Once upon a time…
One morning upon a restless airfield set on the outskirts of a busy town, the sun peered between two airplane hangars and shed light on a peculiar sight. There was a big pile of old newspapers hidden behind empty boxes and overflowing trash bins, and stirring underneath those newspapers, a young boy, who turned on his shoulder to keep the sunlight out of his eyes.
Groggily, he begged the world to leave him alone for a few more minutes of shuteye, but the world ringing in his ears demanded otherwise; blaring horns from automobiles, the chatter from people around the airfield, a church bell striking ten, and most of all, a loud buzz of a several airplanes darting over the runway that made him jump from his makeshift covers as a slice of bread from a toaster. It sounded like a formation, and he heard a crowd cheering, then trumpets, drums, tubas playing in the distance.
A smile crept on his weary, dust-smeared face, with the type of anticipation a child might have when he unwrapped a present on his birthdays to see what pleasant surprise he would find.
The boy stretched and rubbed his eyes, and padded out of the alley, toward the front of the hangars. The sky was a flawless bright blue, and he saw many airplanes swing high and low over the town. The airfield was crowded, their balloons, flags, and bleachers set around the runway, where the five planes he heard just a moment before had touched down and parked with a number of other sparkly planes across the field, where an admiring public was allowed mingle about, touch, view and inspect the planes up close.
He did not recognize the barnstormers, though he was determined to address that issue as soon as possible. He did recognize their red stunt planes, however, and could immediately enlighten any inquisitive ear with several tidbits of information about them, such as how fast they could go, how far they could fly on a half tank of gas, and, to note, their shiny silver propellers were not factory originals.
For now, he shrank back to the shadows and yawned. He was yet so tired that he felt dizzy; even in the late morning, he felt as if he had only just closed his eyes to sleep moments before. A good night's rest was a precious luxury, nearly impossible to afford when so many waking hours were spent running from street thugs and scavenging for food, and even when he could finally find a place to lay his head for the night, there was always that foreboding terror that the wrong person would stumble upon him there. The airfield was very quiet when he arrived late at night, stowed with cargo of an unsuspecting pilot's plane; that he had slept through half an airshow blaring over his head gave him worry. He had to be sharper than that if he didn't want to wake up to a really bad situation.
To think of it, he was not even clear which town he was in, exactly; it was vaguely familiar, but so were a hundred other places, and he had been far and wide. Some freelance pilots in the day would have at least recognized him as the orphaned bear cub who stowed away on plane after plane, appearing and disappearing over time in countless towns and airfields across the western territories, but but fewer ever learned his name, Kit.
He again stepped out in front of the hangar, wiping the last bit of sleep from his eyes. It was a cool spring morning, and the blue sweatshirt he wore ― by now a bit out-grown and worn thin to its threads ― did little to keep the sea breezes from giving him a chill, though when the wind lulled the bright sunlight was like a warm blanket. He rubbed his hands and arms for a moment, taking a good look around to see where he wanted to go first. His heart screamed for the airplanes, though his stomach begged otherwise.
Out in the open, a stocky bulldog stood next to a pushcart full of hot dogs, tongs in hand, getting an early start on the hungry flock of visitors. Kit's mouth watered as he watched a man buy three of them, one for himself and two for his children. Eventually, the bulldog noticed him, and that he was practically salivating at his food. "Wanna hot dog, kid?"
Kit blinked. "Huh?"
The bulldog spoke slowly this time, as though to a foreigner. "Do. You. Want. A. Hot. Dog."
"Wha' ― yeah, please," beamed Kit. "Thanks!"
The bulldog shook his head. "Well, why didn't ya say so. Best breakfast in town, ya know." He reached for a bun, but then stopped himself, taking a good look at the boy and his ragged attire. "Wait a minute," he said, "you got any money?"
Kit ducked his head, ashamed. "Uh… no. But maybe I could ―"
"Aw kid, don't go wastin' my time," said the bulldog. "Now get lost, will ya? You're gonna go scarin' away my customers."
Kit shot him a dirty look and walked away, cursing quietly.
