Tristan and Kothar Peered out of the alleyway towards the sky as people rushed through the streets. Vender carts were overturned, market stalls smashed, and ruined produce made it next to impossible for the sea of people to escape the carnage from above. Kothar pointed to the west, bringing Tristan’s attention back to the skies. The Kraxus fought several Abydosian Guard warships near the edge of the city. One by one the warships were being torn apart by the Kraxus’ 36 cannons and 6 main deck arbalests. Wreckage rained down on the city below, causing fires to breakout all across the lower level.
Captain Ferasi was smart enough to keep her ship just below the upper level of Abydos where the military and city elite had better siege weapons to attack airships. The lower level defenses had either been wiped out in the initial attack or couldn’t reach high enough to do any damage.
Tristan grabbed tightly to the building’s corner as he watched the Kraxus’ two gunboats tear off the main deck in search of prey. He knew the gunboats only held 10 men each, but they had enough firepower to wipe out a district when working together. Just then a deep guttural screech rushed over the rooftops to the south, snapping Tristan’s attention that way.
“What in Abydos is that?” the dwarf Halfgrim, asked from farther back in the alley. He, Berwyn, and Mish’Ka watched the other end of the alleyway and the skies to the north.
“That…” He was cut off by a roar; he smirked at the uneasiness of the dwarf, “…would be the sound of griffins and drakes.” Tristan pointed to the Northwest where Captain Ferasi’s drakes were locked in battle with several of the city’s griffin riders. Blood, scales, and feathers fell like rain on the buildings below. Because the drakes were twice the size of the griffins, 2-3 griffin riders each ganged up on individual drakes. But it wasn’t enough against the sheer ferocity and seasoned attacks of the drakes. 3 griffins were already laying dead in the city below, their riders lying motionless next to them. 2 more griffins were wounded badly enough that the riders had landed on rooftops nearby to the battle. They may have been down but they were not out of the battle, for Tristan saw they had picked up their bows and were firing arrow after arrow into the sky.
Halfgrim gripped his axe tightly in anger, his knuckles almost white from the pressure. He spat on the ground in disgust as another griffin fell from the sky. The dwarf saw the magnificent creature take numerous lashings from the captain’s whips before plummeting below. The rider had been ripped from the saddle by the drake and flung into the district farther away as the griffin’s limp body crashed through the roof of a second story building. The immense weight of the body caused the floor to give way and there was a second thundering sound and then screams as people tried to flee the destruction.
“It ain’t right Berwyn.” Halfgrim growled as he stole a glance at Tristan before continuing in a lower tone, “There is a battle here and we are running the other direction. I am not a coward to be seen skulking from one street to the next.” He smacked his axe against his chest with pride, “I am an Axethrower! You know that better than any other my friend.”
Berwyn walked over to the dwarf laying a hand on his shoulder as he knelt in front of him, “I know we are not runners, we are not cowards, but I also know that Tristan and Brother Thomas carry great burdens and need our help to find the scrolls.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then looked to the sky and then to Tristan and the others. “I do not believe we will miss the fun my friend before the day’s end.” He nodded toward Tristan and the others, “Our new friends have already seen some action.”
Kothar nodded, his arms folded as he watched the two, “Enough action to last a lifetime, but I would do it again if it meant another shot at the ones destroying this city.”
“I too wish to fight, but like your friend said, some things are more important than bloodshed.”
“Aye…” Halfgrim whispered, memories flooding his mind. “That is also true, I am sorry, it is just the carnage rot by that witch is eating me up inside.”
Tristan looked away from the battle, just then, sorrow filling his eyes as another airship exploded and fell toward the city. “I, more than anyone understand, master dwarf,” he pointed at the battle, “They are here because of me, because my brother sent them to get me, the medallion, and the scrolls. He will stop at nothing to get them, sort of razing every city to the ground. He…” Tristan closed his eyes in pain, “…he serves the Dark Lord as his general over all the armies, and trust me when I say that Malak is a soldier to the core.”
