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The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 5, Scene 1.

The yellow flames still raged through the stone house of General Evans when Ignatius, Wellsie and Mousier Broussard stepped across the road and descended a little rise onto a barely visible path. Ignatius pulled on his goggles and took the lead. Moving slowly he crossed a small field and then a footbridge that covered a creek. Tall maple trees mixed in with pine grew close together. The natural contours of the land wove curves through the hills and created many pockets tucked deep into the land.

The wind died off and the clouds drifted away allowing the moon and stars to burst forth in their heavenly glory. In addition to the ascetics, the moon provided ample light for Wellsie and Mousier Broussard to navigate the countryside. For ten minutes, they walked further into the forest.

“Mousier,” called Jean Jaques, using a quiet voice that carried only as far as Ignatius. “I thought I saw something along the ridgeline.”

Ignatius paused and swept the tops of the hills on either side of them.

“I do not see anything, Jean Jaques. There are no heat signatures or anything else. Keep your eyes open though,” he cautioned, “we have to be walking into the air pirates’ territory at this point.”

After hiking for three hundred more yards the men stopped dead at the sound of a hammer striking metal. A string of curses in a thick guttural dialect common among former slaves followed. Grunts answered the initial outburst. Ignatius listened intently; he could distinguish at least three voices, perhaps four. The trio crouched low and slowed their approach of a bend in the trail.

Peering around the outcropping revealed a moored airship of a similar design to Jean Jaques’s Le Grande Broussard. Orange and yellow light from torches cast a hellish appearance to the little hollow. A rigid frame connected to the lower gondola, but here was a significant difference. Where Mousier Broussard’s was an open-air gondola, this one was a closed and reinforced cabin. As reported, a massive hole opened the side allowing a strange device to poke out of the airship.

Like a two-pronged pitchfork, the main portion of the weapon jutted out. Behind the head of the fork were increasingly larger discs. They ran back the length of the shaft. Several heavy wires connected to the shaft and disappeared into the bowels of the dirigible. Wellsie laid his hand on Ignatius’s shoulder and whispered, “That is one big ass weapon.”

“Indeed,” Ignatius said in response. Flipping several lenses on the goggles allowed him to simultaneously zoom in and amplify the light from the torches for a clear view. Three monstrous hybrids drifted around the airship, moving materials, stocking supplies and performing basic routines, preparing it for another flight. Shouted commands from within the ship’s cabin. The voice was indistinct because of the distance between it and Ignatius. The men slid back out of sight to speak in quiet tones.

“Are you two up for a little sabotage tonight?” Ignatius asked.

“I am always ready to take somethin’ apart,” Wellsie said.

“Oui, thees will be a triumph.”

“We need to be as quiet as possible. I do not want more people showing up uninvited. Wellsie, you take the large one wearing overalls. Jean Jaques, the cap wearing one and I will intercept the porter,” Ingatius instructed, describing the different hybrids working around the airship. “First one free goes after the person onboard the ship. Is that clear?”

Both men nodded in agreement. Ignatius delved into his pockets and withdrew both clockworks, gave them directions and sent them on their way. He drew his sword out of the cane’s body and rose upright.

“Ignatius, why not use your gun?” asked Wellsie.

“It is noisy and I am not ready to use it just yet,” Ignatius answered. “Now, let us take another peek at our targets and move.”

Eying the natural Cul-de-sac and its occupants showed the little band that the creatures were all busy with menial tasks. Ignatius held up his hand waiting for a signal from somewhere ahead in the trees. He spied the two clockworks near a fuel can as one of them struck a cluster of sparks into a piece of cloth stuffed into the can’s opening. A yellow and blue flame sprang to life along the length of rag, climbing its way steadily into the can, following the trail of fuel soaked material.

“Oh Hells,” whispered Ignatius as the can of fuel oil exploded in a geyser of flame. The concussion of the blast washed over the land, spewing fiery bits of wood, gobs of flaming liquid in all directions. Some of the projectiles stuck to the airship, other pieces pelted the hybrids.

