A few hours passed before the Griffin crossed over the edge of the Hohes Venn, which was known in English as the High Fens. It was was a modest-sized area comprised of rich, thick forests and swampy moorland occupying the eastern portion of Belgium. Jim had described it as a rain-swept region, often covered with dark gray clouds stacked high one atop the other. These sat angrily above the fens, drawn into a knotted storm front. Combined with sporadic bursts of chilled winds in between a torrent of rain in summer and deep snow in winter, it was foreboding at best to visit.
Gray mist broke against the prow of the Brass Griffin while the ship cut through the dark clouds above the fens. A light rain washed against the deck and ran down in thin sheets along the ship’s sides. Below, between the ship and the bottom-most layer of clouds, lightning rolled and danced in the gray darkness. Farther down from that, rain fell in torrents onto the moors and forests below.
Hunter walked out of the doorway from the officers’ cabins and adjusted his long coat against the thick mist in the air. With a brief nod of greeting to a passing crew member, he crossed the deck towards the starboard of the vessel where Krumer stood peering into the wall of storm clouds.
“Any sign?” The captain asked curiously.
“Aye. She just came into view.” Krumer pointed to a break in the thunderclouds.
Nestled three miles above ground among the storm clouds and floating amid the wind was the High Fens Relay Station. Four rigid-frame weathered gas bags, each 400 feet in length, held aloft a large platform that was shaped as a wide circle. Off the circle were numerous stubby piers thrust outward like spokes from a wheel. These were the docking areas for visiting airships delivering food or repair materials to the station’s maintenance crews, or for docking space for airships needing a temporary safe haven to wait out a storm or make repairs.
Beyond the docks stood a handful of weather-beaten two-story warehouses, a small building for a dock master and the five story, main building of the relay itself. All of the buildings were wood-framed structures that had lightweight walls of Douglas Fir and sealed plaster. Some were even layered in thin sheets of copper or aluminum for some added protection against hail or bullets. This had obviously been needed at some time in the past, given the few dents in the metal that could be seen even at a distance.
On all the buildings, a dozen or more lightning rods projected upward to occasionally harvest the stray bolt of lightning for the station’s batteries. In the middle of the entire structure stood a collection of four, one-story tall turbines that channeled air through the top and out below the station. This, along with a series of smaller propellers spaced along the underside, helped to steady the entire assemblage.
Hunter squinted at the station, then frowned in thought. “Odd.”
Krumer looked over at the captain. “What is?”
“That.” Hunter pointed towards the station. “These are the correct coordinates?”
“Aye, As correct as I can make them.”
“Where is everyone then?” Hunter asked aloud. “We’re within view, yet we’ve not been challenged as to our purpose here. There should be dock crews at least milling about. I see no one.” Then as an afterthought he added, “Adonia, what have you gotten yourself into?”
Krumer chuckled. “Or what has she done?”
The captain gave his first mate a wry glance. “Indeed.”
Over by the main mast, William dropped a coil of newly repaired rope next to a storage box. “If’n ya ask me, looks as quiet as a tomb.”
“Hm, morose choice of words, William.” Krumer replied.
“Although accurate.” Hunter interjected. “Something’s amiss. William, stow that rope and open the opti-telegraphic. See if anyone is awake over there.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” William quickly finished storing the rope in the wooden box and raced off to the meeting room that adjoined the officer cabins where the opti-telegraphic was stored.
“If there is a soul about, they should reply.” The captain paused a moment then looked up towards the ship’s wheel. “Mr. Tonks.” He said almost casually but firmly.
“Cap’n?” Came the reply from above.
“Bring us around. It would behoove us to check the entire station before jumping to conclusions. It’s not like we can see through the station itself.” Hunter explained.
Tonks inclined his head in a small nod then pulled the wheel to his right. “Aye, Cap’n, comin’ around.”
