An interlude in Shangri-La, with a little surprise.
|As Pandora exited the Aether, we were treated to a spectacular view. Approaching at three thousand feet, the skies were remarkably clear, and we were able to view the islands that make up this place called Shangri-La. Nestled in an area of bright blue ocean, Shangri-La is a chain of eleven islands that enjoys a temperate climate most of the year. Nine of the islands are very sparsely inhabited, with almost no visible improvements to be seen. Green and beautiful, they seem to represent the wonder that the promise of unspoiled nature can fulfill.
The two largest islands, when taken together, resemble a question mark. Approaching the largest island from north, east, or south there are no beaches readily evident. A high cliff makes up the visible perimeter of the island, surrounding an enormous natural harbor that opens to the west. This harbor provides an expansive anchorage for all manner of ocean-going vessels, easily holding an average of just over a hundred ships at any one time. On the north side of the harbor is a large set of high piers for the docking of airships. It is said that there have been as many as 25 airships here at one time, although there seems to be no real consensus as to why so many would have been in one place to begin with. It is here, sheltered by the great natural wall, that the city of Shangri-La thrives on a never-ending flow of commerce from places and times all over the earth.
The city itself is a riot of color extending south from the piers and completely covering the bottom of the question mark. The beautiful handworked wood of the pagodas and shrines is a lasting testament to the loving care the inhabitants give these ancient structures. In Shangri-La the Orient beckons, weaving a mystical air as one wanders the streets surrounded by the dazzling array of decoration that graces every surface in sight. The carved images of serpents and birds are never far away. Embellishment is the rule for everything from the grandest of temples to the lowliest of shacks. This is borne out by noting that the bollards used to tether ocean-going vessels are carved in the shapes of great whales breaching the surface, and soaring eagles and geese adorn the anchorage cleats for airships on the high piers.
The smaller of the two major islands is a rough oval separated from its mate by a half-mile of water. It's about 10 square miles in area, and rises to a central conical peak about 1000 feet high. It is heavily forested, and is often thinly blanketed in fog all along the shore line. The only remarkable feature of the island is the wall surrounding the peak about 300 feet below its summit.
The wall itself is stone, about 12 feet high. Round towers, 15 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, are built into the wall every hundred feet along its entire length. Every fifth tower has a gateway leading through the wall to the slopes beyond. There are numerous stories about the wall and the towers but when pressed, most of the inhabitants will readily admit that no one actually knows who built the wall or why. All that is known for sure is that it predates the city by over 500 years and was long abandoned before the first shrine was ever built on the main island.
Once we docked, Spartacus Kane asked Emily and me to accompany him to meet someone special. Kane's mastiff, Roller, preceded us down the gangplank as if he already knew exactly where to find his master's friends. Quite some distance down the wharf, we met Kane's grandson, Samuel. The family resemblance was unmistakeable, their ages forming the only discernible difference. Very soon after our meeting, Kane's daughter joined us on the dock and was approached by her father to become Pandora's purser while we were on our quest. Much discussion resulted, since this meant that Samuel would be exposed to Aethereal travel just as he reached his teenage years, which would alter his life cycle drastically. We all adjourned to a nearby public house called The High Clouds to eat and discuss the particulars, allowing Samuel the time to make his choice. It was a well-appointed place, with large thick-planked tables and good stout chairs. The day's fare was written carefully on a large slate over the bar, and the lighting dimmed the further you got from the door, providing a measure of privacy.
Over a light meal, it was decided that they would indeed join the airship's company. Kane excused himself to meet with someone, promising to return shortly. The four of us made small talk while we awaited his return and were suddenly joined by Normal Pettigrew, the navigator from the Pandora. He greeted Emily and I as if he hadn't seen us in ages, even though we'd left his company less than an hour before. As he embraced me, I recognized the heft and shape of my Colt as he slid it into the back of my belt under my coat. As we all sat down once again, I felt a bump against my leg. Pettigrew and I locked eyes for a moment, and I reached under the edge of the table, where he handed me a very large Bowie knife with a staghorn handle, keeping its twin in his own hand. He smiled broadly and looked over my shoulder towards the door, and then said simply, "Miss Puryear, we may need your dazzling talents in a moment, if you please." Emily became immediately alert and shifted her weight in preparation to stand as needed.