There was a pilot's diner nearby that he wandered to, but he went around the back, lest risk being thrown out if he had gone inside asking for a handout. He was painfully aware of how others took to his appearance… he was not the least bit comfortable with it. Sometimes it elicited sympathy, other times it invited danger, but most often, people just wanted him to go away.
Kit peered inside a trash bin with hopes of finding a few scraps to eat. He despised, wholeheartedly, having to resort to trash for a meal, but hunger had a way of overcoming dignity. Resignedly, he sifted through the contents... wadded paper bags, bottles… he found a chicken drumstick that didn't look so bad; in fact, with the empty pang in his belly, it looked like sweet salvation.
Most of it fell apart in his fingers as he reached in and grabbed it. But when he brought it close to his nose, its stench was horrid; it made him jerk his head away. Worse yet, he suddenly noticed tiny, squirming grubs that had already claimed his wood-be meal as their little fleshy nest.
He began to cough quite violently, and threw the chicken back into the trash, where he keeled over the bin and heaved like he was about to throw up. Then he pushed himself away from it, stumbling on his back onto the gravelly dirt.
'I can't do this anymore,' he told himself, choking down a foul bile taste in his throat between breaths. 'It's time to go to work...'
Rising, and staggering a little in his step, he met once more with the hustle and bustle of the amassing crowd. There, he sat down alongside the front of the diner and rested against the wall, taking a moment for his stomach to quell, and to watch for the right person to pass by.
Through the crowd and beyond the airfield's chain-link fence, he saw trolleys, trucks, and automobiles jamming the street, while the sidewalks were cluttered with countless faces, people with money, homes and friends. He could not help but think, with more than a little envy, that it must have been nice to have had any of that. Occasionally he met a friendly pilot, but they came and went as freely as the wind they flew in. For him, going on at least two years as a lone vagrant who hitchhiked and stowed away near and broad in literally hundreds of planes, there was no place to plant his feet, but flying... to be able to spread his wings to the next new, promising horizon... as long as that was there for him, he still managed to smile every now and then.
"Ouch!" he yelped, after someone stepped on his hand. "Hey! Watch who you're walkin' on!" The person did not hear him, or if he did, did not pay attention. Rarely anyone did.
A little girl holding her mother's hand passed by. She was about his age, and looked him curiously; he smiled at her, but then watched as her mother pulled her away. "Ew, get away from that, Brenda," she scolded.
Kit frowned, and hunched low with his knees to his chin. He would scold himself not to let such words bother him, but no matter how many times, it was still near impossible. It hurt. Even if he truly believed he was not worthless, it was tough when the world around him seemed convinced of it.
With a deep breath, he gathered himself and stood up, surveying the crowd. The only thing he wanted to think about for the moment was how he was going to eat. In a moment, above the chatter and noise of his surroundings, he heard someone whistling a happy tune, irritatingly happy compared to how he was feeling, like claws on a chalkboard to his ears. And, it was getting closer.
Kit watched as that man passed by, a tiger with a white shirt tucked into his trousers. As he merrily sauntered off, oblivious to the fact that he could not whistle the proper notes to 'She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain' to save his life, Kit caught a glimpse of his backside, specifically the distinctive contour of a wallet in his back pocket. Also conspicuous was a golden watch chain, glittering in the sunlight, dangling out from his side pocket.
"I almost hate to rain on his parade," muttered Kit, and stumbled forward after him. "Almost."
He cut through a sea of people, listening for the tiger's whistle as a tracking device. This was one of those times when being not very noticeable worked to his advantage. After he had the tiger back in sight, he kept his eyes steady on his soon-to-be spoils. He trailed him within a couple feet; he'd have to be quick about it, one hand ready for the wallet, the other ready for the pocket watch.
'Easy now,' he thought, his fingers anxious to grab. 'Easy… and… now!'
"Hey-what?" The tiger stopped whistling and patted his pocket, finding it empty. Turning around and seeing a small bear cub running away from him, it was not very difficult to figure out what just happened. "Hey, somebody stop that kid! He's got my watch!" He then checked his back pocket. "And my wallet! Stop that thief!"
Kit took a quick glance back. The tiger was in hot pursuit, and it seemed every single face in the crowd had their eyes on him, some actually looking as if they were ready to grab him, though most looked more confused than anything else. As he wove through the forest of legs, he could hear people shouting for the police.
