Every dune separated Staever from his raft for an instant and left a new knot in his gut. He jerked the left rein. The crab pivoted around a sand mogul, accelerating towards the wreck.
The two guards came to their senses to see their ship lying on its side. Sharing a quick look–raiders!–they ran for cover behind the upturned deck.
Staever spun out onto the road. He and Wrest pulled their sleds to a stop, as close to the dug-in glass-hauler as their moment of surprise allowed.
“They’re armed!” Wrest severed his reins with a swipe of his claw. Staever followed suit, and they threw up the wooden slabs as shields, punching their steeds away from the fight.
Staever didn’t need to ask why Wrest had cut sled. He’d seen it too while running the dunes: the two guards had a pile of red clay in their cabin. Staever had a sword made of nautilus shell, but the guards firing at range rendered it useless.
Fifteen paces separated them from their quarry. Staever pressed toward it, sled raised, with Wrest close beside.
The first bombs struck Wrest. The big lobster thrust his shield forward to direct any detonations away from his skeleton. The guards scraped clay from the pile and struck it alight, pelting the shields, threatening to burn through the cooling mud and blast holes in the thieves.
Staever called over his shoulder at Arcite. “Got anything useful?”
“Nothing without an equal or greater chance of killing you.” Arcite vaulted from his ledge into the road well behind Staever and Wrest.
Staever glared. “You do. Remember? That thing?”
“Oh. Oh!” A grin spread across Arcite’s face. “Oi!” he shouted to the guards, who didn’t respond, talking hurriedly to each other instead–complaining their bombs weren’t burning quickly enough.
“Pray to the sea.” Arcite inched closer to Staever’s shield, a claw in his satchel, talking toward the wreck. “I’ll send you there in about three seconds.”
One of the pilots finally looked up. “You’re bluffing. That sack’s empty.”
“Empty to an empty mind,” Arcite replied with a flourish, “but…”
Staever rolled his eyes. So did the guard. “Kill them.”
A scream cut him off. Wrest had used Arcite’s distraction to hurtle at the other pilot, who in his fear lopped half the pile of red clay off in one slice. He lit it in the fumes from the yellow-clay engine and, wincing against the heat of the flames, heaved it over his fortress toward the thieves.
The hasty shot missed Wrest’s shield and splattered Staever’s, still burning.
“Staever!” Wrest swiveled to see the fireball stuck to his friend’s sled. “What in sea’s name are you doing?”
“Wrest, get over here! Help me lift this.”
Wrest looked from the ship to Staever to the ship again, torn. “It’s about to go off!”
“There’s time,” Arcite whispered.
“There’s time!” Staever cried. “Get underneath it, now!”
While the senior guard berated the younger, Wrest flitted toward Staever and wedged his claws beneath the overturned sled.
“Force on three. Ready?” They nodded to each other. “One, two, three!”
The guards stopped arguing and looked on in terror as the bomb hurtled back at them, stuck to the bottom of a crab-sled. The other bombs had scoured enough mud to let the big one burn. In mid-air, still aflame, it finally gained enough heat to explode.
The blast threw the two pilots off their feet once again. The elder dropped where he stood, while the younger bounced and sprawled in the road, both unconscious.
Staever and Wrest locked eyes for a moment, then burst into cheers and laughter, striking their claws together. Staever signaled Emaria, who hurried to them.
Arriving, Emaria was the first to notice the blast had torn the roof off the vessel’s cabin. A shape stirred within. Emaria raised her own weapon, a dagger made of seashell that hadn’t left her claw since sunrise.
“Everyone,” she said, “stay armed, they aren’t finished.”
A lobster clambered out of the wreckage and leapt over the ship’s hull. He landed in front of the Cuttlefish, swinging bare-clawed as Staever tried to draw his sword.
Staever came back to awareness on his back, without knowing how he’d gotten there or why he hurt so badly. Emaria flashed her glass disc up the side of the road. “Eventhe, we need you!”