Below decks in the Brass Griffin’s armory, Captain Hunter twisted a brass key in an ornate lock that hung from a modest-sized steel safe mounted in the wall. Once, then twice, the tumblers cycled with a methodical set of clicks that echoed off the silence in the room. Ominous weapons such as pistols, swords and knives hung in locked racks along the walls. Rifles stood stacked in stands bolted to the floor. All stood by as silent witnesses. Nailed to the wall near the ceiling, two arc lanterns shed a familiar blue-white light across the narrow room to illuminate the entire affair.
Adonia Salgado stood nearby with her hands clasped in front of her, watching Captain Hunter manipulate the intricate padlock. She cleared her throat from a bit of dust that floated in the air. “Meu guerreiro, are you sure no one would have come down here?”
Hunter gave her a sour look due to the moniker, then deftly opened the brass and steel padlock with a final twist on the key. The lock clicked, opened, and fell into his hands. “The route to and from this room is along the same path most of the crew take to reach their common quarters. They would notice anyone going to the armory door; that is doubly so if it’s someone they don’t know. Smoke, tricks and illusions or no, this is far too well-traveled.”
Adonia’s brow furrowed in thought while she considered his words. At the same moment a pair of the gunnery crew walked by the doorway. The first was a short, dwarfish, hard-weathered figure with a bent nose named Flick, the other was a tall mountain of a man with a thick blond beard named Little Tom. The bigger man inclined his head in greeting to the captain and the Charybdian woman, then nudged Flick – who merely grunted by way of a greeting. Adonia watched until they had moved out of sight. A moment later, another two sailors passed by heading toward the communal crew quarters.
“Very well,” she said with a resigned sigh, satisfied with the example of foot traffic at hand, “I will stop my worrying.”
The captain shook his head slightly, then pulled open the vault door. “Rubbish and nonsense, my dear. Worry all you might. These relics are your responsibility. I understand completely why you would worry.”
From inside the safe, Hunter removed a long cherry wood box. Simple copper plates adorned the corners, and an intricate yellow brass clasp pinched the hasp shut. The captain turned around to hand the box to Adonia. The Charybdian woman carefully accepted it, then deftly opened the latch and lifted the lid.
Inside the box on a soft blue velvet lining lay six long Roman knives. Their leather scabbards and hand grips having rotted long before, each leaf-shaped blade lay in a socket molded to the exact dimensions of the weapon. Adonia nodded with satisfaction on seeing all six still sitting where she had left them.
“It is always hard to tell these from the forgeries,” Adonia explained, “though it is not impossible. You see only the real ones are slightly magnetic.” To demonstrate, she lifted one of the daggers then gently tapped it against a nearby padlock. With a click, the magnetized blade stuck. She pulled and the knife slid free. With a smile, she replaced it back in the box.
Meanwhile, Anthony peered over her shoulder. His eyes traced with curious interest across the ornate engravings and odd runes that decorated each blade. Each knife was etched with runes and Roman phrases. In between these, a bas-relief of figures and places filled the space. Each set of etchings and reliefs told its own complex story. However, in every case, the story seemed unfinished. The captain frowned, searching his memory for something that nagged at him.
“May I?” he asked, gesturing to one of the knives.
“Certainly,” she replied with a smile, “so long as you take great care with them. They are rather old.”
Captain Hunter chafed at her words, “I am always careful, Madame.”
Antonia smirked. “Of course. Just take great care with them.”
Hunter reached for one of the knives. “You just said that,” he replied tersely.
She gave him a pleasant, and genuine, smile; her hair tendrils coiled slightly with amusement. “Only for effect, meu guerreiro, only for effect. What caught your eye?”
Captain Hunter gently turned the knife over in his hands, a thoughtful look on his face. “I had only glanced at them when you brought them aboard. Now, though, I noticed just how similar some of the markings are to a diagram I once saw in a book.”
The Charybdian’s smile faded, her voice taking on a serious tone. “What book? What diagram?”
Hunter carefully returned the knife to the velvet-lined box. He gave Adonia a sidelong look. “A journal. You know the one.”
Adonia shut the case, then stared dumbfounded at the captain. “The one from the High Fens? Why didn’t you …” she stammered.
A flash of steel suddenly bisected the air between the two of them! A knife, a Roman pugio to be precise, bounced off the case, narrowly missing both Hunter and Adonia, then embedded into the wall. Adonia immediately pushed the case back into the vault while the captain drew his sidearm.
Hunter’s eyes scanned the room, pouring across its contents. Dust trailed down in the artificial light, shimmering in the air. He had turned to reach for the knife buried in the wall when a shadow moved near the door! The captain, ignoring the dagger in favor of the more immediate threat, spun and fired!
Darts erupted from his revolver then slammed into the doorframe, electricity running wild across the steel rivets in the polished, dark wood. The tail of a ragged black coat vanished from the doorway and into the hall!
“Blast it! I swear this thing pulls to the left!” Hunter swore venomously, clutching the modified Schofield. “Damn you, Sirrah! I’ll see you in my brig!” he shouted angrily, racing after the man in black.
Behind Anthony, Adonia slammed the vault shut, then snapped the padlock into place. Reaching over, she jerked the quivering leaf-bladed knife from the wall, then followed after the captain.
The moment she reached the door, she was forced to jump back as a bright flash erupted in the hallway! The bright explosion was followed by Captain Hunter, who stumbled backwards and landed heavily against the doorframe as if struck!
“Anthony!” she exclaimed.
The captain, obviously dazed, caught himself halfway to the floor, then waved her onward. “I just had the wind knocked from my sails. After him! Don’t let him leave my ship!”
Adonia bolted through the door. She was at a corner where two hallways met. To her right lay the crew quarters a good distance away. In front, a shorter hallway led to a ladder that reached the main deck. Coincidentally, the shorter hallway also housed her quarry in a long black coat and hood!
