"Captain! Aerial contact bearing one sixty!" The sensor officer called out from his station. "Distance sixty klicks! Speed... fifteen knots!"
"Do we have visual?" Blake asked from his seat while Trism stood over the sensor station staring at the screen.
"Eh... Yes Sir!" Trism replied and a display screen mounted forward on the bridge ceiling switched to display a fat cigar shaped bronze painted airship captured by a set of high powered camera. "Its displaying Cartel markings, Sir."
"Tell Icarus and Daedalus to go into active camouflage immediately!" Blake ordered. The comms officer quickly relayed Blake's orders and the two Icarus class airships that were flanking the Old Ugly went into stealth mode.
Runes that were etched all over the hull plating of the Icarus class airships glittered unnaturally before the air around the airships shimmered and both airships vanished into a cloud that appeared out of nowhere.
The mist spell that Magister Thorn once used to hide the Isles' shipwreck many years ago had been recreated into a spell formation that served to act as a camouflage cover for the Icarus airships. As long as one does not look too closely at the clouds that hid the airships, the Icarus airships for all purpose were hidden in plain sight.
Blake watched the boxy two Icarus with a counter shaded paint scheme, air force grey on the upper surface and pale underside to match sky glow, slowly gets covered in a thin mist as the runes on their hulls glowed and before long, both Icarus airships were wreathed in a clump of clouds.
The magical optic camouflage was not perfect as Blake could clearly see several exposed ship components sticking out here and there or at some areas, the cloud cover was too thin and the hull could be seen. But it was enough for both airships to bend into the skies and the magical optic camouflage worked best in cloudy skies.
Both cloud camouflaged airships started slowing down as moving at too fast a speed would make the 'clouds' appear unnatural and also cost some of its cover to trail away. Blake turned his attention back to the bridge and said, "Maintain speed and heading. Let's see what that ship will do."
Minutes tickled by slowly and the sensor officer called out, "Contact's speed is increasing and on direct intercept course with us! ETA one hour forty minutes!"
"Set condition yellow," Blake ordered.
"Aye!" Trism replied and soon the whole hands announcement blared throughout the ship informing the crew to be on standby. The blimp on the radar screen gradually came closer and closer and soon the large airship spewing steam came into view.
"Captain! They are hailing us with lights and flags!" A bridge crew called out. "They are saying to heave to and stop for a boarding inspection!
"An inspection?" Blake shook his head and turned to Trism. "Tell the crew to make ready for it. Everyone is to act according to the script!"
"Also have our guests moved into the concealed cabins," Blake said, referring to the Iron Kingdom Professor and his students, the two Cartel Lords, and the black dragon.
The Old Ugly, Gun Deck 2
Marine Captain Mills stood at the open air passageway and stared out of the viewport at the approaching Cartel airship and spat overboard. He ignored the wind ruffling up his civilian clothes which consisted of a simple leatherwork jacket, jerkins and rough leather trousers.
"Major!" A Marine in similarly dressed clothes handed him a shoulder holster and sidearm which Mills accepted. He held the rank of Captain but there could only be one Captain onboard the ship, hence he got bumped up a grade to Major.
"Tell the boys to play it cool," Mills said as he wore the holster under his work jacket. "The Captain wants us to keep our heads down and not rouse any suspicions. We are acting as a merchant crew now!"
"Got it Major!" The veteran Marine grinned. "Act normal!"
"You got that right!" Mills grinned back. "Also just to be on the safe side, have the boys standby near the big guns..."
The Marine nodded and ran off to spread the word while Mills checked his sidearm before returning to view the fast approaching airship. "Looks like a fucking giant shiny turd..."
With a loud clank, the grappling claws of the Cartel steam barge latched onto the boarding bars along the side of the main decks. The forward hatch fell down into a ramp and several short and heavily armored dwarvans poured out before forming up in a semi circle with their bidents facing outwards.
Blake eyed the twin prongs of the Cartel's soldiers pointing his way warily as he knew how much damage those short ranged lightning guns could do to unprotected flesh. He watched as Trism dressed in bright dandy clothes stepped forward with a smile on his face and greeted the dwarvans.
"Greetings my Lords!" Trism gave a courtly bow to the dwarvans. "Welcome onboard the Old Ugly!"
"By the Law of the Mountains! We have suspicions that you are carrying illegal cargo!" A dwarvan dressed like an officer said as he stepped between his guards. "This ship shall be impounded and seized under the authority of the Bronze Mountains of the Cartel!"
Trism's smiling face dropped as he gave an expression of shock and horror. "But... but... my Lord! We have cleared customs when we entered Cartel skies! I have the customs scrolls and letters for it!"
He leaned forward and a heavy pouch magically appeared in his palm. "I hope this helps clear up some misunderstandings! We are just a small humble merchant company..."
"Heh," The short dwarvan bounced the pouch in his hands, feeling the weight and hearing the sound of coins clinking against each other before it disappeared just as magically as it had appeared. "Order your crew all to fall in on the deck now!"
