* * * CONIMBRIGA * * *
Bolithico and his team were once more gathered in the private room of the Dancing Bull. They finished their meal and after moving the debris onto a side table they prepared to work on what needed to find its way onto their report.
After an hour during which they went over their experiences in Conimbriga, the sat back and waited while one of the tavern’s waitresses collected the remains of their meal and delivered a tray with a jug of ale and full tankards.
Once she was gone and the door once again secured Bolithico looked round the table and started. “So to conclude, the bound dungeons are under tight controls. It could be argued the controls are too inflexible, and all have been renewed and strengthened recently.
“The Imperial Arena’s core is dangerously close to becoming too powerful to control, but we all know that that very strength is making it very useful to its owner. The other arena is relatively low levelled so is safe. The markets, Ashleigh’s and the naval shipyards are being stifled. However I suspect they are too weak to break free. Or they would be in normal circumstances.
“The arsenal and the city palace refused us access.”
“Yes,” added Polly, “I don’t like the looks of that paladin of Azurea’s. The scarfaced bitch is acting weirdly. I’ve never known the followers of Azurea to be as twitchy as they are round here.”
“Personally I suspect she was responsible for the murder of that slaver that specialised in dungeons. Something that should be expected,” offered Flamehand.
Bolithico waved a hand dismissively, “Let us get back on subject. Mock Turtle is worrying in another way. He is a free agent and is controlling the Drow Embassy and the Queen of Hearts. Then it is connected with that new tavern that is so popular with the iron collars. It is too close to the Arena of Blood not to be allied with it in some way.
“The dungeon in the thieves quarter seems to be allied with the thieves guild. How there can be a thieves guild unaligned with Vortexius Blackbeard is beyond me.”
“That’s because they seem to deal in information, Creevar seems to have an interest there,” explained Polly.
“Two other dungeons are not actually in town, and Azurea seems to be actively hiding them. They both open up to the surface in grounds claimed by a shrine of Azurea. And the priestesses in charge of those shrines are not Azurea’s usual style of nose in the air priestess,” said Leemanda.
“The last unreported dungeon seems to be the property of the Fordoran family. And they deny its existence so our task is mostly done,” concluded Bolithico.
“What about the Arena of Blood?” asked Leemanda.
“Leave it alone,” offered Flamehand.
“Actually that is what I am going to suggest. The guild does not exist in Conimbriga, and that is through no fault of ours. I am going to suggest doing nothing until they come to us on their knees. This place is too incendiary at the moment. There are visible cracks in the unity of the new gods and we have a new sea goddess moving in through a vassal.” Bolithico looked round soberly, “any contrary views?”
* * * AIRSHIP L.G.TITMOUSE * * *
Lhekshey Oratem meandered around Rox’rilan, this was the Titmouse’s first stop since he had joined her. He had been ordered to get himself a decent breather and he was making the most of his break, besides his grandfather had come from here and he was curious.
The air was thicker than he was accustomed to, but according to his new crewmates it was still remarkably pure and sweet. And yet it had a faintly acrid smell to his sensitive nostrils. And the fields round about seemed wrong, totally bereft of the liftwood trees his grandfather reminisced about.
Finally he made his way to the shop that the purser had recommended. He entered and blinked in surprise. He wondered if something was wrong as he examined the mostly empty shelves.
“What do you want youngster? Or are you in the wrong shop?”
Lhekshey looked towards the back of the shop and spotted the old woman rocking slowly in her rocking chair, her hands busy with her knitting. “Good morning lady, I was told this was the best place for breather masks suitable for the plains.”
“Why would a mountain lad like you want to go down to those gods forsaken lands? You realise the mask will be the only thing keeping you alive in the worst of those hellpits.”
“Um, I’m supercargo on the Titmouse. The purser did say I’d need one.”
The old lady put her knitting aside and rose from her rocking chair. She moved behind her counter and started rummaging around under it. She ended up placing three masks on the counter. “The cheapest costs twenty guineas, the best costs fifty-five guineas.”
Lhekshey winced. “What would you give me for two pint bottles of Hardin Brandy?”
The old lady sighed and shook her head in disapproval. “Twenty guineas.”
Lhekshey feigned outrage and settled in for a bout of vigorous haggling. In the end Lhekshey handed over three bottles and three guineas and walked away with the best breather mask.
* * *
Two weeks later Lhekshey had visited two other small towns, and the air was thick enough that he occasionally had trouble with it. The Mask had proved to be just as necessary as the Purser had claimed. Lhekshey was wearing it constantly as were most of his crewmates. Even the black gang who boasted of their hardiness and of the Tinkerer’s aid.
Lhekshey was no longer classed as supercargo, and was now the assistant navigator and fourth mate in training.
Then their lookout spotted two cut down airships, they looked like typical pirates, so their captain steered away from them. They turned to follow the Titmouse which confirmed their fears. However, not surprisingly they proved to be considerably faster than the Titmouse. Their captain by dodging in and out of the ever present clouds and fog banks managed to make it to the Fangs Massif.
