"I'll ask you again, gentlemen. What are you doing on my mountain?" The ice witch grinned maniacally as razor-sharp needles of magical ice grew from the stalagmite that had burst forth from the floor and held him against the chamber wall. He was pinned, both arms held fast by spikes of ice that fastened his sleeves to the wall. In front of him, the witch gestured as the needles elongated, reaching for the soft, vulnerable flesh of his neck.
This was not good.
The lone, cloaked figure crouched down behind a large, moss covered boulder and waited for the signal. Out of sight, a bird warbled somewhere in the distance. He looked around, carefully inspecting his surroundings for anything that might have seemed amiss. Here and there, there were large boulders strewn all about, similar to the huge chunk of rock he was leaning against. In the faint moonlight, he could make out growths of various hues in patches all over the rocky landscape. The moss covering whatever solid surface it could was the only vegetation for miles. The last significant foliage he remembered seeing were small stands of conifers near the town that now lay a few dozen miles somewhere to the south.
The figure raised a sweat-soaked wrist to his brow, wiping a few beads of perspiration that had condensed just above his right eye. He sighed as he loosened the collar of his wool parka, also wet and soggy with body sweat. Another bird call echoed against the sheer cliff faces on either side of the boulder field. A puff of smoke and steam between his feet validated his suspicions. It was another blasted hot springs field - the third one in as many miles. It was the mossy rocks that gave it away. Despite the ice and snow-covered landscape of frigid tundra, the past few miles had been unexpectedly hot and humid. The rest of the landscape was either solid permafrost or just plain snow. Silently, he moved to the side and sat down on one of the boulder's irregular faces. Iceland it seemed had been rather inappropriately-named.
The wayward songbird that had been trilling before continued calling out. Probably just as lost as he was, he thought to himself. Or maybe the bird was singing to attract a mate. Not that there seemed to be any life in the godforsaken, barren, icy wilderness that surrounded them. Either way, he was glad to have some company, human or otherwise. The skies were relatively well-lit for sometime close to midnight, even with the moon out of sight and few clouds in the sky. This far north, the stars shone down like a million, tiny little moons, winking down at him like a curtain of crystals showering the landscape with their reflected radiance.
Just then, a shrill sound blasted into his right ear - a sound almost identical to that one lost bird, hiding behind one of the boulders nearby. Oh wait, a sudden realization dawned on him. It was the bird. Or whatever it was. His entire body tensed as he prepared to spring in response to the impending strike. He was seconds too late.
He felt a hand clamp around his mouth while another wrapped around his torso from behind, painfully crushing the brace of pistols he wore in a bandolier slung across his left shoulder against his chest. His right hand instinctively dropped down to his ankle and grabbed the handle of the Derringer strapped above his right foot. In one swift motion, he pulled it out and pulled the hammer back, hoping there was still enough priming powder on the flint's pan, and brought it against the mass of red curls that flowed forth from behind his head. The forest of crimson that enveloped his face filled his senses with the scent of dried pine needles, resin and slightly decaying berries. It was a strangely comforting aroma, a combination of death and sweetness that the he knew all too well.
"Ye really should pay more attenshuin tae yer surroondings! Ye ne'er know what nasty wee buggers are lurkin about..." a familiar female voice whispered into his left ear in a thick, Scottish accent. Before he could respond, even before he could lower the draw-out pistol he was holding to his assailant's head, he felt a sudden warmth envelop his ear. His assailant's tongue flicked out and probed the crevasses of his fleshy lobe as her left hand released its grip on his flank and gripped something a bit lower.
He grunted and fought back a sudden urge to grab her back, no matter how much the scent of pine sap that cascaded from her luscious, red mane threatened to overwhelm his already overburdened senses. "Moof..Mer..Meri...stop-ah," the thump of his hold-out handgun on the hard, frozen ground quickly followed the loud clatter of lacquered wood, leather and flesh crashing against the permafrost.
"C'mon, Iyan. Thar's enough time tae speil a while..." the woman pushed him down and then reared back on her feet, standing above him in all her savage glory. She was a young woman, no older than thirty years young, wearing a traditional Scottish kilt that barely covered her pale, muscular legs down to her knees. The blue tartan fabric wrapped around her shapely body, thick in a good, curvy way, adorned with a sash that ran from her waist all the way to her left shoulder. Slung across her back was a long, antiquated musket, its burnished wood just as dark as the handle of the flintlock nestled among several brown pouches that hung from her waist. On her tartan sash, just above her left breast, was a shining metal crest, in the shape of the letter W. Iyan subconsciously traced a finger along the buckle of his belt, emblazoned with the same exact W crest. His teammate wore it much better, he decided.
"Damn kid, yuir fast." A male voice said in a heavy Irish accent from somewhere behind the woman. "Bit o'sloppy, but fast. A drunken questing beastie would be able to follow ye in the dead of night." Another one of his teammates stepped out into his field of view. This one was a man, around his age but with so much more physical gravitas than Iyan could ever think to muster. He stopped a few feet away from the pair and crossed his arms in front of his chest, right over a slightly-enlarged rosary that he wore around his neck. Around his waist were more prayer beads, larger and tied up with a five-bead strand that ended in a wooden cross. He wore around his body a black cassock – a long body coat that covered everything up to the man's neck. The man motioned to their female compatriot disapprovingly. "Mara, stop molesting the newbie. Yuir acting like a Dearg Due on the poor lad."
"As if Mara herself isn't just as fresh as our young ward there," bellowed another voice – deeper and with an internal echo that hinted at the size of the man it came from. The commander, clad in a deep royal red coat, joined the younger trio. Captain Biggs was a largish man, easily towering above all of them with his massive and muscular frame. His face was rough, with a few scars, wrinkles and thick, brown mutton chops that ran from his temples, down his cheeks, meeting in a neatly-trimmed moustache under his bulbous nose. "You kids had better be prepared for this," he muttered in a clean, English accent. Finally, someone he could understand, Iyan thought. "So, Luke. Anything?" the commander looked at Iyan as the younger man stood up and grabbed his gear.
He shook his head, remembering to respond to his code-name the commander had just called him by. For some reason, their particular group insisted on referring to each other through one-word codenames. It was the first time the young American had gone by anything other than the name his mother had given him when he had been born, back in California years ago. "No sir," he responded to Commander Biggs. "No sign of any fort, fortress or castle around. Not for miles. It's nothing but…rocks. Ice and rocks."
"The target palace is just over the hill to the northeast," A raspy, half-whispered voice interrupted. Iyan looked in the direction from which the voice came. Perched on a rock, like a cougar waiting for to pounce on its prey, was the remaining member of their elite crew. Their team's second-in-command was a tall, silent man clad in a similar dark red coat that the commander wore. Leftenant Wedge was crouched on top of a large boulder, some six feet above the ground. Shadows hid most of his angular facial features, with only the whites of his piercing eyes and the outline of his thick sideburns slightly visible. With both hands, the leftenant steadied himself with his 1841 Mississippi Rifle, an extremely elongated firearm that Iyan recognized as distinctly American. The gun was almost as long as the leftenant was tall. A thick grey cloak was draped over the rest of his body, blending slightly with the mottled moss and shadows of the rock he was on top of.
