Captain Hunter slid down the damp metal ladder to deck four. He landed in a slight crouch, surrounded by a shaft of light from the deck above. Already he could hear the sounds of combat – of gunfire – down the hallway to his right. Using the sounds as a guide, he tore off down a corridor lined with steel steam pipes and tarnished brass fittings. Adonia and Greg Mason followed hard at his heels.
The light was poor. Four lanterns had originally illuminated the hallway: two lay destroyed and forgotten on the floor, a third still clung to the wall but had shattered – likely from a bullet – and another sputtered valiantly for life from behind cracked glass panes. Shadows clutched greedily at everything in the hallway, as if trying to swallow the newcomers alive.
Anthony rushed towards the growing sounds ahead. Angry shouts, punctuated by the crackle of electricity and the buzzing whine of a bullet seeking a victim riveted his attention.
Ahead, a hatch stood partially open. Beyond that, shadows wrestled in a steam-filled tunnel, bracketed by yet more steel pipes. Blue arc-lanterns swayed wildly amid the gloom, their light splashed haphazardly across the entire scene. Hot steam poured like a spectral river from the opening, flooding the corridor and smothering the captain’s leather boots with mist.
As Hunter started to reach for his Schofield, a shadow peeled away from two of the larger steel pipes in the darkness and lunged for him!
“Anthony!” Adonia shouted, canary yellow eyes wide in alarm.
In the blink of an eye, Adonia threw herself in the way before the shadow could reach Captain Hunter. She knocked Hunter aside, slamming her right shoulder into the dark figure’s floating ribs. The shadow howled in pain – the tenor of a male voice – before he and Adonia crashed to the deck in a tumble. Amid the tangle, the figure yanked a knife from beneath his black, hooded highwayman’s long coat! The blade gleamed a cold, lurid blue under the sputtering arc-lantern.
While Adonia tackled the dark figure, Anthony stumbled towards the wall, off-balance and startled.
“Bloody hell!” the captain swore, his mechanical left hand dropping in a blur to his revolver.
“Knife!” Mason shouted a warning, casting about for a weapon to use.
Adonia immediately rolled out of arm’s reach from the attacker, then sat up in a low crouch. The Charybdian’s yellow eyes gleamed bright with predatory rage in the darkness; her hair coiled like the snakes they mimicked as if ready to strike! Pulling open a hidden compartment on her belt, she drew a thin-bladed skinning knife free of its sheath.
“I will make you regret that blade!” Adonia snarled before baring her small fangs with a low hiss.
Captain Hunter fell against the wall with a grunt, ripping his Schofield out of its holster. He fixed his attacker with a cold look and took quick aim.
“This ends now, Sirrah,” Anthony said harshly.
“Hardly, Captain!” the man rasped, out of breath, “we’ve only just started!”
Hunter depressed a switch on the side of the revolver. The experimental weapon came to life with an angry hum, the rattle of gears, and a crackle of static. At the same moment, the dark man deftly flicked his wrist and three glass vials slammed to the deck. A flash of white light burned the corridor followed by a thick, soupy gray smoke!
“Blood and sand!” Hunter swore, shielding his eyes with his right hand.
Adonia shrieked wordlessly in pain. Her Charybdian eyes, better suited to the dark than most, burned from the bright light. Mr. Mason, too, covered his eyes and stumbled backwards, cursing furiously. Once buried in the smoke, the dark figure immediately ran off through the open hatch!
“I cannot see! Catch him, Anthony!” she implored. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the pain and tears. Desperately, she rubbed at them with the back of a scaled hand.
Captain Hunter blinked, squinting past the smoke and dazzle of lights in his vision. He reached out for Adonia’s arm, concerned. She shrugged his help aside and shook her head.
“No!” she said, and waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll recover! Stop him!”
Anthony, blinked again, rubbed his own eyes, then raced off into the smoke with Mr. Mason close behind. Beyond the hatch, they saw Noel St. Claire, Moira, and two prone bodies in black long coats. Moira knelt in front of an ornately engraved box. Above the box, a series of electrified coils – intertwined such that a set of electrode spheres orbited a central arc lantern like some nightmarish orrery – twisted in a bizarre, interwoven pattern. Two feet from Moira, Noel panted for breath, knuckles raw from fighting. Hunter and Mason came to a quick stop, and Noel pointed down the hallway.
