Danst came to an abrupt stop in the narrow back-alleys of Jiungli and bit back a curse. Sweat dripped off the wiry man’s brow as he changed direction towards the gurgling scream that indicated he had lost ANOTHER of his ‘local hires’ to a chase where nothing seemed to go his way. First that damned shiprat picks us out of the crowd, then the little bastard puts down my only competent man with his first shot.
A glimpse of flowing, fast-moving finery flickered down another alley to Danst’s left. He took two running steps before noting the blood on the wall and still twitching port-thug that confirmed he was back on the tail of his quarry. Two more quick turns into the winding network of haphazard alleyways brought the long-legged man fully in sight of the woman he chased. Ten steps ahead, now eight, now five. The first mate of the Second Talon leaned further forward and prepared to tackle the fleeing royal. And cursed loudly as one of his few remaining men came flying into his path, sending both men scrambling on the filthy cobblestones. The princess didn’t even glance behind her as she abruptly turned onto a different path, revealing the last of Danst’s hired thugs approaching from the other side.
“Dead end!” The final thug laughed his declaration as he simultaneously motioned for his employer and comrade to join him and pointed at the last path chosen by their prey.
Danst let out a sharp whistle to keep the excited man’s attention as he struggled back to his feet. “Wait.” He hissed the command before turning and hauling the last man back upright. “We take her together, we take her alive.”
“Her and the little rat killed five of ours. And one of yours.” Danst paused for a moment as the thug next to him made the declaration, the intent for what happened next clearly written on the man’s face.
“And she’s only worth the money if we can take her alive.” A nervous tension momentarily settled over the three men in the alley, and Danst wondered if he would have to finish what the princess had started himself in order to complete his task.
“Leave it, Peio.” The still-excited man from the alley hissed the words to his associate. “It ain’t like she’ll be headed off to a life of leisure after this.”
The objector grunted angrily, but slowly nodded acquiescence. “She takes another shot at us, I’m still gonna shoot the bitch.”
“Shoot for the legs. I’m tired of chasing her.” Danst’s easy agreement seemed to further mollify the big man, and the expression he wore was closer to a grin as they all closed on the mouth of the deadend alleyway together.
“Don’t suppose you want to come along peacefully at this point? Save yourself from getting roughed up a bit?” The wiry Chelan man called out in a clear, mocking voice. Meanwhile his eyes rapidly scanned the various piles of junk and trash, trying to determine which ones were large enough to conceal his prey. And which ones are clean enough that she might actually hide in the-…
That train of thought was abruptly derailed as a tiny movement triggered a long ingrained reflex, and Danst dropped for cover as the pistol blast went wide above him. His two allies pulled back around their corners with startled cries, but Danst was smiling widely when he stood again.
“The princess of Cheles resorting to something so crude as a powder-pistol?” The mocking tone was back in full and matched by the now confident expression on his face as Danst strolled into the alley, ignoring the surprised looks from his companions. “Why, I believe there’s only one reason for THAT scenario to come about.”
The smile on Danst’s lips widened as his target stood up from her hiding place, the now spent holdout pistol clutched in her hands as she met his mockery with an angry glare. It came as little surprise to him when the dark-haired girl cocked back one arm to pitch the near-useless weapon at him in a last act of defiance; the veteran of countless dirty fights slipping effortlessly out of the flung object’s path. A *thump* and pained shout behind him widened his smile still further, and he half-turned to see which of the two local idiots hadn’t ducked in time.
The distraction left him completely unprepared when he turned back to see the princess much closer to him than she’d been a second ago. The cold look on her face was expected, but the blade that had somehow appeared in her hand wiped away Danst’s mocking smile to leave only shock and fear on his face. The wiry man tried to backpedal away, a small corner of his mind screaming curses at himself for underestimating the girl YET AGAIN as Princess Lena practically leapt towards him with a nearly-perfect duelist’s lunge, the knife in her hand heading unerringly closer as time seemed to freeze.
And in the next moment, the princess crashed bodily and awkwardly into the terrified man in a flailing mess of limbs and screaming. Had Lena’s stolen kitchen knife been a few inches longer, or her dress hem a few inches higher, the fight would likely have ended with the blade in Danst’s throat as she intended. A fight that quickly turned in favor of the larger, and much more experienced fighter, Danst. Especially when his two companions finally joined the fray, with the larger thug hauling the thrashing girl up where his smaller companion could smash the butt of his pistol into her stomach. Danst pushed himself back to his feet and frantically checked himself for injuries while the two others stood over the prone, wheezing form of their target.
“That… That was quite a surprise, princess. I never would have guessed you for a fencer.”
The injured girl tried to respond, but hadn’t yet caught her breath to get out more than a few angry, unintelligible sounds. With her voice not responding to her command, the princess chose instead to spit on the wiry man’s boots.
“I quite understand the sentiment, and can’t blame you for it.” Danst forced himself to speak calmly as his heart still pounded away in his chest from all the recent exertion, and terrifying near-death experiences. “So understand, this part isn’t personal. Just to make things easier on us.”