Iyan looked to the northeast, in the direction Leftenant Wedge had indicated. As he squinted his eyes, there did seem to be some sort of shimmering glow in the air just beyond the snowy hilltop. Actually, that was the only hill in the immediate area to have what seemed like snow covering it. Snow, in the middle of a field of steaming hot geysers and springs. He had missed that particular detail thanks to the dull monotony of their surroundings. That, and Mara. He was definitely the most inexperienced of the group. The young American shook his head in disappointment. "We're here," Iyan said.
As they neared the palace, it dawned on Iyan just how colossal the structure was, standing much taller than even the buildings back in London and Paris. It reminded him of a large cathedral made entirely out of crystal. They were a few dozen meters away from the large, double doors that were the entrance to the palace. The team advanced into a central courtyard flanked by four rows of tall, treelike columns when they were welcomed by the voice.
"Shhhh," Deak held his hand out towards the others, but more in the direction of Mara and Iyan. "It's the witch! Don't say anything." The two nodded back and hefted their weapons closer, gripped the hilts of their guns just a little bit tighter. The Irishman said a quick prayer under his breath as he gestured for the rest to stop.
"That's not very polite," the woman's voice said, louder this time. "I would expect that of you gentlemen, but not from you...lass."
Mara's eyes widened as she stopped behind a massive crystal column. She hefted her Brown Bess musket and pointed it at the palace. "Where is she?" The Scot screamed angrily as she pointed the family heirloom upwards at the palace walls. There were several balconies a few dozen feet above where they were, but no sign as to which one the voice was coming from. Actually, it seemed to come from all around them – as if the ice itself was speaking the words.
Hiding behind the opposite column on the other side of the courtyard, Iyan shrugged and squinted at the structure. There were what looked like windows a hundred feet above ground, along with what seemed like a rather large balcony. There! He could barely make out a shadowy figure leaning over the railing. "Mara!" he half-shouted, half-whispered as he gestured with his eyes towards where he believed the witch was.
"Oh there's no hurry," said the woman. Her voice sounded like it was coming from the columns themselves, and not the figure on the balcony. "Come inside, join tonight's entertainment!" The voice trailed off in loud, cackling laughter. A loud, crashing sound came from the palace as the large, double doors ahead of them slowly opened of their own accord.
Iyan looked questioningly at the commander, who was giving the hand-signal to proceed. Mara nodded and pointed her firearm at the balcony, but the figure had already vanished. Besides, it was most likely out of her gun's effective range. Iyan made a mental note to ask her why she chose to wield a model as old as the Land Pattern Musket – a model so old, he swore the redcoats used it against his great grandfather during the revolutionary war. Slung across Deak's back was his five-foot-long Needle Gun. Now that was a state-of-the-art firearm, Iyan thought - fresh from the forges of Prussia; although his particular rifle was a more affordable version of Coronan make.
The Irishman looked back at him and motioned him onwards. "Come on Luke, a job's a job." Iyan stared at his compatriot blankly for a few seconds before he shook his head. Getting used to that codename was going to take a while. Silently, he was thankful that they stuck to the last epithet while on mission.
Their band was down to four. Leftnant Wedge had gone off at the base of the mountain the palace was on to find a good vantage point for the second phase of the mission. Between the commander, Deak, Mara and him, they still had around five guns between them. Iyan wondered why they needed this much firepower to deal with a single target. He had hunted men in the past. Shot a few. Killed even fewer. This felt like overkill. The contract described the target as a 'witch'. Deak or Biggs didn't expound much but they did seem to know what they were in for. Wedge and the commander had planned the expedition themselves, with some input from Deak. As junior members of the crew, Iyan and Mara had been left out of the decision making loop, but had been briefed anyway. Iyan still didn't get it.
Was that woman the witch? The word itself sounded rather ridiculous, invoking an image of an old crone, wearing a wide-brimmed pointed hat while flying through the air riding a broomstick. That was the only image that came to mind. Back home, he was used to collecting bounties on criminals and outlaws. When the Duke of Weselton initially approached him weeks ago in London, he thought he was joining a group of pirate hunters. Witches? Did they even still exist? The last witches he was aware of were over a hundred fifty years ago, in far-off Massachusetts. Iyan shrugged, confused. At least the money's good, he thought, remembering the bag of coinage the Duke had poured out in front of him. More money to send home to mom.
The entry into the palace had been rather uneventful. The doors led directly into a huge hall made entirely from solid, crystalline ice. All around them were dozens of lifelike ice sculptures of men and women in various positions. Most of them looked like sculptures of soldiers, wearing uniforms and armor of different types. Iyan could identify Austrians, Prussians, Germans and British, among others. There were even a few Turks, charging forward with their scimitars drawn. Their rusty, metal scimitars. Made of real metal, in stark contrast to the uncannily detailed ice sculptures that held them.
Iyan felt the hair on the back of his neck stand as he looked all around. The sculptures were holding real weapons. Swords, axes, muskets, guns and flintlocks. "Guys.." he heard his own worried voice echo against the forest of ice statues.
"What the fock…" Mara whispered as she traced her finger across the basket hilt of a broadsword wielded by a transparent figure wearing a kilt. "This is a genuine Clan MacGuffin blade. Ah recognize the pattern on the hilt. They dinnae sell these." Iyan watched her as she stared into the cold, unseeing eyes of the frozen replica of a Scottish warrior holding the sword she was trying to pull loose. Like the other statues, he seemed terribly realistic. Too realistic.
Their Irish companion passed between the two junior Weselcrew not even looking at the statues. "Aye, they're real people." He commented nonchalantly, reading the American's mind. "Turned into solid ice by the foul magic wielded by the witch we hunt."
"Were real people." The commander commented, emphasis the 'were' part. His crossbow was nocked and loaded. "Keep going and follow the plan or you'll end up one of them."
Iyan took a few, careful steps away from what used to be a Polish Hussar, complete with lance and iconic winged helmet. Definitely not what he signed up for.
"Is it Mary? That's pretty close to Mara. Or…no, wait…Meredith?" Iyan asked for what seemed like the umpteenth time. His female companion let out a sigh, shook her mane of red hair and rolled her eyes towards him.
"Nae," the Scot spat back in frustration. She hefted her four-foot long musket and pointed it in his general direction. "If ye ask me me name one more time, I'm gonna hafte shoot ye." She glared at him for a moment before turning around and continuing to lead the group past statues that were once men.
Iyan didn't really expect to get an answer from the fiery redhead. It just felt like something to do to lighten the mood. The crew had been going through several long corridors, sporadically adorned with the frozen bodies of soldiers and warriors from ages long past. These "ice statues" seemed rather strange. He had seen frozen dead people in the past. These looked nothing like that. These bodies were turned into pure ice. It was as if their very flesh and blood had been transmuted into pure crystal.
