While the wind danced with the torn sails creating a ghostly waltz, the explorers from the Brass Griffin approached on the weathered wooden dock. At first, the wreck looked to be tilted towards her starboard side, where the lines kept her tied to the station. This was only partially correct. She did indeed tilt to starboard, but whatever caused that to happen had slammed her into the dock itself. Wooden railing and deck planks had met the dock and smashed together in an ugly mix of intertwined wreckage. The weight of the ship against the relay station itself kept the two together in a precarious embrace.
At the edge of the damage, Conrad O’Fallon, the quartermaster of the Brass Griffin paused to survey the damage. He gave a low whistle of appreciation. O’Fallon was accustomed to many kinds of destruction, both in causing and receiving it. He tapped a broken spur of a mast that was embedded in the dock with a toe of his boot. A blackened, burnt section of wood fell away into a crumbled heap of soot.
“What is it?” Krumer asked as he walked up. Moira Wycliffe and Dr. Thorias Llwellyn were not far behind. Near Thorias, Arcady, a Clockwork dragonfly, flew in a lazy, circular pattern while he took in the surrounding view.
“She be takin’ quite the beatin’.” O’Fallon remarked in amazement while he stepped around the broken, burnt mast piece and over to a fractured gangplank.
Krumer followed in quartermaster’s footsteps. “That would explain the damage on the port side.”
O’Fallon shrugged. “Only a wee mite. With the docks bein’ so close about, the attacker would be gettin’ as good as they gave. Should be some sign of damage on the other dock we be tied ta.”
“And there was none.” Krumer finished O’Fallon’s explanation. “Curious.” The first mate stopped at the plank that reached from the dock to the ruined ship’s deck. “We’ll cover more ground if we split up. Moira and Thorias, check the crew hammocks below decks. I’ll make my way towards the officers’ cabins. O’Fallon, head for the cargo holds and the ship’s stores.”
“Och, the stores?” O’Fallon asked surprised.
“If they abandoned ship, what they took might give us an idea of where they thought they’d be going.” Krumer explained, then grinned. “Besides, you spend enough time raiding the date bread Ahmed cooks, I assumed you were our resident expert on ship’s stores.”
His cheeks flushed as red as his topknot of hair momentarily before O’Fallon recovered his voice. “Ah, well. We need ta be crackin’. Daylight be a wastin’.” Quickly, the quartermaster navigated the warped boarding plank and stepped onto the tilted deck. Chuckling, the others followed not far behind him.
Once aboard, their laughter fell hollow against the dead air surrounding the wreck, fading off to nothing. The four paused to get their bearings and steel their resolve. None spoke at first, though they exchanged a knowing glance. Each felt the same, as if they had not only stepped into a graveyard, but stepped onto a fresh grave.
“Shout if anyone finds anything.” Were Krumer’s parting words before he turned towards the ship’s stern and the likely place for any officer cabins. Behind him, the others exchanged one more glance and set out on their own tasks.
On most schooners, there was a small meeting or ante-room that connected the officers’ cabins together. Situated below the quarterdeck, there was normally a small door with a short set of stairs that led directly to it. This ship’s design was no different. There, to the left of a set of stairs up to the quarterdeck and ship’s wheel, Krumer found a medium-sized door. The wood was weathered, stained and streaked with some kind of soot. The orc wondered if a fire had ravaged the deck, but found little sign of fire save the burnt masts, some rigging, the sails and this door. Even the stairs next to the door were untouched.
He tried the handle but the door held fast. When the ship had tilted to starboard it must have done so rapidly, and in doing so, warped the frame just enough to hold the door closed. Krumer took a moment to examine the door frame and found two spots where the weatherbeaten door was wedged the tightest. In this case it was just the top right and bottom left corners. He gripped the door handle again then put his weight behind the shove. With a snap, the door popped open, followed immediately by a groan of protest from the wood frame itself.
Inside, the room was the very picture of a disaster. Boxes and papers were strewn from one wall to the other. Chairs were overturned and the sole table in the room had been tossed aside like some child’s forgotten toy. Slowly, Krumer picked his way through the debris in the tilted room, occasionally stopping to lift the odd sheet of parchment or move aside a box in his path. Each time, he found nothing that shed any light on what had happened. On the far side of the room, Krumer reached down, and grasped the edge of the table to lift it back onto its feet. As soon as he did, he noticed the pile that had been hidden beneath it.