“Go!” commanded Ignatius, figuring they might as well take advantage of the chaos. If they were quick, perhaps they could even make it look like an accident. The sound would undoubtedly bring someone running.

Ignatius moved as fast as he could, dodging around a snowcapped log. He stabbed the point of his blade through the neck of his target, but before he could recover, the hybrid grabbed onto the sword with its left hand and held it tight. Since pulling was not working, Ignatius shoved the sword away from him, toppling the abomination over.

Before his eyes, the man-machine swelled like some maniacal puffer fish. The flesh that his sword pierced tightened, staunching the flow of blood. Ignatius lashed out with the heel of his foot, kicking the hybrid in the nose. An enormous hand seized Ignatius’s ankle jerking him off his feet. The snowy ground raced up and smashed Ignatius hard and wet in the face. He felt a sharp crack and blinding pain followed as his own nose hit the ground.

Snow clung to his eyelids and managed to find its way up his damaged nasal cavity. He gagged on the blood, sputtering and spitting, trying to free his airways. Ignatius felt fingers clutching at his brace-enclosed legs, working their way along his limbs, starting to crush the metal braces that enabled Ignatius’s ability to walk. Panic surged inside of Ignatius, a cold rushing dread.

Part of the chill came from failing the task and the other from not seeing Angela again. There would be no last chance to say goodbye or to kiss her warm, soft lips. A dreadful certainty overcame him on the forest floor. He twisted to his right while blinking the snow out of his face. Ignatius drew out the Beaumont-Adams revolver and cocked it.

“Please,” He said in a whisper, because his throat would not allow for anything louder.

The abomination took hold of his waistband with a cruel sneer on its face. Ignatius thrust the pistol forward and squeezed the trigger. The bullet tore through the hybrid’s skull sending viscera in all directions. The shock dissipated from Ignatius’s arm almost as quickly as it arrived. The echoing crack of the firearm brought everyone up short for a moment. He slumped back into the snow’s embrace, blowing a long gust of breath out of his chest.

A muffled shout from Jean Jaques drew his attention. Ignatius rolled the hybrid from him and wiped snow, tears and blood out of his eyes. Rising from the ground, Ignatius thumbed the hammer back on his pistol and moved over to where Jean Jaques wrestled with one of the creatures. Ignatius raised the barrel and shot this one through the head as well. Looking around once more Ignatius found the airship starting to catch fire and Wellsie finishing off his opponent.

“We need to get away before the ship explodes,” Ignatius yelled over the roar of the flames.

A loud popping sound reported from within the gondola. It was the noise that glass makes when heated too quickly. Ignatius supposed that studying the Death Ray was now out of the question. The upshot was that it be impossible to use any more. Collecting his cane from the ground, he put his back to the airship and led his two companions from the scene.

They clambered up a steep grade at the front of the airship where some brush helped conceal their tracks. The heat from the raging inferno created rivulets of melting snow, obliterating the majority of footprints in a twelve-yard radius. They crested the hilltop in quick strides, each man trying to be as quiet as possible. Ignatius waved a halt and lowered his goggles gingerly onto his broken nose.

With great care, he crept to the crown of the hill and peered back down at the hellish scene below. The fire reached the feet of the hybrid that Wellsie had fought and a handful of seconds later it exploded as the flames caused the fuel in its’ back to ignite. The flame was a clear blue and white, not the dirty yellow and orange of oil. These were new hybrids fueled by natural gas akin to Johnathan Fawkes’s Automatons.

Voices came up the path near the entrance to the hollow as another hybrid exploded. Ignatius was thankful for the detonation helped erase their part in the chaos. Ignatius saw several familiar faces crowd the trailhead gawking at the combustion of the airship. A hulking figure emerged from the darkness, bellowing in anger and lashing out with punishing blows.

Elijah stood a foot higher than the next tallest man. Tattered clothing hung off his heavily muscled frame. The light from the airship’s demise gleamed on his black skin. Ignatius examined him from head to toe, noting a row of valves along the hybrid’s left side. Elijah approached the remaining corpse untouched by the fire and gave it several savage kicks. Ignatius smirked at the scene below.

