With air escaping the gas bag and the longskiff’s steam engine no longer powering the propeller, the small airship hurtled downward. Hunter clutched the engine controls with a death grip. His eyes focused, unblinking, on the leather harness that rapidly drew closer with every passing second. Suddenly, he shoved a lever down. Sparks flew from the housing as the steam engine sputtered to life, powered by the longskiff’s primary batteries. Two seconds later, the propellers roared to top speed and the longskiff leveled out.
The small airship struck the landing harness at full speed. Leather straps stretched and creaked horribly, but held against the impact and weight of the longskiff. Hunter threw the lever again to cut power to the steam engine. He pulled a cord to close the leak from the gas bag, leaving just enough air to give the longskiff some lift later, but not enough for it to float away.
Stray bullets shot by, and occasionally wood exploded into fragments while the longskiff swayed drunkenly in the landing harness. The motion soon settled to match the main airship. Captain Hunter drew his pistol, then looked over to check on his companions.
“All hale and whole?” He asked.
Angela nodded hesitantly, her eyes darting around in alarm at all the new sounds and smells threatening to overwhelm her young werewolf senses.
Moira sighed, and likewise nodded. “Aye, all parts be accounted for. Though, Cap’n, we’ve sprung their trap, how’re we ta be findin’ Miles?”
Hunter looked to Angela. “We’ll need your help with that, my dear. We can try the opti-telegraphic but I’ve not any confidence he’ll be able to see where they’ve put him to give us clues in finding him. Though you might could discern something.”
Angela closed her eyes to concentrate. A moment later, she opened them, fatigue showing in her canine face. “It’s so noisy…”
Moira shook her head slightly. “She’s been through a ringer, Cap’n. Ah might can toss apart our opti-telegraphic, then be makin’ a quick locator ta find Miles’ opti?”
The young werewolf shook her head. “No, I can do this.” She closed her eyes again and grabbed the railing with her paw-like hands. Her claws cut small grooves in the wood as she extended, then retracted them idly. Finally her eyes snapped wide open. She swayed a little, as if slightly dizzy.
Moira stepped forward to steady the young girl. “What do ya hear?”
“No … ” she said with a gasp, then shrieked, “Miles!” Abruptly, she launched herself over the rail. In one bound, she had leaped from the longskiff and across eight feet of the mercenaries’ airship.
“Angela! Wait!” Captain Hunter swore, then hammered the longskiff’s railing with a fist. “Bloody hell and damnation! Don’t lose sight of her!” He leaped over the rail and landed in a crouch on deck of the larger ship. Quickly, he raced off after Angela, with Moira not far behind him.
In a mad chase, Angela leaped and dodged across the deck, racing headlong towards her brother’s terrified and angry shouts. Captain Hunter and Moira followed close behind as best they could. Not able to dodge as well as the young girl, they fired upon those sailors unfortunate enough to cross their path, or simply ambushed them along the way. Moira’s shots were deadly and careful, with one per target. Hunter’s less so, but what he missed with bullets, he occasionally resolved with a well-placed fist. When his latest pistol clicked on an empty chamber, he resigned himself to just his fists and wits.
While Angela was not entirely deaf or blind to any of this in her headlong search, her focus was mainly on her younger brother. His screams were like needles pricking her skin, grating her nerves with the anxiety that she was not there – yet – to protect him. Although, no matter how carefully she listened, the noise of the battle blurred the sounds the closer she got to where she believed he was. A desperate panic rose in her mind that clouded her concentration and threatened to overwhelm her completely. She needed information. She wondered how Hunter or Moira would find out. Then, she had an idea.
The young werewolf vaulted a trio of barrels and landed on an unsuspecting sailor. Pistol and sword fell from his grip and skittered across the deck. He started to rise, but as he did, she slammed her paws onto his back and leaned so close, the harsh rasp of her angry breath blew across one of his ears.
“Ye gods!” He yelped when realization dawned upon him as to just who – and what – was on his back.
“Where is my brother?” She demanded.
