It had gotten better in the course of his duel, with the Elfs now outnumbered and falling fast. He cried out, “Claremont! Where are you?” in hopes of finding the Captain, although he wasn’t about to hold his breath. Artemis was pleasantly surprised as an odd accent rang out over the deck.
“Hunter! Over here!”
He turned to the source of the voice and saw the Captain, waving his tricorne hat over his head as a signal. Captain Claremont, a slightly short man with red-gold hair and a stubbly beard, looked up in time to catch an Elf throwing a knife at him as the attacker floated down from the boarding ship. He managed to duck in time, clamping his ridiculously plumed hat back down on his head. The knife flew through the giant peacock feather poking up from the hat and stuck to the wheelhouse doorjamb behind him.
He clambered to his feet, staring at the knife, then at the Elf who threw it. He drew his own pistol, an eight-barreled monstrosity that looked comically large in the diminutive man’s hand, and fired. The ball caught the elf in the chest, and he dropped to the deck with a splatter and crunch.
The pirate grinned, looking pleased with himself, and waved Artemis over. The Hunter growled and stalked to the Captain, stepping over bodies and dodging duels. At last he made the wheelhouse, taking the steps two at a time. Claremont looked about to tell him something, but Artemis grabbed him by the lapels and shook him, almost dislodging his hat.
“And precisely when were you going to tell us you’re wanted by Elfs?” he shouted into the shorter man’s face.
Claremont put up his hands in a placating gesture, trying to ward off the maddened Fae killer. “I didn’t think they’d find us so quickly! We’re a long way from Elfland! How was I to know they’d be here?”
“Not the point, you drunken pirate!” Artemis still had him by the collar, tightening his grip as he continued yelling. “This would’ve been good information to have before we chartered your ship! If we make it out of this I’m going to beat you blue!”
“All apart of doing business, friend. There are certain risks one must take in my line of work.”
Artemis, still holding the man up by his collar, looked back over the hull of the Highreach. There were about ten Elfin vessels following them, keeping a steady pace, not counting the one above them still disgorging boarders. The ship above them had also taken to dropping depth charges. In this instance they were barrels of black powder with short fuses, and their aim was getting better. Artemis let Claremont go as a cask exploded about ten yards above the wheelhouse, rocking the ship with the concussion.
The Captain looked up from his new position on the deck, mumbling, “That’s going to be a problem.”
“I should say so!” Artemis hollered at him. “How do you intend to solve it?”
“Well I was thinking you, me, and some of the boys go up there,” he pointed up towards the Elfin warship, “And disable their aircraft. It’s the smallest, fastest one in the fleet they sent. If we can get that one out from over us, maybe down into the forest, we can lose the rest of them relatively simply.”
Artemis boggled at him. That had to be the most insane plan he’d ever heard in his entire life. “You can’t hit them with your cannons?”
“We might could if we turned the ship sideways, but then we’d all fall off. Trust me, I know how to take down an Elfin airship. We’ll be in and out in no time.”
Artemis growled again. This was becoming incredibly frustrating. The last thing he wanted to do was board an Elfin warship and try to disable it, especially while it was fully manned. Or Elfed, in this case. However, he didn’t really see another way out of this mess, and if Claremont really could disable it from within…
“Rrrgh, fine!” he shouted at last. “But if we don’t make it out I’m going to torment you for eternity! So how do we get up there?”
Claremont picked himself off the deck and grinned roguishly. “Harpoons.”
“And they’re not going to cut that off?”
“That’s what the boys with the rifles are for. I’ve got them all ready to go. Here’s an extra set of climbing spikes.”
“Well you don’t think we can reach the deck with our harpoon guns from here, do you? We’ll have to climb up the hull.”
“This gets better and better.”
“Don’t be such a pansy. The rifle boys are ready, we just need our team.” Clarey turned and saw that the men had already assembled. “And here they are!” He swept his hand over the group, and Artemis took in five very rough looking characters. These were most definitely pirates, bristling with weapons, ready for a boarding action.
The Hunter saw the pirates setting up a few harpoon launchers, load them, and fire them at the bottom of the Elfin ship. The giant hooks launched upwards, each finding a sort of mark in the bottom of the Elfin ship. The ropes they dragged behind them went nearly taught, still having a bit of give, and Artemis could hear the shouts of dismay and panic from the ship above them. Claremont grinned as he watched the tableau, and signaled to the rifle boys.
“All right, boys,” he lifted his cutlass, then swept it down as he shouted, “Fire!”
The boys let fly, amazingly accurate, and Elfs began dropping from the sky. Artemis marked their skill with long rifles, and made a mental note to not get on the bad side of these pirates. Despite how badly he wanted to strangle Captain Claremont at the moment. He followed the pirate down to the main deck, where they began scaling the ropes toward the Elfin ship.
Foot by foot they went, Claremont and Artemis on one rope, the others finding their own. Artemis assumed the forces were divided in case something happened to one of the ropes, the rest would be able to complete their mission. This was not an encouraging thought, and he stowed it away, following the pirate up to the ship with renewed fervor.