“Well, hello there.” He said aloud to himself, the table and the empty room. Beneath the table lay a collection of charts, typically used by the captain or his pilot to map their various routes. Most merchant ships, privateers and the like lived and died by those charts, as they contained information and notes about various trade routes, both lucrative and not. Most merchant marines or privateers would never leave such a valuable collection of paperwork behind.
“But this time, they did.” Krumer said with a quizzical tone. With great care, he lifted the papers off the floor and opened them on the table.
The charts were well kept and covered in numerous route markings and coordinates for various ports in Belgium, France, England and beyond. Two things caught Krumer’s attention among all of that. One was a curious set of coordinates in the margin of the chart that had nothing to indicate what route they belonged to. The other was a set of bloody hand prints that decorated one side of the map. He scanned the map closely and rechecked each marked route. Every one had a set of a corresponding coordinates marked with a letter in the margin. The coordinates in the corner were indeed marked differently. Instead of one letter, they were marked with ‘VPC’ and ‘Stn’. From what he remembered of the Brass Griffin‘s charts, ‘Stn’ corresponded with the location of the High Fens Relay Station. The other, while it seemed familiar, he could not remember where he had seen it recently.
Krumer sorted through the other maps. There were five in all, but nothing on them explained the letters ‘VPC’. Though, on a map of Belgium he paused at a set four areas marked out over the High Fens.
“So is that where you went? Or ideas of where to go? And why leave so quickly?” The orc asked the ship aloud in the silent room. When no answer came to mind, he sighed and rolled the maps together. He would show them to Tonks and Hunter and see if they had any ideas. The first mate turned back to the room and searched for something to store the maps in, such as a map case.
A brief search not far from where the table had been overturned uncovered not only a leather tube just the right size for the maps, but a trio of thin black daggers embedded in the wall at waist level. Krumer withdrew one from the wood. As long as the average person’s hand, it was midnight black, needle thin and razor sharp. If the weight was any judge, the knife was meant for throwing or quick, precise cuts.
“Assassin’s blades,” Krumer commented with a grunt to the dusty air. He turned the black blades over in the half-light and noticed the wet, sticky glint of nearly dried blood. “Recently used as well. But from whom and why?” He sighed. “I trust the others are having better luck than I.”
At that moment, O’Fallon dropped off the last step of the ladder and down into the ship’s forward hold. Weak shafts of light filtered by dark clouds overhead spilled down the ladder. The light tossed long shadows among the scattered crates and canvas bags that were piled against the starboard side of the tilted hold. The quartermaster rubbed a hand against his bald head for a moment in exasperation. He looked around near the ladder until he found what he had hoped to find, a small hooded lantern. It was smaller than a normal lantern by a good three inches all over, had two small knobs just above the brass base and a cap over the lamp oil container. Carefully he opened the small metal cap and saw the dark glint of lamp oil inside. He replaced the cap then adjusted the rope wick with a turn using the first knob. With the second, and it took a few attempts before this worked, he caused the flint to hit a steel striker and cause a spark which lit the oily rope. Then he looked back to the pile of supplies.
“Be no time like the present.” With that, O’Fallon stepped forward and dug into his search. The first few canvas bags of animal feed were largely undamaged, save for several cuts and tears from the rough treatment of being tossed about the hold. The next layer, canvas bags of coffee beans, had torn. Beans had spilled from the bags to cover the crates underneath. O’Fallon carefully brushed aside the coffee beans until he could get what lay below.
When most of the beans were cleared away, he looked at the nearby wooden crates. Out of curiosity he selected the closest one and tried to open the lid. It held fast. He tried the next closest, the the one beyond that. All with the same results. With a sigh, he looked around the dim gloom until his eyes landed upon the long dark metal shape of a crowbar that had rested a few feet from where he stood.
“Aha, that’ll be doin’ nicely.” O’Fallon said, walking over to retrieve the crowbar. He turned back towards the crates, then paused. The side of the nearest crate that faced where the crowbar lay contained a large hole. He eased forward in a crouch, crowbar held tight in his right hand and lantern held high above his head. When he was close enough he slowly reached out to gingerly touch the jagged edges of the wood with his fingertips.