“That way, mon Capitaine!” Noel said, “These two on the floor will be no more trouble, but I could not catch the other two.”
“What is that?” Hunter asked quickly, pointing to the box.
“Just a sweet bomb they left,” Moira said. She smiled at the deeply complex device, “Aren’t ya just a beauty?”
“Bomb?” Captain Hunter exclaimed.
“What?” Mason said incredulously, giving a sharp look to the unusual device in front of Moira.
“I got this, Cap’n,” Moira declared, her eyes never leaving the complicated explosive. “Take Noel with ya. I won’t need him here.”
Hunter hesitated only a moment, then nodded. “Luck then, Moira, don’t lark about with it. I prefer my clockwork engineers not in need of spare parts.”
Mr. Mason, however, did not move when Captain Hunter and Noel tore off down the hallway. Hunter realized it too late, and swung around once he reached the hatch at the far end.
“Young woman, be careful. There are passengers aboard,” he began, but stopped short when Moira turned and fixed a dead, hot stare at him. The glowing, crackling orrery glowed like a mechanical aura behind her head, casting her face in a shadowy and perturbed half-mask.
“I said, I got this,” the young woman growled, “that is, if there’s nary a soul natterin’ over my shoulder!”
“Mason!” Hunter shouted.
The first officer frowned at Hunter, then at Moira. “Oh, very well! It’s on your head then, woman!” he retorted, racing off to join Noel and Hunter.
The trio barreled down the hallway, black coattails just visible ahead of them. Hunter paused, took aim and fired. The Schofield crackled nastily, then twitched in his grip. A swarm of electrified needles exploded out of the gun, raining pain along the length of the hallway. One of the two retreating men ducked through an open door while the other raised his coat at the last moment. The needles peppered leather, their electricity spent uselessly along the outside of the black coat. The man lowered the his arm, a sly grin obvious from beneath his black cowl. Immediately, he dashed out of sight.
“My word!” Mason exclaimed, staring at the revolver, blue static lightly dancing across the barrel.
“Moira is quite good with the inventions, non?” Noel said to the first officer, then grinned. “They are very exciting!”
“Blast it!” Hunter swore angry, ignoring their comments.
The first officer ripped his attention away from the modified weapon. “That hatch they escaped through leads to an observation deck above the stern propellers,” Mr. Mason explained, “you and your man follow them. I’ll gather some lads and cut them off on the far side! They’ve nowhere to run!”
“Good hunting!” the captain replied, then bolted off down the hallway with Noel by his side.
Noel and Hunter resumed the chase. They darted through doors, dashed through hallways, then quickly scaled a ladder to the deck above. True to Mr. Mason’s word, the route ended in only one place: a wide, open-air observation deck that connected the interior of the massive airship with a set of auxiliary controls for both the Britannia’s secondary boilers and clockwork generators. This wide, gray, metal deck curved around the rear of the airship, below where the captain’s cabin would traditionally be. It was suspended over the airship’s massive propellers that helped provide forward thrust. However, at the moment, those four devices were not functional – one was even blackened and bent from a recent explosion a deck below the observation point.
Captain Hunter and Noel St. Claire erupted onto the metal platform. Wind buffeted the metal rail, whipped about the two men, and finally raced back out to howl through the motionless propellers. They quickly looked around for their prey; it was Noel that saw the motion to their right first.
“Mon Capitaine!” Noel said, shoving Hunter aside just as a trio of needle-thin darts sliced through the air towards the pair! The first two needles narrowly missed the two men. The third, however, slammed into Noel’s right shoulder. Abruptly, the pilot was engulfed in a bright blast of yellow-white electricity, lighting him like an arc lantern! With great force of will, Noel reached up with shaking hands, grasped the dart, and then yanked it free to toss it aside.
Anthony dropped into a shooter’s crouch in an instant, then hastily fired at one of the two men in the black long coats. One man jerked as the hoard of needles struck home, then shrieked when the electricity poured from needles to victim.
“Mr. St. Claire, are you well?” Hunter asked worriedly over his shoulder.
Noel let out a shaky breath. “Aye, mon Capitaine. It was – how shall I say it – ‘eye-opening’! Nothing a little wine would not cure, non?”
