Black, acrid smoke boiled up into the cold, snow-swept sky from the wreck of the HMS Intrepid where she lay collapsed against the charred, black wood of the dock. Amid the wreckage, small groups of figures bundled in wool pea coats, gloves and caps slowly crawled through the debris like scavengers over a corpse. Every few minutes, one of the searchers would call out to the others, giving a signal that either a survivor, or another deceased victim, had been found.
On the boardwalk opposite the Intrepid, one of the ramshackle, metal-shod warehouses had been hastily converted to one part hospice, and another part morgue. A quickly erected barrier separated the two, sparing the living any sight of the dead, and granting the dead a moment of respectful silence. Doors to the boardwalk opened and closed on regular intervals. Each time they opened, yet more wounded were led – or at times carried – to where surviving doctors from the Intrepid, along with medical assistance from other ships, worked feverishly.
Captain Anthony Hunter sat on the edge of a worn wooden cot, slowly moving his right arm and wincing while his sore shoulder throbbed angrily. His leather long coat was darker, tinged with burn marks from the recent explosion. Anthony’s white shirt was stained with dirt and dried sweat, his brown trousers frayed at the seams from the abuse.
With a heavy sigh, Hunter ran his hands over his dark hair, massaged his neck, then rubbed his eyes as if he could soothe away the weight of fatigue that hung from him like an anchor. Footsteps approached from the open row beside the cots. Hunter glanced up, recognizing the distinctive gait.
“Blurred vision?” Dr. Llwellyn asked, walking up beside the cot. The doctor was still dressed in his gray waistcoat – now covered in soot and dappled with a dried spray of blood – and wrapped in a weathered, gray wool long coat. He combed his fingers through his tousled brown hair in an attempt to straighten it.
Hunter nodded. “Blurred mind. How is the recovery pushing along?”
Thorias folded his arms over his chest. “Arduous … painful.” He looked up as the door to the warehouse opened, and two men carried in another wounded sailor. “And sobering.”
Anthony glanced around the room, noticing for the first time the sounds of wet coughing, moans, and cries of pain. Sailors, station crew, even unlucky passengers of nearby ships were in the room. What stood out the most was the horrific blisters and sores that seemed to cover many of the patients’ exposed skin.
Hunter solemnly looked across the orderly rows of burn victims. Many faces he did not recognize. Some were so heavily bandaged, he could not tell who they might be. However, there were other faces he did know. He saw the young sailors from the Intrepid he had spoken to on deck, each of them laying bandaged in a cot, shivering in pain and covered in those horrible blisters. Near the sailors lay a dock worker the captain remembered, covered along one side of his body with swelled boils. In the adjacent cot lay John Clark, shaking from a wet cough and wincing in pain as the bandages rubbed raw against his swollen skin.
“John!” Hunter exclaimed, starting forward.
Dr. Llwellyn caught the captain by the shoulder in a firm grip. “No, Anthony, let him rest. He nearly died making sure his son would survive.”
“What in heaven’s name happened?” he asked incredulously, gesturing to the sailors and dock worker. “Those are not normal burns from explosives … what happened?”
“The Fomorians happened,” Dr. Llwellyn replied, following Captain Hunter’s gaze. “This … all of this … is their handiwork. From what anyone can determine, there were at least five explosives aboard, and two canisters of a caustic gas in the boiler room. We’ve only partially isolated it.” The doctor paused, giving the captain a worried look. “Its base composition is startlingly similar to the Hellgate elixir. However, instead of making a victim addicted, and swelling their strength and size to that of an enraged ape … it tries to burn one alive, chemically speaking. I’ve found some means of cleaning it, removing the effects, but the process isn’t speedy.”
“However, not everyone has been afflicted. Why were some of us spared … this?” Captain Hunter asked in a hushed tone, his mind reeling with the implications of what the doctor had said.
“The explosion near the boilers was hot enough to spray treated water among the gas,” Thorias explained. “It caused a secondary reaction that may or may have not have been intended. Those caught in it were horribly affected within minutes, but the steam and water spray kept the gas localized. If it hadn’t … I do honestly believe most of the station would be dying right now.”
“Heaven defend us,” Anthony said in a low voice.
“From this?” the doctor replied. “Quite so. We’ll need all the assistance we can manage.”