The game of hide and seek among the hills and fog banks continued to prolong their existence but by now the Titmouse was limping and loosing altitude. The pirates had long since lost patience and started shooting in earnest. Lhekshey was surprised how many of the crew who had been doing as little as possible started really working hard at that point in the running fight.
For his part he was acting as loader for one of their four pounders. Not that they were hitting anything. Then they swung round a cliff, almost scraping it and they saw what looked like a luxury airship all crystal clear windows slowly rising out in the middle of the valley.
“Hope the damn pirates forget us when they see her,” muttered the gunner, even as their signal light flashed a frantic warning to the stranger from their bridge.
Lhekshey watched tensely as they inched their laboured way past the cliff, losing altitude all the while. When the first of the pirate ships that was hunting them swung into sight on their tail, a puff of smoke showing they were still shooting at them. A blister on the stranger turned, revealing itself to be an enclosed turret containing a short stubby gun.
The Titmouse shook and started listing as the latest shot crashed through their deck and exited through their liftwood chamber. Lhekshey grabbed hold of the rail and hung on for dear life even as the gunner let off another shot that went the gods only knew where. The other loader for his part slipped and fell, plummeting to the ground below with a scream of despair.
Then there was an incredible roaring tearing noise and the pirate ship seemed to shudder and stop even as it disintegrated, falling in pieces to the ground.
The Titmouse, trailing smoke, headed groundward, its engines moving in reverse to kill its speed. Lhekshey could hear their captain yelling orders. And yet he couldn’t stop looking at the luxury airship, as several turrets turned seeking the sky for enemies. Then it was releasing a very strange looking skiff.
The other pirate came swinging round the mountain into sight. And that tearing noise sounded again as smoke and fire showed at two of the turrets. The pirate was literally torn apart in mid air.
Then Lhekshey just concentrated on hanging on as the Titmouse hit the ground, bounced and scraped its way to a stop.
* * *
Lhekshey Oratem stood beside captain Oakwood as they waited for their saviour’s launch to land. The captain had ordered him to accompany him as he was the most inexperienced of the Titmouse’s officers, and thus the one that they could best spare from the rescue operations. Lhekshey noted the captain wince minutely at every shot that came from where the strange skiff was searching the debris of the pirate ships.
“What’s the problem captain. Aren’t they just pirates, and isn’t that crystal palace of a ship overly well armed?”
“Yes Lhekshey, but they’re killing them out of hand. That’s a way to earn the enmity of all the others and their god. And no, luxury liners need to be well armed. Quiet, here they come.”
The crew of the launch were all armed, and they were all elves. Lhekshey noted that that seemed to surprise the captain.
* * * AIRSHIP MORNING PRIDE * * *
Captain Steelheart was smiling coldly. It never ceased to amuse him that killing pirates without mercy was seen as virtuous for his new class. Mother had created a paladin class supremely suited to his race. It was easy for even his kin to be soft on and indulge children for like all elves children were rare. Innocents could be ignored, and mostly that was it as far as good was concerned. He somehow suspected that many would see them as anti-paladins.
He gazed out of the windows of his bridge and awaited the arrival of the captain of the pirate’s victim. Rich and Minnow were watching from the radar station. When the captain of the crashed ship together with one of his officers entered his bridge, he met Rich’s gaze and they both grinned at the look of shock, quickly suppressed on the man’s face.
“Welcome to the Morning Pride captain. I’m Steelheart Starbright, a paladin of the Balancer and the captain of this ship. This is Minnow Delphine high priestess of the Balancer and Sir Rich Burton her champion. How may we help you?”
Captain Oakwood looked round the spacious airy bridge and it was obvious to all present that he had to work to contain his reaction. All the officers of the Morning Pride were either elves or drow. The only human present was Rich, and he had been introduced as the Balancer’s champion.
“My Titmouse can’t fly, and I don’t think we can fix her. Can you contact a shipyard for us and get a rescue vessel out here.”
Steelheart smiled, “I suspect we can do better. We should be able to rig something and lift you up. You wouldn’t want to remain here. You are just over five miles from Sidehame. Please feel free to search the wreckage, I recon they owe you.”
* * *
Rich watched as they finally left the vicinity of Sidehame, it had taken two days, but the crew of the Titmouse along with some help from their people had been able to scrounge up enough liftwood from the wrecks to give the Titmouse some lift. Now they were towing them. He was glad they were able to help and didn’t begrudge them the loot they had found. After all there had been no slaves on the Titmouse which was rare.
And it had been a bit of luck finding the young man from the hills on board. Mother was right; the liftwood plantations were in trouble. Well they had gained a new supercargo. The youngster had been willing, nay, eager to transfer when he realized they already suspected that his people were in trouble. And he suspected the prospect of waiting for a couple of months while the Titmouse was being repaired did not sit well with him.