“Whot?” He squeaked then swallowed hard. He laughed nervously, then tried a half-hearted attempt to stall. “Ye gots a brother?”
“The young boy. Where … is … he? Tell me!” She snarled, a dark and ugly undertone creeping into her voice.
“W … wait! The whelp’s ahead! With the Cap’n!” The sailor pointed with a free hand towards the quarterdeck then licked his dry and cracked lips, his eyes wide in fear. “Narry a soul’s ta touch ‘im. Cap’n’s orders! Ya let … let me go, eh? Roit?”
“You’d better not be lyin’!”
“Ah’m swearin’ it! On me muther’s grave! If … if she was in one … bless ‘er soul!” He stammered in a panic.
“All right. I’ll let you go.” Without another word, she sprung off the back of the sailor towards the direction he indicated. Behind her, the man squeezed his eyes shut and sighed heavily with relief.
A short race across the deck towards the rear, Angela jumped up onto a crate and crouched down. Just ten feet ahead she saw Miles. He looked only slightly the worse for wear, as he was more disheveled than before. He had been bound to the narrow railing that braced the side of the ladder to the ship’s quarterdeck with a thick stretch of hemp rope. Archibald RiBeld was there, just retying the last knot on Miles’ wrist. RiBeld’s coat was torn. Dirt and blood smudged his fine linen shirt, and his hair tossed wild about him on the wind. He looked less the aristocrat and more an apparition from a nightmare. About him stood five armed men, none of whom had a pleasant look for Miles. When RiBeld was done, he grabbed Miles roughly by the chin.
“Now you little maggot, you’ll not free yourself this time! Not if you know what’s good for you!” RiBeld shook Miles by the chin then let go.
“Miles!” Angela yowled, heedless of the danger in front of her.
Miles’ eyes went wide, fully aware of the trouble they were in. “Angela? Run away!”
“The shapeshifting whelp! Excellent! My second catch of the day!” In a blur of motion, RiBeld yanked a pistol from one of the sailors near him and cocked the hammer.
Immediately a barrel arced down from above and slammed against the mercenary captain. Heavy wooden slats, abused by both weather and battle, broke apart on impact. RiBeld was engulfed in a cloud of splintered wood that knocked him off his feet and across the deck. His pistol flew into the air and over the side of the ship to the ground far below.
“Which means you’ve not read the notice, Sirrah. It says ‘off limits’!” Hunter shouted as he reached for a second barrel despite the rising pain that rippled through him. Bullet wounds reopened, then tortured him with white-hot pain and dull aches for every abrupt movement. The pain quickly became a distraction, one that he knew he could not afford to focus on. With an extreme force of will, he concentrated on the moment. His pain he would think about later.
Off to Hunter’s left, behind some crates, Moira rose up, outlined by a bright fire burning several feet behind her. A pistol in each hand, she fired once, then twice. A look of cold fury glinted in her eyes with a deathly light. Ahead of her, as two sailors dropped like stones, the others scattered for cover like rabbits from a hawk.
RiBeld shook off the wood, then spit blood from his broken lip. He shot a look of pure acidic hatred at Captain Hunter. “You! Again! Always you!”
The nobleman turned mercenary got to his feet and grabbed one of his men. Deftly, he yanked the sword from the sailor’s hand and shoved him directly into the path of Moira’s guns. The sailor jerked twice and fell abruptly from the staccato sounds of gunfire intended for RiBeld. Without a concern for his fallen man, RiBeld stepped around the obstacle, roared like a wounded bear, then charged Captain Hunter.
Suddenly struck by cannon fire, the deck exploded to Hunter’s right in a shower of smoke and hot timbers. As RiBeld rushed forward, Hunter looked around for a weapon, anything he could defend himself with. Next to him lay a dead sailor who had been killed by an explosion. The dead man’s clothes and few personal possessions were obviously ruined, given his burned state. However, the sailor still had his cutlass. It had fallen beneath him during his last moments. Captain Hunter reached down, grabbed the sword and pulled. It was firmly pinned beneath the body and debris.