Breaking away from the crowd, Kit ran out the airfield gates and down the street, the tiger chasing and hollering after him vehemently. Just up ahead was that same street-vending bulldog, with his hot dog cart parked right in the middle of the sidewalk. The bulldog saw him coming, and the person chasing him, and he did not have to be a fortune teller to know neither boded well. "What'n ― uh-oh. Hey you, kid, slow down!"
Kit could have slowed down and went around, or…
With no love lost, he rammed into the cart with full speed, toppling it over and spilling everything inside onto the cement. "My hot dogs!" the bulldog lamented, almost in tears. "Gaw-dangit, ya little rat! I'll tear ya to pieces!"
Kit took a tumble himself, and just barely got up in time before the bulldog was able get his hands on him.
The tiger tried to jump over the cart and continue after him, but tripped, went head over heels, and ended up with a face full of wieners and mustard. "Aaaauughgh!" he screamed. "Somebody stop that kid!"
A police officer, a particularly chubby one (he was a hog, after all), stood at the street corner when he heard the ruckus, and saw Kit running in his direction. "Hey you!" he yelled, and blew a whistle. "Freeze!"
With his path blocked ahead, Kit slid to a hesitant stop and turned back, but the tiger and the bulldog were coming after him. He had only one option, one that he did not like so well, but who had time to think of a better plan... he bolted into the busy street.
The driver of a large truck had barely a second to react... Kit only caught a glimpse of the wide fender and license plate speeding straight toward his nose before he threw himself face-down onto the pavement. A blaring horn, the screeching of braking tires, and a heavy whoosh suddenly flew over his head.
Then, from all around, more screeching, more horns blaring, and lots of quick crashing noises. A very brief silence ensued. Kit swallowed hard, nearly too afraid to open his eyes and see himself flatted, though he had not been as much as scratched.
Motorist began stepping out of their vehicles, yelling and swearing at one another. That was when Kit finally took a peek at the chaos. The truck had tailspinned to a halt, blocking the entire road. Cars and other trucks, which had swerved to avoid each other, jammed the street and parts of the sidewalk, literally fender-to-fender as far as anyone on that road could see. Despite it all, no one appeared to be hurt.
The truck driver, however, soon jumped out of his cab in a blazing panic. "Oh no! Oh no!"
He was met by the policeman, the bulldog, and the tiger. "Are you all right?" asked the policeman.
The driver grabbed the officer by his blue lapels, as if pleading for mercy. "I d-didn't mean to run him over, I swear! He came from out of nowhere! Ya gotta believe me!"
Amidst the commotion, Kit discreetly cut between vehicles and angry, shouting drivers ― who seemed all but oblivious to his involvement ― to the other side of the street, where he disappeared into a narrow alleyway.
He took a moment to catch his breath and look over his newly pilfered goods. The pocket watch was in great condition, shiny and without scratches on the face. He didn't know how much it was worth, but maybe he'd just keep it instead of pawning it, anyway.
After he shoved it in his sweatshirt pocket, he opened the wallet to see how much was inside. "Wow, ten bucks," he smiled. It certainly raised his spirits, as he began to think of all the tasty things he could afford for breakfast now.
He stashed the wallet with the watch in the pocket of his sweatshirt, then casually walked out of the alley onto another street. It wasn't long before the smell of fresh-baked muffins caught his attention. "Mmm… gotta get me some of those."
He followed the scent to Amecci's Bakery, as the sign on the door said, where a mustachioed beagle, presumably Amecci himself, was on the sidewalk washing the store's window; as he scrubbed soapy water across the pane, he was humming to himself and wrapped enough in his own little world that he did not notice the kid who went inside.
'No one else in here,' observed Kit, and then spotted the tray full of oven-warm blueberry muffins sitting on the counter. He picked one and stuffed it in his mouth, then dug the wallet out of his sweatshirt.
'Wait a minute,' he thought, 'no one's lookin'…'
Kit pocketed the wallet again. If he had the opportunity to get this meal for free, then he wasn't about to pass it up. He took three muffins and tucked them under the front of his sweatshirt. "Time to vamoose ― uh-oh."
The beagle stood at the doorway, arms crossed. "Hey, whatchu think you doing, huh?"
