In a panic, Raquel once again took hold of the plummeting airship, placing a giant hand on either side. Thick, tree-trunk fingers dug into the metal, forming deep grooves and gashes in the hull of the craft. Mighty muscles strained and the towering redhead gritted her teeth in determination. She feared it wouldn't be enough. The Dauntless was the finest and largest of the ships in Emperor Durant's fleet. As such, the massive craft was nearly as big as Raquel was. There was simply no way she could hold it aloft for very long.
“Raquel, what are you doing?!” Pixis shouted from her shoulder. Durant lay nearby, clinging tightly to the edge of the giantess' collar for fear of falling. The surviving orcs and soldiers were already making their way down her body towards the blessed ground they had not realized they missed so dearly.
“Djoland told you to let go!” the elf yelled at his giant-sized sweetheart.
“I can't!” she shrieked. “The cockpit just exploded, Pix! The pilot's dead! This thing is going to crash!”
“It's too big, Raqqy!” Pixis insisted. “It'll take you down with it!”
“No,” she said. “I can do this, I can--”
The red-haired beauty looked up to see Djoland standing in one of the ship's open hatchways. He held tight to the metal wall as the ship lurched and went nearly vertical but the orc remained stoic and calm.
“I can hold it, Djoland! I swear, I--”
“Let go, Raquel,” the orc warrior said. Behind him, Lee, Kane, and Hayden were regaining their footing in the tumbling airship and aiming their weapons for Djoland. “This is my battle,” Djoland told her. “I'll finish it, one way or the other.”
“Not on your life, greenie,” said the giantess. “We can't leave you.”
The orc drew his pistols and aimed them square at Raquel's fingers as they dug ever deeper into the hull of the ship. “Yes,” he told her. “You can.”
With a sharp bang and a flash of smoke, Djoland fired at Raquel's knuckles. The tiny weapons wouldn't do much damage to the towering giant, but at point blank range, the bullets stung. Instinctively, Raquel pulled her hand away in pain. As soon as her grip loosened, the Dauntless slipped from her grasp and began careening wildly away, flying over the city in an aimless arc.
The bounty hunters stumbled over each other and collapsed in a heap as the ship lurched. Lee picked himself up from the pile of bodies and smiled wryly.
“Very noble, orc,” he said. “Finally accepted your fate, have you? Ready to pay the piper?”
Djoland cocked his pistols and took a step forward. “Not at all. I plan to kill every last one of you, if I have to.”
“Sounds like a plan to me, lad,” Lord Kroth added, stepping from the shadows to take his place beside Djoland.
“Kroth?” The younger orc was astonished. “What are you doing here? Thought you evacuated with the rest of the army.”
“And let these pink monkeys get away after what they tried to pull?” Kroth snarled. “Not a chance. No one double crosses Kroth! Make no mistake, Djoland, you and I still have unfinished business. But I've other fish to fry just now.”
“Well, isn't this a touching scene?” Lee chuckled, aiming his weapon at the two orcs. “Saves me having to kill you later, Kroth.”
Standing unsteadily, Hayden tried to get Lee to lower his gun. “Boss, what are you doing? I thought the plan was to work with Kroth and his orcs. But then you turn around and announce we're going to kill them all?”
“We don't need them, Hayden! We have the Dauntless!”
The ship lurched again, causing the whole group to stumble wildly and fight to stay standing.
“We don't have shit, Lee!” Kane spat through his metal face plate. “This tub is falling fast! If you'd just gone along with Hayden's plan, kept the orcs on our side--”
Lee whirled about to face his masked partner. “I only went along with that idiotic plan because they could get us into the city and – presumably – take out the giantess.” He turned back to Kroth and sneered. “But you couldn't even do that right, could you? Typical, useless, pea-brained orcs! I'm sick of the sight of you. And I've no intention of sharing my kill with you. I want my prize.”
“Prize?” Djoland said.
“King Gunther's paying us good money for your death, Djoland.”
“That's why you've been bloody chasing me all this time?”
