“Message sent, Captain,” Krumer said once he reached the Griffin’s quarterdeck. “No reply, so I couldn’t say if anyone received.”
“Someone received it,” Captain Hunter replied sternly, then pointed past the railing towards an angry smudge of orange smeared across the night sky. Beneath the glow, shouts of anger and the cries of the wounded mingled with gunfire near the gaping pit in the hillside. “I want the longskiffs launched in two minutes, Mr. Whitehorse. Those people are vulnerable down there.”
“Aye, Captain,” Krumer replied. The first mate turned sharply and leaned over the railing towards the main deck. “Longskiffs! Captain needs you ready for launch in two minutes! Step lively!”
“Aye!” Moira shouted back from the far end of the deck. “Even if I have ta get out an’ push!”
“William!” Hunter shouted to the lookout on the rigging above, “what’s facing us?”
William Falke, standing in one of the basket-like crow’s nests that dotted the edge of the gas bags, adjusted the focus on his spyglass. “Two groups Cap’n! One’s large, gotta be Fomorian! The other … Cap’n! I’m seein’ a werewolf down there! Angela Von Patterson!”
Hunter glared into the darkness, as if he could will the gloom from his view. “What of Mr. Wilkerson?”
“No sign, Cap’n,” William replied. “I am seein’ Angela tearin’ into Fomorians a’plenty! That might be her mum nearby. She’s givin’ them monsters what for, too!” William’s voice caught in his throat. “Cap’n … from the pit. Some kinda large machines!”
“So’s the Griffin, lad, be specific!” Hunter snapped.
“Aye, Cap’n, beggin’ yer pardon. Just caught in the moment,” the scout replied, then re-adjusted the focus on his spyglass. “Large, Cap’n. Bigger than a wagon. Shaped like spiders they are, belchin’ steam and smoke like a factory. They’re covered head to leg in metal, and there’s somethin’ atop them I can’t quite make sight of.”
Suddenly the night’s gloom was split with the bright flash of lightning, followed by a thunderous crack! Krumer spun around to face towards the flash; even Hunter took a startled step backwards. Above them in the crow’s nest William blinked, shook his head, then instinctively rubbed his flash-affected eye. “Cap’n they’re usin’ … “
“Lightning cannons,” Hunter finished sternly for the young man above. “Well, I’ve a few of my own. Mr. Whitehorse, give those Ironclads a proper answer! Fire on my word!”
“Aye,” Krumer said with a small but savage grin. He turned back towards the main deck. He snatched the end of a black speaking-tube attached to a ship’s opti-telegraphic. “Cannons at the ready! Prime the pumps! Charge the capacitors! Time to show these Fomorians what they’re dealing with!”
Along the deck, gunnery crews leaped into action. A sharp hum rose from the far end of the vessel while the artillery quickly primed; soon the air was filled with the sound much like a swarm of angry bees. Gunnery crews locked the cannon into their metal rails and raised the artillery ports.
Conrad O’Fallon stalked among the artillery crews, glaring at the nightmarish targets. “They be at long range, be watchin’ the wind! Mind ye aim!” The Scotsman glanced around at the crews, then turned the crank on his own opti-telegraphic. “Ready!” he said into the device.
Krumer glanced to Anthony. “Captain?”
Hunter remained where he was, fixed like a tree rooted to the rolling deck, hands now clasped behind him. The captain’s eyes glittered while his mind worked feverishly. More of the Fomorian war machines appeared. There were four in total. Hunter frowned. It was a small number in general consideration, but a single Ironclad could be deadly to anyone caught on foot in the open. Hunter waited, tense, willing the metal beasts to make the mistake of grouping close.
“Wait for it, Mr. Whitehorse,” Hunter said with a cold, brittle voice. “I want their undivided attention.”
Then, the spider-like Ironclads lumbered together in a staggered two by two formation. The captain smiled.
“Send them to hell, Mr. Whitehorse,” Hunter barked, “with my compliments! Fire at will!”
“Aye!” Krumer replied with a curt nod, then turned back and locked eyes with O’Fallon. The first mate visibly clenched a fist; his voice boomed into the opti’s tube. “Fire! Full broadside! Shake the halls of Heaven, Mr. O’Fallon!”
Cannons instantly replied with rolling thunder and blinding white flashes of light. Lightning, wild and free, split the night apart while it rode the metal-laced water jets downward. Shrapnel slammed into the ground, hammering the Arachnae war machines as the massive bolts of electricity reached their target. Explosions ripped the ground, instantly heating the metal of the Ironclads. The front of the war machines took the brunt of the force. Overwhelmed with more power than it was meant to handle, its capacitors exploded! The spider-shaped Ironclad burst open from the inside out, like an overripe melon, its interior blackened and charred.
Quickly recovering, two of the Arachnae Ironclads walked away a short distance, making it harder to hit all of them at once. A third, belching smoke from a hole in its side, limped forward. The remaining three Ironclads locked their legs into position, raised their twin cannon skyward, and returned fire!
The Griffin shuddered with the impact, and smoke boiled off a set of ragged, burnt wounds near her bow. A quartet of crew rushed forward to extinguish the fire. The artillery crews were already adjusting the aim of their cannon for a second shot.
