Artemis Cromwell clutched the railing of the airship, shots flying past his head, and tried to work out how he’d gotten into this mess. It was quite the task, considering how drunk he’d been. He remembered meeting the Captain of the Highreach in the bar and taking an immediate liking to the man. He remembered them getting monstrously intoxicated. And, by some miracle, he even remembered purchasing passage on the ship to the kingdom of Ashkian.
What he couldn’t remember, however, was whether or not the good Captain Claremont had mentioned that not only was his ship a pirate vessel, but that they were also wanted by the authorities of Elfland.
Moreover he had failed to mention that their crimes were so heinous that said authorities were willing to hunt for him well outside the boundaries of Elfland, and that their orders were to shoot on sight and bring them down at any cost. Artemis would’ve wondered what a man could do to get a folk as reserved and isolationist as the Elfs this angry at him, but he was too busy weighing the pros and cons of strangling Captain Claremont to death before they crashed into the Wood Sea they were flying over.
You just couldn’t resist flying in the damn airship, could you, you accursed drunk! Artemis excoriated himself. He usually made bad decisions when he drank, and the consequences of those decisions tended to last for longer than the drunk that inspired them. And because of that, here he was, a thousand feet above the top of the trees in a magical contraption that by all rights shouldn’t exist, being chased and fired at by Elfs that seemed intent on bringing down the ship with all hands, passengers notwithstanding. And given that there were no lifeboats for a craft of this nature, it seemed that the only option for he and Ana to escape this mess was to ally themselves with the pirates in fending off the Elfs. Ostensibly this wasn’t a problem, he had no particular love for Elfs. They were Fae, after all, and aggravated his curse, but Artemis wasn’t in the habit of making enemies when he could at all avoid it. Maybe they wouldn't mistake the two passengers for part of the crew.
Artemis wouldn’t count on it.
A yell sounded from above his head, from the direction of one of the Elf ships, and he looked up to see boarders raining down on them. The Elfs floated down apropos of ropes, their magic allowing them to fall without harm. He saw the murderous glints in their eyes, mirrored by the glinting of their wickedly sharp swords in the bright sunlight. He reached to his chest where he kept a brace of flintlock pistols, removed two, and began firing at the incoming boarders. Artemis was a crack shot, as much as flintlocks will allow, and he only missed a few of his intended targets. Their bodies dropped to the deck of the Highreach with sickening thuds and the crunch of broken bones, their magic broken along with their concentration. Those shot did not rise again, and were quickly trampled underfoot in the ensuing melee.
Artemis wasn’t the only one with pistols, as he heard shots ringing out across the deck and saw more Elf bodies drop. Unfortunately for the defenders, there were quite a few boarders, and at least twenty landed on the deck of the Highreach.
Now to the nasty part, Artemis thought, and drew his sword.
His fingers and teeth itched, and he could feel his curse wanting to take over. Maybe he should let it. After all, Elfs were Fae, and he’d never harmed a non-Fae while in his berserk rage before. But if he didn’t master it now, he would be useless if more delicate measures were called for to deal with the pursuit, and it was paramount that he kept his wits about him.
A shout came from above, and he looked up in time to see an Elf drop his levitation spell and cut at him, using the force of gravity to augment his strength. Artemis got his sword up in time, just managing to block a swing that almost drove him to the deck with its force. The Elf didn’t let up, pushing down until Artemis was down on his back, staring into his attacker’s grinning face. The Elf had blood lust foremost in his mind, but Artemis was going to make him work for it. He swung his leg up, bringing the toe of his boot into the Elf’s temple. The Elf looked dazed, his grip slipped, and that was all the opportunity Artemis needed. Summoning strength borne of desperation, he shoved the Elf’s sword back and stabbed upward, catching him between the ribs. The lungs were punctured, and the Elf coughed blood onto the Hunter’s face.