“That's just icing,” Lee told him. “Believe me, gutting you will be a pleasure. You took my eye. Kane's face. Hayden's limbs. But more than that, you took our pride. Humiliated us. And I will see you die for it. You and the rest of your ugly, maggot-ridden, pathetic excuse for a species.”
“Right,” Kroth growled. “That's it!” With a savage roar, the orc lord launched himself at the bounty hunters, fangs bared and claws at the ready. Startled but prepared for battle, Djoland followed close behind him. A crazed look was in Kroth's beady red eyes and he seemed ready to rip out Lee's throat. Unfazed, Lee trained his gun on the advancing orc and fired.
“No!” With lightning speed, Djoland flung himself between Lee and his former chieftain. With a sickening soft, wet sound, the bullet embedded itself in his side. Djoland's eyes went wide and he stumbled like a punch drunk boxer. Kroth stared at his unlikely savior, gobsmacked. Even Lee and the others seemed taken aback by this development. Half delirious with pain, Djoland managed a backhand swipe with his claw, knocking the pistol from Lee's hand.
“N...no guns,” the orc declared, throwing his own pistols to the side. “Face me...man to man.”
“I would,” Lee announced, “if you were a man. As it stands, beasts like you simply need to be put down.”
Reaching behind his back, Lee pulled a long, shimmering dagger from his belt and swiped at the orc wildly. He howled with rage and defiance, like a cornered hunter fighting back a tiger. Djoland backed away, dodging each thrust as best he could. With a free hand, he put pressure on the bullet wound in his abdomen but could not stop the rush of blood.
With a derisive grunt, Kane and Hayden left Lee to whatever fate awaited him. The bounty killers had lost faith in their commander and the whole foolhardy mission. They were ready to scrap the entire thing. Oh, they wanted Djoland dead, no doubt of that. But they weren't willing to go down with the ship to do it. Anxiously, they searched the halls of the Dauntless for an escape pod or a stash of parachutes. But by then, a fire had begun to spread through the corridors and debris from the explosion obscured their path.
As for Kroth, the old warrior held back, watching Djoland and Lee's death match with fascination. He wasn't truly sure whose side he was on anymore.
At last, the wound in Djoland's side began to get the best of him and his strength failed. As Lee swung the dagger one more time, the orc was a fraction of a second too slow. Instinctively, he held up a hand to defend himself – and the deadly blade sliced it clean off.
Djoland howled as a fountain of blood spurted from the stump of his hand. Overwhelmed by the pain, he collapsed onto the floor.
“Now we end this, orc,” Lee said with a smile. He raised the dagger high and prepared to thrust it into his opponent's chest.
Moments later, the ship rumbled violently as it collided with a bell tower on its wild descent. The Dauntless smashed through the upper level of the structure, sending bricks, masonry, and a shattered bell to rain down on the city. Lee was thrown clear across the room by the impact.
“No, no, no!!!!” he bellowed, as he slammed against the far wall. He winced and tried to get back on his feet. “I'm so close! I had him, I had him!”
Kroth rushed to Djoland, wrapping an arm about his shoulder and helping him to his feet. Blood continued to gush from his wounds, staining Kroth's tunic a deep red. “C'mon, lad,” the chieftain said. “We're leavin'.”
“T-too late,” Djoland muttered. “Nowh—nowhere to go.”
“Codswallop,” Kroth told him. “What's the first thing I ever taught you?” He turned slightly to reveal one of the ship's last remaining parachutes strapped to his back.
“Always have an escape route.”
Djoland was astonished. “Wh-where did—”
“I grabbed it the moment I got on this bird,” Kroth said proudly. Using his teeth, he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and began to wrap it about Djoland's bleeding arm. “The rest have probably burnt up by now so we'll have to share.”
“You saved my life, boy,” Kroth told him. “I intend to square my debts.” Dragging Djoland to the open hatchway, Kroth held tight to him and flung them both out into open air.
Lee watched them disappear, screaming in rage. He looked up as Hayden and Kane returned to the main chamber.
“They're getting away, damn it! Where are the parachutes?!”
“They're gone, Lee,” Hayden said. “Burnt to a crisp or lost with the section of the ship that collision just claimed.”