Trism gave a pleading look to the dwarvan officer but was ignored. He let out a helpless sigh and turned to Blake and gave out the order, "Tell the crew to assemble on the deck now."
Blake nodded and he went below decks and informed the waiting crew. "Assemble up top! Be prepared for anything! Go!"
The waiting crew nodded nervously and they left their stations and appeared on the top deck. By the time they assembled on the deck, another huge barrel shaped steam barge had attached its self alongside the hull and more weapon wielding dwarvans came out.
"Is this all?" The dwarvan officer asked impatiently. He gave a glance to the departing Cartel airship before turning back to Trism who nodded in confirmation. "Go search the ship now!"
His shock troopers saluted and stormed off into the airship, checking every cabin and hold for any one hiding away before they returned to the decks. "All clear, my Lord!"
"Officers on one side," The dwarvan officer gestured to Trism. "The boiler crew on another side, the rest in the middle!"
The crew and officers grumpily shuffled to position and the dwarvan officer nodded before he said, "I am Sub Lord Whitmore! This ship is now under the command of the Bronze Mountain of the Cartel!"
"You all will obey my orders as you have previously to the Captain of this ship!" Sub Lord Whitmore commanded. "Any resistance or disobedience shall be punished severely!"
His words made the crew growled angrily as they glared at the dwarvans who barely came up to their chest height. The dwarvan shock troops quickly raised their weapons up threateningly at the crew. Sub Lord Whitmore continued on without a pause as if he did not notice the angry reactions of the crew. "Officers and crew for now shall be confined to their cabins and only the boiler crew to continue their duties inside the boiler room!"
"Once we returned to port, rest assured that an investigation of illegal smuggling will be carried out!" The dwarvan officer declared in a bored tone. "For now, you all except the boiler crew are to be confined in their cabins! Troopers!"
The shock troopers started gesturing a group of crew back towards their cabins. Sub Lord Whitmore let out a sigh of frustration as he watched the Cartel airship leaving in the distance and snapped to one of his men. "Hurry up and get this piece of junk running! Or we will miss out on the good stuff with the Hungry Hands!"
Blake frowned as heard the short exchange of the dwarvans and he glanced at the Cartel airship that was already a small smudge in the distance and formulated a plan of action. He gestured Trism with his eyes and activated his throat mike, "All hands, make ready."
The angry crew hearing Blake's words in their concealed ear pieces momentarily paused in their grumbling made the dwarvan officer took notice. He stared at the crew sudden change of behavior with confusion and suspicion when Blake ordered, "Take out the soldiers first!"
Almost instantly, Marines hidden behind concealed bulkheads eased their way out stealthy and suppressed weapons puffed. Bullets slammed into the helmeted heads of the Cartel, most of them punched through the metal while some unfortunately ricocheted off and injured the nearby crew. The sudden ambush surprised the Cartel forces and the waiting crew charged into the remainder of their ranks.
Concealed daggers, knives, truncheons, pistols and revolvers were pulled out and the crew of the Old Ugly slammed into the short dwarvans with overwhelming numbers. The still standing heavily armored shock troopers were piled on by several crew members and dragged down to the decks where daggers and knives prodded the weak spots in the armor causing blood to spill on the decks.
Blake's revolver roared and the short armored dwarvan before him pitched backwards from the powerful point blank shot in the chest. Blake preferred the old 6.5 mm revolver over the newer .45 caliber pistols as it had more stopping power. He stepped over the curled up dwarvan gasping in pain and went straight for the dwarvan officer that was panicking and retreating towards one of the steam barges.
Trism followed along side wielding a long thin dagger and a smoking pistol in each hands, providing cover for the Captain as they strolled through the one sided fight. Blake's revolver roared again and the retreating Sub Lord Whitmore screamed as the hi powered round blew a hole in his shin.
The dwarvan fell down and he clenched his wounded leg, cursing and screaming in dwarvan tongue. Blake stood over him while Trism disarmed the downed dwarvan and asked, "Now, before you bleed out to death on my decks, I got a question to ask you."
"I heard you saying something about the Hungry Hands," Blake squatted down next to the wounded dwarvan, "What relationship do you have with them?"
"The mountains curse you!" Sub Lord Whitmore spat at Blake. "You shall nev-"
Trism kicked out at the wound of the dwarvan officer, cutting off his words as the dwarvan screamed in pain. "Do not disrespect the Captain!"
Blake wiped the spit off and rubbed it against the sweat stained uniform of the dwarvan before he nonchalantly gestured to his wound. "Well, I have plenty of time. You... not so much... So... If you want to have more time or less time in this world..."
Blake gave a shrug as he straightened up and prepared to walk away, "Its up to you..."
"WAIT WAIT!" The dwarvan called out between clenched teeth. His bearded face was already turning white from loss of blood. "We- We are dispatched to collect the seasonal tribute from th- the Hungry Hands!"
"So the pirates work for you? The Cartel?" Blake frowned as he squatted back down next to the dwarvan.
"N- No, the Hungry Hands are not pirates!" Sub Lord started trembled as his body was starting to go into shock. "The- They are part of the Bronze Mountain Cartel Air Fleet!"