At last they gained the hull, and Artemis took in the damage that the harpoon had done. It was in there, no mistake about it, and would not come out without further damaging the ship. They fitted the climbing spikes to their hands and began scaling the side of the ship, punching them into the wood of the hull and dragging themselves up, foot by tenuous foot.
Artemis tried very hard not to think about several things. How insane this whole endeavor was, for one. How very, very far it was to the ground, for another. He gritted his teeth, lips peeled back, the wind nearly dislodging his hat and flapping his cloak around like a mad bird.
Claremont must have noticed because he called back, “Don’t worry, Hunter! We’ll be there in no time! Just don’t look down!”
“Aye, and when we get down I’m going to skin your carcass and make a new flag for your comrades!”
“Hahaha, that’s the spirit!” Claremont shouted.
Artemis wasn’t certain Claremont had heard him, but decided it wasn’t worth it to repeat himself. He struggled a bit with the unfamiliar tools, but the prospect of death contracts the mind wonderfully, and he got the hang of it enough to get to the railing and gain the deck. They leapt over together, becoming a whirlwind of blades and pistol shots. Artemis expended several more of his flintlocks, and Claremont’s monstrosity rang out as he emptied the barrels into the Elfin defenders.
They ran amok over the deck, the other pirates soon reinforcing them, cutting down Elfs and firing wildly into crowds of the Fae folk. Every shot found a target, and Claremont led them belowdecks, finding a passage that Artemis would’ve missed had the pirate not been there. The good Captain booted open the door, opening fire on the Elfs inside before rushing in with his cutlass. He holstered his ridiculous but deadly revolver, and devoted his full attention to fighting their way to his goal.
The boarders formed a wedge, cutting their way to the engineering deck where the mysterious mechanisms that kept the ship in magical flight were stored. Past two other decks they ran, spilling the lifeblood of many an Elfin defender. Finally they reached the engineering deck, and Artemis stopped in wonder.
There were many machines here, and he had no idea what any of them did. There were pumps, tubes, vials, pipes, great steam engines thrice the size of a large man, and in the far corner what appeared to be a creature of some sort under glass. Seemed an odd place to Artemis to keep a specimen, but he wasn’t one to attempt to fathom the odd habits of Elfs. He assumed they would wreck some of this machinery and be on their way, but Claremont led them over to the glass tube. It rose nearly to the ceiling, and upon closer inspection Artemis could tell that there actually was a creature in there.
It looked like an unformed child, but obviously of no origin Artemis could place. Its eyes were large and black, with no lids to speak of. There was no neck, the head meeting the shoulders without a break. Its arms were vestigial, small things that reminded Artemis of a plucked chicken. It had no legs to, but the bottom of the body tapered into a kind of tail, curling in on itself. It floated in the tube of bubbling fluid, gently rocking up and down in its cradle. There was a faint blue glow coming from the creature.
Claremont grinned at it and placed a hand on the glass of the tube avariciously. He turned to his men. “Guard the door. The Hunter and I will handle this. Be sure we are not interrupted.”
“Is that wise? We are outnumbered here,” Artemis began, but Claremont cut him off.
“It’s fine. These are my finest fighters, and I need time to reload my revolver.”
“Fair enough. So, what is this…thing?” Artemis gestured at the alien fetus in the tube.
“This, my friend, is how the Elfs power their airships.”
“Oh yes.” Claremont’s eyes glinted as he warmed to the telling. “Turns out the Elfs aren’t as sunshine and rainbows as the tales would have you believe. This creature is one of their slave races. They breed them for this. Their unborn children are concentrated, distilled magic. They use it to power their navy.” He turned from his consideration of the creature to Artemis and smirked. “And we have to do a mercy.”
He began loading his revolver, and Artemis took the opportunity to reload a few of his own guns. It was no large ordeal, he had several packets of prepared ammunition ready for such an occasion, and as they worked Claremont talked.
“This is what they’re after me for, by the way. I know their secret.”
“Don’t tell me you have one of these things in your ship?”
“Gods no!” The Captain looked affronted at the implication. “I’m not so immoral as these Fae creatures. Although I do have some Elfin technology. That’s another reason they’re after me. But this is the big secret they want to keep, and I endanger that secret, if you understand. The Elfs used to use magical crystals to power their airships, only found in Elfland. That’s what powers my ship. It’s what makes my ship better than those steam contraptions built in human lands. We’re faster, because we reverse engineered the Elfin technology. But if news of this got out, they’d have every merciful church’s armies knocking down the doors to Elfland to end their vile slavery.” He finished loading his gun, and pointed it at the creature in the tube.
“You’re not going to kill it, are you?”
“Of course I am. These creatures are slaves, Cromwell. Ripped from their mother’s wombs to be a living battery. They’ll never grow up, never have families of their own, never know a true life. They can’t live outside those damned tubes, trust me, I’ve tried before. So the only merciful thing to do is kill them and set them free from the torment these monsters inflict on them.”
With this Claremont pulled the trigger, and the tube exploded.
This story is part of a series of stories about the professional monster hunter Artemis Cromwell. If you would like to read more of his story, here are the links to The Hunter (story 1), and The Gypsy Queen & The Ranger (story 2).