Captain Hunter walked out of the ruined room that adjoined the officer’s quarters, returning to the main deck of the Fair Winds. All around, the ever-present smoke clung to the ship’s rigging like a greedy wraith, as if waiting for the right moment to drop on the unwary. The morning sun was well above the horizon now, stubbornly burning away any fog loitering on deck, darting about like ghosts seeking shelter from the sunrise.
The captain looked around at the devastation, his frown deepening. The wooden planks were blood-splattered, burnt and gouged. That the ship survived at all was a small miracle of engineering. His eyes picked their way across the deck, towards the small moorings on the far side, where the usual restraining lines for a longskiff hung loose in the breeze. He made a mental note of that, then continued to visually scour his surroundings for any more details.
Moira poked her head out of the doorway. “Cap’n? Yer not wantin’ the other officers’ bunks checked?” She asked.
Anthony tore his mind away from the ugly scene, glancing over his shoulder. “Hm? Oh, yes. Yes, I do, Moira. I just needed to collect my thoughts a moment.”
The lady blacksmith shrugged. “I’ll get to ’em. Yer busy figurin’ out how we’re rescuin’ Angela and the others,” she said brightly, quickly pulling her brownish-red hair back into a neat braid, then vanishing back inside.
“That I am,” Hunter said thoughtfully, with a small sigh, “even if it’s only a guess.”
Conrad O’Fallon, the Brass Griffin’s quartermaster, walked out of the dark room, moments after Moira had left. Wiping sweat from his bald head, he joined Hunter on deck. “She be off searchin’ like a madwoman, tossin’ things all about. Best Ah’d be out here.”
The captain smirked, “Likely safer.”
“So, just how do we be goin’ about findin’ the trail of an airship, with a good hour’s head start, off across the North Sea?” Conrad asked curiously, folding his arms over his chest.
“We head for where they’re bound,” the captain replied, “although, naturally, the trick in practice is to find the correct port.”
Hunter gestured at the loose mooring lines on the far side of the deck. “The longskiffs are gone, so we can hazard a guess that all this took place, then the attackers …”
“Pirates, Cap’n,” O’Fallon interrupted. “Ah know what ye said before, but it’d be quicker to call it as it looks.” The Scotsman waved a hand around at the dead bodies. “Crew killed, passengers missin’? Looks like a bunch of pirates doin’ a slave run. Leastwise, be lookin’ like that to me.”
Anthony’s mouth turned into an hard flat line. “For lack of a better word, it’ll do,” he replied uncomfortably. “Though, even if I’m hard pressed to admit it, you’ve got a fair point.” The captain took a deep breath, starting again, “So, the ‘pirates’ hit the Fair Winds, kill her crew, presumably raid her stores, and make away with some or all of the passengers.”
The quartermaster nodded once in agreement, “all in under a wee hour, with time to get gone ‘afore we arrive. Efficient.”
“Too bloody damn efficient,” Hunter replied with a sour tone. “Something doesn’t fit here. I just can’t put my finger on it yet.”
The pair spun around as a sharp yell came from the officer cabins. Before they could move, Moira came running out. In her hands lay the broken clockwork and leather body of a damaged owl servitor. The lady blacksmith had a grin of triumph as she waved the ruined machine at the two men.
“Found it!” She said exuberantly, “somebody tossed it into a corner. I got the windin’ key and mainsprings in my pouch. Give me a little time, and I can be makin’ this little bird sing again, Cap’n.”
Conrad looked the device over. The owl was ten inches long, with a wide wingspan of over thirty inches. Brass plates were riveted at the joints, backed by a soft gray leather that served as the machine’s ‘skin’. A healthy set of plumage had been painstaking attached to the outside of the machine, giving it a more natural appearance. That is if the presence of metal plates riveted to the hollow metal skeleton at the shoulders, legs and on the feet were in any way ‘natural’.
Unlike the typical owl servitor, this one had wires and bent springs protruding from holes torn in the leather skin and ripped metal plates. It looked the farthest anyone could get from ‘functional’.
The quartermaster gave Captain Hunter a dubious glance. “Cap’n, last time Ah ever be seein’ a servitor torn this bad was when one got itself accidentally shot up by artillery. But, it could be holdin’ the ship’s logs, or even what it saw durin’ the attack.”
He gingerly lifted a framed wing, partially devoid of feathers, that had been twisted in a painful-looking right angle. A parallel set of marks were scored into the metal. “Looks like somethin’ took out after the wee thing with a set of claws.”
“Angela, ya think?” Moira offered. “When she’s got the wolf upon her, she can do some awful damage with her claws.”
Hunter lifted one of the shredded strips of leather for a moment, then let it fall back. “Possibly. Despite being a young werewolf, you’re quite right, she is very strong. Especially when she’s set her mind to a task at hand. But why would she bother? Moira, how long till you could get something useful from the servitor?”
Moira turned the disemboweled metal bird over in her hands, considering the damage. “Oh, half-hour maybe. Won’t fly, but it might could speak.”
“Make it fifteen minutes, and I’ll seriously consider that large cargo haul to Boston in the Americas, along with some of that down time you’ve been after me about,” Hunter replied with a faint smirk.