Anthony chuckled. Noel had only recently joined the crew, requesting work once his previous captain – Captain Klaus Wilhelm, Moira’s uncle – had retired from ship life to running a shipping business. Already, Hunter found himself warming to the pilot’s attitude.
“I suppose not, Mr. St. Claire. I suppose not,” Hunter replied with a smirk while he slowly stood up. Carefully, the captain kept his revolver trained on the second man in black. “What I find ‘eye-opening’ is the choice of revolver by our new friends. Moira is one to invent from scratch. I would like to know where they came across the idea.”
A clatter of boots heralded Mr. Mason’s arrival, followed by three of the Britannia’s armed sailors on the far side of the platform. Likewise, two men approached behind Hunter and Noel with rifles of their own.
“Ready rifles!” Mason commanded. In response, sailors aimed their weapons at the imposing black leather figure with his back to the rail. “Now, Sir!” Mason said, addressing the black-garbed man, “Surely you know you’re done for! Surrender yourself!”
“I am prepared, Signore,” the man said with a satin-smooth Italian voice. Slowly, he spread his arms wide, even to the extent that he spread open his black gloved fingers as well. Beneath the coat, the Italian wore an underlayer of gray and black, including a pair of soft leather boots. “Tell me … are you?”
Mason hesitated, confused by the man’s reaction. He frowned, trying to puzzle out any hidden meaning to the words. Finding none, he ignored the question. “We are fully prepared to shoot, brigand!”
The Italian turned his dark hood towards Anthony. “And you, Captain Hunter. Are you prepared for what will come?”
Hunter frowned, though his Schofield never wavered an inch from its target. “What do you mean? Prepared for what?”
Noel shook his head to clear it, then climbed back to his feet using the rail as support. “Do you know him?” he asked.
“I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Hunter replied with a thoughtful frown.
Mason, fists clenched in frustration, gestured to the five sailors armed with rifles. “I’ve had enough of this. Take him and his unconscious companion below!”
Carefully, three of the sailors moved closer, wary of the mysterious Italian. Suddenly, the man in black moved, his hands a blur! One moment, they were empty, the next, each hand held a trio of small vials no larger than a finger!
“Cover your eyes!” Hunter called out in alarm.
With a deft flick of the wrist, the Italian slammed the first three flasks at the deck. They detonated with a white flash of light and plume of thick, gray smoke! The three closest Britannia sailors yowled in pain, dropping their firearms to better shield their eyes. Mason, who had just started to take Hunter’s warning, likewise staggered backwards, stunned by the flash.
A rifle behind Captain Hunter boomed. A bullet snagged his shoulder, dislodging his aim and nearly taking him off his feet. In front of the captain, the Italian turned to face him with the last three vials.
“Petit enfant!” Noel roared angrily grabbing the rattled midshipman’s arm. “You almost hit Capitain Hunter! Let go! You disrespect the weapon!”
Startled, the young man released the firearm. Noel immediately braced the repeating Winchester rifle against his shoulder and took a steadying breath; at the same moment, the Italian tossed the last three vials in their direction!
With a grim smile, the pilot quickly fired as he walked forward. One shot for each small container, one step closer each time. The vials shattered, raining their contents down on the Italian, who wisely covered his face. Light exploded, and smoke coiled about the Italian’s head for a moment before being taken away on the wind.
“See? If you treat her well,” the West African pilot said over his shoulder to the young sailor, all the while keeping his eyes riveted on the Italian, “she sings for you, non?”
“Enough of your tricks, Sirrah!” Hunter snarled, ignoring the new bullet hole in his coat and leveling his revolver at the man in black again. “You’ll answer for what you’ve done!”
“Ah, but my dear Captain,” the main replied soothingly, “you will very much like my last trick … or perhaps you have forgotten your little gear-monkey?”
“Moira!” Hunter turned instinctively, realizing a heartbeat too late it was the wrong thing to do.
The moment Anthony turned his eyes away, a blast of smoke and flames engulfed the Italian. In another second, the Italian and his companion had completely vanished!
At the same time, Hunter felt rather than saw a blast of air. Smoke billowed out from the hatch he and Noel had exited a moment ago. It was the hatch that lead directly towards Moira and the bomb!