A team of twenty men followed a grizzled man in a simple coat towards the wreckage. While their garments all bore the flag symbol his was undecorated. He kept a crossbow ready and bore a belt adorned with special tools that gleamed in the afternoon sun. They thought him paranoid to bring them with the afternoon sun unobscured, but the hunter refused to part with them.
When they reached the companions snowprints, he proceeded carefully and ordered the men to keep their rifles ready. He took them through the eastern foliage following the trail until the tracks were dusted in a clearing. He examined the area and noted the passage of the large horse creature. Despite valiant attempts to cover their passing nothing could completely hide evidence of the heavy equine nor the branches that had broken from its passing. “We will not be rescuing them after all, comrades. Surrender is not their intention, yet.”
Once atop the same mound the trail could be seen clearly. Snow impeded their progression, but they found the alcove and their path north to the forested area. There was an obvious trail to follow until the edge of the trees where the trail split into five different paths.
The hunter kept his crossbow ready as he inspected the trails up to the treeline. “They are desperate and making mistakes.” He kicked snow over three of the false marks quickly. “The numbness will eat at them slowly. The fight to live gives them strength. They shall be most dangerous, but weak soon enough.”
He turned to eight of the youngest men in turn, “Tenderfoots. Split into four and follow the paths. Ferret them with bullets, though save the ones meant for the beasts unless necessary. Even if you do not see them fire into trees. They are separated and will be unaware you are not killing their friends. Fill them with fear. Fear wastes energy and lessens bravado.”
The men nodded, despite being called tenderfoots, and began their pursuit. After their departure he led the more experienced soldiers back to the city. Without transportation they could not escape and a fire would draw immediate attention. Violently, quietly, deceased, or in surrender their expected guests would come to the city.
The companions split into two teams to make their way inland. Bookworm sent Dr. Falcon with Beryl, Tepic, and Loki who would hide their passage. Mariah, Yang, and Wright followed her lead crouching when they heard the gunshots in the distance.
“No!” Bookworm moved towards the attack, but Mariah obstructed her with arms wide, “There’s nothing you can do for them now! You will have to trust them, or avenge them later!”
Gunshots nearby forced the group to duck, the captain’s concern had betrayed their location. Wright raised one of his dry pistols as his heavy breath floated on the wind, the water on his clothes and fur turning to ice. He had been near shore so falling through the ice had only come to his stomach. He could still use the weapons in his chest holsters, but most of his firearms needed to be serviced. Yang saw Wright and the women preparing their guns, and looked down at his cumbersome knife feeling woefully outmatched.
Tracking the equine had been easy despite attempts to mislead them and traps along the way. They opened fire the first time they saw a retreating fox tail between the trees. Some shot above their heads to herd them, but others aimed right for the boys.
Before they could unleash a third volley the dark horse charged at them from the brush. She brushed two of the surprised men aside and knocked them flat. The other two panicked and forgot the fiend was a clockwork and opened fire. Their bullets failed to strike vital systems and fell to the ground uselessly.
Avariel reared up, kicking them back with the others. Their weapons littered at her feet she stomped on their guns, crushing them underhoof. One of the men reached for a pistol, but Beryl’s rapier came to rest near their neck. The boy with the fox tail emerged testing the edge of his bill hook.
“We’re having an extremely bad day at the moment. We need to borrow your coats,” Beryl said looking their captives in the eye. Tepic grinned with almost a wicked malevolence as he examined the flags. He wanted more than their coats.
“There aren’t any Moreau in our organization,” He said with unmasked derision. “Aberrations won’t be able to sneak inside wearing them.”
“I…had not even considered that,” Beryl said as they pressed the blade closer to the young man’s skin. “Your coat just looks dry.”
Wright and Bookworm provided cover fire while Mariah attempted to flank their adversaries. Yang had taken to a tree and climbed away, the sushi chef unprepared for the firefight. As Wright reloaded his pistol he looked at Bookworm miserably. A branch shattered into splinters above her head and she braced herself as bark pelted her.