The smile faded as Ignatius watched Elijah stoop down and pluck a brass fragment from the ground. Ignatius felt a stone settle in his stomach, the hybrid held a piece of one of Ignatius’s clockworks.

“The game is up,” he whispered to the others. “We need to move quickly, there is no illusion that the airship caught fire by accident.”

“Which way do we go?” Wellise asked.

“Jean Jaques, you have flown over this area many times I presume, what is your advice?”

“Zee trees cover the land. It ees hard to make anything out. If we keep going to zee east, we will come to a place where zee land deepens into a bowl. I think zere is zee best place to start looking. We aren’t far from it.”

“This little hollow with the airship is just a staging area and judging from how fast Elijah and his men arrived there is another place for them nearby. Perhaps in the bowl you mentioned.”

“What’s the plan, Igantius?” asked Wellsie.

“I am beginning to theorize that these woods house all of the answers to the questions that have plagued me for the past several months. Come along, gentlemen,” Ignatius said, leading them down the opposite side of the hill. “As for a plan, how about general disruption and mayhem?” Anything we can do to impede the enemy.”

“We can expect pursuit in the next couple of minutes, so additional suggestions would be appreciated,” said Ignatius.

“What about the Army? Won’t they come investigate the fire?”

“That is possible. I am not sure what they could achieve since there is no good place to land troops close to us. Add in the fact that the enemy could have significant anti-air defenses, I am not sure Commandant Lestrange would risk his precious Ulysses.”

“Oui, Mousier St. Eligius is correct. I have personally seen the Army break off pursuit all too often and only because zey are afraid of just such a thing happening.”

A great throbbing pain abounded in Ignatius’s sinuses and face. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and daubed at his nose gingerly. The downslope of the hill leveled off and then rose again. The trio spread out ranging across the new hill and meeting up again at the pinnacle. Ignatius waved for the other two to follow him. The ground sloped off in several directions. Ignatius moved along steadily east, confident that he was parallel to the path they followed earlier.

In the distance, they could hear shouts of anger as Elijah and the others fought the fire. It made Ignatius glad to know that for the moment there was no pursuit. All of that could change in an instant. They descended to meet the path with snow spattering outward from their footsteps. The path dipped down and around a bend to the left. Ignatius was almost past a single track when something glinting in the goggles vision caught his eye.

Perched on a branch at a trail head was a woodpecker fashioned from brass.

Ignatius came to a sudden and complete stop, causing both Jean Jaques and Wellsie to crash into his back.

“Look there,” Ignatius said, pointing at the mechanical bird as it hopped to a new tree limb. The bird reacted to Ignatius’s voice, cocking its head in his direction and emitting a tiny peep.

“I didn’t think woodpeckers made that sound,” Wellsie observed.

“They do when they are made by hand, out of whatever is laying about. I only know of one person capable of creating such a remarkable thing. Come along, we are on to something important here.”

Ignatius strode to the tree and carefully took down the woodpecker, placing it on his shoulder. He then pointed to the ground where fresh tracks led in the opposite direction. “This is where Elijah and the others came from. We must follow this new path. Come on, the game is moving apace!”

Ignatius felt energized. His nose seemed to throb with less ferocity and his step was sprightly. After a minute of walking along the twisty game trail, he came to a clearing. Opposite him rose a steep wall of rock and moss. Moving with great caution Ignatius entered the clearing and went to the cliff. He found himself staring at an opened maw in the rock. It was by his estimation thirty feet high and at least twenty feet wide. Only at this angle was it apparent. Somehow, great skill in camouflage kept it from being seen from the trail. A whooshing rumble greeted them at the mouth of the cavern. A hot wind blew out over Ignatius.

“Since when do caves extrude hot air?” he asked.

Wellsie shrugged his heavy shoulders.

“We must go inside. If I am not mistaken, not only is the General in there somewhere so is another person, whom I have sought after for more than a month. I think it is safe to say that we have almost finished this Air Pirate affair,” said Ignatius smugly.

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