"Codenames, Luke. Respect the name." He felt Captain Biggs' heavy hand on his shoulder. "I know you used to work alone, but you're part of a team now. And teams have rules." The large man gave him a hard pat before moving past the smaller man. Iyan ducked as the large crossbow the captain had slung over his shoulder almost hit his head.
Standing between two frozen soldiers wearing Napoleonic uniforms, Iyan felt a slight poke from behind. "Best we keep on moving, lad. I'm supposed to bring up the rear, and yer in danger of becoming the rear." Their Irish compatriot motioned for the American to follow the Commander and Mara, already a few dozen meters ahead. The corridor appeared to continue for at least a hundred meters more, small double-doors at the end.
"Besides, what's in a name? That which we call Mara by any other name would smell just as sweet," he intoned in a slightly poetic fashion. Ahead, the Scotswoman turned her head and winked at the two. Or at one of the two men, it seemed.
They made it a few more meters before a woman's voice, the same one that had welcomed them at the entrance to the castle, echoed from the corridor walls.
"Gentlemen, I do believe we've made our acquaintance. I'm afraid I've let you in far enough. This is where we say goodbye." The woman's voice seemed to be coming from the walls themselves, as if the very ice itself were talking to the crew. Instinctively, Iyan noticed everyone shift into battle mode almost immediately. The commander had his large crossbow in both hands, string already nocked with a bolt in the groove. Deak had his Needle Gun nestled on one knee while he held a handful of paper cartridges in his left hand. Mara was standing still, ramming a bullet down the barrel of her antique musket. Iyan paused for a moment and looked down. He shrugged and pulled out two Colt Paterson pistols from matching holsters on either side of his waist. He had already loaded powder and balls into his revolvers and had ten shots to spare.
Just as the Scot had returned her gun's ramrod back into its sheathe, a slight rumbling sound grew from somewhere in the corridor. To his left, Iyan noticed one of the solid ice soldiers, a French veteran of the Napoleonic Wars from the looks of the Charleville musket he held in an icy death grip, start to shake a little. "Holy shit!" He shouted out loud as he hefted his left Paterson and sent a musket ball crashing through the frozen soldier's head. It shattered into tiny shards, clattering on the solid ice floor in a shower of ice.
"Luke, what the hell?" The commander's booming voice echoed around the corridor. The large soldier turned around, crossbow up and ready to fire.
Iyan pointed towards the headless sculpture, still holding its musket securely. "It moved! I swear!" He squinted at the icy remains, standing perfectly motionless despite having its head shot off. No sign of movement. The young American shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Nope.
"Yuir seein things," Mara threw her hand up in a frustrated gesture towards him. "They're dead, ice, frozen, dead." She started towards Iyan, but the commander suddenly pulled her back. Captain Biggs looked in the direction of Iyan and Deak with a mixed expression on his face.
Iyan stopped in his tracks as the Captain leveled his crossbow at the two men. Without saying a word, the commander loosed a bolt. The twang of the crossbow's string reverberated loudly as Iyan momentarily caught a glimpse of the thick quarrel as it passed just a few inches away from his right shoulder. The crossbow bolt travelled between him and Deak, standing a few feet to the right. Behind the pair, the wooden shaft made a dull thud as the steel-tipped dowel buried itself into solid ice. A thud followed by a rather unearthly groan.
The two men spun around, weapons raised. Iyan saw a sight that would remain burned in his memory for years. Amidst the forest of frozen soldiers, were…what could be best described as…snowmen? They were rising from plumes of snow circling on the floor between the icy warriors.
Iyan blinked a few times, wondering if the altitude was getting to his mind. The air was thin, way thinner than what he was used to. The young American grew up on the coast, next to the ocean. He had been feeling rather off ever since the ship they had taken to Iceland had left Weselton a few weeks ago. Iyan rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of his left hand, still grasping the handle of his pistol. Nope, snowmen.
Beside the crystalline figures of former soldiers from ages long past, rose around a dozen or so creatures that could best be described as malevolent snowmen. Even meters away, Iyan could make out the fine detail of powdery particles covering their large, rotund bodies as they grew from the ground. Unlike the rest of their bodies, their arms were made of wood, like branches torn off from living trees and thrust into the sides of a large oblong snowball. What unnerved Iyan the most were their faces. The creatures had discernible facial features, tiny crevasses in their snowy heads resembled eyes that shone with an unearthly reddish glow. Beneath the pair of eyes was a curved slit that must have been the snowmen's mouths.
The didn't look too tough, Iyan thought as he took a few steps backwards while raising his pistols at the nearest snowman. The monster smiles an unearthly grin, revealing a mouth bristling with needles of ice. With a growl, the beast shambled forward, smashing one wooden arm against the midsection of what was once a soldier of Napoleon's Grand Armee. To Iyan's amazement, the frozen Frenchman broke in half at the waist, his musket clattering on the ice floor along with the arm that was holding it. The snowman crushed the soldier's icy remains under its snowy form, leaving nothing but tiny shards of crystal.
"Jesus!" The American fired two volleys into the shambling mound of snow, thumbs flicking the hammers back as quick as possible between shots. The centimeter-thick lead balls buried themselves in the snowman's head, creating small holes and spraying teeth shards in the air, but the monster kept plodding forward. Two more shots blew two more holes in the snowman's face. "This isn't working!" Iyan shouted as he fired his last three rounds at his target, finally causing enough structural damage to decapitate the monster. Without its head, the body stumbled and fell on the floor, its wooden arms flailing wildly against the solid ice floor. Its fellow snowmen paid their fallen brethren no heed as they shambled towards the group.
The American holstered one revolver and pulled out his powder flask, reloading the other as he backed up towards the commander. In front of him, his Irish teammate was firing shot-after-shot at another snowman, slowly chipping away at its torso. One branchlike arm was already broken off, while chunks of its ovoid body was blowing off in puffs of snow as Deak fired his Needle Gun. Iyan watched the slightly-older man look down the iron sights, fire off a shot, calmly pull back the metal bolt that stuck out at an angle on the right side of his gun, insert one of the paper cartridges he held in his other hand into the breech, push the bolt forward, and raised the gun towards the snowman shuffling towards him. Iyan felt a sense of admiration for the Irishman's firing discipline. True, his gun was easily reloaded compared to the muzzle-loading firearms that he and Mara wielded, but Deak wielded his Needle Gun like a professional. Another snowman fell as Iyan reached where the Commander and Mara were firing bolts and musket balls at their icy assailants. As he finished shoving the last lead ball into his other revolver's cylinder, Deak started running back towards them, out of cartridges.
"Waste of ammo, we'll have to go melee!" The Irishman shouted as he set his firearm on the floor and drew a three-foot long wooden cudgel from his pack. It was no mere club however. It was an Irish Shillelagh – a macelike cudgel with a large, knoblike head ornately carved from a single piece of wood.