At that moment, the door slammed open and two very large gentlemen stepped into the room. They stood for a few moments, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting, and Emily spoke quietly, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we may have to fight our way out, luv." Never having seen the two men before, I knew I would simply have to trust her judgement that might be the case. After looking at their reflection in the bar mirror, I must admit that their appearance made such a leap of faith a very short one indeed.
The pair were obviously hard characters. The closer one wore a battered black bowler with a rather long red feather in the hatband. His face was criss-crossed with tatooed blue and yellow lines following the contours of his face, accentuating every fold and feature. Placed as they were, they caused a distortion of his countenance into a twisted caricature that was alarming under the best of circumstances. He wore a dark gray canvas duster over a ruffled blue shirt, and had a pair of very large knives crossed in his belt at the front. He was easily six and a half feet tall, and looked hard enough to eat the planks on which he stood.
His companion was every bit his size, and wore a brown bell crown hat with his goggles riding the brim. He wore a duster almost identical to his fellow's, the only exception being a large dark stain that covered the left arm of the coat that appeared by my reckoning to be old blood. Emily turned to look me in the eye, and I saw a feral gleam that I hadn't known her capable of until that moment. She grinned and whispered, "We'll just sit tight a moment, but if they turn over here, I'll take the bowler and leave you the tall hat." With that, she turned back towards them. I saw her back relax as her legs moved ever so slightly to redistribute her weight, and she placed her hands on her thighs. At that moment, the two looked towards our table and directly at Mr. Pettigrew.
This being my first trip to Shangri-La, I really did not like the idea of spilling blood needlessly, although I had a feeling there would be little grieving over either of these two, should push come to shove. They both approached the table in lock step, hands nearing weapons, their eyes fixed on our companion. I managed a glance at the board table and came up with a plan. As they were about six or seven paces from the table, I reached over and took Pettigrew's knife from his hand and stood up, brandishing both blades. They turned to face me, and I made a show of looking them both up and down appraisingly. They slowed as I shifted my gaze back and forth between them and the two knives I held.
Drawing myself up to my full height (still a half foot shy of either of them), I said with disgust, "Hell, neither of you are big enough for both!" I flipped the knife in my right hand over and plunged it point first into the table. It slammed down to the hilt as if the table top was made of marshmallows instead of two-inch thick planks. The two malcontents stopped in their tracks. You could see the wheels turning in their heads: Either I was much stronger than I looked, or that knife was sharper than any they had ever encountered. Either way, the effect was the same.
Rather than retreat, as I had hoped, they began to split up, moving wide for advantage. But they had hesitated too long. Focusing on me as they split, they didn't notice that Emily had already launched herself into the air. The heel of her boot slammed into the blue and yellow rimmed eye socket under the bowler, crushing bone and brain alike. My right hand being empty now, I quickly drew my Colt and placed a bullet into the forehead of the other, dropping him backwards. Every eye in the place seemed to follow the bell crown hat as it lazily executed several flips, brim over crown, and landed neatly onto a coathook placed near the door just as its former owner hit the floor. In the sudden silence, I turned to my colleagues and quietly said, "I think we should be off, don't you?" As they nodded in agreement, I grabbed the knife in the table top and slid it easily out of the slightly warped space between two planks that I had noticed earlier. I returned it and its companion to Mr. Pettigrew, who glanced back and forth between them and the table before placing the blades into his belt. As we began to make our way towards the door, I tossed money to settle our bill on the table, along with a generous tip that I hoped would provide some selective amnesia for any questions from the local constablulary.