Slowly, cautiously, O’Fallon traced the splintered edges of the crate where they bent out from the force of being attacked. Curious, he stood upright with the lantern held high, then looked as far out as the weak beam of light allowed. At first, all he could see were scattered dark shapes, but those quickly resolved into more crates, rolled-up canvas and piles of netting. More importantly, several more had already been broken like the first. Seven in total. O’Fallon knelt down to examine the crate in front of him more closely.
It was now empty and, as near as he could tell, had been largely empty before it had been broken. Despite the emptiness, two things struck O’Fallon as odd. One was the five-inch wide paw print of a Mountain lion-sized cat in the thin layer of dust not far outside the crate. The other was that the wood had been smashed out away from the crate, not into. He turned slowly to see the trail of cat prints wander away from the hold towards a small door leading to the crew bunks amidship.
Not far away, Moira stopped, put her hands on her hips and looked out the fifteen-foot-wide hole in the port side of the ship. The damage was situated in a short stretch of room just at the foot of the ladder from the main deck above. To one side was the door to amidships where the crew often slept in hammocks and stored their belongings in small lockers. She shook her head slowly.
“That be quite the mess.” She commented.
Thorias walked up with Acrady on his shoulder. The doctor nodded in appreciation of the damage. “I now understand O’Fallon’s comment. If they had been close enough to cause this much damage, they surely would have left a portion of themselves behind also.”
Moira squinted at the burnt wood and bent metal supports twisted into curled shapes. “I can’t be sayin’ for certain but this might be comin’ from the wrong direction.”
Thorias looked surprised. “What’s that?”
“The hole here. Whate’er went an caused it, wasn’t comin’ from outside.” She explained while gingerly touching one of the ruined wood slats that was twisted outward just slightly.
“For what purpose would anyone do this to their own ship?” The doctor said in amazement.
Moira shrugged. “Ta scuttle her I s’pose. Now why they’d be doing such a thing? That I couldn’t begin ta tell ya.”
Thorias gave the hole one more glance and then turned towards the door to the crew quarters. “Well, let’s keep going. If luck’s with us, we’ll learn the why soon enough.” He gripped the handle and pulled, but the door would not move.
“Just a bit stuck. It’s from all the abuse she’s taken.” Moira said while she patted a nearby section of the ship’s hull with a sad smile. “Just need ta give it a good kick.”
“By all means madam, the door is yours.” The doctor said with a slight bow. Arcady, however, had been observing the hole in the bulkhead.
“It was a small barrel of gunpowder. If I measure the powder residue accurately.” The small voice, tinged with a hint of a sharp, artificial accent, commented aloud.
Moira paused just before she launched the flat of her foot into the door. “How can ya tell among that?”
Arcady fluttered his wings idly with a short buzz sound. “Measured the darker powder stains on the walls. It is far too much to be anything smaller.”
Moira and Thorias exchanged a quick glance then Moira kicked the door. With a bang from her boot heel, the door snapped open and swung wide. An odd, strong musty smell wafted out, almost like an invisible cloud.
Beyond the threshold, the room was nearly pitch black. Most amidships did not have any windows or a view. But they often had one or more lamps kept there, just in case. Moira felt around just inside the dark room until her fingers located a lantern. She withdrew it, checked the fuel and adjusted the wick. From a pouch at her belt she removed a small metal tin with a tiny winding key. This she turned three times then pressed a small button, almost flush with the device, which released a bright spark. Twice more and the wick of the lantern took flame. Lifting the lantern up, she made to step inside.
Immediately she stopped in her tracks. Inside the darkened room were rows of hammocks that hung heavily from both the port and starboard sides of the ship. What gave her pause was that nearly all the hammocks were full. Her breath caught in her throat. She did not know why, but something was deadly wrong.
She walked over to the nearest hammock and pressed her fingers to the neck of the nearest sleeping crewman. Her hand came away covered in blood. Moira’s chest was tight and her voice cracked while she turned a wide-eyed stare on Thorias. “Doc, he’s been cut… across the neck. Slice neat a skinnin’ a fish.”
The doctor frowned and rushed forward. Once he had confirmed Moira’s discovery he went to the next hammock to check its occupant. Then the next. Finally he turned towards Moira and Arcady. “So are these my dear. I believe they all are quite dead. They’ve been murdered.”
Moira swallowed hard. “We gotta tell the Cap’n.”