Wright returned fire and from his wolfish grin it appeared he had hit his target. He ducked back as the last two continued to fire.
“Shoulda taken more n’ their coats and weapons,” Tepic grumbled as he tugged the uniform around him, he’d had to cut it in half and use it as a thick blanket, but it still had the previous owners warmth. “Woulda made a lovely start ter a fire. Interestin’ equipment they had though.”
“A fire would tell everyone where we are,” Beryl followed Avariel who pranced ahead of them confidently. “We wouldn’t have time to dry before they were on us.”
“Oi, is we ‘eaded the righ’ way?” Loki asked as Avariel had led them to the edge of the forest facing the city wall. Avariel admitted that she should have asked Yang for directions before they broke into teams. With an audible sigh, Beryl and Tepic took over as they tried to find the others.
Yang did not consider himself a violent man, but he was afraid and these men were trying to kill him and his friends. He wanted to flee, but the shame would have eaten away any self-respect he ever possessed. Jumping between branches had never terrified him before, but if the armed men saw him that would be the end of Yang Moreau.
The private was easy to locate from his position, though getting to them would be more difficult. He gave his target a wide berth and got behind him. Yang’s heart jumped every time snow fell from the tree giving his movements away, but the gunfight absorbed their attention. He put the maguro, the tuna knife, between his teeth and lowered himself to the ground quietly.
When the young man stopped to reload, Yang leapt off the tree and landed close to the man. The shocked tenderfoot stood, reaching for the pistol at his side. Yang swung the maguro striking with the back of the blade, catching his enemy in the side and breaking one of his ribs. He buckled in pain and Yang stepped back, breathing heavily as he pointed the four foot chef knife at his prisoner.
He was unsure what to do with the incapacitated soldier. Though Yang had defended himself from wicked creatures in the past he had not prepared for this. Nearby movement forced him back to the moment and turned to the approaching figures, recognizing his three friends. When he realized the assault had ended he dropped the maguro with relief.
Mr. Wright distanced himself and searched a less fortunate private. The ice on the wolfs clothing made it stiff and awkward as he rummaged through the supplies. Mariah appraised Yang’s handiwork for a moment with appreciation for his unexpected help, “Good work, Mr. Moreau, we have one survivor to question now.” Her tone implied she had left none herself.
Bookworm wanted answers desperately, but they could not stay here to interrogate him, “Shelter is more important than answers and we can’t risk taking him with us. We have to move before more of them arrive. Besides, I don’t think he could talk afte-”
Wright let out a surprised yelp as he dropped the contents from an ammo box. Silver bullets fell into the snow with a slight smoke rising from where they had touched his paw. He stared at them, his mind filling with horrid possibilities to why these men would have been carrying bullets like these. Did they know? Were these intended for him or something else?
He kept his dark thoughts to himself as Bookworm and the others came to him wanting to know what had happened. With Yang and Mariah looking on he considered his story carefully as he cradled his hand, “It’s…just the cold ma’am. Think it might be frostbite.”
“Beryl was right, we need to get inside quickly,” Bookworm turned to Yang with renewed urgency. “Which way to the entrance?”
Four young men shivered as they crossed their arms and went running into the city in their undergarments. Most of their comrades laughed at their humiliation, but a woman in a red coat with black fur was not smiling. She turned towards three men standing far behind her, “I don’t see what is funny about failure. You should execute them as an example.”
The bearded man with the extravagant coat watched the procession with amusement, “Good thing we are not taking disciplinary orders from you then, n’est pas? I have woken up wearing less thanks to the green fairy.”
“They did not fail their mission,” the grizzled hunter stated while inspecting the parade with crossed arms. “I sent tenderfoots out to ferret them and waste their energy. They will attempt to enter the city or make camp which needs a fire to survive. Most have wasted all their fight on men who have never truly seen death. That is when we will hunt them.”
“Dr. Harteschlägel, interrogate the men and find out what happened.” The stern man grinned malignantly. The woman half smiled as she adjusted her glasses, “I am going to contact Aquila IX and put in a special order for Dr. Falcon and her friends.”