“Stop!” she ordered as she rushed after him, brandishing the knife she had pulled from the wall.
As she gave chase, the intruder drew a foot long pipe from under his coat. He tried to pitch it at Adonia but it fouled in the heavy fabric of the coat, falling short into the hallway and doing nothing. The man turned in alarm and ran for the ladder. Adonia hurled the dagger after him, but it flew wide! She snarled in frustration and redoubled her pace.
The mystery man reached the ladder. At the same moment, Adonia reached the fallen pipe. With a preternatural leap, the intruder jumped halfway up the rungs while, in a single motion, Adonia scooped up the pipe and hurled it at the man.
This time she did not miss.
Spinning end over end, the steel-riveted brass pipe slapped the man square in the back, careened off the wall to his left, then bounced back to slam against his ribs! The pipe dropped to the deck, followed quickly by its target.
“Ha!” Adonia rejoiced while she rushed forward, intent on capture.
Just before her outstretched hands could latch firmly onto the man, he abruptly rolled aside with a grunt. In one motion, the intruder was on his feet, a smile showing from beneath his dark cowl. Adonia snatched up the fallen pipe yet again from the floor, then swung at the man.
“I shouldn’t strike a lady,” he said in a rough voice. He sidestepped and deftly avoided Adonia’s attack. Spinning past, the man slammed a fist into her right cheekbone, the force of which bounced her head off the wooden ladder. With a sharp cry she collapsed to the floor, dazed. The man smiled again. “However, I somehow doubt you are any sort of a ‘lady’.”
A sharp whine caused him to spin abruptly around, tripping over Adonia in his haste. He grabbed at the ladder as he lost his balance.
Captain Hunter stood in the doorway to the armory, revolver raised. The Schofield twitched in his hand as it spat a swarm of darts in a flurry of blue-white static. They flashed through the air, narrowly missing the intruder. The projectiles peppered the wall with a rapid staccato sound, releasing their brutal charge. Deftly, Hunter yanked the spent cartridge from the weapon, then replaced it with another from his belt.
“You’re done, Sirrah! Stand down!” the captain ordered. Revolver aimed again at the intruder, Hunter slowly stalked forward.
Forty feet away, the man clung to the ladder at an uncomfortably odd angle, holding himself upright. “Ah, the legendary Hunter resolve. Brilliant!” he sneered, licking dry lips. Slowly, he began to ease upright. “You’ve involved yourself in a dangerous game, Captain. This one just may cost you dearly.”
From down the hall, beyond the corner towards the crew quarters, Anthony heard shouts and running footsteps. He knew his crew would be here in seconds; he had only to stall. The captain never blinked, never wavered his glance from his target. “How do you know me? What are you after?” he asked with a frown.
The man shifted his weight, ignoring the question. “You may have the Six, but you will never have the Seventh Knife, nor decipher them! Their secrets are not meant for you and yours!”
“What?” Hunter demanded, irritable and confused. Too late, he saw the man’s gloved hand move. The captain squeezed the trigger just as a bright flash filled the hallway, followed by a cloud of billowing gray smoke as thick as soup. Captain Hunter did not hesitate, rushing into the fog as fast as he could. However, by the time he reached the ladder the intruder had already vanished. Adonia groaned while she struggled to rise from where she had fallen.
Captain Hunter knelt down and helped Adonia onto her feet. A small knot of crewmen rounded the corner where the armory door stood open.
Little Tom was in the lead, practically filling the hallway with his muscled mass. “Cap’n! We heard the shoutin’. Where’s the fire?”
“Little Tom! Get O’Fallon down here and check all the contents of the armory. Then lock this bloody door! I want this room under guard until I say otherwise!” Hunter ordered, pointing at the thick door.
“Aye, Cap’n!” the blond-bearded man said with a quick nod.
Hunter blinked against the spots in his eyes and glanced over the small knot of sailors that had gathered near Little Tom. “We’ve an intruder aboard! I want this man found! Look for a man in a black, leather long coat with a hood. Look sharp! He might be a mesmerist.” The captain looked over the stern, determined faces of his crew. “No one stays alone, search in pairs! Now, snap to it!”
While the crew raced off, searching for the mysterious intruder, Little Tom pushed the armory door closed to latch it before leaving to locate the quartermaster.
Adonia rubbed the knot on the back of her head and glanced around, looking for any odd movements in the gloomy hallway. Her hair tendrils mostly hung limp, but occasionally twitched in pain when she winced. “What if he is no longer below decks?” she asked, concerned.
Captain Hunter walked briskly over to the nearby ladder, still engulfed in thick wisps of smoke. With a finger he stabbed the button on the opti that was bolted to the wall. The device obediently popped open. A quick turn on the crank, and Hunter spoke into the black speaking tube.
“Mr. Whitehorse!” Captain Hunter barked.
The reply was nearly immediate. “Captain? What’s the emergency?”
“We’ve an intruder aboard. I want someone with a rifle watching that gangplank between us and the Britannia. Send someone above to check the rigging atop the gas bags as well. No one arrives or leaves without being challenged,” Hunter ordered. “If anyone resists, shoot them. We’ve an excellent doctor who can see after them while they are in the brig!”
“Aye, Captain,” Krumer replied briskly, “right away!”
“Brilliant,” Hunter said, then replaced the device back on the stand. He glanced over at Adonia. “With this many eyes looking, we’re bound to trap him.”
“What of that journal?” she asked, touching the small welt on her head, then looking at her fingers as if checking for blood.
“For now it stays where I’ve hidden it,” Anthony replied flatly, then rubbed his eyes in vain to clear the spots from them. “That is, until we’ve made sure my ship is clear of unwanted guests!”