Knell burst into the bridge, and crewman Viggs threw himself over the console, peering over with a hand-crossbow at the ready. Knell crossed the room and he relaxed knowing it was only her, but tensed again before he could question her; she slapped a hand on the comms and called the Death.
“Drop the field, Harrow! We have to run,” she cried. “Viggs, get this thing in a position to offload crew.” She changed the dial, “Turpin, Wainwright, see if you can get that thing to ascend a bit and prepare for recovery.”
“We can’t move fast enough, Captain…” Viggs began, even as his hands danced over the controls.
“I know, I know,” Knell said, pacing. “Just do what you can and we’ll find a way to hold them back.”
She slapped the comms again. “I’m serious, Wainwright. Get out of there.”
“Aye captain,” came the hoarse reply, and silence. The engines rumbled and shook the vessel, and only now Knell realized how to the ground had become, a flock of terrified sheep bouncing into the distance from the shadow of the ship. The shepherd was not far behind them, waving their arms and staff.
The stolen freighter lurched upward and Knell clung to the console as Viggs got them into the sky again, the pace agonizing compared to the approaching red glow of the Herald’s vessel, like a comet of ill-omen blazing across the sky.
Knell quit the bridge and headed for the gouge they’d made in the top of the ship, shimmying up a rope with teeth gritted and muffled swearing to stand overlooking the ramshackle escort she’d acquired.
She looked to the slowly rising ship containing Wainwright and Turpin, to her own ship dropping to collect crew, aligning with the hull on which she stood. She sat cross-legged on the cold metal and set her weapons in front of her, methodically checking her ammunition, her holsters, the shells in the gun-blade.
Very deliberately, she stood up, walked to the open boarding atrium of the Death and hit the intercom.
“Cerro,” she said.
“Yes?” He sounded as relieved as she felt.
“In my desk there is a bullet, dull, sort of brown. Please find it and get it out to me,” Knell said. “You don’t have to come yourself.”
She went back to her gear just as the crew emerged from the hole in the hull and returned through the atria. The Herald’s ship was high overhead, an ominous eye seeking weakness.
It won’t be long now, she thought, and a shadow fell over her. Stumpy, the bullet in an outstretched hand.
“Thank you,” she said, in rough Creak, the little from the lessons that had sunk in. Stumpy stared for a long moment with pale, eerie eyes, and nodded, heading back onto the ship.
Knell loaded the bullet and spun the cylinder. She felt better not knowing which pull of the trigger would do it.
She stared at her guns as the light grew blinding, and faded. She reholstered the lot, stood up, and banged on the hull of her ship, leaning calmly across the gap between the vessels over a lethal drop to the washed-out greenfields below.
When the atrium opened, she hit the intercom again.
“Alright, lads,” she said, with a sigh. “The Olimak Herald is going to hit us any minute now, whenever they’re satisfied we’re pissing ourselves at the prospect. Don’t engage,” she continued, with a bite in her voice. “Don’t, you hear me? I’ll hold them off, beat them back, something. This one’s on me. The rest of you make a run for it.”
It was only when the captured gunship started to peel away and up that Knell realized she hadn’t seen Wainwright or Turpin get back on board.
Knell swore and watched them go, the few guns still operational firing volleys toward the descending Olimak ship.
Knell shielded her eyes with her dark hand. “Just once this year I would like a job to go smoothly,” she muttered.
The Herald’s ship streaked by, battering her with a hot wind. She caught only a glimpse of red, gold, and black before it was gone and her enemy stood on the hull before her. Oddler’s guns, she thought, he just fucking jumped.
The Herald was silhouetted against the sun, seven feet tall on basalt-black hooves, dressed in blood-red armour that looked like lacquered wooden plates. She wasn’t sure if the horns came with the helmet or not, curling like those of a ram. She felt static on her skin and raised her guns against him, though he had yet to draw. Keep him talking, she thought, but didn’t spare a moment as to why she thought he.
“We have hostages,” she said.
“Yet still no manners,” he replied in a sonorous voice.
Knell’s lip curled. “Sounds like you have me at a disadvantage, Herald.”
“No need for games, Nell,” he replied, folding his arms, relaxed, the sword on his hip undrawn. “You know those guns can’t hurt me.”
Knell thought quickly as the ship on which she stood began picking up speed, following Harrow eastward.
“Ah. Yes,” she said, lowering her revolvers, “took a blow to the head a few months back, you know how it is.”
He nodded. “I always told you your luck would run out, one day. But not today.”
She tried to keep her face blank as she raced to work out how the ‘Sea this deva knew her, and said; “Very gracious, that.”
“It is,” he said. “As ever you aspire above your station, but I cannot say this was not a sacred act.”
“Thanks,” Knell managed, uncertain.
She got the distinct feeling he was amused.
“Where is your crewman that stole from me?” he asked.
Knell pointed to the looming gunship, over his shoulder.
He turned his head, so slight it was all arrogance, and nodded.
“I suggest you get moving then, before the Spire authorities get here,” he said.
He turned to face the gunship, drawing his blade. Knell raised her guns again.
“Don’t kill him. He’s part of my crew, under my protection,” she said, levelly.
The Herald treated her with that same backward glance he’d given the ship.
“You can’t protect him. But don’t worry, I don’t plan to kill him.”
Knell thought something had exploded, at first, the sound drowning out all else and making her head swim. She squeezed the trigger before she knew what she was doing, but the shot was wide. Wainwright had opened fire, angling a machine gun turret downward to hammer on the hull in an effort to put the Olimak down, but he still stood before the hail of bullets, sword flashing.