Only the creak of rigging accompanied the turn, as the Brass Griffin put her port side to the station and caught the fast moving winds above the fens. The crew, overcome with the dark mood of the storm clouds and the stillness of the station nearby, spoke in whispers if they said much at all.
At the crest of the turn, whispers became a low rumble of quiet voices that ran the length of the ship. There, on the far side, an airship listed to its starboard side against one of the many open docks. The ship was a schooner, but a larger one than the Griffin. Instead of the 85 feet of the Brass Griffin‘s length, this was easily 120 feet from end to end. Her prow was more refined, having a clipper shape, able to cut through water and wind more easily than the usual prow of airship schooners. The gas bag was a semi-rigid frame, with the bag pulled out enough to visibly cause a flatter shape, which reduced wind resistance. It was the shape more favored by merchant marines, privateers, pirates and smugglers.
Drawing the most comments were the charred hole that had been blasted in her side and the peppering of black holes in her gas bag. The damage was extensive, but not quite enough to have sent the airship crashing to the ground. Instead, her partially inflated gas bag and the tethers between the ship and the dock had helped keep the craft aloft instead of drifting earthward.
“There’s a soberin’ sight eh, Cap’n?” Tonks asked while he turned the wheel to steady the Griffin from her turn.
“Indeed.” Captain Hunter paused, a dark look obscuring his face momentarily. “I’m liking this less all the time. Tonks?”
“Take her in.” Hunter ordered.
“Aye, Cap’n.” Tonks turned the wheel slightly, then reached for the controls to slowly ease some of the pressure from the gas bag above. “Prepare ta dock!” He shouted. The cry was repeated twice while crew rushed about to help manage the Griffin‘s approach to a berth next to the one with the ruined airship.
Krumer leaned on the railing, his eyes still on the burnt out airship. “Cap’n, is that wise? We don’t know what did that.”
“I know. But William’s yet to return with any news that the station replied to him, and still I see no one moving about the station docks when there should be.” Hunter explained. “So, it seems to me, our only source of information is that wreck and the station itself.”
The orc looked back at the damaged airship while they approached. “Aye, Cap’n. Point taken.”
Carefully, the Griffin eased into the neighboring dock next to the damaged airship. Under normal circumstances, dock hands would be waiting to take the lines tossed over the side of the ship and tie them off to the pier. These were not normal circumstances. William tied himself off with a long rope for a tether, then scrambled over the side and jumped to the dock. Two other crew followed his example and landed beside him a moment after.
With the ship tied off, the gangplank was lowered. A cool gust of wind played among the silent buildings and ruffled the gas bags overhead. Somewhere, deep within the station a lone bird cried out in a dim, mournful cry. The ruined sails and rigging on the damaged airship swayed lazily in the breeze, like tattered ghosts standing watch on deck. In the distance, the deep rumble of thunder shook the air in an ominous undertone. In between, a deafening, dead silence would fall in the intervening moments.
Hunter paused on the dock to look at the over-sized gas bags of the station above him. “Only the airship suffered damage. Nary a scratch upon the station itself.”
Krumer walked up beside Hunter. “We start with the ship then?”
“Indeed. So far it seems the likely candidate for anything fresh, given the distress message only just arrived the other night. Take Moira, Thorias and O’Fallon with you.”
“Is O’Fallon up to it?” Krumer asked, referring to the brutal gunshot wounds O’Fallon suffered some few months back.
“He’s as recovered from his wounds as I am.” Hunter replied. “Even though I daresay his wounds were graver than mine, he’s been about his duties for some weeks now. Thorias gave him a mostly clean bill of health, with a few personal comments about rushing the healing process.”
Krumer laughed, “Which means according to any average doctor, O’Fallon’s fine. Consider it done.”
“Very good. Oh and Krumer?”
The orc paused in mid-walk. “Aye, Cap’n?”
“Mind yourself. Whatever caused that,” Hunter pointed to the gaping, burnt hole torn into the side of the other schooner, “is not someone or something to trifle with.”
“We’ll be watchful, Anthony. Spirits willing.”