Stepping back out into the sun, our timing couldn't have been better. Spartacus Kane was nearly to the door as we exited, and I took his arm as we walked quickly away from the establishment, sweeping him along with us. He wisely turned readily with us, and after hearing the details of our encounter, he concurred that we had probably worn out our welcome at The High Clouds for the moment. When I expressed my concerns about what troubles might arise from dispatching the two, he just smiled and said "Not to worry, Vincent. The proprietor and I are old friends, and I would hazard a guess that the floors are being mopped as we speak. We'll just need to take our next couple of meals elsewhere." His confidence easily won me over, and I asked Mr. Pettigrew who the two were.
Pettigrew spoke in a low voice so he wouldn't be overheard by passers-by, "I saw those two as we were loading the luggage to take it back to Pandora." He looked up and down the walkway we traveled before he went on, "I've seen those two before. They're the second and third mates of the airship Blood Moon, and I witnessed them gut a man two years ago in Xanadu." He suppressed a shudder before going on, "When they saw me, I could tell they were looking to get even for me giving my account of the deed to the Khan's Guards, making them persona non grata there." Kane had begun to slow down, and we had matched pace with him until he came to a stop. "Mr. Pettigrew, I didn't see the Blood Moon on the High Docks." Pettigrew smiled wryly and said, "She's taken in her Lift, and is docked as an ocean-going ship down on the main wharves." Kane motioned us to turn with him, and we began making our way back towards the waterfront. As we picked up pace, Kane ordered Pettigrew to make his way to Pandora and advise the crew to arm themselves and make their way down to the seaward docks. As Normal ran ahead, Kane turned to the rest of us, "Samuel, take your mother to Pandora and make sure your luggage gets stowed properly." Seeing that he would brook no protest, the two of them left us as we came back past The High Clouds and approached the wharves. As we slowed, Kane gazed carefully at the ships tied to the piers until his eye fell on a long dark ship that looked to have not quite enough yardage in her sails to be a proper ocean-going vessel. She bore a large red emblem near her bow that looked strangely like a round face, and it occurred to me that it was an image of the moon, painted in red. No name accompanied the symbol, but the emblem was enough to identify the ship as the Blood Moon.
Our pace slowed to a casual walk, and we were quickly joined by the crew of Pandora as we neared the dock. Kane stopped, and we all gathered round. "Miss Puryear, Vincent, if you'd like to avoid this fracas, I do understand, but there is a score to be settled here." He went on to tell us that a previous encounter with Blood Moon had left him and most of the current crew of Pandora marooned on an island between Xanadu and New Praetoria with little hope of being saved. Luckily for them, an informant for the 23rd Time Brigade overheard a conversation between some of Blood Moon's crew in a Hy Brasil tavern and was able to provide the information that saved them. "Over the past five years, I've returned to that little knob of rock from time to time and found over 50 people abandoned there by these bastards." his voice lowered to a near growl, "along with near that many graves." There was no doubt this ship and crew were well known and were held in very low regard among most travelers. Miss Puryear and I let Kane know that we felt ourselves part of the crew, and were in for whatever needed to be done. I did wonder out loud about how the authorities of Shangri-La would feel about what was about to happen, and Kane gave me a devilish grin. "There are customs out here on the fringes that answer for times like this," he looked towards the High Docks where Pandora bobbed in the sea breeze with the other anchored airships, "and we'll not need to worry about the locals in a moment."
I looked towards the High Docks, and noticed that black and red pennants were sliding slowly up and down the signal lines of every airship tied into the berths. A keening sound began to ring out from the harbormaster's building, and the official flag there suddenly dropped to half-mast. With that, Kane drew his cutlass and began to march towards the Blood Moon, the crew matching his pace as one.
As we neared the vessel, it was evident her decks had come alive with crewmen attempting to get the ship underway. They had heard the harbor alarm, and knew full well that they were the reason for its sounding. As they worked, each man in turn would look towards the High Docks, panic in their eyes as they tried to make ready for the worst. We strode ever nearer without conversation, and it was only at the last moment that one of their number noticed that we were nearly upon them. He sounded the alarm, but it was already too late. We had made the gangplanks before they could organize any resistance, and fully a third of the crew dived over the side opposite the dock to escape the impending battle.