Just then a thrumming sound echoed down the streets and shook the buildings. A shadow began to engulf their building as a wind whipped down the alleyway, tussling hair and trash about.
“What is that sound?” Berwyn yelled, shielding his eyes from dirt and detritus. People ran screaming and the shadow got closer to their hiding spot.
“It’s one of the gunboats coming this way,” Tristan moved to the edge of the building where Kothar peered around the side. Tristan moved to the opposite, scurrying behind a stack of crates half fallen over. He waved the others down as he leaned his back against the wall and looked down the street. A market stall exploded into the air flipping end over end before crashing through a building opposite Tristan. He ducked down covering his head as cloth and wood rained down over the street.
People in two’s and three’s ran for their homes or as far away from the battle as they could. Several people stopped in the street, frozen in fear, as a large beast made of steel and wood glided low over the rooftops. Its sails were crimson red and tattered and shredded along the edges. Clockwork gears and steam powered engines took up a third of the rear of the ship. The rudder was a metal fan with wooden trim that was sharp enough to slice a griffin from tail to beak. Two arbalests were mounted to the front of the ship and the sides each held 4 cannons. Numerous grapple lines and rope ladders lined the main deck so the men could easily attack targets on the ground and in the air. For the gunboat to float in midair in one place or to help with tight maneuvers, it had 3 disks attached to the bottom of the ship. Through the use of power crystals and magic the discs slid on rails to help take the tight turns and to hover over targets with ease.
“Oh my, look at the mechanics of that thing!” Halfgrim’s eyes went big as he finally got a good look at the ship. “What I wouldn’t give to look at those engines up close.”
Tristan smiled at the dwarf for he was thinking along those same lines. “I believe master dwarf you will get that chance,” he turned to the others who had now moved closer to the street entrance.
“Huh?” The dwarf looked up quizzically.
“Berwyn what do you think? That ship would get us to the vaults a lot faster than these streets,” Mish’Ka and Kothar knealt closer to them.
“We still have half the district to cross before we reach the entrance.” Kothar chimed in. Berwyn looked at the ship and the surrounding buildings. “It would be faster but we would be an easier target for the Krazxus and the drakes if they saw us.”
Halfgrim nodded thoughtfully, thinking about the situation, “We also don’t know where the other gunboat is, but…” he looked at the others a gleam in his eyes, “…this is our chance to help the people of this city in our own way, and…” He looked to Berwyn, “…continue our mission.”
Everyone nodded with grins spreading from cheek to cheek; Mish’Ka winked at the dwarf. Halfgrim’s cheeks turned a rose color as he quickly looked at the ground, moving the dirt around with his boot. Tristan and Berwyn chuckled softly as they turned back to the sky, watching the gunboat once more. Several of the crew had crossbows and longbows out and were target practicing on civilians and stray animals.
“Tristan…” Berwyn growled, his knuckles turning white as he gripped his weapons tightly, “…I hope you have a plan soon.”
Tristan quickly studied the landscape of the surrounding buildings and shops, his eyes coming to rest on a clock tower. His face widened with a grin, “Yes I do.”
• • •
A tall man, his salt and pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail, stood on the forecastle of an immense airship. It swayed in the air currents of the upper level of Abydos as it floated lazily moored against one of the city’s many air towers. Like a forest, the airfield stretched out and around the Vindictive Hunter with numerous other airships floating in the wind.
The captain looked away from his spyglass, the gears clicking away as he adjusted the lenses. Movement off to the starboard side caught his eye as he noted many of the other captains hustling their crews to prepare to leave at a moment’s notice. He couldn’t blame them, few could tangle with the Kraxus and hope to survive. Not a single merchant ship, most of them weaponless, would have a chance either.
The Vindictive Hunter and Captain Armaias Fulco were long time rivals of the Kraxus and Captain Ferasi. Pound for pound the two ships were equal in firepower, but the Hunter was slimmer, faster, and instead of drakes the Vindictive Hunter carried 12 steam powered gliders. The gliders were an invention of a long time friend, Professor Hudmo Grimbolt. In fact most, if not all, of the improvements to the ship were of Hudmo’s design.
