for another pass. A hum quickly rippled through the air along the main deck while the lightning cannon powered up. Rapidly, gunners loaded the normal cannon while a shout rose above the din. What with the noise it was a wordless cry, but the tone was understood. The cannon were ready to fire.
In rapid succession, flashes of light as bright as the sun erupted from each cannon, capable of turning the blackest night to the brightest day. Peals of thunder, like the wordless roar of an angry lion, shook the air with a force that could be felt like a physical push from a giant hand. With each crack of thunder came the rush of water and creak of wood as the deck beneath each cannon protested at being bent just slightly out of shape. Directed by the salty stream, bolts of electricity – each powerful enough to illuminate the village below – reached out like electric claws from the starboard side of the Griffin to rake another deep wound in RiBeld’s ship. Explosions of wood and powder stores filled the air with heat and smoke. Undaunted, the Griffin sailed through, emerging from the other side like some angered phoenix rising from the flames. Behind her, a massive, burning gash had been savagely ripped in the mercenaries airship where a handful of cannon had been.
The Griffin‘s crew cheered again, but the cheer was cut short as a pair of harpoons pierced the hull and tethered her to the larger airship. Rigging and framework shrieked in protest just before the mercenaries turned their own cannon skyward. Suddenly, the Griffin was hammered once, then twice by volleys of grapeshot from the remaining cannon. The ship shuddered at the impact, scattering many of the crew from their feet and across the deck, battered and bloodied.
Despite wood splinters that flew through the air around him, Tonks held his stance at the wheel through the barrage. Near him at the stairs to the quarterdeck, Krumer likewise managed to keep his footing. The first mate looked down the twin lines of rope attached to the harpoons in horror as he saw a strong pair of steam-powered winches slowly drawing the Griffin closer. Beyond the winches, those of RiBeld’s crew not operating the cannons brought up bundles from below. These were unwrapped so that swords, pistols, daggers or rifles could be handed out.
Krumer’s own hand dropped instinctively to his waist to feel for his pistol while he shouted, “All hands! Cut those lines and repel all boarders!”
Far below, fires from the initial bombardment still burned angrily at ruined buildings and foliage. Smoke turned and swirled while Yeti and mercenaries fought for control of the village. Slowly, the Yeti had begun to gain ground. In the clearing, Hunter released his metal grip on RiBeld’s ruined wrist and shoved him aside. The mercenary leader whimpered in pain, then slowly rolled toward a nearby pistol, insane anger and agony in his eyes.
Hunter struggled to his knees, his vision slightly blurred from pain and sweat. There was movement a few feet away to his left. He wiped the sweat from his eyes in time to see RiBeld. Immediately, the captain reached for his pistol, but remembered too late that his holster was empty. He looked around and saw a pistol lying on the ground no more than four feet from him. As Captain Hunter started to lunge for it, he saw RiBeld raise his gun from the ground where he lay.
“No, oh no. You will not.” RiBeld said in a pain-wracked, hoarse voice. “You will remain where you are, Sirrah. When I kill you, I shan’t want to miss this time.”
Hunter looked again at the pistol only four feet away. At that moment, it might have been four hundred for all the good it could do him. He tried to swallow but found his throat dry as sandpaper from the harsh mix of smoke, cold air and burning buildings. The captain sighed and kept his hands at his waist in plain view. “Answer a question for me then, Sirrah.”
“Why should I bother?” RiBeld snarled.
“As you hold a gun on me, it would be the request of a condemned man. If that’s not enough, then simply why not? You’ve nothing to gain or lose by answering one question.”
RiBeld considered that a moment then slowly, painfully slowly, shifted to kneel on one knee. A smug, superior smile slowly crept over his face. “For a condemned man, I would grant your request. I am willing to allow you at least that in your last few moments.”
Hunter’s jaw clenched slightly. “You’re too kind. My question is simple. Why my crew? Why were we so important in all this?”
RiBeld shrugged. “Two reasons. First, you did come highly recommended as both reliable merchant marines and privateers. Von Patterson felt you and your lot could locate the children among these forsaken mountains. Once their bodies were returned, there would be an outcry. Inquiries would be made. The Royal Navy is not stupid, as you well know, Sirrah. So a villain would be needed. Someone the Royal Navy would have little trouble in suspecting of ill-doing. Who better than one who was once one of their own. Namely you.”
Hunter clenched and unclenched his fists slowly. “They would not accept that.”
“With bodies they quite likely would. Namely those of the children and your crew. Though while some of the dead bodies of your crew would be produced and paraded about, you were to be barely alive. After all, they’d need someone to hang while Von Patterson expressed his deepest sorrow.”
