An icy November wind blew over the dark trees of Culloden Wood before it drove onward across the wide moor itself. It stirred the tall, dry, brown grass into a manic rustle of activity. The grass shivered as though an army of vengeful spirits rose from the ground to march through the pale, moonlit evening.
The lone figure of Arcady, a dragonfly the size of a small house cat, soared through the air near the top of the tall grass. His brass plates and ruby-amber eyes gleamed momentarily in the pale evening light, wings beating out a steady hum. The Brass Griffin’s clockwork crew member flew straight as an arrow through the night. His destination: an isolated campsite in the darkness of the moor.
It was the fourth such campsite Arcady and his crew mates had come across in Culloden Moor since they began their search. The first three were scattered across the moor, much closer to Culloden Wood itself. However, they had turned out to be only ignorant smugglers transporting rum and other illegal goods, not Fomorians. When Krumer Whitehorse had questioned them, they had not even understood the name. However, Arcady felt this campsite, for some reason, seemed much more promising.
A dozen unmarked wooden crates, each no more than two feet square, were stacked one atop another outside the edge of the tiny camp. Within the dark ring of boxes, a meager fire glowed a dull orange; the flames flickered while the wind toyed with the idea of extinguishing it. Between the battered flames and the tall boxes, three men huddled in thin coats and wool blankets for warmth against the Scottish evening chill. Voices rumbled in the night, muttering a conversation in low tones.
When he was ten feet short of the nearest crate, the oversized mechanical insect adjusted his flight path to circle the entire camp. Once on the far side, Arcady shot upwards towards the glimmering stars overhead, then leveled out to look down upon the three figures huddled near the fire. Luck was with him; the three men below had not noticed his passing.
Arcady darted to one side of the camp, then the other. Below, the three men continued their conversation; only one occasionally turned his head skyward for the unusual humming sound. Quick enough, the man disregarded the sound and returned to the conversation. When Arcady had seen what he needed to, the clockwork turned his nose towards Culloden Wood and soared off into the night.
No more than a dozen yards away, William Falke lay prone in the grass, a drawn revolver in his hand. He glanced over to his left where Krumer Whitehorse and Noel St. Claire – the rifleman from Captain Willhelm’s crew – similarly lay, also watching the dim orange light ahead of them.
“See any sign of him?” William whispered.
“No,” Krumer replied curtly.
“Mon ami, how could you tell?” Noel whispered in reply. “Something – pardon – someone so small would be difficult to spot at night, non?”
“I was endeavoring to not be seen, Mr. St. Claire,” Arcady replied in a low, metallic tone. It was the only sound which the mechanical dragonfly could mimic that bore any relation of an actual whisper. He landed softly in the grass between William and Krumer in a buzz of wings. “The light is indeed another campsite. There are only three guards around it.” The little clockwork glanced at the other three with his unblinking, glowing amber eyes. “Numerous crates they have stacked outside the camp to help partially block the light. I cannot say for certain if they are Fomorians, but unlike the other smuggling camps, their crates have no shipping labels, and look very new. One could call them ‘unweathered’.”
“They could be the ones we’ve searched most of this moor looking for,” Krumer commented, then scowled in thought. “Any sentries?”
“I did not see any guards walking beyond the crates,” Arcady reported. “Only the three close to the fire.”
William shook his head in slight dismay. “Might still be one lurkin’ about out there.”
Krumer nodded. “Spirits willing, our luck will hold and there isn’t.”
“Bad place by the fire for them,” Noel remarked, “they will be night blind.” Noel smiled, his wide grin gleaming with amusement. “Though very good for us, non?” he asked, patting his Winchester rifle. “What better to see them with?”
William chuckled, and even Krumer ‘s deep scowl faded to a smirk. The green-skinned first mate scratched the dark stubble on his chin while he eyed the orange flicker of light in the darkness.
“We do this quickly,” Krumer finally whispered to the others. “William and I will come in around the boxes to surprise them. Noel, make sure none find their way out from camp. If they do, we’ll never find them in the moor. Arcady, watch overhead for any sentries we’ve missed.”
“Of course,” the oversized mechanical dragonfly said with a nod.
“Oui, Monsieur Whitehorse,” Noel replied, “that is simple enough.”
Krumer looked over at William. “Let’s call upon our new friends, eh?”
William smirked. “It’d be only polite.”
The men rushed through the grass towards the camp, weapons at the ready, while Arcady launched into the air behind them as if shot from a cannon. Fifteen yards back, Noel came to a swift stop, crouched, then shouldered his rifle. Slowly he scanned the darkness around the camp, looking for any movement that betrayed a hidden sentry. Beside him, Krumer and William raced on, hunched over as far as possible, to use the tall grass and shadows as cover.
William stopped behind the crates, peering briefly around the corner at the campfire. No more than a few feet away, two of the men Arcady had described sat quietly next to the fire. The third was missing. To William, the men seemed lost in thought, as if the warmth of the fire and quiet of the evening had lulled them both into a sense of complacency. The young tracker motioned the number of guards he now saw to Krumer, a few steps away hiding the shadowy grass. Krumer nodded that he understood; his concern over where the third man was, he kept to himself.
The first mate suddenly leapt from where he lay among the reeds and rushed around the crates. At the fire, the two men jerked around in surprise. One jumped to his feet. His hand flew to the Springwound ’85 revolver at his side. The other man, caught upon his blanket, tripped and pitched over into the dirt. Krumer leveled his weapon at the first man.