Captain Fulco turned back to the skies of the lower level once more to watch the battle rage on. Thanks to an improvement by the dwarf a few years back, he could now see an object a couple of miles away up close. It took a while to learn the combination of lenses to get the right distance, but the payoff was worth it. He could see Argok, Ferasi’s First Mate, laying the whip into her crew to keep them in the fight.
And fight they did…
The Kraxus was currently grappled to a merchant vessel; the crews in mortal combat on the deck. The merchant ship, The Allegheny, Fulco noted was beginning to list and bob to one side.
It’s a wonder she is still floating, he thought. The Kraxus must be keeping her in the air to plunder.
Sure enough Fulco saw lines running near the belly of the Allegheny to the side of the Kraxus, numerous crates and barrels were being pulled across to the their cargo hold.
They’re efficient, I’ll give them that, he sighed as he looked back to the fight above deck.
The Allegheny’s crew was losing badly, he could only make out a few handful left fighting, and even they were being swarmed by pirates.
The captain heard footsteps hurrying up the wooden stairs behind him. The heavy thudding and creaking of the boards meant it was his First Mate, Bartolio. An ebony skinned man from the Whispering Sands Desert, he was 7 feet tall and tattooed from head to toe in red ink that glowed like embers against his dark skin. He never wore a shirt with his silken pants and leather sandals as he made his way in this world. He had once told Fulco when he asked why, that the ink on his skin needed to see the sky. The captain waved it off as superstition but whenever he looked at the tattoos he could swear they moved, and so it made him wonder more than once.
“Capt’n, a message has just come for ya,” the tall man handed the scroll to him and waited with arms crossed off to the side.
Fulco slid the spyglass into an inner pocket of his midnight blue overcoat. “Whose it from?” He took the scroll and leaned his back against the railing.
“One of the proffessa’s runnas brought it,” Bartolio’s accent still had a hard time around the r’s in the common tongue, even after all these years.
Captain Fulco skimmed through the message and then stopped cold. He re-read the message again and again, before rolling it up and turning back to the battle.
His second noted the change in the captain immediately, “What be the problem capt’n?” He took a couple of steps closer, but thought better of it and decided to give the captain some time. He looked around the deck and noticed a few sailors nearby tying things down. “Snick, Snick,” he quietly got their attention and nodded his head to the other side of the boat. The men nodded and quietly slipped away to give them privacy.
So it has started, he thought to himself as he saw 2 griffins dip over the edge of the upper level after a drake.
I never really believed the old dwarf, but…If Ferasi dares to openly attack the city then the stories must be true.
Fulco took his 3-pointed black leather hat off his head and ran his hand through his hair as he thought over the implications.
It will be more dangerous than anything the crew has faced; I have to give them a choice to leave or not. It is only right to have the freedom to choose.
“Who am I to send a man to his death?” He whispered to himself. The Kraxus released its ropes just then from the Allegheny, and floated a short distance away. Captain Fulco knew what was coming; he stood at attention and held his hat over his heart out of respect.
“Capt’n?” Bartolio looked at him and then the battle beyond.
BOOM! BA-BOOM! BA-BOOM! BOOM!
Thunder rolled out in an earsplitting crescendo as the entire starboard side cannons fired, engulfing the Allegheny in smoke and fire. The captain and Bartolio bowed their heads in respect as the flaming wreckage rained down on the city below.
Looking back at the battle below captain Fulco cleared his throat, getting Bartolio’s attention without looking at him. “The professor and a group of people are on an important mission and will be carrying precious cargo with them. Get the guest quarters ready and then gather the entire crew on the deck within the hour.” He put his hat back on to protect his eyes from the sun. Pulling the spyglass out once more, he watched as the Kraxus slowly began to circle the lower districts once more.
“The ‘entire’ crew, capt’n?” Bartolio was taken aback at what the implications were.