"At last!" Mara threw her musket by the wayside and wrapped her hands around the foot-long hilt projecting upwards from above her right shoulder. Iyan felt a tinge of surprise at the way the redhead had cast away her obviously antique musket. Back home, an original Brown Bess that probably dated from before the revolution would fetch a hefty sum. He shrugged it off as the Scot pulled out a large sword, almost as long as he was tall. The massive claymore looked out of place in his companion's hands as she wielded it blade pointing straight upwards, inches beside her right cheek. To his left, Iyan heard the commander mutter something about 'overeager kids' while shouldering his crossbow.
With a bloodcurdling scream, Mara charged forward, cleaving two snowmen's heads off their shoulders with a single swipe of her five-foot sword. A few feet beside her, Deak was busy pummeling a snowman with his wooden club. Blow-after-blow took chunks out of the snowman while the Irishman deftly avoided his enemy's clumsy swings.
While he had been in numerous melees in his short career as a hired hand, Iyan never felt right about closing with an enemy, especially not when his guns were still mostly loaded and primed. Still, that snowman had taken all ten rounds from both of his Patersons to down. Bullets weren't exactly something he was lacking, but it took a significant amount of time to reload five cylinders per pistol, especially in the midst of battle. For a second, Iyan considered pulling out the 'special' pistol he kept, hanging on the inside of his trenchcoat. The snowman bearing down on him made him think otherwise.
As soon as the five-foot-tall beast was upon him, the small man ducked low and swept his right leg across one of the small spheres that served as the snowman's feet. The globular mass of snow exploded in a spray of white powder as Iyan drove his shin through the snowman's leg. Using the momentum from the kick, Iyan followed through his counter-clockwise spin, drawing a rather large knife from a sheathe on his belt. A flash of metal later, the snowman's right arm was writhing on the ground, quickly followed by the rest of its body.
Above him, a snowman flew through the air, arcing over his head only to crash into another snowman. The two beasts were tangled together in a chaotic mass of white powder and broken branches. Iyan looked behind to see the Commander take a bare-fisted swing at another snowman, taking half of its head clean off with his fist. Beside him, Deak was making short work of the last of the snowmen with his Shillelagh. A few meters away, their Scottish teammate was breathing heavily, leaning on her claymore. Iyan shrugged and looked down at the blade in his hand. The Bowie knife was a gift from his brother, before he left California. Its nine-inch, steel blade reflected what little light was refracted from the windows high above. Iyan had thought it a decent close-quarters weapon, but looking at Mara's sword and Deak's club, he couldn't help but feel a tinge of insecurity at being outclassed by his Celtic comrades.
"Kid, stop staring at your knife and pay attention!" He heard the commander's voice beside him. Iyan raised his head to see two more snowmen shambling their way from the far end of the corridor from which they had came. These were bigger that the ones they had just dispatched – each one stood at least eight feet tall and their arms were made of snow, not wood.
"Come on!" He felt a hand on his wrist as Deak pulled him towards where the Commander was already rushing to. Behind them, Mara stood for a few seconds, looking like she was trying to decide if she was going to fight the snowmen or follow her team down the other end of the corridor. The spunky Scotswoman opted for the latter, making a quick detour to pick up her discarder musket by the side.
Iyan distinctly heard her shout "Nae, we can take them!" in a rather disappointed tone. His knife back in its sheathe over his left thigh, the American decided against wasting ammunition against what seemed like slow, lumbering opponents. The pair of snow monsters seemed to have stopped walking towards the crew, instead standing side-by-side forming an impenetrable barrier on the other end of the corridor. They were going to have to fine another way back, or fight their way through the snowmen. Judging from his teammates' enthusiasm, Iyan resigned himself to the latter.
After a few twists and turns, the quartet stopped at the far end of the corridor, with the large snowmen a ways off behind them. Slowly, it dawned on Iyan what had just occurred. "Sir, commander, sir…" he looked at Biggs. The larger man crossed his arms and looked down at him, with a look on his face that seemed to know what the younger man was about to say. As Iyan open his mouth, his voice was drowned out by a much louder voice.
"Snowmeeen! Did we just fight walking, running, comping snowmen!? Bloody hell!" Mara glared at the group, her eyes wide. Her accent was thicker than usual, which Iyan chalked up to her current state of what seemed like bewilderment and anger. "I mean, snow-beasts! Creatures! Magic!" she was bent-over, one hand steadying herself on an icy wall as Iyan looked at Deak, then the Commander with an equally puzzled look on his face.
"I think what she's trying to say is that…" the young man struggled with the right words to convey his inner turmoil to his commanding officer. "Were those…uh?" Iyan tried to replay the events of the past few minutes in his head. Walking snowmen. Not people. There was nothing inside those lumbering bodies of powdered snow. No blood, no organs, no mechanical contraption or clockwork mechanisms. It was just moving snow.
"Magic." Deak placed a reassuring hand each on both Iyan and Mara's shoulders. "Get used to it. In our line of work, this is something you learn to live with…" The Irishman gave the commander a knowing look, before turning back to the two young ones. "…or die in disbelief at." There seemed to be an unspoken conversation between the two veterans. Iyan got the feeling that he and Mara weren't the crew's first new recruits. Across from him, the Scot had finally appeared to calm down, although her skin was still as pale as the icy glow from the castle walls. It was at this point that Iyan had realized the palace was adequately lit, even with the stars high in the sky and none of them holding any light source whatsoever. Magic.
"Mara, behind you!" Iyan's shout was drowned out by the now-familiar roar of snow beasts in the air all around the group. He raised one of his flintlock pistols in Mara's direction, and then shifted it a little up and over her left shoulder at the snow beast a foot behind her. Iyan cursed under his breath as he struggled to steady the heavy wooden firearm with one tired arm. Not that it would matter that much. This particular gun, like most of his weaponry, was smoothbore. He had just as good a chance at hitting his female teammate as he did dispatching the snow monster that was almost upon her.
It was a good thing his teammate spun around and swung her large blade in a wide arc behind her, rendering his decision moot as the monster's head clattered to the icy ground in a mass of icy spicules. The monsters had been getting more and more tough, since that first corridor with the soft-bodied snowmen. This particular batch was of quadrupedal snow beasts, almost canine in appearance, composed not of snow but of solid ice. They were tougher, faster than the snowmen, as evidenced by the numerous scratches on Mara's bare arms. The Scot still preferred the use of her long blade, even though the solid ice proved more susceptible to the team's firearms than soft snow.
A sharp growl beside him alerted Iyan to the pair of icewolves, as he had come to call this particular brand of snow beast, attempting to flank the team's position. The flash of fire from the tip of his large-caliber flintlock filled the gaping maw of one of the frozen canines, showering Iyan in splinters of cold ice. The other wolf caught the bottom of Iyan's boot as the American kicked the five-foot-long beast in mid-jump. Its front legs broke off as he unloaded another one of his flintlocks into the beast's chest, before it was finished off by two more shots from his Irish compatriot.