The captain placed his hands on the edge of the cot and stood with a grimace. “Bloody hell, I’ll feel that in the coming morning. Has anyone located Angela or Tonks? Or Bauer and his bloody butchers? The ones not burnt to death in the explosions, that is.”
Dr. Llwellyn sighed as he tore his view away from the newly arrived injured sailor, giving a nod to the two medics from the Intrepid as they rushed forward to take care of the wounded man.
“One of Captain Wilhelm’s men – a ‘Noel St. Claire’ – stumbled upon a group of them carrying Angela and Ian aboard the Revenge,” the doctor explained. “He tried for a shot, but missed. Once they were aboard, he didn’t dare try and follow alone.”
Hunter frowned, “The Revenge? Impossible! Wilhelm and his crew would have caught them the very moment they set foot on deck, especially had they been carrying Mr. Tonks and Angela.”
Thorias pointed to the broad, ill-tempered figure of Captain Klaus Wilhelm. The captain’s face was black and blue, which seemed to match his mood. He sat on a cot, being fussed over by a harried-looking medic. “If he had been aboard, I’d rightfully agree,” Dr. Llwellyn explained. “As I understand it, the Fomorians had been prepared for trouble aboard the Revenge. Once we left, they waited until everything had died down and took the ship by force. They overwhelmed Wilhelm with sheer numbers. Once they had him, they beat him soundly, then tossed him onto the Boardwalk in hopes he would freeze before anyone found him.”
“What of Mr. Pryce?” Hunter asked, looking back at Wilhelm.
“He’s hale and whole,” the doctor replied. “He was still running about the station when the attack took place. Right now, he has a good set of stout lads with him, checking to see whether or not Captain Wilhelm’s vessel has been set to explode.”
Anthony nodded. “Sensible to do, given what’s happened.”
Klaus noticed the pair watching him. Growling irritably, the wide captain shoved himself to his feet. Through bloody holes in his shirt, bandages could be seen crisscrossing his chest. The captain nudged the medic aside.
“Captain, I must protest!” the young medic exclaimed.
“And I protest mein ship is taken by rats!” Captain Wilhelm roared at the top of his lungs. “This will not stand! They steal one ship, smash the station relays and explode another! Mein Kapitän, are you with me?” Klaus shook a fist in the air for emphasis. “We’ll hunt das vermin from the skies! Drown them in their rat holes for …” he waved one hand around him at the makeshift hospice, “… this atrocity! Where is mein niece? Where is Clark? Where is that kapitän of the Intrepid as well?”
“He hasn’t seen John?” Hunter asked Thorias.
“No,” Dr. Llwellyn replied. “The few medics and volunteers here are having enough of a time with Captain Wilhelm without adding fuel under his righteous fire.”
While Captain Wilhelm stalked forward, Thorias quickly turned to face the large, angry man. The doctor’s face was as calm as he could manage, despite sharing the irate captain’s feelings. “Captain, calm down. Moira is safe aboard the Griffin. We’ll get to that as soon as we can. First you need to rest your wounds.”
“I’ll rest aboard mein ship! Not a moment sooner!” Klaus growled.
“They damaged the station’s relay equipment?” Hunter asked, concerned.
Wilhelm stopped his advance, throwing up his arms in exasperation when the young medic re-appeared, putting himself in the angry captain’s path. Dr. Llwellyn let out a long, weary sigh.
“Yes, they took pains to create as much chaos and destruction as quickly as possible,” the doctor explained.
Hunter considered that a moment, his mental gears already churning at high speed. “Not chaos, but an elaborate distraction. A dangerous slight of hand.” He glanced over at Thorias. “Just where is the crew? Is the Brass Griffin air worthy? And what of John’s son?”
A faint smile crossed the doctor’s tired face. “The crew is fine, as is the Griffin. Conrad and Moira are triple checking for anything amiss, just in case. Krumer knew you’d want things air worthy at a moment’s notice. Captain Clark – Thomas, that is – is battered, but alive. John nearly died saving his son from the gas. When the explosion happened, John located his son among the burning wreckage. He wrapped him in wet cloth and whatever else he could find before carrying him off the ship. Unfortunately, the gas caught them as they reached the Boardwalk. The layers John used to protect his son were enough to block the effects of the gas.”
Hunter nodded solemnly, with a glance over at John, who coughed again in his half-sleep. “He swore he’d protect his son.”