“Yes my friend, all of them. Within the hour they need this ship battle-ready, and ready to cast off at a moment’s notice.” He lowered the spyglass a moment hesitantly as he turned his hand toward Bartolio, “The men need to know what’s going on and what we’re getting into before we ship off. I will not send a man to his death without giving him a chance to choose to live.”
Bartolio nodded, “Aye, capt’n. It will be done,” he answered solemnly, “You can count on me at ya side.”
“I know, Bartolio. I know,” he turned back to the Kraxus, looking through the spyglass once more. The Kraxus was slowly moving higher, though she was still below the upper city’s defenses.
Smart girl, he thought as he swept the skies over the lower level. The drakes had shifted their aerial battle with the griffins.
He leaned closer for a second before turning to Bartolio, “Hurry, send Adalia up here, the battle is shifting. I believe it’s coming up here soon.”
“Yes capt’n,” with that Bartolio thundered down the steps and began barking orders.
Captain Fulco turned back to the Kraxus once more, “Your move Ferasi, how far will you go for the prize.”
How far will you go?
• • •
A small figure slipped in and around the shadows of the docks surrounding the Vindictive Hunter. Carefully the rogue shot behind a stack of crates as 2 men carried heavy sacks to the side of where he was hiding. Zookji crouched low pulling his body completely into the shadows of the crates as the crewmen took a break and leaned against the boxes. From his vantage point the gnome could see the one on the left was bare-chested, black braided hair down to his back, and tattooed from head to toe. The other one was young, sandy hair falling to his shoulders, and light stubble across his face.
Explosions sounded off in the distance causing the young man to jump.
“Easy lad, the battle is still in the lower levels,” the tattooed one said as he pulled out a leather box and a canvas pouch. Pulling out a dull white square of parchment from the box he took a pinch of weed out of the pouch and wrapped the paper into a long thin tube. “You need to learn to steel your nerves kid if your gonna be on the Hunter,” another box, wooden, small, was pulled out. Inside crude matches lay in neat stacks inside.
“Do you think the battle will come up here? To us?” The sandy haired one gripped the edge of the box as he watched the battle.
“Possible, but you just stick to what the captain says and he will keep you safe.” The older man puffed away as he turned to see the battle. Don’t worry lad, keep your heart strong and your wits about you and you will do just fine.”
Footsteps came thundering down the landing plank nearby. Zookji sneaked a peak around the edge of the box. Standing on the last few steps with his arms crossed was the largest ebony skinned human the gnome had ever seen.
“What ya tink you two r doin?” The tattooed one put out his smokes with his foot and grabbed a heavy sack. The young one did as well. “Capt’n wants everyone on deck fer a talkin’ to within the hour.”
“No worries boss, just catching our breath and telling the lad here about how the captain will take care of the Kraxus.” With a big smile he nodded towards the young man.
Bartolio caught his meaning, “Aye, lad…” nodding his head, “If anyone can take the Kraxus it be the capt’n.” With that he nodded to the other man before heading down the docks to gather the others.
The other 2 carried their burdens up the ramp and disappeared into the ship. Zookji waited a few minutes more, plotting his entrance into the ship. He had followed Hudmo’s messenger here hoping to slip onto whatever transportation the group would take before they got there. But the more Zookji looked around the less confident he was of sneaking aboard. The docks were filled with workers and crewmen scurrying about, mostly on edge from the battle abroad. That wasn’t good for a rogue when everyone was on high alert. The gnome took in his surroundings one more time, when he noticed a large pallet sitting on a cargo net in the middle of one of the platforms. 2 men were busily loading crates and barrels onto the pallet, dodging the slack ropes that hung, tied to the corners of the net. Zookji smiled as he realized he had found his way aboard.
The rogue slipped from box to shadow to box again until he was only a few yards away from the pallet. Pressed tightly against a stack of barrels as far back into the shadows as he could, Zookji studied the men’s routine. When one man dropped a barrel full of potatoes, the contents went rolling everywhere. The gnome used the distraction to climb onto the pallet’s contents and slip into a small crevice in the middle. Sliding a barrel in front of his view, Zookji settled in for a long, bumpy ride, and was sure it was to be a long voyage too.