Danst accompanied his last statement with a nod of acknowledgement to his last two men, and a heavy fist crashed down on the princess’ head, dropping her unconscious.
“Get her wrapped up in something easy to carry. It’s a long walk back to the Talon.”
The loud shout coming down the docks nearly startled the young engineer’s assistant straight off the gangplank as he was cautiously making his way back aboard the Pelican. A few panicked seconds of lying prone on the rough board also gave Del time to place the voice that was yelling at him, and let him realize that it was NOT more enemies.
“Captain?” The brown-haired man pulled himself up to see Captain Damini and about half the crew bearing down on him. All of them quite visibly armed.
“The hell are you doing out here?” The sandy-haired captain reached the plank and pulled the still-shaky Del back to his feet. “Nevermind that, are any of those bastards on my ship?”
“Ummm.” Looking back, Del would admit that it was not the most brilliant of potential responses to either question.
“Ease off, captain.” Kristina slid up next to the pair of men and gently pulled Del back to the more solid footing of the dock. “He’s drenched and looks spooked as hell, of course they’re on the ship. Right Del?” Del managed to nod in response to the much less confrontational questions from his female crewmate. “So, did you see how many or just jump ship to get away?”
“Uh… I don’t know how many came aboard, but…” Del took a steadying breath before blurting his next words. “They’re all dead now.”
“Say what?” The surprised sentiment from the captain was echoed by all the other crew members present. “Dead? HOW?”
“Frederich. You know he had an old Clockwerk soldier in storage? The one you told him he could only work on when no one else was aboard?”
“Ummm.” It was the captain’s turn for a less-than-eloquent statement. And the sandy-haired man took several quick steps away from the ship before continuing. “You’re SURE that Frederich did that?”
“That, or someone else was crazy enough to wind up a Clockwerk Berserker and turn it loose aboard a ship.” At the word ‘Berserker,’ all the crew members joined their captain in putting a little extra distance between themselves and the ship.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure it’s already wound down.”
“Is there a way to be absolutely certain of that?” The crew looked quite eager to hear the answer to the captain’s question.
“Well, short of going in and taking a look at the thing, not one hundred percent certain. But I’m fairly sure we’d be able to hear it crashing around below decks and ripping things to pieces from this close.”
There was a long pause as the crew listened carefully for the sounds described, and none were detected. Finally the captain turned back to the plank with as sigh and began stomping up towards his ship. “A Berserker loose below decks. There is going to be a lot of cleaning to do.” Captain Damini sighed loudly as he stepped over to stand properly on the deck of the Pelican. “Right then. Del, you’re with me below decks, everyone else get my ship secured. I want the deck guns up and in position in case whoever’s coming after us has even more friends to send.”
“Below decks, sir?” Del looked more than a little queasy in response to that order. “I’m not sure that… It’s going to be really messy down there, sir.”
“Noted. Now come help me find my engineer.”
Del froze in shock for a moment, then hurried to catch up with the captain already heading below deck. “You, you think Frederich is still alive?”
“The man’s crazy, not stupid. He wouldn’t wind a Berserker and set it loose without a plan to keep it from smearing him all over the ship. Loony bastard probably saved the ship.” The captain paused as the first signs of carnage became visible in the corridor ahead of the two men. “Which is why I’m only going to make him do HALF the work cleaning this mess up.”
Captain Lane Fremont frowned as he leaned back in his chair and stared at the tiny clock on his desk. The evening’s festivities were taking far too long for his liking. Danst should have been back with the princess a half-hour ago at the latest. And he had fully expected to see his newly-acquired Laridae sailing up over the island to join the Talon at the northern docks. Fremont didn’t like when things took longer than they should. It usually meant something had gone wrong. As more seconds, and then minutes, ticked by; the grey-haired man found himself contemplating all of the worst-case scenarios. A few more unproductive minutes of that had him shoving away from his desk to stand and shake his head in disgust.
“Probably just late because the locals are such bloody amateurs.” Fremont muttered to himself as he made his way towards the small cabin’s door. “But that’s no reason not to play it safe.”
One of the best reasons to captain a Kestrel, as opposed to one of the more ‘profitable’ ships in Gregor’s fleet, had always been, in Lane’s opinion, that it only took a single man to get the engines fired up and the ship into the air. Intending to do exactly that, Fremont let out a startled yelp as his footing slipped from under him. The captain grumbled and cursed as he pulled himself up and saw the puddle of water that had resulted in the annoying, and painful, fall.
“Bloody backwards wet-ports. I hope I never see these damned islands again.”
“That makes two of us.”
The quiet whisper from behind Lane sent him spinning in surprise, hands reaching automatically for the weapons on his belt. He wasn’t nearly fast enough, as a razor sharp blade slashed its way across his throat before he could even get a grip on his pistol. Jannis Ruby stared coldly down as Lane Fremont let out a final, gurgling gasp as blood spilled across the deck.
“Nothing personal, Lane.” Jannis turned away from the corpse and headed towards the small ship’s engines. The woman didn’t know ultimately if the winning crew would be that of the Pelican or the Second Talon, and she had absolutely no interest in staying long enough to find out.