The young woman’s features lit with excitement, “Really? I’m on it, Cap’n!” Moira raced off across the deck, machinery in hand, heading for the first place she could cross over to her workshop aboard the Brass Griffin.
O’Fallon and Hunter both chuckled. The captain grinned at Moira’s retreating figure. “She’s been eager to see Boston. Always has since she’s been aboard.”
“Ah remember once she be sayin’ that it’s the ‘height of culture and art’,” O’Fallon folded his arms over his chest. “Probably hopin’ to get to wear that fancy dress she keeps stashed away. Probably off to be seein’ the theater.”
Hunter looked at O’Fallon in surprise, “Moira?” The captain looked back towards where Moira left. “Hm, really? Well, the shipping to Boston is quite lucrative right now, and while we’re there, she could get a recording of a performance or something.” Hunters words faded as he snapped his fingers at the flash of inspiration. “A recording … of course.”
“Eh?” O’Fallon asked, “Ah don’t follow.”
“The ship’s opti,” Hunter explained. “It’s a quite a long shot, but if they saw the pirates coming, they may have tried to contact them.”
The quartermaster nodded, “And if they answered, we’d be gettin’ their opti series number, which could lead us right to ’em, or nearly so.”
“Exactly,” Hunter replied.
“Lot of ‘ifs’ there, Cap’n,” O’Fallon said dubiously, “even if that be only two of ’em. They’re a might large.”
“It’s a good place to start, though,” Hunter replied.
“I think you’ll want these, then, Captain,” Krumer Whitehorse said, his deep voice echoing through the smoke. From the ladder to below decks, Krumer emerged holding a pair of black, wax-coated cylinders in his right hand.
“Lucas found them below,” the first mate explained while walking over to Conrad and Captain Hunter. “Someone moved the ship’s opti-telegraphic below-decks and hid it in the engine room.”
Hunter nodded knowingly, “which would be where the antennae leads hook into the ship’s generators.”
“Quite right, ” Krumer replied. “Clever hiding place, too – stuffed between two boilers. Lucas would’ve missed it, but the cotton insulation on the wires had started to blacken and smoke from the heat of the boilers. Once he dug it out, he brought it to me straight away.”
The captain looked around behind Krumer at the silent deck. “Just where are the lads, anyway?”
“Cargo hold,” Krumer said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the dark hatch behind him. “Thought there might be a hint of what was taken down there. My thinking was that if we could find out what the pirates took, and what they left behind, it might give us an idea as to where they’d stop to sell the goods.”
“Indeed,” Anthony said, “good thinking.”
“One thing be eatin’ at me here,” Conrad said thoughtfully, finally speaking up, “these pirates run the Fair Winds down, beat her bloody, board her, then be makin’ off with crew, cargo and more’n a few passengers.” He glanced between the captain and the first mate with a dark, suspicious look. “Why not scuttle her? Why be leavin’ her up flyin’ where she’d be found? If ye took all ye want from her, one quick broadside would’ve sunk her quick.”
Hunter’s mind turned that over once, then twice in rapid succession. “You’re right … why leave her intact? We’re only a few hours’ sail from Scotland’s coast. Any number of Royal cutters on patrol could happen upon the Fair Winds … ” The captain’s voice trailed off, an ugly thought materializing fully formed in his mind. “Except … to kill off anyone who heard the distress and came flying in to help!”
Krumer Whitehorse and O’Fallon exchanged a sharp glance, realizing the imminent danger.
“It’d distract the navy, and confuse pursuit. Spirits take us, she’s trapped,” Krumer said in a hoarse voice. “But where?”
“Bloody hell! It’d have to be near the magazines below decks!” Hunter exclaimed while he ran for the open hatch nearby, followed by Krumer and Conrad. “We’ve got to get the lads from below and abandon ship!”
At that moment, William Falke burst into view from out of the hatch. He scrambled up the ladder, followed closely by Lucas Gregory, the pilot’s apprentice. Both young men stumbled forward in their haste tumbling to the deck, white as sheets and visibly terrified.
“Cap’n! She’s gonna blow! The cargo hold! Powder’s everywhere and it’s burnin!” William shouted, climbing to his feet. “We accidentally set it off when we shoved the door open!”
“Back to the Griffin!” Hunter ordered. The captain raised his voice, grabbing William by one arm, hauling him quickly to his feet. “Ahoy, Griffin! Cut the lines! Now!” The captain yelled, “the Fair Winds’ powder is set to blow!”
Shouts in the smoke relayed the command. The dull thud of axe blades hammered in rapid succession, as one rope, then another was abruptly severed. Meanwhile, Krumer and O’Fallon led the others in a mad race across the ruined deck of the Fair Winds.
The first mate reached the railing first, leaping across to the Brass Griffin. Conrad O’Fallon came next, hesitating a moment as the ship shuddered beneath his hands from a small explosion. The Scotsman reached out and grabbed a loose tether to the Griffin, throwing the harness on.
“Toss three more tethers!” He yelled.