Artemis leaped up, sliding the dying Elf from his sword, and looked around to try and locate Ana. She had been on the deck when the attack began, and hopefully she had the good sense to flee belowdecks before the fighting started. He snapped his gaze from side to side, at last lighting on the sight he least wished to see at that moment. Blonde hair flashing in the sun, slipping out of a nun’s habit, the dress fluttering in the wind, as an Elf with murder in his eyes bore down on the girl.
“Ana!” Artemis yelled out. There was no way he could get to her before the Elf was upon her, and though he still had a few loaded flintlocks holstered across his chest, he couldn’t risk firing at this range. He might miss and hit her, and he would never forgive himself if he allowed her to come to harm, let alone harmed her himself. But what could he do now? He was halfway across the ship from her, and he wasn’t fast enough to get to the Elf before he got to her. Well, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try! he thought as he broke into a sprint towards the wheelhouse where the girl was standing.
As he was running, he noticed that the girl seemed to be unafraid. She didn’t cower from her attacker, didn’t raise her arms in a futile attempt to block the life ending sword thrust that was aimed at her perfect bosom, she just stared at her attacker and seemed to whisper, “I’m sorry,” as a brilliant flash of light illuminated the deck and blinded all who saw it.
Artemis came up short and looked away, raising his hand to block the light. When he blinked the sting away from his eyes and refocused them on where Ana had been, he saw a strange sight. The Elf was dead. He was lying on the deck, and Ana was kneeling above him, hands clasped in prayer. She gently reached out and closed his eyes, then returned to her prayers. Artemis stood dumbfounded, still having trouble believing that the girl was actually a divine conduit. I suppose the powers of the gods aren’t quite as exaggerated as I believed, he thought.
After this display of divine intervention none of the warriors seemed willing to challenge the waif in the habit, and gave her a wide berth despite the intensity of the fighting. Swords clashed all around, pistol shots rang out, and Artemis was once again beset by one of the Elfin boarders. The Elf ran at him, slashing wildly, cutting the brim of Artemis’s hat.
The Hunter fended off his attack, feeling the burn move up to encompass his forearms. By the gods, he wanted to throw caution to the wind, let his curse take over, and rip this puny Elf’s arms from his torso and beat him to death with them. But he had to find the Captain first. He had to make sure they could get out of this without dying before he could let his curse consume him.
The Elf thrust at Artemis’s chest, a killing blow if there ever were one. Artemis dodged to the side, bringing up his sword to deflect the blow. He struck back, an overhand slice that bit deep into the Elf's sword arm. Artemis could feel the flesh part around his blade, muscle rending and tendons snapping. The sword dropped to the deck, and the Elf clamped his free hand over the wound in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding. He grimaced and glared at Artemis, who dropped his sword down to his side.
“Lay down, boy,” Artemis said. “There’s no need for you to die here. Just lay down and I’ll make sure you survive this.”
The Elf sneered at him, and reached down with his blood soaked hand and snatched up his sword. “If you think I’ll surrender to a dirty thief like you, you must be even more of a drunken pirate than I suspected!” He took a firmer grip on his sword and raised it up to rejoin the fight.
“Don’t, boy.” Artemis grimaced, then continued. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will if you force my hand.”
“Die, dog!” The Elf shouted, and leaped to engage Artemis.
Artemis fended off the clumsy swing, backing away while the Elf continued his attack. It was no contest. There were a dozen moments in the fight wherein Artemis could’ve killed this Elf with little effort, but for some reason he stayed his hand. At a point it became clear that the Elf was not going to stop, or listen, or obey Artemis, even to save his own life. The Hunter shook his head and struck out with his bastard sword, hitting the flat of the Elf’s blade and sending it flying over the side of the ship into the gigantic forest below them.
The Elf began chanting, nothing Artemis recognized but he knew that he couldn’t let the soldier get off his spell. He gripped the handle of his sword in both hands and lunged forward, taking the Elf in the throat. Wrenching the sword out, he spared a pitying glance down at the dying creature, then turned back to the melee.
This story is part of a series of stories about the professional monster hunter Artemis Cromwell. If you would like to read more of his story, here are the links to The Hunter (story 1), and The Gypsy Queen & The Ranger (story 2).