He’s parrying the fucking gun, Knell thought, eyes wide, ducking and staring as the shots tumbled into the air and whipped past her. The Olimak was slowly stepping forward, and Knell realized he couldn’t deflect every shot, that he wasn’t; his blood was bright yellow-orange, hissing and burning the hull where it splashed from his wounds. Arcs of electricity were leaping from his body to the ship beneath his hooves. She didn’t think they had any real effect; he pressed on, closing the gap. When the barrel finally spun into silence as Wainwright’s ammo ran out, the Herald leapt into the air.
His sword cut a shallow rent in the canopy of the gunship’s cockpit, allowing him to grip the opening with one hand and cling to the front of the ship, slashing three times more to make a hole.
Wainwright must have already run, Knell thought, seeing the hulking Olimak break into the cockpit and move out of sight.
Knell frowned and searched the skies; gunship behind the freighter, it’s crippled twin vanishing into the distance, and her own ship ahead.
She ran under the gunship, thinking Wainwright must have locked the controls, and drew the gun-blade, cycling desperately through the shells.
“Something in here has to do it…” she muttered, chambering one that seemed to be made of densely packed sand. “Chronomantic?” she said to herself, “So… space and time. This has to work out.”
She raised the blade to point at the lower hull of the gunship, squinting. Please? she thought, and pulled the trigger.
The report was soft, more like sand shifting under the wind than a gunshot. The bullet lodged itself in the hull, and nothing happened.
Knell waited, tense, unmoved from her firing position.
“Fuck!” Knell yelled, swinging the blade and scoring the hull at her feet. She sore again, stamping. A third time, swinging the blade in hissing arcs. Panting, head pounding, she swung one final time at the gunship, the tip of the blade striking the bullet embedded in the steel.
The rest of the weapon’s passage left a luminous rent in the hull right through to a gunner’s position, the metal fading and bending. Knell’s jaw dropped. She looked at the gun-blade’s cylinder, to the hole, and back. Two part activation, she thought. I need a qualified Magus to look at this fucking thing, really.
And very carefully, she threw herself up into the rift she’d made. There was a brief sensation of nothing, like losing a fistfight especially badly and waking up on the cobbles five seconds later with no idea how you got there, and she staggered onto the floor of the gunner’s box. The hole wasn’t closing.
The ship was already slowing, wobbling at the extra drag. Knell clenched her jaw and climbed up through a hatch into the inner compartment.
It was one of the larger model gunships, probably with a crew over a dozen and an unusually large hold. The walls were slick with blood, the floor strewn with fragments of meat and bone, and Knell gagged. She tasted bile and retched, doubling over, keeping from touching anything as best she could. The sounds of splitting metal echoed from somewhere to the aft of the vessel. Grimacing, Knell followed the scorched hoofprints in the blood and tried not to look to hard at the few faces that remained intact among the dead.
She picked her way past bloody hands and exposed ribs, slowly becoming inured to the smell, resisting the urge to cover her face, keeping her guns at the ready as she approached the engine room. She could hear Wainwright hissing and growling, the clash of the Herald’s sword, and picked up speed, slipping in the viscera, almost bashing her head on the doorway, stumbling into the engine room. The humming reactor cast everything in flickering blue light, the bulbs all broken to leave it the only source of light. The room was definitely larger than standard, and to her untrained eye the engine seemed bigger than comparable ships, but even so; there was a lot of empty floor space that made her wonder about its purpose.
Knell could make out the looming form of the Herald, stood well back across the room, near the entrance from the opposite corridor. Wainwright, fur matted with blood, leg hanging on by a sinew, crouched among the girders and conduits above the engine, snarling. Back to his normal size, now.
Knell trained her guns on the Herald, loudly and unnecessarily pulling back the hammers.
He was standing with his sword at the ready, but relaxed in his stance. That changed when he heard Knell, straightening up only to drop his guard again.
“Still reckless,” he said, with a note of mirth.
“Apparently,” Knell said, keeping her voice even. “Looks like you’re at an impasse,” she added.
“Safe here, captain,” Wainwright interjected, more spite than strength, breath strained.
“For now,” said the Herald.
“Better you leave him be, Herald,” said Knell.
“Reckless shading to stupid. You know you can’t hurt me,” he replied.
“I can’t hurt you easily,” Knell hissed.
“I just came for the thief’s hand,” the Herald said, exasperated.
“You can’t have it!” Wainwright growled.
The Herald tilted his head, like a curious dog.
“Yes. I can,” he said, and stepped forward, electricity flashing between him and the engine, the light bright and blue, seething over the metal and gemstones like snakes. Coruscating around the Herald’s limbs as he reached out, sword ready in the other hand. Wainwright’s gums were bleeding from how tightly clenched his jaw was, tiny streams of smoke rising from his fur.
Knell fired, three deafening reports in the enclosed space. She couldn’t tell if she’d hit her mark or if the shots had gone wide, spots dancing before her eyes, the whole deck rocking beneath her.
And then it was over. Her vision returning as the engine compartment grew dark but for the glow of the reactor. She recovered her senses just in time to see the Herald dragging an unconscious Wainwright.
“I trust you have a doctor?” he said, laying Wainwright at her side.
“Yes,” she said, numbly.
“Good,” the Herald said, helmet sliding away to reveal burning gold eyes. Knell’s head hurt to look at them, and she barely noticed him slipping to the ground until his shoulder clanged against the wall, and he slumped, unconscious.