Hunter’s face turned a light crimson, his fists clenched so tight that the skin stretched over his knuckles turned white. He rushed forward, intent to knock the gun from RiBeld’s hand then beat the man into submission. However, Hunter only managed a few steps. RiBeld raised the pistol and cocked the hammer as he carefully got to his feet. “Ah, now that would be foolish. Though, I tire of Von Patterson’s games. He’ll have to make do with your body, as well. I’ve learned, to my dismay, that you and your crew are far too dangerous to leave alive. It has been quite an adventure Captain Anthony Hunter. Farewell, Sirrah.”
RiBeld squeezed the trigger. The hammer fell sharply but there was no smoke, no thunderous sound. Worse yet for RiBeld, Hunter did not fall to the ground. The gun had jammed.
“Curse you and your thrice-damned luck!” RiBeld threw the pistol and raced for the safety of the gap between buildings.
Hunter lunged for the pistol near him. He hit the ground in a roll, and came up to one knee, as he aimed at RiBeld’s retreating back. Just when he made to pull the trigger, a shrill yell rang out to the captain’s right that shattered his concentration.
“Captain!” Miles yelled, while looking around in terror yet clutching the opti-telegraphic. “I got it ta work! I can hear somethin’ over it!”
Hunter glanced at the boy, then at RiBeld who was tensed to run at the child. Sensing Hunter’s uncertainty, RiBeld ran at the boy and jerked him from his feet. Miles screamed in terror. Hunter aimed, but stayed his hand at pulling the trigger. Using the boy as a shield, RiBeld backed away slowly.
“You won’t fire Hunter, I know you too well. You won’t risk the boy’s life!”
Steady, despite his wounds, Hunter leveled the pistol with his right hand at just below Miles’ leg. Right in the area of RiBeld’s left leg. “Indeed, Sirrah. I might not.” He replied. “Unless I was certain of my shot.”
Before he could squeeze the trigger, a flash of pain and lights exploded around Hunter’s eyes. RiBeld’s first mate, Johanssen, tossed aside the broken timber he had just clubbed Hunter with. Captain Hunter collapsed into the dirt, dazed.
RiBeld nodded and handed the screaming Miles to Johanssen. “Good man. Take this. It’s time we left.”
“Ja. Und de other one?”
“We only need the body of one child. We can let these primitives and nature finish his sister off.”
With Miles screaming like a siren, the two men raced off between the buildings. From around another corner Moira and Angela appeared. It was Angela who saw her brother first.
“Miles!” She roared in a near panic.
Moira caught her before she raced off in one of her bounding jumps. “Na runnin’ off! They’ll be gunnin’ ya down. ‘Sides Ah might be gettin’ ’em from here.” Moira drew one pistol and took careful aim, calculating wind, smoke and the chaos of things that spun around her. She squeezed the trigger, the pistol bucking in her hand.
Instantly, Johanssen jerked, bits of clothing erupting from his back right shoulder. Despite that, he kept running, though not as fast. Moira swore harshly. “He must be havin’ somethin’ under that shirt. It should’a been droppin’ him. Though he won’t be gettin’ far winged like that.”
“Moira … Angela …” Hunter croaked hoarsely. Slowly, once more, he hauled his pain-wracked body off the ground.
“Cap’n!” Moira started to run over but Hunter waved her away.
“They are making their way to the longskiffs. They want us to chase them through that mess. Better to cut them off. We’ll go around.”
Angela kept glancing in the direction her brother had vanished, then back to Hunter who looked very beaten and battered. Finally she rushed over and helped the captain to his feet. Once he was upright, she released her hold on him. Her paw-like hands came away bloody from his wounds. “You shouldn’t go. You’re really hurt.”
“The girl’s speakin’ some sense. O’Fallon’s back under one o’ them Yeti healers agin’, faith knows where William be at by now. Ah’m na keen on ya bleedin’ all out.”
Hunter scowled darkly. “Then pray tell, do not watch. That monster and his band of hobgoblins have been trying to kill these children from the start and blame the murder upon us. Now they have Miles, despite my best efforts to prevent such. My wounds hurt dearly, but had they been more serious I’d not have survived the beating I had taken after being shot. Now I’m going after him. You can join me or watch as I half-run and half-limp around that devil’s trap to catch him hopefully unaware.”
Moira deftly opened the cylinder on her pistol and reloaded. “Ya always did be givin’ the prettiest speeches. The moment we be loose o’ this trouble, yer goin’ to Doc and yer doin’ whate’er he says. Agreed?”
“As we’ve little time to argue, I agree.”
“Well then, lets be runnin’ this fox ta ground for a’ change.”