“Drop the gear-iron, or I’ll send you to the spirits myself!” Krumer snarled, baring his slightly enlarged canine teeth. The feeble orange light and dancing shadows from the campfire cast his orcish features and wild, long dreadlocks into an almost demonic look. William stepped out, his own weapon drawn and ready, to emphasize the first mate’s request.
The man with the revolver slowly relaxed his grip, then tossed the revolver away. Behind him, on the ground, the other guard carefully slid his hand under his coat. William was on him in a flash, jerking the man’s hand out into the open. Instead of a weapon, the man clutched desperately at a flask of yellow liquid! William pried the flask out of the man’s death grip, then smashed the bottle against the crate.
“None of those tricks, I’ve heard about that poison already. If ya want a drink, try whiskey,” William snapped.
“Yer dead!” the man on the ground spit back. “Yer both walkin’ dead men! Fomorians don’t forget!”
Krumer smiled darkly. “At least we know this is the right camp. Where’s your third?”
The two Fomorians said nothing in reply. Immediately, the sound of a rifle shot broke the silence followed by a scream of pain in the darkness! The first mate instinctively spun around. Behind Krumer, partially hidden in shadow, was the would-be gunman. He was on his knees, clutching his wounded right hand; his ruined pistol lay in the grass, ripped from his hand by Noel’s uncanny marksmanship.
“There is the third, mon ami,” Noel St. Claire said from out in the darkness.
“Thank you, Mr. St. Claire,” Krumer replied with a short nod. The first mate walked forward to snatch up the wounded gunman by the collar. He jerked the man to his feet, then rummaged through his pockets. Jerking free a flask of Hellgate elixir, Krumer hurled it towards the crates. The flask shattered, splattering its contents against the wood.
By the campfire, the two Fomorians started to rise. William leveled his pistol at the closest man.
“None of that, now,” William ordered. He thrust out a hand to the Fomorian to his left. “Yer next. Give.”
The Fomorian hesitated, then begrudgingly handed over his flask. William destroyed it like he had the others.
Krumer grinned maliciously at his wounded captive. “Since you seem to be the clever one, we start with you. We know your misbegotten brethren are about – where are they?”
“Go spit!” the Fomorian snapped.
“I do not think he likes us,” Noel said calmly, then walked forward. The dark skinned rifleman stopped next to the crates, then rapped the side of one carefully with a knuckle out of curiosity. “Perhaps you did not enunciate, mon ami. You do have a little bit of an accent.”
Krumer tightened his grip on the man’s collar, glaring at the wounded Fomorian. “Perhaps Mr. St. Claire is right, you didn’t understand. Let me try again. You have a crewmate of ours, and at least one good friend. We want them back and we will do anything to find them.” The orc pulled the sailor close to his face, black eyes hard, his jaw set in a snarl. “Anything,” he said in a deadly whisper. “Now, where are they?”
The Fomorian glared back, though Krumer could tell the man’s resolve was starting to weaken. Abruptly, static crackled from nearby! An opti-telegraphic laying on the grass near the crates burst to life as it received a signal!
“Sender: Ian Tonks Wilkerson. Emergency message as follows: Track this signal.” The scratchy, electronic voice blurted from the opti. “Prime the lightning cannons for full broadside. Fomorians buried below those ruins in the hills by the river. Prisoners to be gassed to death.”
“It is your pilot!” Noel said, startled.
William’s head jerked toward the sound. “Mr. Wilkerson!”
“Grab the opti!” Krumer ordered. “Track the signal!”
Noel reached for the device, but not before the two Fomorians seated by the fire lunged for Noel and William. The first man threw a handful of dirt into the young man’s face while the second – the man who had been tangled in his blanket – slammed Noel into the crates!
The rifleman grunted in pain while the crates behind him wobbled with the impact. The Fomorian tried to snatch up the opti, but the device slipped from his hands to the ground! The precision clockwork device landed hard on its corner. The sound of breaking glass and a popped spring answered the motion.
Nearby, blinded, William put a hand to his eyes while with the other he squeezed the trigger twice. Bullets hammered into his attacker’s chest. A crimson stain exploded across his shirt, his body jerking from the impact. The Fomorian slumped sideways onto the ground at William’s feet.
The wounded Fomorian still in the first mate’s grip swung a desperate uppercut to the orc’s midsection. Krumer turned slightly to deflect most of the blow. With an enraged roar, the orc slammed his forehead into the Fomorian’s face! The sailor yowled in pain, quivering from the impact. Krumer blinked, ignoring both the pain and mild dizziness. He had no time for that now; he had good people to rescue.
Noel quickly ratcheted the lever of his Winchester, leveling the barrel at the last Fomorian sailor five feet away. The man froze in mid-step, his hands inches from the communications device.
“Touch that wonderful little box, mon ami, and you will touch nothing again,” Noel said calmly with the hint of a smile. His good humor stopped short of his dark eyes, which were as cold as granite.
William blinked back the tears welling in his eyes from the dirt. Shaking his head, he stumbled over to scoop up the opti from the ground. “It might need a bit of repair. Signal looks like it was from the south-southeast.” The tracker pointed in that direction. “Last I recall, towards some proper hills and serious peat bogs.”
Krumer tossed aside the limp body of the wounded Fomorian like he would discard a bloody rag. The man collapsed in a heap on the ground, whimpering. Almost as if in response, the dull rumble of numerous explosions rolled through the air from the direction William indicated. Over the ink-dark trees, Krumer thought he saw the briefest smudge of orange for just a moment on the horizon. Then it was gone.
“Best tell the Captain.” Krumer told William and Noel. “We’ve found the mouth of hell he’s been looking for.”