“Come on,” Hunter said in frustration. He looked up, RiBeld shoved aside another crewman in his headlong tear across the deck. The mercenary yelled in rage while he ran, his eyes bright with murder, his face twisted and evil. RiBeld raised his sword higher the closer he came, the dying sunlight and reflected explosions shone blood red against the worn blade. Hunter bent harder to his task, braced a foot against the debris and pulled. The debris shifted and the sword began to move.
RiBeld shoved his way forward with a maniacal grin spread across his face. He raised his blade and leaped at his prey. In moments it would be finally over. He could sense it.
At the last moment, the cutlass came free and Hunter swung the blade upwards. It connected just before RiBeld’s own blade could cause any harm. Both men pulled back, and RiBeld swung again. Hunter stayed on the defensive, blocking each blow in turn. Metal slid against metal, then scraped with a small shower of sparks as the two men glared at each other.
“These children leave this ship alive.” Hunter snarled while he fought to shove RiBeld’s blade aside.
“Fine enough. Once I dispatch you, they’ll be simple enough to find. Though, I’ve more than enough crew to put an end to both your misfits and the ‘lovely’ cherubs!” RiBeld replied icily.
The ship pitched suddenly, and both men scrambled to keep their footing. Captain Hunter found enough of a foothold first, then shoved the mercenary leader away. RiBeld stumbled back ten feet and collided against a loose barrel due to the dramatic roll of the ship.
RiBeld struggled to his feet, then stopped dead in his tracks. Beyond Hunter, Angela had just sliced the ropes that bound Miles to the rail. Moira, with a satisfied smile, punched the last mercenary that had thought to keep them from Miles. The ropes pooled slowly onto the deck while Angela and Miles raced towards Moira. RiBeld was without dagger or a pistol. With only a sword, all he could do was watch while they raced for the clear path along the deck. His hastily contrived plan lay in ruins.
Moira waved encouragement to the children as they ran past her, then shouted, “This way! Cap’n! To the longskiff! Ah got ’em! Ah got ’em!”
Hunter nodded in their direction, then turned to face RiBeld. A smile tugged at the captain’s face as he touched the hilt of his sword to his forehead in a fencing salute. “I, the misfits, and the cherubs bid you good day! May you go down with your worm-eaten, misbegotten ship!”
Fury exploded inside RiBeld as Hunter broke off the duel to race after Moira and the children.
“No!” RiBeld screamed, his fists shook with uncontrolled rage. “No!”
Rage boiled like a searing heat, consuming his every thought. He ran forward, searching, until he found one of his own men laying face down on the deck, quite dead. Roughly, he shoved the body over. RiBeld’s anger quickly gave way to insane elation as he drew the dead man’s pistol and aimed. “No, Captain Hunter, I bid you … good day. I’ll see you in hell!”
The pistol boomed then bucked in RiBeld’s hand. No more than a second later, Hunter bent backwards, eyes wide in shock and pain from the impact of the bullet. He jerked from the force of the blow, stumbled, then lost his footing. Pitching forward, he slammed into a broken spar of wood with a heavy thud. Closer to the longskiff, the shot and sound startled Angela. Immediately she spun, the world slowing to a crawl while Hunter slid to the deck. Next to her, Miles and Moira came to a quick stop as well.
Miles screamed and launched himself towards Hunter, but Moira caught him before he took a step. Angela froze, eyes wide, unable to will herself to move. Across the deck, Hunter slowly shoved himself up and looked to Moira.
“Go!” He yelled hoarsely. Moira started to shake her head, but he cut her off. “Don’t argue! The children come first!”
A long list of objections fought their way forward in Moira’s mind. With a visible effort, she forced her objections back, then grabbed Angela by the shoulder. Hunter was right and she knew it. “Ya be hearin’ the Cap’n! We gotta go!”
The touch of Moira’s hand shook Angela from her shock. She screamed, and struggled to run towards Hunter. Moira stumbled, but managed to keep a firm hold on both children. With a last look towards the captain, she dragged them across the deck in a headlong run for the longskiff. Behind where they had stood, the deck planks exploded. Wooden shards clouded the air and peppered anything nearby.