“Dead mark on, Cap’n!” William said from overhead. “Looks like there’s a gap openin’ up behind in the clearin’ just north of the people from the Fair Winds.”
“Good place for the longskiffs,” Krumer said. “They’ll have the high ground if the Fomorians try to rush them.”
Hunter nodded, his eyes scanning the battlefield with a cold, calculating glare. “Also more difficult if they try and turn those behemoths that way. Lightning cannons are best for direct fire. They’ll need traditional artillery for something indirect. Despite that, if we’re fortunate, they’ll try – they’ll make prime targets for us at that point. Launch the ‘skiffs, Mr. Whitehorse, we’ve no time to waste.”
Krumer turned the crank on the ship’s opti again before barking into the black rubber speaking-tube. “Longskiffs, cast off! Make for the clearing to the north! Moira, have your lightning packs – or whatever you’re calling them – at the ready. The Fomorians are sure to see you.”
“Launching now,” Dr. Llwellyn’s voice came back. “Moira has her small crew scattered between the longskiffs to guard us.”
“Godspeed, Doctor,” Krumer said with a smile.
“Spirits willing, Mr. Whitehorse,” came the reply before the opti clicked off again.
Immediately, the only two longskiffs leaped out into the night, then dove for the maelstrom below like angels coming to nurture the fallen.
In the sky, again the Griffin roared, her cannon raining bright white death and pain on the Fomorians below. Already, Fomorian riflemen took up positions of cover at the edge of the burning pit to fire upwards, desperate to protect their few Ironclads. The Griffin, having to remain at almost a thousand yards for the lightning cannons to fire, felt the sting of bullets. Crew screamed in pain, falling when the occasional shot struck home.
Hunter turned away from the railing. Splinters and the rare bullet flew by him while the captain walked briskly through the smoke for a better view of the main deck of his ship. Most of his crew were intact; some were wounded but had crawled, or been pulled, to a moderately safer location out of the line of fire.
“William!” Hunter quickly called out.
The young man slid down the rope from the crow’s nest above, then dropped to the deck near the captain and Mr. Whitehorse. “Aye, Cap’n! Already headin’ for me medical bag now! I’ll have the wounded patched and right as rain in no time.”
“Good lad,” Hunter said as the scout raced down the ladder to the main deck. “I need every man-jack who can turn a crank or pull a trigger able to move.”
“Longskiffs are below our waterline, mon Capitaine,” Noel St. Clarie announced from where he stood at the ship’s wheel.
“Brilliant,” Hunter replied, coming to a stop near the African. “Down ten degrees from the bubble, Mr. St. Claire. Bank to starboard, we’re putting ourselves between those ‘Spider Ironclads’ and our ‘skiffs.”
“Aye, mon Capitaine,” Noel replied with a bright, white smile. He reached for a tall lever next to the ship’s wheel that ended in a large, toothed brass gear covered in measurements. “I will be like a mother goose guarding her goslings from the fox!” The broad-shouldered man from the Ivory coast laughed merrily while he pulled back on the lever.
Instantly, the Griffin pitched to one side! Explosions shook her from bow to stern. Noel clutched desperately to the ship’s wheel, fighting to keep control of the ship, while Krumer and Hunter were thrown across the quarterdeck. The first mate hauled himself out of the remains of a now shattered wooden chest with which he had collided. Hunter had slammed against the railing, injuring his sore shoulder even more.
“Something hit us!” Krumer exclaimed.
Captain Hunter quickly struggled to his feet with an angry glare and a grimace. “That was from the far side! Watch! Report!”
A young crewman in the lookout above wiped blood from his nose and pulled himself upright. “A ship, Cap’n! A good two hundred an forty feet long! Steel plated on her sides!”
Hunter scrambled to the rail and looked out. Smoke belched from two new holes in the Griffin: one above the waterline, another not far from the port side water storage. Any deeper, and the blast would have flooded the lower decks with spare water for the lightning cannons. It hurt, enough that he almost felt the pain himself, but it wasn’t crippling. Anthony looked about for the longskiffs.
It only took a moment to locate them. Below the Griffin, the twin vessels turned and weaved while clawed bolts of lightning arced down, followed by hot artillery shells: both fire from the other ship. Fortunately, that volley missed the smaller craft. Already one of the longskiffs bled flame and smoke, a hole ripped in her stern.
Hunter spit out a trickle of blood from his split lip. “It’s the Revenge. She’s above us, off to our port side.”
Which is where I would have been, he thought angrily to himself. She must have been up there on station waiting for someone to arrive. Bauer set a trap, and I let my ego walk right into it! That can’t be helped now. The Revenge is a larger girl with more guns, but not nearly as nimble. Her hull type has a few ports on her bottom along the keel … however, Anthony mused silently to himself, she has a blind spot.
“Orders, Cap’n?” Krumer asked, rubbing his eyes to clear his vision.
The Captain looked up, then at the Arachnae war machines far below. “Down! Towards the Ironclads! Then hard to port!”
Noel and Krumer exchanged a glance. “Capitaine …” Noel started to say hesitantly.
Hunter waved a hand to cut off anything more the pilot had to say. “We outgun the Ironclads, but not the Revenge. We can handle those war machines with one more pass, once we are closer.”
“Will not the Revenge follow?” Noel asked while he fought with the wheel.
“I’m counting on it!” Hunter replied.