"Weselcrew, form up!" The commander bellowed as he slammed the butt of his heavy crossbow down on the muzzle of one of a pair of ice wolves. The other wolf leapt the full six feet or so towards the large man's neck, only to be caught by the Englishman with the stock of his bow. Headless, both ice constructs fell to the ground in a shower of crystals. "That's the last of them," he dusted off his coat and looked over his younger wards. The rest of the team took a few minutes reloading before proceeding the few dozen meters to the end of the corridor.
The four of them gathered in front of a large, single door at the end of the hallway they were in. The door reached over fifteen feet tall and seemed made of solid ice. Unlike the other doors they had encountered around the palace, this one was shut solid. And it was the only way forward.
It was Mara who heard it first. A low rumbling grew slowly from beyond the solid ice door. She shushed the others, including the commander who instinctively seemed to know when to trust the skills of his soldiers. Iyan noted how Captain Biggs seemed so at ease with the current events, as if magic was no surprise to their commanding officer. He shrugged and drew both Patersons, steeling himself for whatever came next.
Less than ten feet away, the door to the chamber exploded in chunks of solid ice as the team ran backwards to avoid the debris. "Hold fire!" Commander Biggs held his left arm out while aiming with his right. The cloud of dust, snow particles and ice crystals slowly cleared, but not before a loud roar originated from beyond the now-broken doorway.
Out from the mist, stepped the largest snow monster Iyan had seen so far. It dwarfed the commander, who was less than half the behemoth's size. It stood on two thick legs, and had even longer arms, tipped with sharp icicles that resembled deadly claws. Rows and rows of crystal spikes lined its back, which formed what appeared like a thick carapace similar to that of a tortoise's shell. The monster's head resembled a macabre interpretation of a human's, with hollow sockets for eyes and a gaping maw lined with sharp teeth.
"Jesus Christ!" Iyan shouted as he pointed both of his pistols at the abomination.
Beside him, his Irish teammate raised his Needle Gun towards the monster. "Luke, we're goin' ta hafta talk aboot yuir language later!" Deak kept his eye trained on the giant snowman as he waited for the commander's order to fire.
A puff of smoke somewhere to their right preceded a small cracking sound as one of the snow monster's teeth shattered as a large-caliber musket ball crashed into the back of its throat. The monster roared in response and began stomping towards the group.
"Damn it, fire discipline! Bloody hell. Fire!" The commander shouted at the group, while looking sharply at the Scotswoman with the smoking muzzle. He then turned his attention to the lumbering giant some twenty meters away. A large crossbow bolt sped from the device in his hands and buried itself halfway in the monster's chest. Little puffs of smoke erupted all over the monster as Deak rapidly fired his gun at it. Mara, having the antiquated weapon, took seconds as she rammed a fresh bullet into the barrel of her musket, gripped the ramrod in her teeth, and fired it in the direction of the snowman. It was picking up speed, and despite visible damage to its torso in the form of chunks of snow torn from its mass, was not slowing down.
Iyan took the better half of six seconds to empty all ten shots between his two revolvers, all focused on the beast's right shoulder. All ten .38 caliber balls found their mark, embedding themselves in the thick ice that joined the monster's large, right arm to its body. Cracks appeared all over the block of ice, but it refused to give way.
The giant construct was almost upon them when the crew decided to scatter. Mara threw her musket to the side and drew her sword as she leapt out of the way of one of the ice giant's massive legs. The creature roared and slammed one mighty fist down where Iyan had been standing just moments before. He had managed to jump back at the last second, the razor-sharp claws whiffing the air inches away from his nose. From behind, the commander shot two more bolts into the creature's chest but to no avail. The ice giant swung one limb back and managed to graze Deak as he was ducking out of the way.
The Irishman skidded on the icy floor before coming to a stop a few feet away from the wall. Iyan saw Deak rise slowly, steadying himself with one hand on the wall before drawing his cudgel and starting back towards what had turned into a messy melee.
Mara's sword clanged against the monster's shin, its solid ice seemingly too strong for her ancestral blade to cut through. With a savage cry, the Scot dashed between the snowman's legs and made another swipe at the same leg, with the same results.
Iyan side-stepped another lumbering overhead smash, firing two of his large-caliber flintlocks into the monster's right shoulder as it took several seconds to pull its claws free from the ground. The solid ice structure was starting to shake. Iyan could make out several of his conical bullets embedded in the monster's structure. A few more and he could blow the arm clean off, the gunslinger thought as he replaced his single-shot pistols with two more fresh ones from the brace that hung from the bandolier across his chest.
This close to the towering monstrosity, Iyan could see that while the beast's lower legs were made of solid ice, its thighs appeared much softer, more pliable. "Mara, hit above the knee!" He quickly shouted to his Scottish teammate, who was busy dodging and slicing futilely at solid ice. The snow monster bellowed and reared back as it tried to kick at the two young soldiers beneath its hulking body.
Above them, the monster seemed angry, almost furious as it raised both fists and prepared to slam it down on the two teammates. "Out!" Iyan shoved Mara back as hard as he could, sending the woman sliding backwards on the ice away from impending doom. He had pushed a little too strongly, Iyan realized too late as one foot then the other slid forward and upwards into the air. He felt the air leave his lungs as his back slammed onto the cold, icy floor. Above him, one massive, clublike fist was coming down faster than he could roll away. He closed his eyes and reached for a gun. Any gun. Iyan found his right hand around the handle of the pistol he had been avoiding using since the start of the mission. If he was going out, he was going out fighting. He braced for impact.
An impact that never came. He opened his eyes to a glorious sight. The commander was standing over the young soldier, both arms up and pushing against the monster's giant icy fist. Iyan could see the visible strain on Captain Biggs' face as he grunted and grimaced, the snowman's hand held steadily above their heads. "Go!" Biggs barked at no one in particular.
Iyan took out a large revolver, much longer than his forearm, and pointed it upwards at the shoulder he had been shooting at the whole fight. From below the creature, he could see that the ice that formed that particular joint was much thinner than the upper arm itself. Steadying the heavy pistol with two hands, the American gunslinger centered what would have been the creature's armpit in his sights. He pulled the trigger.
The massive recoil sent the gun up and backwards, slamming into the icy floor above his head. This particular gun was meant to be fired from a stable position, not upwards while lying on one's back below the target. Nonetheless, his shot hit home. The spiderweb of cracks criss-crossing the monster's armpit pulsed and exploded as its right arm separated from the rest of its body. It roared what sounded like a scream of pain as it staggered backwards, one-armed.
Commander Biggs threw what was left of the giant's arm he was lifting above his head off to the side. "Good job, kid!" He shouted as he hefted his crossbow, pulled back the string with one hand, loaded a bolt and loosed it into the creature's neck. The monster, unbalanced by the loss of its right arm, staggered and clumsily swung its remaining limb at the Scot that was approaching it. Mara easily ducked beneath the pillar of ice arcing where her head was. She yelled an unintelligible war cry as she jumped into the air, sword held high above her head, and sliced downwards across the snow giant's left leg. Her massive blade cleaved through the leg in one swing, just above the knee where Iyan had indicated earlier. Deak rushed the monster from the side and rammed into it with his club, forcing the monster out-of-balance for good.