As we reached the decks of the Blood Moon, the remainder of her crew began flowing from below deck armed with whatever personal arms they had. Apparently, there was no one aboard to open the Armory, leaving them with a wild array of bludgeons and swords to hand. Even though they outnumbered us two to one, we had taken them by surprise, and were well armed with both hardware and purpose that allowed us to bring the bloody business to a quick end. As we took control of the defeated crew, Kane and two stout gunners went below, returning in less than five minutes. The two gunners strode up onto the deck with a short, wiry man treading air between them. His arms were tightly locked in theirs, preventing his escape as well as his reaching any weapon close at hand. Kane followed them, a grim expression on his face.
The crew of Pandora raised one hearty cheer, and then fell silent. That silence fell over the entire harbor as all work ceased on the vessels and docks alike. The breeze died, and an eerie stillness quickly overtook Shangri-La. Kane and the gunners took one round of the deck with their charge, then took him to the forecastle to face those on the main deck. Kane stepped to the rail, and everything stopped when he addressed all within earshot of his booming voice.
"I am Spartacus Kane. I am past master of the airships Vindicator, Mooresland, and Mistral, and the current master of the airship Pandora." People along the docks gathered near to the gangplanks around Blood Moon and along the rails of the vessels docked nearby. Kane slowly scanned the now quiet throng, then continued, "The deck on which I stand is the deck of the Blood Moon, infamous for the misdeeds of her captain and crew, and known to honest men as a scourge on the ocean as well as the sky." He stepped up onto the rail so that all could see him and be aware of his proclamation. "Under the Laws of Wave and Cloud, we claim this vessel as forfeit, and hold her company as Pirates." He pointed towards the harbormaster's office and the half-mast flag, and then gestured to the High Docks where the black and red pennants still rose and fell on the docked airships. "Shangri-La recognizes our right, and has acknowledged the Blackjacks as they fly on the High Dock!" A low murmur began along the dock, and men from the surrounding ships began to come onto the wharves and approach Blood Moon. The dock workers parted as the crews of these vessels came to the gangplanks and formed two rows from the main gangway of the ship to the beach-end of the pier. Where this path ended, there was now a company of soldiers standing ready to receive the members of Blood Moon's crew. They were prodded off, and sullenly walked between the two rows of sailors towards what would be a court that would sort the crew as wayfarer or pirate, according to their time aboard the ill fated ship.
As they quietly made their way, Kane once again addressed the crowd, "Know all here that the crew will be sorted and judged, and all will abide the decisions of the local authority! There is but one exception..." he gestured to the hapless fellow locked in the arms of the gunners, "This man is the verified Captain of the Blood Moon, and is well known to many witnesses as such. For those of you who have never met him face to face, you set your eyes on the one and only Francis Spade!" The entire crowd went silent at that. If stillness could kill, the man would surely have disintegrated before our very eyes. He managed a smirk and said quietly to Kane, "There's not a jail in the world that can hold me long enough for judgement!" Kane stepped down from the rail and met his gaze. Without turning away, he said loudly, "Mr. Pettigrew, secure the gangplanks!" Having been relieved of their prisoners, the crew of Pandora set to their task, swiftly pulling in the gangways and making the Blood Moon ready for sea, in spite of the crowds along the wharf. The bystanders seemed puzzled and alarmed as the crew made short work of pulling in the planks and preparing to leave the dock.
As soon as her gangways were stowed, the ship was cast off from the wharf and the crew expertly sailed her away from the docks. All the while, Kane had never left his spot, staring into the eyes of the infamous Captain Spade. As the ship reached the very middle of the harbor, Kane finally addressed the pirate, "I know you've broken free on many occasions, Francis, and that is why I came up with a remedy for that dilemma." Spade's eyes widened in horror as Mr. Pettigrew stepped up behind him and tossed the noose over his head and around his neck. Without further ceremony or flourish, he was hauled up to hang from the main spar in full view of the crowd gathered around the harbor.