Hunter skidded to a stop at the rail next to O’Fallon. The captain glanced over at the Griffin, then to where O’Fallon had stood a moment ago. William and Lucas should have been right behind Hunter. He spun around, a cold chill racing along his spine.
“Damnation,” Anthony said bitterly.
The wooden deck planks, already savaged by fire and artillery shot, had given way beneath the two young men. William had managed to leap to safety. Lucas, dangling like fishing bait on a hook, had not.
At the moment the wood had shattered, then collapsed beneath the young pilot’s right foot, it had sent the young man plunging downward. Before Lucas had vanished beneath the deck, he had managed to grab onto a length of rope still tied to where a mast twenty feet away was bolted to the main deck. While the young man clutched at the rope with sweat-slick hands, beneath his feet, he could feel the rising heat of a fire below.
Next to Lucas, William frantically yanked on the wood, breaking off small splinters and fragments at a time – nothing large enough to free the young pilot from his death trap.
Anthony raced across the deck, helping to move the wood with which William struggled. It did little good. Even with both men pulling, the planks remained resolutely in place. Through gaps in the hole, Hunter could see where the wooden edge had sliced both Lucas’ pants and leg like a torrent of knives, leaving long, bloody gashes. Lucas needed to be bandaged, and soon.
Without warning, the ship shuddered violently, knocking William and Hunter off their feet as a muffled explosion erupted somewhere below decks.
“Go on!” Lucas yelled, tears streaming from his eyes from pain and terror, “I’m done for!”
“Not on my watch, lad!” Hunter replied sharply, looking around for anything close at hand. Grabbing a length of bent pipe, the captain slammed one end down into a small gap in the wood like a crack of thunder. “Pull, Will! Put your back into it!”
“Aye, Cap’n!” William Falke replied, grabbing hold of the pipe and pulling with every fiber of his being.
Wood protested, splintered, then snapped, flying out in all directions as William and Hunter fell backwards to the deck. William rolled over, clutching Lucas by his left arm before he could fall farther. The captain grabbed onto the young man’s right a moment later. Together they hauled the wounded apprentice up, then half-carried him across the deck.
O’Fallon quickly wrapped a tether around Lucas. “Haul away!” He shouted.
Aboard the Brass Griffin, two crewmen pulled hard, the leather going abruptly taught. Lucas gasped in surprise and pain, swinging up into the air, then away from the Fair Winds. Once the wounded young man was safely on the other ship, O’Fallon tossed a tether to William, then another to Captain Hunter.
No sooner had the pair strapped in, a belch of white-orange flame erupted like a geyser through the Fair Winds’ deck. Wooden shards exploded up and out, showering everything in their path with hundreds of steaming hot needles. The three men were summarily tossed into the air, then slammed to the Fair Winds’ main deck.
Dying, the Fair Winds pitched sideways, listing as the gas bag above them caught fire, and scorched rigging snapped like twine. On the vessel’s main deck, Hunter blinked his eyes, then shook his head, clearing the fog from his mind. Next to him, William was out cold, having struck his head against the deck. Already, a bruise was starting to form on the young man’s forehead.
O’Fallon, who had grabbed a broken piece of deck, let go his grip and slid down to where William’s body rolled loose. The Scotsman dug in his heels, slowing himself to a stop to grab William by his left arm to steady him. The tight leather straps of the tethers creaked, preventing all three men from falling into the flames.
Hunter glared defiantly at the blaze, then up at the railing. Their tethers twitched but nothing more. With a stomach-churning drop, the Fair Winds tossed again, giving Hunter a brief glimpse aboard the Brass Griffin. Their tethers still stretched between the ships, but were caught up in a knot at the pulley!
“The tethers are fouled at the main pulley,” Hunter shouted out over the roar of the flames.
O’Fallon squinted from the soot and heat, “the old girl here’s dyin’ Cap’n! Near as Ah see it, she’s givin’ it all she’s got to keep us alive for now. She won’t hold much longer! If they’re not pullin’ us aboard now, we’ll not make it!”
The captain looked over at O’Fallon and yelled out as more explosions started to shake the mortally wounded vessel in rapid succession, “then there’s only one place to go! Follow me!”
With a tight grip on William’s right arm, Hunter staggered to his feet alongside O’Fallon. The pair exchanged a glance, then looked toward the railing not far ahead of them. They were easily three miles above the cold, dark waters of the North Sea.
Yelling as if charging into battle, Hunter and O’Fallon raced up the sloping deck towards the rail, with William’s unconscious form being carried between them. Immediately behind the trio, the deck erupted in rapid succession with each step. Orange balls of fire vomited skyward, and wood shattered into thousands of jagged teeth scattered across the wind. Heat clawed at their lungs, and fire clutched at their boot heels, as if the flames themselves had taken life and were hungry for prey.
The men reached the rail at a dead run, the deck dissolving in the flaming purgatory fast chasing them. They leaped up, stepping off from the rail, throwing themselves outward into the smoky, empty space of air growing between the two ships.
Suddenly the Fair Winds shattered in a savage fireball, exploding like a bomb. The sky roared behind them, screaming with the fury of hell itself.