Like an axed tree, the snow monster toppled to the ground with a loud crash. It flailed wildly at the crew, who cautiously approached the monster but stayed just barely out of reach. All except Mara, who dashed in and brought her claymore down on the monster's other leg, taking chunks out of it with her swings. Deak fended off a few, wild swings with his cudgel, actually breaking a few of the icicle-spikes that grew out from the monster's left hand.
The commander loosed another bolt, hitting the monster's head with the thick wooden quarrel. The snow creature roared in pain as the metal-tipped rod buried itself in its cheek. "Luke, you know what to do." The commander nodded at Iyan.
"Yes sir." The American nodded at his commanding officer. He knew exactly what to do. While their compatriots distracted the wounded giant, Iyan raised his overly-large pistol and centered the monster's head in his sights. It was time to end this.
"Remember the plan," Biggs whispered to the three younger crewmembers gathered in front of the massive crystal steps that must surely have led to the witch's inner sanctum. His deep, gruff voice bounced against the crystalline ice, echoing around the assembled crew.
Crouching low at the foot of the staircase, Deak had sheathed his ice-encrusted cudgel and had taken out the rifle he had slung on his back. The Irishman nodded at Iyan as he pulled back the bolt on his gun and prepared to load a paper cartridge into the breach. A loud clink reverberated against the icy walls as he slammed the bolt forward with the bullet, percussion cap and powder, safely encased in paper securely wedged in the back in the barrel. "Aye," he nodded at the commander.
"Yes sir," Iyan echoed. He had both of his Colt Patersons out and reloaded, one foot-long revolver in each hand. He had no idea what he would find at the top of these steps, but after the monster snowmen they had fought earlier, the young American wasn't discounting anything. "Ready when you are, Mara." He said to their female compatriot. There was no response.
"Mara?" Iyan called out, but the base of the staircase was a small hallway and the Scotswoman was nowhere to be found. A few, faint and hurried footsteps came from above them, further up the staircase. The scent of aged pine needles wafted down from up ahead.
The commander cursed as he waved the two younger men up the steps after their overeager companion. "Go, go, go!" He shouted as he unlimbered the crossbow he had hanging from his back. "I swear, you children will be the death of me!" Captain Weselbiggs shouted as he followed up the stairs.
Iyan rushed up the steps as quickly as he could. The fact that the steps were made entirely from ice made that rather difficult, as a few seconds in contact with the surface melted a layer or two, making traversing the staircase extremely slippery. Deak was managing by using the butt of his rifle as a walking stick. It was one of those times Iyan regretted choosing pistols as his primary weapon of choice.
It wasn't that long before the staircase ended onto a flat dais, also built from the same glowing ice as the rest of the palace. His training kicking in, Iyan took a quick look around and tried to construct a mental image of the area as his teammates spread out around the circular chamber. Deak rushed to the right of the staircase as Biggs came up from behind him, his huge crossbow nocked and loaded. Mara was a few feet ahead of them, on one knee as she trained her antique Brown Bess musket on a lone figure standing in the middle of the chamber.
It was a middle-aged woman, skin as pale as the moon and her long hair, in one flowing mass behind her even whiter than that. She wore what seemed like a long gown made entirely out of ice. The witch looked just like any attractive woman Iyan had ever seen. In other circumstances, he might even have made a pass at her. She didn't look at all dangerous.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" The woman said in a low, almost-seductive voice as she raised one hand at the Scotswoman pointing a gun at her. Suddenly, the expression on her face changed from slight amusement to a look of pure malice as a shard of ice materialized in the air in front of her palm and sped towards Mara.
"Fook!" The Scot screamed as her gun erupted in a cloud of black smoke exactly as the ice shard grazed her left shoulder and shifted her aim. The large-caliber musket ball embedded itself in the wall behind the ice witch with a shower of splintered ice. Mara struggled to prop her longarm up for reloading, a thin line of red blood clearly visible on her bare shoulder.
Ok, pretty dangerous! Taking advantage of the distraction, Iyan sprinted a few steps to the left, diving to the ground in a tumble as the ground behind him grew sharp spikes of ice over two feet long. As he came out of his roll, he raised both pistols and fired a volley of shots in the direction of the witch. Even before he pulled his triggers, a curtain of ice formed between him and the woman, obscuring his view. Two of his slugs embedded themselves into the ice curtain before the second volley shattered the sheets of solid water that the witch had conjured between them.
From Mara's right, Deak was rapidly unloading shot-after-shot at the witch, but tall blocks of ice rising in front of the Irishman affected his aim for the worse. Well-trained, he held position, cycling through the bolt and the trigger of his rifle. Unlike the other crewmembers' firearms, his needle gun was fast and efficient. He held a whole handful of cartridges in his trigger hand and loaded them into his rifle's breach seconds after firing a shot.
Suddenly, A lone crossbow bolt flew from the top of the staircase behind the trio and embedded itself in the far wall behind the witch. As he ducked behind a pillar of ice that had risen out of the ground just a few moments before, Iyan noticed a streak of red dripping from the ice wall on the other side of the room.
The commander's shot had hit the witch. The crimson speckles adorning the coat of blue, reflective scales that covered her chest revealed one crucial fact: the witch could bleed. The young soldier met his commanding officer's gaze for a split second as both warriors, young and old, knew what this meant. The witch could be killed. Apparently, the woman had noticed this as well as she was now glaring intensely at a deep cut on the outside of her right shoulder. The quarrel had managed to cut through whatever magical glowing ice fabric protected the witch. Judging from the extreme expression that slowly formed on her face, she was none too pleased about it.
With a scream, the arcane woman raised both arms in the direction of the commander and a thick ice wall formed on the ground, sliding towards the burly soldier. Iyan saw Biggs roll out of the way instinctively, almost as if he had practiced that particular move before. A look of frustration crossed the witch's face as she spread her arms to her sides, two identical ice walls coalescing towards Mara and Iyan.
Iyan raised his revolvers towards the one headed his way and fired. The half-foot-thick ice wall shattered with the torrent of large-caliber bullets that crashed against and through its crystalline surface. From the far end of the chamber, Deak quickly unloaded two shots into the moving barrier as well, finishing it off just before it reached the American.
To Iyan's surprise, the other block of ice exploded in a shower of shards as Mara cleaved through it with her massive claymore. The Scotswoman's battle cry echoed throughout the hall as she brandished her huge, two-handed sword and rushed towards the witch. Iyan swore the massive hunk of antique metal was longer than he was tall. Then again, he wasn't that tall. Surprised by the destruction of her constructs, the ice witch focused her attention on the sword-wielding Scot that was almost upon her.
