The gray sky loomed overhead; featurelessly flat and oppressive save for the darker gray of clouds heavy with the promise of rain. Knots of clouds, massive thunderheads reaching far above, split the sky into layers, where the occasional bolts of lightning played out its furious dance among the charcoal gray backdrop.
Breaking through one of the lower thunderheads, the Brass Griffin tossed herself into the sharp, chilling wind above the North Sea followed by the larger, shallow draft Whirling Strumpet. Once in the current, each put their backs to the wind, prow aimed and steady for northern Scotland like arrows nocked in a bow.
Captain Anthony Hunter stood facing the window of his cabin, watching the busy sky with a pensive look. The storm’s lightning reflected across his unforgiving eyes. His thoughts raced along a dozen alleyways of his mind. He worried over those still missing, and wrestled with plans for what should – and what could – be done about the Fomorian menace. With his hands behind his back, Hunter flexed his artificial clockwork left hand: opening, then closing it methodically, as if squeezing something. The intricate gears produced a steady trickle of merciless clicks muted beneath a black leather glove.
Over an hour had passed since their departure out of Port Signal, allowing Hunter and his crew a brief respite from events since they had landed at the relay station. The time had been well spent. Some of the crew prepped the Griffin for battle, others worked out innovations that might help against the nightmarishly powerful Fomorians, and still others – such as Hunter – searched for any sign of the Fomorian’s trail.
“We know they make their way to Inverness,” Captain Hunter said after a moment. “However, I cannot believe they would find a way to stay hidden there. It’d be quite the task, if not an impossible one.” The captain glanced over his shoulder toward the open door of his cabin. “Conrad, you are – in part – from there. Could they actually secret themselves from sight in Inverness, or even near it?”
Behind Hunter, Conrad O’Fallon sat in a chair in the room adjacent to the captain’s cabin. Scowling, he poured over a chaotic array of charts on the scarred and stained wooden table. On hearing the captain’s question, the Scotsman glanced at Hunter through the open doorway connecting the two rooms.
O’Fallon shook his head. “Nary a whit, Cap’n. Inverness be not Edinburgh, but she’d be takin’ plenty o’ notice of anythin’ like them Fomorian beasties. Though, a’fore we set to air, Brian Tanner made a wee remark about hearin’ the word ‘Culloden’ bein’ mentioned once or twice.”
“Culloden the town?” Krumer Whitehorse asked as he joined Conrad, a pair of large maps in hand. “I don’t recall any hooks for airships in Culloden,” he continued, setting the maps on the table next to the quartermaster. The orc gave O’Fallon a quizzical look. “Could they have meant the moor?”
Conrad shrugged. “Och, ah don’ ken if they meant town or moor. If they be meanin’ town, ah just can’t be seein’ it. Too many eyes seein’ them, and too many tongues to talk about what they saw. Me gut be sayin’ the moor. It’s a bit flat, with room to be sparin’ for an airship, especially if ye spirit there at night.”
Thoughtfully, Hunter turned away from the window, then slowly stalked across his cabin towards the open door. His eyes stared off into the broad invisible expanse of his thoughts. “We dare not make an appearance over Culloden with two ships obviously bound for mischief. The Fomorians might get wind of our approach, which would precisely undo all our plans and put the lives of the captives in peril.”
The captain stopped just outside the threshold dividing his cabin from the room where his first mate and quartermaster searched the maps. He glanced to both of them, then slowly paced around the room. “I daresay we need a fly on the wall.”
“Ye mean Arcady?” Conrad replied.
Krumer shook his head. “No, not the metal insect. At least, not alone.” The first mate glanced knowingly at Hunter. “Correct, Captain?”
“Precisely, Mr. Whitehorse,” Hunter replied, his mind still turning the ideas over while he slowly paced. “Arcady would be spot-on for the job, but he could easily run into more than he can handle.” The captain stopped pacing, turning to face his two crew members. “That is why I want you both there as well. Take young Mr. Falke also – if he’s up for it, that is. His skills at tracking should prove invaluable.”
“Of course, Captain,” Krumer replied.
“Cap’n,” O’Fallon asked, “what about the man Cap’n Wilhelm sent with us? The one with the long rifle?”
“Noel St. Claire?” Hunter said with a curious look. “What about him?”
“Ah’ve seen him workin’; he be a dead shot with a long rifle,” the Scotsman explained. “If we be lookin’ about the moor, who better to be havin’ at our back watchin’ for a Fomorian to be poppin’ up like a daisy?”
Hunter nodded. “Excellent point. As he’s technically a guest aboard, make the request of him. I doubt he’ll refuse. He seemed quite equally keen on running the Fomorians to ground as the rest of us.”
Conrad grinned, nodding. “Aye, Cap’n.”
Abruptly an explosion ripped through the air! The Griffin shuddered around the trio. In the time it took Conrad to leap to his feet, Anthony and Krumer had raced out of the officers’ cabins and onto the main deck.
Black smoke coiled about the rigging like a sea snake winding its way through the water. Several of the crew on deck had managed to take cover; some behind barrels, others by scaling rigging towards the gas bag overhead. The source of the smoke proved to be a makeshift wooden target lashed to the starboard railing, decorated with the fresh ugly black scars of burn marks.
There, in the middle of the deck stood Moira, an elated look on her face. Next to her was young Lucas Gregory, wounded leg bandaged and bound in a splint. Both Moira and the apprentice pilot wore what appeared to be FireBlotter Packs: backpack-tanks holding a mineralized water solution that was sprayed out through a rifle-like nozzle. Traditionally, a FireBlotter Pack was used to expunge fires aboard an airship quickly, and most vessels carried a few, along with a modest supply of the ‘water’.
