The Unreasonably Magnificent Tale of SteamJack
They were troubling times. The era of Pax Britannica had been broken by the Eastern War as nations vied for territories around the inland seas of Africa and Asia. The British RAF (Royal Aether Force) was put to task with their French allies to stop the momentum of the Russian Empire.
Astrea was the daughter of Cornelius Valentine, Captain of the private merchant vessel Eleanor, a swift, un-armed dirigible sloop. During the chaos of war Cornelius found good business on both sides selling the gasses and lightning they collected from the stratosphere.
One fateful night changed everything. The Eleanor, farming the cumulous in the far North, felt a shudder from a nearby explosion. Cornelius ordered the ship about and down in order to investigate. Once breaking the heaviest of the cloud cover he came upon a large naval vessel below. Its hull had been torn asunder and a fire had begun to burn through its lines to the canvas envelope. Crew from the lower decks raced up and desperately drained the engine of water to douse the flames.
Then, he saw it... the horror. The deck of the Eleanor grew silent as one by one the crew, rocked by fear, threw themselves over the side. At this moment, Astrea reached the deck from her cabin below to assess the cause of the commotion. As she crossed the threshold, she could see her father looking over the far rail. In a moment he turned. His skin and hair had lost all color. His eyes, dilated, were empty and held no resonance. He stared at his daughter, or to be more precise, he stared right through her as if staring into some unknown abyss. Then in a blink he was gone, collapsed over the rail.
Astrea jumped to the deck and raced to the far end, but it was too late. Her father was gone. She looked down and with a flash, the ship below exploded and curled it's way to the waiting earth; but in that flash she saw something, something dark even in the night sky, like roots of a tree but alive and thrashing, trailing something immense into the smoke and clouds. The vapor billowed in its wake and choked her.
Some wondered why she survived when all others on deck failed. Some say that she killed them all in order to claim her position. Others say that it was a tragic accident, an abject turn common in the state of war. Those that knew her believed her claim. Why did she not fall prey to the madness? Perhaps she was always a bit mad. Perhaps some advantage of her female rationale had saved her. In any case, she was alive and intent on destroying the creature that killed her father.
With the remaining crew that had been below deck during the encounter, she returned to Townsend Port. She renamed the ship the "Matanza" and went about using her father's sizable fortune to find information. Her father's prior merchant status had given her access to locales on both sides of the war, and she moved from port to port hearing of ships gone lost with no battle reported, all in the far North.
There were never survivors, at least until visiting a tavern in Trondheim. There, sitting at a lonely back table was an English priest named Brenner. He had a shock of white hair, and his hands trembled as he steadily drank. His eyes showed age, but he was in fact very young.
Father Brenner had been on the crew of the RAF airship Garnet out of Castlerock. Their intent was to take the barren route over the Arctic Ocean in order to hopefully get intel on Russian armaments in the Northeast. However just as they had started to cross over the Norwegian Sea they felt a large crash, like they had hit a rock, but it was no rock or mountain. It was a great beast. A cephalopod of cyclopean proportions had hold of the ship; but this was no octopus of the sea. It's tentacles were massive and enveloped the ship from all sides. It had claws, and it tore through the great dirigible, and ripped down the massive jib. Tendrils from its enormous head encoiled the sailors and ushered them into its gaping maw.
Its giant wings pounded the air as the ship dipped slowly through the troposphere to the rolling seas below. It was then that our priest appeared on deck and stared into the eyes of the beast, and began to panic. For deep in those eyes was a miasma of darkness, hopelessness and despair; a link to untold horrors, and as he stared he could feel his body go weak, and a tugging on his soul. Something clawed and tore at his essence. As his thoughts turned to madness he held on to his faith, and through prayer and meditation was somehow able to maintain control.
The ship was ripped asunder, and the poor priest collapsed as the ship fell into the ocean. He awoke floating on debris, cold and hungry. A few days later, near death, he was picked up by a fishing vessel. They brought him back to Trondheim, where he had remained ever since.
While most did not believe these tales, still others, especially those of family members that were lost, grabbed on to the lore giving a focus for their rage and despair. The most able of them joined as crew to the Matanza, and worked to prep the ship for its ultimate encounter with the beast. Cannons were added, powered by both black powder and steam. The ship was fitted with a larger boiler and stronger canvas, and the sides of the vessel were ribbed with defensive steel and a layer of protruding spikes.
Captain Astrea moved her search to the far north, farther than most men had ever ventured. It was here she found the destroyed city of giants, pyramids of stone built one upon the other, half buried in ice, and crumbling perhaps from some past ancient war.
Information was found here written as sculpture in bas relief. This city had been built by men for an ancient race, and the city had been attacked by creatures from the cosmos. The same creatures witnessed by Astrea and Father Brenner. There had been a great war that had ended in mutual destruction, or so it was thought.
It was clear from the carvings that the alien creatures caused panic in men, and to counter this the men were fed a concoction that must have calmed their nerves and disciplined their mind. The ingredients were detailed enough to make out: citrus, vanilla and guarana bean.
The components were easy enough to find. They called it SteamJack because they felt it gave them power over the beast and because of the blackjacks they drank it out of. Now with the ship fully armed and hopes that a defense had been found, they headed out on the hunt.
Weeks went by. Captain Valentine followed the reports of downed vessels closely, and finally one starlit night, without warning they were attacked.
At first the beast recoiled at the hardened and prickly hull of the Matanza. Immediately Astrea and her crew were on the creature, turning the ship hard starboard and bearing the portside guns directly at its side. For all accounts this voodoo elixir must have worked, as the crew was at their stations when she yelled "Fire!"
The creature let out a horrible shriek and fell back from the attack, perhaps surprised by taking its first real damage in thousands of years; but it returned quickly and in doing set itself up for another broadside from the starboard cannons. This blast it took in stride, though the damage was apparent. It quickly moved to engulf the Matanza with its tentacles, its claws grasping at the sides of the deck.
The crew was at the monster, hacking and slashing with their blades, while others continued to fire from the portals below. At this Astrea ran to the captain's cabin and emerged with what appeared to be some kind of monstrous hand cannon strapped to her left arm and shoulder. The weapon was tied to a line that the crew would later discover was piped directly into the main boiler.
She leapt from tendril to tendril moving up to those above the mandible, dodging the coiling limbs of the horrendous cephalopod. One final leap and she was at the head, finally staring directly into one of its great abysmal eyes. Her own eyes flashed with madness and with a smirk she sliced at the great eye before her and jammed the improvised cannon deep into the socket and fired.
The explosion shook the ship and Astrea blew back and fell fast over the railing. The dark creature fell backwards, its wings flapping aimlessly and violently. Its body expanded and contracted like a mighty billows as its great hands clawed at its own face. Dark smoke poured from hidden orifices covering its wavering form, and in one final expansion, the floundering evil beast exploded into a sticky mass that evaporated into curling dark vapor.
The crew erupted with a cheer, but Father Brenner ran to the railing where Astrea had fallen in the blind hope that she was still alive. When he got there he was amazed to find her hanging from her peculiar device still attached to the ship. To say the least, she was a bit dazed, but the elated sailors pulled her on board, and barring a few bruises, she was no worse for wear.
Back in port the crew regaled the locals with their grand tales of adventure. Their joy was soon crushed weeks later when they learned ships continued to disappear. Apparently the creature they destroyed was one of many arising from the Northern seas.
Captain Astrea Valentine returned to the air, distributing SteamJack to other ships, hoping to even the odds. Many more of the foul creatures would fall at her hands over time. In the end she was known as merchant pirate, monster slayer; and her name would resound in song and story through history.