"Kid! Killshot interrupt!" A loud order came from the direction of the commander. Biggs had just come out of his rolling dodge and was re-stringing his crossbow, which had become unloaded during the roll. On the far end, Deak was rapidly reloading his rifle. Iyan gulped as he took one of the flintlocks that hung from a brace across his chest and pointed it towards the woman about to cast a spell on his teammate. This shot had to count. The old-style handgun erupted in a cloud of smoke as a bolt of magic shot out from the witch's hands towards the charging Scot. The American knew his shot had hit home as he saw the sorceress suddenly bend downwards even before the spell she was casting had fully left her fingertips.
The magic bolt that would have passed through Mara's heart hit the ground instead, forming a blunt stalagmite that knocked the Scot backwards with enough force to send her crashing against the far wall. Like a battered ragdoll, she slumped down on the icy floor with a loud groan, her red curls spilling out of her hood onto the floor. Iyan grit his teeth, frustrated at his slow draw. At least his teammate was still alive, he consoled himself as he saw a dark red stain growing on the ice witch's upper back. He slipped the flintlock back into the brace, pulled out a small pouch and began reloading his revolvers.
Seeing that her nearest assailant was out of commission, the witch threw an icicle at the wall above the Irishman that had just finished reloading and was now training his needle gun in her direction. "Deak!" Iyan shouted, a second too late as the icicle caused a shower of ice chunks to fall on his companion, knocking his gun out of his hands and burying it beneath a pile of ice. Iyan cursed, slipped his revolvers back into their holsters and pulled out a second flintlock from his brace and aimed it at the witch some twenty feet away.
The woman turned to face him but then turned towards the staircase as another crossbow bolt flew a foot away from her head. She pointed at Biggs with her left hand and fired another arcane blast. The grizzled veteran ducked low and blocked the spell with his crossbow, the wooden weapon flying out of his hands with the recoil. A look of realization crossed the man's face as he shouted to Iyan. "Kid! Brace!"
Even before he registered that the witch had gestured towards him, Iyan felt a sharp, shooting pain against his chest as he was lifted off the ground and slammed against the icy wall behind him. With the wind knocked out of him, he struggled to reach for his pistols but to no avail. He was cleanly pinned to the chamber wall.
"Well now, this is starting to feel rather familiar." The sorceress' voice reverberated in the chamber. She still sounded quite seductive, ignoring the fact that she was talking through bloodied teeth. "I'll admit, you men..." she nodded towards Mara's limp body, "have put up the most fight, I've had in decades…but it will all still end the same way." She gestured with both arms towards the commander as another moving ice wall grew in front of the big man. "I'm going to enjoy adding you fools to my collection."
Trapped on both sides by the earlier debris of the fight, Biggs had no choice but to push against the slowly-crawling block of ice that was now threatening to push him back down the staircase. From amidst a haze of pain, Iyan saw the wall slow down as the witch crouched low, pushing harder against the commander with her magic. His immense strength appeared to slow down the massive ice construct, but still didn't stop it.
"Hmm," the witch pondered. "Just like last time, I see?"
"What do you mean 'like last time'...you're not Queen El..." Commander Biggs' voice came from behind the ice wall pushing him. They were almost at the edge of the dais now. "No, not like last time!" The grizzled soldier shouted as he climbed over the barrier that moments before had been threatening to push him out of the chamber. The large warrior had three sharp, claw-like projections anchored to both his wrists that he was clinging to the otherwise slippery block of ice. With a loud grunt, he leaped over the wall with similar spikes now extended from the tips of his boots. In each hand, he held a dart - an enlarged quarrel with a heavier, thicker shaft and an even heavier, sharper head. The commander hurled both darts in the direction of the sorceress right before he crashed to the icy floor in front of the ice wall.
Iyan watched both projectiles in slow motion as they flew through the air. It suddenly dawned on him why Leftnant Wedge had been adamant that he wear the steel-reinforced plates that were weighing him down around his shoulders and armpits and had been slowing down his drawing, reloading and aiming the entire battle. If not for the appropriately-angled plates of armor, the icy spikes that held him against the wall would have passed right through his chest and shoulders instead on merely holding him up by his armpits.
One dart was caught neatly within a defensive ice shard the witch conjured just inches from her forehead. The other one flew past her and crashed against one of the icicles pinning the sleeve of Iyan's left arm to the wall behind him. With a few quick tugs, he ripped his left arm free of the wall and reached down towards a holster on the inside of his coat, one that held a rather large revolver. Iyan had picked up this particular gun from a man he had worked with in Texas. It was a prototype for a new kind of pistol. For some reason, the Texas Ranger had trusted Iyan enough to keep the gun. It took him a few moments to pull the cumbersome firearm out.
"Now!" The commander's loud voice rang throughout the battle chamber as he loosed two more darts towards the woman. Two ice walls immediately caught the two, thrown projectiles within their icy grasp. From the far end of the room, a small puff of smoke escaped from Deak's rifle, but it wasn't a musket ball that flew towards and buried itself in the witch's chest. The angry woman looked down in puzzlement at the glowing red smoke that was emanating from the goo that coated her entire chest. It didn't seem to hurt her at all, and that realization elicited a loud cackle from the wounded sorceress. "Is this all?"
On the other side of the hall, the Irishman stood and grinned as he put down his gun and took out a small, black bible that he kept in a shirt pocket. "For lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart." Deak's voice rose above the sound of crackling ice as the sorceress raised both of her arms towards the ceiling. Large cracks radiated out from a point in the ice hanging above their heads, a few chips coming loose as the structure started to shake. The Irishman paid no heed to the debris falling around him, instead his gaze focusing on the glowing red bloch on the witch's abdomen. "Target painted."
The bullet came before the crack of the gunshot. Wedge fired his 1841 Mississippi Rifle from a neighboring mountaintop, well over a thousand yards away. The .54-inch diameter sphere exited the barrel of his firearm and sped across the valley between the Leftenant's perch and the ice palace. The heavy lead ball flew amidst snow and hail, past wisps of smoke and steam, passing through the small window that opened out onto the balcony that looked over the castle courtyard. In a split-second, it crossed the length of the room and entered the ice witch through the small of her back. Her entire chest erupted in an explosion of blood. With a blaze of magical blue fire, the arcane woman dropped to the ground.
The witch did not stay down. Groaning and screaming, she reached out between Deak and Biggs, towards their fallen, unconscious comrade. Mara lay unmoving in a pile of red hair, shattered ice and half-melted debris. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth. Sharp icicles began to form on the ground around the unconscious Scot, growing in a ring of spikes that threatened to impale her a hundred different ways. One particularly elongated one crept towards the pale, thin skin of her throat.
"No!" Iyan screamed as he summoned all his strength, slowly lifting his left hand, revolver in hand, towards the supine form in the center of the chamber. The American centered the figure in his iron sights, her dress now ablaze with magical blue flame, and prepared to pull the trigger. He heard the click of the hammer as he cocked it in place, but one thought entered his mind. In the fight against the large snow monster, had he fired five shots earlier or six? Unlike his Patersons, this revolver had a six-chamber cylinder. Was there still a round in the chamber or would the hammer be hitting a spent percussion cap? Steadying his aim, he hoped for the former while bracing himself or the latter. Mara's life hung in the balance.