“Damn it,” Kane shouted, slamming a fist against the wall. “What do we do now?”
Lee looked towards the open hatch where the orcs had vanished. Hate burned in his remaining good eye as the gravity of the situation became clear. He climbed back to his feet, dusted rubble from his coat, and let his anger melt into an unsettling calm.
“We die, Kane,” he said. “We just die.”
The flaming, broken airship crested the city wall, taking out a guard tower as it fell. Moments later, the Dauntless slammed into a hillside and exploded in a massive fireball.
Debris was flung in all directions and descended on the city and the surrounding countryside, a snowfall of ash and metal. A burning, half-melted rotor flew past Kroth as he glided downward in his parachute, Djoland held tight in his grasp. Soon, the cloth of the parachute had been set ablaze and the two orcs plummeted like stones.
Kroth growled at the approaching ground as if it were a final opponent to be met on the field of battle. Defiant to the end, he readied himself for impact.
But instead, the orcs landed with a plop on a soft, cushion-like surface, well before reaching the earth. Long, slender fingers curled around them protectively as Raquel held them fast in her hand.
Before passing out in shock and exhaustion, Djoland gazed down at the city streets. Semi-obscured by Raquel's shadow and scurrying carefully around her boot-clad feet, Tillinghast's soldiers and Kroth's orcs were rallying against the remaining cutthroats in Lee's army.
It was over.
* * * *
Hours later, Djoland came to in an elegant bed of linens and silk. His orcish instincts recoiled at such finery and he gave a sudden start. He was far more used to sleeping on roots and underbrush or the murk of a bog or sewer. Looking around him, he saw King Tillinghast at the foot of the bed, surrounded by Pixis, Claude, Durant, and Lord Kroth. Raquel stood at the window, her huge violet eye and wall of cheekbone blocking the remaining daylight.
“There's the lad,” Durant laughed. “Thought we'd lost you, boy.” Djoland looked down at his body and saw that his wounds were dressed and bandaged. He felt overpoweringly weak and wracked with pain in his side and his arm. But he was still alive.
“The invasion has ended,” Rupert Tillinghast said. “Master Kroth here has agreed to a truce and withdrawn his forces from the city.”
“Damnedest thing,” Claude added. “One moment, we're fighting the orcs and the next, they've turned around and taken our side against the mercenaries. Bloody weirdest battle I've ever fought in. I understand you and Raquel had something to do with that, Djoland.”
Behind him, the giantess blushed slightly and the others could practically feel her body heat emanating into the room.
Djoland looked up at Kroth who had a strange, almost beaming smile full of jagged teeth and tusks. It was a bit unsettling. “You stayed,” he said, quietly.
“Aye,” Kroth agreed. “Wanted to see if you'd pull through. The feud is done, Djoland. All these months I've hated and hunted you – and you still took a bullet for me. Ya done right by me, lad. Oh, you're still a deserter and a yellow-bellied, limp-wristed peacenik who ain't got the stones for this orc's army. But under the circumstances...I think we can let that slide just once.”
“But...what about the indulgence?” Djoland asked.
Kroth chuckled and drew something from his backpack. In his claw was Djoland's severed hand.
“Managed to grab a souvenir before the Dauntless went down,” the chieftain said. “I'll tell the high priests ya went up in flames and this is all that's left of ya. They'll give me that indulgence and me rightful place in the next world, by thunder. Or I'll have those pious old fools mounted on pikes by suppertime.”
Djoland laughed and immediately regretted it as pain shot up his side.
“Hey, orc,” Pixis called, arms folded across his chest. Djoland braced himself for another verbal jab from the elf.
“You did all right,” said Pixis. He looked away uncomfortably, still a bit too proud to meet Djoland's gaze.
“He certainly did,” Tillinghast agreed. “You helped save my city, Djoland. Now get some rest. That open farmland is still available if you want it once you've recovered. I'd say you've more than earned it.”
“Hear that, Djoland?” Raquel asked, her voice reverberating through the room. “Not bad for someone who was almost my appetizer a few days ago.”
“Yeah,” the orc said, laying his head back and preparing to sleep. “Not bad at all.”