Whitehorse scrambled to finish the knot while Hunter shoved the barrel onto its side.
O’Fallon nodded. “Luck, Cap’n.”
“I may need it,” Hunter replied, then charged the drake, rolling the barrel rapidly across the deck.
A few yards away, the flying reptile, unaware of the pending danger, snapped its jaws at two of the crew brandishing harpoons. The drake bit down once, then twice at the nimble figures. However, this only earned the beast a sharp rap on the side of the head as one of the crew managed to use his harpoon like a club. With a roar, the reptile jerked its head away from harm, then batted the crewmen with a massive paw. The two men were hurled across the deck like toys.
Anthony was only a few feet away when the beast heard the rumble of the barrel. It sensed danger, and lashed out at the captain. Too close to the drake to change direction, Captain Hunter vanished from sight beneath the its claws.
“Cap’n!” O’Fallon yelled, jerking his rifle up to his shoulder. The quartermaster took quick aim, but hesitated when the Captain reappeared again, flying up off the deck as the drake yanked at the rope attached to Anthony! O’Fallon kept the iron sights of the rifle square on the barrel, but again hesitated.
Anthony crashed into the drake’s side. Immediately, the reptile snatched him up in a massive paw. The rope securing Captain Hunter to the mast went rigid, then started to fray. At the other end, Krumer braced his feet against the rough wooden mast; his teeth were bared in a determined snarl, his arms flexing while he strained to prevent the rope from slipping free of the mast.
“O’Fallon! Shoot!” Hunter yelled over the storm. The captain winced as a searing pain burned along his left side and arm when the drake flexed its paw. At the beast’s feet, the barrel and its volatile contents lumbered back and forth in time to the rocking motion of the Brass Griffin.
“Cap’n, ye’ll get caught when she blows!” Conrad yelled back.
“Damn it, man! Fire!” Anthony snapped.
“Shoot, O’Fallon! Now!” Whitehorse added with a roar.
Reflexively, the quartermaster shouldered the rifle and squeezed the trigger. His shot struck home, ricocheting off the large connector of the insulated barrel. Startled, the drake spat a burst of hot red lightning at the barrel, overcharging two Tesla coils and canisters of zinc and copper sulphate.
The blast engulfed the barrel, drowning it in a torrent of primal energy. At first, nothing happened, other than the wooden skin of the container immediately turning a scorched black. The barrel split apart in a blinding explosion, unable to house the wash of power and heat that rapidly built up inside. As flash and sound subsided, both the drake and Captain Anthony Hunter had completely vanished. Where they had been, a hole was gouged out of the deck plates, and the section of railing behind was completely missing. For a moment – the space of two heartbeats – the main deck was deathly calm. All that could be heard was the rain pounding out a rhythmic, almost staccato, sound like the tapping of a telegraph key. The Griffin seemed to moan sullenly, as if in pain.
“Check the netting!” Mr. Whitehorse ordered, pointing to the ruined steel mesh that hung loose from the ship’s starboard side.
Those not stunned either ran for the rail to reel in the battered mesh or helped those who suffered the direct impact of the blast to regain their senses. Krumer and O’Fallon looked over the railing at the rolling storm clouds, searching for any sign of Captain Hunter or the drake. William quickly scaled the rigging to one of the lookout’s stands attached to the gas bag’s frame, high above. All around the vessel, the clouds boiled and churned like thick, curdled milk that had been turned a sickly gray. Eyes scanned the storm, but there was no sign of the flying reptile or the captain.
“Damn it all! Krumer, dae ya think there be a chance?” O’Fallon asked quickly.
Krumer closed his eyes for a moment and sighed deeply. “There’s always that, however slim it may be. Mr. Wilkerson! Come about! Lay us into that cloudbank, four degrees down!”
A shout returned from the pilot’s wheel, “Aye, Sirrah!” With another groan of taxed wood and metal, the Griffin’s trim sails tilted, and the vessel bow nosed down at an angle. The thick bottom layer of thunderclouds loomed ahead of the ship.
O’Fallon gave the first mate a concerned look. “How long dae we look?”
“We’ll look as long as we’re able,” Krumer replied, a tired sound to his voice. “Spirits willing, we’ll find him. Captain Hunter never leaves crew if he can help it, and neither will we.”
“If there’s anything tae be findin’,” Conrad added.
“We’ll find him,” Krumer said with a heavy sigh, then wiped rain and damp dreadlocks from his face. The orc stared off into the boiling gray sky, his own thoughts mirroring the view. He knew from long association that Anthony Hunter was a rather stubborn man, especially with regards to his potential demise. The first mate recalled when Anthony had faced off against another lightning drake in defense of the Griffin and some of her crew. By the time the drake had been driven off, despite all appearances at having been crushed under the animal’s claws, Captain Hunter had instead only lost his hand. Something deep inside Krumer whispered to him that this time would be no different. Hunter would find a way.
“Spirits willing,” Krumer said again, “we’ll find him.”