Strangely, the pack Lucas wore belched steam and smoke while the young man frantically attempted to adjust a set of new dials haphazardly connected to the fire fighting equipment. The dials, in turn, were attached to a hastily added arc lantern, which was electrifying the liquid in the tanks. Next to Lucas, Moira was just as quickly making her own adjustments on the far side of the boy’s pack.
Hunter skidded to a stop on deck, too astounded for words. Krumer stared, wide-eyed, at the entire scene. A few feet away, a hatch opened; Dr. Llwellyn raced up onto the main deck, medical bag in hand.
“What in bloody hell is going on?” the doctor demanded as he, too, saw the bizarre contraptions Moira and Lucas wore. “Woman! Have you gone quite mad? That young man is supposed to be resting! Not being cooked like a plum pudding!”
“It was ma’ choice, Sirrah!” Lucas squeaked, eyes wide in surprise. “I wanted ta help. I … I just was wantin’ ta do my part takin’ them louts down!”
Conrad appeared on deck next, and simply stared in amazement at the devices. “Och, never have ah seen the like!”
Krumer sighed heavily. “Moira, just what are you doing? What is all this?”
The lady blacksmith made one final adjustment to the erratic assembly of parts the young man wore, which abruptly brought an end to the smoke. She turned to face the others with a stern look on her face.
“We’ve all been getting ready to follow the Cap’n on this, preppin’ the ship and such. Have any of ya thought what happens once we get face ta face with them monsters?” she asked tartly. “They shrug off bullets like a cow battin’ flies with her tail. They move like lightnin’ and hit like a hammer strikin’ an anvil, all the while droolin’ like lunatics in an asylum.”
“Yes, true,” Thorias replied. “But Moira … this … is this what I think it is?”
Conrad chucked, a smirk flowing across his face. “Och, if yer thinkin’ a portable lightnin’ thrower, then ye be spot-on! Moira, ye be brilliant!”
Dr. Llwellyn scowled. “It’s lunacy, you mean. One or two pulls on the trigger and the unfortunate soul wearing this contraption is as cooked as their target!”
Moira fixed the doctor with a sour look. “If I can’t go and trust me own pistols, then I’m as good as naked. That just won’t do. So, I had a bit of an idea. Well, it was the boy’s idea, I just added me own idea to his.”
Lucas blushed a deep crimson, wishing he was still in his bunk and not being scrutinized like a bug. “I had me time ta think about it … after I heard the stories.”
Without a word, Captain Hunter walked forward. Slowly circling Moira and Lucas, he scrutinized the packs. Carefully, he trailed a hand along the hose that connected the tanks to the modified rifle-nozzle.
“Moira, the doctor’s correct,” Hunter said finally.
“Cap’n?” the young woman replied, deflated.
The captain leaned forward to examine a set of wires that provided the connection between the arc lantern and the fluid-filled tanks. He nodded thoughtfully as he saw a bead of the liquid slowly escape through a rubber seal Moira had overlooked in her modifications.
Hunter stood up and faced the blacksmith. “The wearer, quite likely, would be cooked,” Hunter explained. “You’ll need to provide better insulation for the wearer, and fix that leak in the top-most seal. How soon can you get that done?”
Moira brightened considerably as a sudden smile beamed from her face. “An hour, Cap’n!”
“Excellent,” Hunter said. “You have your hour. We’ve four more packs aboard in addition to the one you’re wearing, and the one on Lucas. Take one more and alter it to give us three, while leaving three in case of fire aboard ship. Oh, and up the power output. I’d like to see a bit more of a punch. I don’t want those monsters standing up. Also, put some thought to something similar, yet smaller, that could be easily thrown … if we’ve the spare parts for it.”
“Aye!” Moira said, grinning.
“Brilliant,” Hunter replied tersely. With one last thoughtful look at the deadly modifications, the captain turned on his heel and walked back towards his cabin.
Thorias raced over to join him. “Anthony, you can’t be serious! I understand your rage, but … this? Isn’t this extreme?”
“Not now, Thorias,” Anthony said in a low, tired tone.
“Now is precisely the time, Anthony,” the doctor replied in earnest.
Captain Hunter stopped in mid-stride and closed his eyes with a ragged sigh. He turned to face his longtime friend with a serious look. “Thorias, this isn’t a ragged band of unwashed thieves pinching a purse in a marketplace.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? I fully understand the nature of the evil that nips at our heels,” Thorias retorted, voice still held low. “However, if something goes wrong with those devices … we would lose as much as we might gain! At what cost comes victory, Anthony?”
“Damn it, Doctor!” Anthony snapped, likewise keeping his voice low so only Thorias could hear. “When we do find whatever hole the Fomorians have crawled into, I suspect they will not offer us any quarter at all. When that happens … if that happens … I intend to pay them back in kind!” Captain Hunter took a deep breath, letting it drain out of him slowly. “Thorias, anyone who would make and use that gas – and all the horror it can do – is an evil beyond measure. It stops here. It must.”
While Hunter returned to his cabin, Dr. Llwellyn looked back where Moira was quickly explaining the design to Mr. O’Fallon. With a worried frown, Thorias slowly began his way to his small infirmary below deck.
“Be content … and the times lament,” the doctor sang in a morbid, quiet voice, “you see the world turn’d upside down.”