He had fired five.
The revolver that would later be known as the Colt Walker would eventually be known as one of the most powerful handguns of its day. The massive revolver, over a foot long and weighing almost five pounds, was known to break the wrists of some of its wielders with its forceful recoil. It fired a .44 caliber lead ball, speeding forth from the handgun's foot-long steel barrel at a speed of over a thousand two-hundred feet per second. A single lead ball fired from the muzzle of this gun is known to deliver 480 foot-pounds of energy, or roughly the equivalent of being hit by a running horse, all concentrated in a tiny area the width of a fingertip.
Even with her magically-augmented senses, the witch never saw it coming. Her entire upper chest exploded in a shower of blood and flesh as the large lead sphere entered the base of her neck and tore through her throat. With a final scream that quickly turned into a gargle, the ice witch slumped to the ground like a marionette with its strings suddenly severed. Her scream seemed to linger for a few seconds in the heavy air, only to be replaced by the sound of nothingness.
It took a few minutes of utter silence for the team to collect themselves, the only sound was the early evening wind now gently whispering in the chamber. Without the threat of further impalement, it was a relatively straightforward task for Iyan to pull himself free from the icicles holding him against the cold chamber wall. Commander Biggs and Deak were already standing over the witch, the bigger man covering the slumped, female form with a loaded crossbow while the other anointed her forehead with something - holy water, maybe. Seems appropriate for the team's preacher-slash-holy man to be making sure the demon-possessed adversary was no threat. Freeing himself of the final spike, Iyan rushed past the two men to the aid of their other comrade.
"Mara?" He asked as he kicked apart the ring of ice spikes that had almost impaled her and instinctively cradled the Scot in his arms. Even without her sword slung across her back, Iyan found her to be surprisingly heavy, much heavier than her toned athletic form suggested. He also found himself staring at her face, softly illuminated in the pale moonlight. She was beautiful in an unconventional way, her lush red curls framing her round face, her puffy cheeks, her pale thin lips stained with the redness of fresh blood. Thin lines of blood streaked down from both corners of her mouth, along with a thicker, darker trickle from her right nostril. For some reason, the blood* accentuated her primal beauty.
"Hey." A few taps on her left cheek and a slight poke on her button-like nose later, the unconscious Scotswoman stirred and slowly opened her eyes. "El...nrr." She slurred.
"Huh?" Iyan gave her a confused smile.
"Melinor," she coughed. "Me real name." Mara gave her compatriot a bloody grin, coughed once more and winced in pain right after. "Hurts ta breathe," she wheezed, taking the American's right hand and placing it below her left breast. "Think ah broke a rib'r two."
Iyan pressed lightly, stopping as he felt something give way, accompanied by a sudden yelp from the spunky young woman. "Feels pretty bad," he said. This would definitely need a few weeks to heal at least. He hoped Reykjavik had good doctors. A sudden flash of inspiration crossed the young man's mind and he looked his injured teammate in her light blue eyes. "Actually, scratch that. Feels pretty damn good," he gave her his biggest grin as he stroked a little bit upwards.
"Yuir an arse!" She slapped his hand off and grinned playfully.
"If you two are finished kutching over each other, we could use some assistance cleaning up," echoed a voice in a thick Irish accent. The two, more senior Weselcrew members were still standing above the witch as Iyan helped Mara onto her feet. The Scots woman shoved her companion away playfully as she braced herself on her five-foot long sword.
The two shuffled their way to the center of the hall where Deak had his left hand on the ice witch's forehead while he held a small, black book in his right. The preacher was reading some sort of incantation from it and there was an eerie glow emanating from the dead woman's chest. Iyan couldn't recognize the language - it sounded archaic, possibly Latin. After a few more lines, the glow concentrated into a small point, which turned out to be a tiny gem the size of a pebble. Iyan looked at Mara with a puzzled look. She gave him the same confused expression. He shook his head at her and shrugged. This was not what he expected when he signed up for this weeks ago. The American felt way in over his head.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the commander, who looked at him with the same, stoic look he always had. "You'll get used to it."
"A job well done, chaps." The tiny, old man exclaimed as Biggs handed him a small, leather pouch. The Duke of Weselton reached upwards and took the brown sack from the soldier. Standing at a grandiose five feet, the elderly noble was a full head and a half shorter than the Captain, and yet commanded an air of respect from the larger man. From the tiny satchel, he drew out a finger-sized bauble wrapped in crumpled brown paper secured by twine. A faint, white glow softly illuminated the noble's deep maroon coat as he took the wrapping off.
The ice crystal looked rather like an insignificant little trinket, a small shard of translucent rock, milky-white and streaked with
"How did the boy do?" The Duke slapped Iyan's back and ruffled his hair. The shortest of the crew, Iyan realized he stood only an inch or two above their patron. It was the duke who had recruited him two months ago for this job, less than a week after arriving in London. If not for that chance encounter, Iyan had no idea what he would be doing or where he would be this very moment. Clearly not in the aftermath of slaying a malevolent magical being.
The commander crossed his arms across his chest and looked down his large, bulbous nose at the young American. "Brash, impulsive, undisciplined and trigger-happy." Iyan wanted to interrupt but the commander continued. "But he gets the job done. Very American. He has potential." Biggs nodded at the duke, who seemed rather pleased with his latest recruit.
The duke looked Iyan close in the eye, the old man's long nose almost poking him in the eye. "Well my boy, you have the job if you want it. Will you be returning to the Americas like you told me before?"
"Yes sir! I mean, no sir!" Iyan stuttered, a sense of pride filling him as he realized he now had the means to stay. The pay the duke had originally promised him was large, large enough for him to consider delaying his return home. There was something about this mission that Iyan never felt before while working as a bounty hunter in the Western Americas. He had a growing feeling that there were more strange things to come if he stayed. And of course...there was Mara.
The duke caught Iyan's gaze and looked at the young Scotswoman standing a dozen meters away, leaning against a brick wall, eyes closed with a serene expression on her face. "And our fine lass?" He turned towards the commander again.
"Brash, impulsive, undisciplined and trigger-happy," Captain Weselbiggs shook his head and re-crossed his arms. "Sir, I-"
"Ah, a fine match then," the duke elbowed Iyan in the ribs. "You two will surely get along!" The elderly noble winked at him before turning to the commander. "Come, we must talk about this sorcery business more. Chop chop!"
Iyan watched the commander and the duke walk away. Deak had gone off earlier, presumably to the local parish or wherever the preacher usually went. Mara was still half-slumped against the wall, seemingly sleeping while standing. Iyan shook his head. He was going to have to get used to being called 'Luke' now. or worse, WeselLuke.
He was going to go over to where Mara was resting when he felt a presence behind him. To Iyan's surprise, it was the second of the two elite crew leaders. Leftenant WeselWedge placed one gloved hand on his shoulder and looked Iyan squarely in the eyes. "You did fine, kid," the normally silent gunman flashed the younger man a lopsided smile. "Welcome to the Weselcrew."