“John took a cloud of that gas head-on to do just that,” Dr. Llwellyn explained. “He should be dead, but he’s not. Honestly, a tougher pair I’ve rarely met, given not even Fomorian apes can do either of them in. The younger Clark is out helping search the wreckage, despite the need to walk with a crutch.”
“Those Fomorians have snapped at our heels every step of the way,” Hunter said in a dark tone, while thoughts clicked into place in his mind. “They have kidnapped innocents, scuttled ships and wasted lives – all for what?” The captain hesitated a heartbeat. “A thrice-damned potion that is worse than any poison-peddling opium den fueling wild delusions of grandeur!” Hunter took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I was originally content to scuttle their plan, rescue their hostages, and leave these addled lunatics to the mercy of Her Majesty’s Navy. That, as I see it, is no longer the lay of the land.”
Dr. Llwellyn considered his captain and longtime friend carefully. The doctor had seen Hunter genuinely enraged only a handful of times. This, in the doctor’s estimation, was about to be another. He nodded and folded his arms over his chest. “Direction and heading, then, Captain?” Thorias asked.
Anthony’s eyes were dark, filled with a seething anger. “Can you be spared here?”
Thorias nodded. “I can. I’ve passed along my notes on cleaning out the poison to others here. They can manage for a small while.”
“Good. The Fomorians have bombed a ship; kidnapped, wounded, or killed countless innocents; and fashioned a weapon – a chemical weapon – that I believe they intend to use on other targets. Lastly, they have taken one of my crew and a young lady for their hellish work. I am well and done with ‘subtle’. If they want a fight, they have it! There’ll be justice for their butchery of the Fair Winds, and this hellish gassing of innocent people. I’ll chase them down in the streets with rocks and sticks for this barbarism if I must! I’ll have these demons out of my sky, Doctor, mark me well!”
“Mein Whirling Strumpet will fly with your Griffin, Kapitän!” Captain Wilhelm exclaimed with a savage grin. “We will need riflemen! Gunners and supplies, Ja?” he asked.
“Quite,” Hunter replied sternly. “The Strumpet’s a larger lady than the Griffin. Her extra firepower will be most welcome. However, and most importantly, we need to get word to the British Fleet. Last I knew, they still suspect the Griffin for wrongdoing. Right now, there is a larger threat, and I need them with us, not against us.”
“Leave that to me, Captain,” Thomas Clark said as he followed a rescue crew down the row, watching as another survivor was lowered onto an empty cot nearby. The young captain wore bandages across his arm and around his head, and bore a patch over one eye. He walked with a crutch, given his right leg could not fully support his weight.
Despite his bloody, torn uniform and the state of his damaged leg, Clark stood tall with his back as straight as he could. His one good eye burned with the pain of losing his crew and a white-hot urge to see justice for the crime.
“While the Intrepid may not fly at this time, I have other resources at my disposal,” the young captain explained while he limped forward. “My ship’s blacksmith is already at work inventing a makeshift repair to the station’s relay. Likewise, not all of my crew were aboard. I have forty uninjured riflemen, two of which are sharpshooters, that stand ready even now.”
Hunter watched the captain of the Intrepid carefully. “Would they sail with a suspected traitor? A crew wanted in questioning for the scuttling of a passenger ship?”
Thomas shook his head, coming to stand within arm’s reach of Anthony. “No. However, I’ve already spoken with them. They’ll certainly sail with you, Captain. They bloody well deserve a spot of payback.” He thrust out his hand to Hunter, offering friendship. “We all do. I’ll damn well speak on your behalf. I’ll make the Fleet see the reason in this. As I understand, there is, at last, a small force of ships two hours from here. What say you?”
Hunter clasped Thomas’ hand in a firm grip. “I say the Griffin and Strumpet sail north with all able-bodied crew and every rifleman that can shoot. If the Fleet can spare it, we’ll need a presence south of Inverness and another coming in from the east. Given what these Fomorians have done so far, I expect a large force hidden away above Inverness.”
Clark nodded curtly as he stepped back from Hunter in preparation to leave. “Consider it done.”
“Capital!” Hunter replied, his mind already working out the strategy of assault.
Clark turned to go, then paused, “Wait, Hunter. How will they locate you? The Fomorians will surely be listening over opti-telegraphic transmissions for any clue as to our movements.”
“The Fleet will know precisely my location,” Hunter said, his voice brittle and angry. “It will be on fire!”