Laying face down upon the deck, Hunter could hear RiBeld laughing. The man said something, but Hunter could not make a word of it. He assumed it was more gloating or death threats. At that moment, he honestly did not care. As he tried to invent a biting retort, an explosion shook the ship, ripping up the deck planks not far behind him. Hunter remained where he lay, paying the latest in what had seemed to be a long chain of destruction little heed. Too tired and wounded to fight, the captain waited for the inevitable – RiBeld’s blade in his back.
Only the anticipated thrust never arrived. After a time, Hunter looked up again, but saw only smoke and haze around him. Fires burned here and there in ruined holes about the ship. Bent steam pipes thrust up at crazed angles, and torn rigging lay in numerous places. The clouds of smoke that played among the rigging and ran along the deck completed the hellish landscape. Slowly, he got his hands under him and pushed. White-hot pain lanced through his left shoulder like hot iron from a forge. He gasped and nearly fell, but managed to not plunge face-first against the deck.
Each inch he raised himself upright was a momentous accomplishment, until finally the captain managed to brace himself on one knee. He looked around, and to his amazement saw no one nearby. That was not to say the ship was abandoned. Far from it, as RiBeld’s men were busy at the bow of the ship. Some were desperate to clear debris and save trapped comrades. Others emerged from below-decks with what few personal belongings they owned. By and large, they were abandoning ship. Captain Hunter looked around again. RiBeld was nowhere to be seen.
“I shouldn’t be surprised at that.” He grunted to himself. With a deep breath and slow, determined motion, Hunter rose unsteadily to his feet. The ship swayed and his knees threatened to buckle. Quickly, he leaned out to steady himself against the mast and get his bearings.
At that moment, a break in the smoke chose to appear. There, directly ahead of the rapidly descending airship, was the Yeti village! Hunter groaned and let out a sigh. It was a sharp, torturous experience, as it brought on a fit of pain from his shoulder. He had to raise the ship’s heading, at least enough for the dying wreck to miss the village and crash harmlessly in the snowy mountainside beyond. As quickly as he physically could, he limped over to the nearby ladder and ascended. On the quarterdeck itself, exhausted and wounded, Captain Hunter’s legs gave out from under him. He fell to the ship’s deck barely a foot from the wheel, his blood forming a modest stain on the wood. He looked up at the short distance that remained and swore hoarsely at himself, then at the entire world before he tried once again to rise. Only this time, he failed.
Suddenly, from out of the hellfire landscape, familiar voices echoed in his ears. Hunter tried to call out, but his throat was raw from the smoke and all the punishment he had taken. His cry was weak, ineffective and unheard. Frustrated, angry, he located a stray piece of burnt wood and slammed it on the deck in a rapid pattern. A weak attempt to tap Morse code for ‘SOS’, at best. The sound of wood against wood echoed dull and dead in the air. Not long after, the furred shadow of a figure appeared at the top of the ladder behind Hunter.
“He’s here! He’s here!” Angela shouted, her voice thick and hoarse from gasping in smoke.
There was a scramble of footsteps and Hunter felt arms under his. “There Cap’n, Ah got ya.” Moira said.
“I gave you an order …” he began slowly, with smoke-dry mouth and tongue.
Moira interrupted him. “That ya did. But, bless her soul, the young miss be trottin’ out a good point. Ya didna leave Miles ta RiBeld. Ya be stayin’ by them through all this. So, she’s makin’ sure we be stayin’ by ya in turn cause she be sayin’ that someone needs ta watch over ya. After seein’ ya now? Cor blimey, Ah’m agreein.”
The captain started to say something harsh about the necessity to obey orders when lives depended on it. He decided, right then, it was not worth it. There were more important matters at hand. “Moira, the ship… the village…”
“Shush Cap’n, Ah laid me own eyes on it. Angela?” Moira called out.
“Yes, mum?” The girl replied from over by the wheel. She had adjusted the course slightly and slowly, very much in the fashion of someone unused to the sensations of piloting an airship.