As he kicked his last, a triumphant cry rose all around the anchorage. Everyone knew the world had just become a safer place with the loss of the infamous Captain Spade. Kane looked towards the dock at the exultant crowd, and then looked up at the pirate's body. "Sorry, Francis. You had it coming, you know." He looked at me as he turned towards the rail, "Well, I suppose my wife will be giving me hell this trip," he looked down at the rail and brushed away an imaginary mote of dust from its glistening surface, "but at least the news should reach home before I do, and that'll give her a chance to calm down." My curiosity got the better of me. "Why will she be upset?" Kane smiled slyly, "My wife's maiden name is Victoria Spade, and I've just hung my brother-in-law." With that, he ordered the crew to return to the wharf so that the officials of Shangri-La could dispose of Spade's remains and deal with the official seizure of the Blood Moon.
The next two days swept by at an astounding pace. Pandora was resupplied (at considerable discount thanks to dealing with Captain Spade), and the crew of Blood Moon was dealt with. Of the 41 we had captured aboard, three were judged innocent and released. The other 38 were jailed to await formal trial as pirates. The bodies of the two we had dealt with at the tavern were placed in open cages, as was the corpse of Captain Spade. The cages were then hauled up at the far north end of the High Docks, to remain there until the ravens had picked the bones clean.
As for the Blood Moon, she was indeed considered forfeit and ordered to be placed for auction. The crew of Pandora pulled her Lift out of the hold and unfurled it onto the deck. There it was attached it to the lift frames and filled with the mixture of hydrogen, helium, and Aether that hove the vessel back into the sky. As the masts were folded down for stowage and the Lift grew ever larger overhead, it occurred to me that Blood Moon was actually a very attractive vessel. When I went below to view her gun deck, I was amazed to find that she was equipped with four lightning cannons port and starboard, as well as one to the bow and one to the stern, for a total of ten guns. Such armament would make her a respectable opponent in any fight, but the most amazing thing I found was in the forecastle, above the regular gun deck. There, in a beautifully adorned mount that would allow it to turn in an arc of 270 degrees, was a .50 caliber machine gun and a stack of ammunition boxes that I estimated to hold about 200,000 rounds of ammunition. When Kane looked at this gun, he shook his head in awe, but said nothing.
Blood Moon was piloted to the High Docks and moored next to Pandora. Once the notice was officially placed, it seemed like every airman to be found was inspecting the vessel as a potential buyer, but when we were ready to leave Shangri-La, there were no officials bids made. Kane and I spoke about the matter. In spite of her reputation, we both agreed she was too fine a vessel to allow her fate to fall to chance. So, we each placed a bid on the vessel, and were able to convince several others to bid as well. Two hours before we departed, the bids were opened at the harbormaster's office. We were all pleasantly surprised to find that Miss Puryear had gained ownership for the paltry sum of 10,100 Kuyat. In figuring the exchange rate from Kuyat to Dollars, she paid just a trifle over $1600. She made arrangements for some refitting to be done while we were on our mission, and went to the harbormaster's office. Once there, she had the name Blood Moon stricken from the records and recorded her ownership. When they asked her what she intended to change the name to, she said she would have to think about that and notify them later. The harbormaster told her that he would see to it that the ship would be ready for the change whenever she was ready, and agreed to supervise the refit for a modest sum.
With that done, we returned to Pandora. As we cast off from Shangri-La, there was a crew on the dock already painting over the red orb on the airship's hull, preparing for its new incarnation. As we rose into the clouds, we fired the single blue rocket customary for an airship as she prepared to make the transition into the Aether. In answer to our rocket, every airship in the high dock dipped their flags to wish us safe travel, and to honor Kane and his crew for a deed well done.