“Course laid in?”
“Just like ya told me to, Moira. It should be missin’ the village. I’m pretty sure, anyway.” The young werewolf chewed her lip slightly from uncertainty.
“It’ll have ta do. Come be helpin’ meself and Miles with the captain. We don’t have the time ta waste, no matter how ya slice it.”
Angela reached up and yanked down some stray rigging which had been shot loose some time ago. Using that, she lashed the wheel in place, setting its final course out into the snow. Slowly, the ship began to turn, then rise to a path well above the Yeti village. That done, she raced over and helped the others maneuver the wounded captain. With her help, Moira pulled the captain to his feet. Unsteady, Hunter tried to walk, but exhaustion and blood loss had taken its toll. His knees gave way and he pitched headlong towards the deck with Moira in tow. Moira stumbled but kept her footing and her hold on the captain.
“Easy now Cap’n, steady as she goes.” Moira reassured him.
Miles, desperate to help, tried to brace Hunter on the side opposite from Moira, but to little effect. Angela fared some better, but she was hampered by her smaller size with respect to the two adults. Moira smiled thinly and gestured for them both to back away.
“Ah can manage, though both ya hearts’ are in the proper place. C’mon, we’ve little time. Ah doubt this bird’s got much more ta keep her aloft.” With that Moira guided Hunter down the ladder and led him and the children across the deck in a slow, but determined race against time.
Miles looked over at Moira when they were mid-way to the longskiff, “Moira?”
Moira glanced at Miles. “Yes, young Sirrah?”
“This mean we can be going home now? Maybe just someplace safe?”
Moira smiled as she helped Hunter past some ruined, charred debris. Ahead, their ‘borrowed’ longskiff loomed in the smoke, perched in the landing harness as though it could leap out and fly at any moment. This was provided the steam engine turbines were cooperating and had not been too badly damaged.
She nodded. “Yes, dear heart, it’s past time ya both be goin’ back ta ya parents.”
At the longskiff, Moira eased the captain aboard. She sat him on one of the wooden seats but what with the exhaustion, Hunter chose to lay flat instead and closed his eyes. Moira climbed behind the controls. Miles and Angela scrambled in next. Miles sat next to the captain while Angela looked over the side at the makeshift repairs from earlier. She sat back and gave Moira a worried look.
“Cross ya fingers, sweet peach. Lets be seein’ if she’ll hold.” Moira said while she looked over the controls. She took a deep breath, then pulled the lever for the battery. Sparks showered Moira, the engine coughed, churned, then sat still. Moira’s blood ran cold.
“Battery leads … ” Hunter croaked while he fought back unconsciousness. “Check the leads. Odd smell when we landed … something burnt …”
“Of course!” Moira exclaimed, then dove down to yank open the battery panel. “Got me head all up in the clouds in the excitement.”
Deftly, she followed the lead wires from the steam turbine and boiler to the brass and tempered glass battery that charged the heating plates for the boiler. Where the wires had at one time terminated at the battery, now there were charred ends. Moira swore and looked around at what was at hand. She eventually reached over to a collection of wires and tugged hard. Two strands popped loose, causing a valve needle to shake angrily on the console. These she spliced into the ignition wires and reattached to the battery.
“What was that?” Angela asked nervously, a worried look on her face.
“Nothin’ too serious, sweet peach.” Moira said as she wiped soot from her hands on her trousers. “Just borrowin’ connection’s from something else on the panel here.”
Moira tugged the lever up, then pulled it down again. This time sparks flew, grayish gas trapped in the thin heating plate ignited, and the steam turbine came back to life while the boiler’s steam pressure rose. The lady blacksmith smiled in satisfaction.
Angela was less than encouraged. “What’d those wires used to do?”
“Ah well… just for the secondary pressure gauge. We’ll na be needin’ that. The Griffin‘s right over there. Trust me.” Moira winked at Angela, fired the burner for the gas bag, and shifted the propellers on full speed. “We’ll be back aboard there afore ya know it!”
Even though Moira was right, Angela still thought it the longest five minutes of her young life.