"I… uh, I was just lookin', that's all," replied Kit. His hands were folded calmly over the front of his shirt, but they were doing a terrible job of hiding the conspicuous shape of muffins lumping out.
"Just-a looking, huh? Then why you got-a blueberry on your face?"
While Kit hesitated for an explanation, one of the muffins fell out of his shirt. "I, uh... oops."
"Ah-ha!" exclaimed the beagle, raising a finger in the air. "You trying to steal from Amecci, eh?"
"No! I mean… I have money." Kit showed him the wallet and opened it up. "I don't want any trouble. I can pay for this, okay?"
"Ha! Money thatta you probably stole. Maybe this is amatta for de police!"
"Look, I… oh my gosh!" Kit yelled suddenly, pointing over the baker's shoulder. "That's the biggest cheese wheel I've ever seen!"
The beagle turned around, confused. "What? I don't see-a nothing-hey! Come-a back here you!" Before he knew it, Kit had slipped past him, and was running down the sidewalk.
It was back to an alleyway for him. It was deserted, so at least there he could be alone and eat in peace. He wolfed down two of the muffins in minutes, and was just about to take the final bites out of the third when two German shepherds in police uniforms approached him from behind.
"Hold it right there, young man," one said.
Kit turned around and swallowed hard, backpedaling. "I… I didn't do anything! Honest!"
"Easy, kid," said the officer, "we just want to ask you some questions, that's all."
Kit found that hard to believe, considering that the other officer looked like he was getting ready to pounce on him. He suddenly lunged at the boy, but Kit dodged him, and the officer ended up tackling a trash can instead.
Kit chucked the last piece of muffin at the other policeman's face, hitting him right in the eye. "Eat muffin, flatfoot!"
"Ow!" the cop yelped.
While the stunned canine wiped blueberry crumbs from his eye, Kit started to run, but was snagged and tripped at the ankle by the other officer, who had his handcuffs out. "Not so fast," he grunted, and in a beat he was on top of the boy, wrangling Kit's arm until he got a wrist snapped inside a cuff, but was he surprised when at that instant Kit jerked the cuffs away and kicked him in the chin. It was just enough of a stun for Kit to spring out of his grasp, and he sprinted up the alley full speed with the locked cuff dangling over his wrist.
The officer looked incredulously at the sudden nothingness between his hands. "For cryin' out ― some feisty little escape artist we got here, let's get him!"
The traffic disrupted earlier had not yet resumed, and drivers were still honking, still arguing. While the obese policeman tried futilely to sooth tempers and regain a smidgen of order back on the street, he checked down under the cars to see if he could find any trace of that boy, without luck. That is, until Kit leaped on the hood of one of the cars, then on top of the officer's head, capping his blue hat down over his eyes. One strong jump from there, and he was on the other side of the street, dashing for the airfield.
"What the ―!" The policeman didn't know what hit him, and was even more confused when two of his colleagues accidentally slammed into him from behind as they tried to jump over the same car. "What are you guys doing?"
"We're after that kid!" they shouted together.
The two were soon gaining on him… Kit was just getting too winded to run so fast anymore. They thought they had the boy cornered for sure when he ran towards the airfield's fence, but much to their chagrin, he slid under a small hole at the bottom, and in no time was on the other side.
"We said stop!" cried the officers. One of the German shepherds tried sliding underneath the fence just the same way, headfirst, but made it only halfway through. "I'm stuck!"
While his partner cursed and pulled on his legs to set him loose, the two watched helplessly as their culprit vanished behind a hangar.
Kit had bought himself some time, but he was sure they would come searching for him. He needed a place to hide. Up ahead, he saw a freshly stocked cargo plane that would do just fine. The back hatch was open, and the pilot didn't seem to be in sight…
He snuck inside the cargo hold and found among the inventory a chest with clothes folded inside. This he climbed inside of and shut the lid over his head. Just as he expected, a few moments later, he heard the police officers speaking, and one was inside the plane, routing around.
"Hey, you guys!" someone shouted. "Can't a guy go get a cup of coffee without people buggin' his plane? What are you coppers doin'?"
"Sorry, sir. We're looking for a pickpocket. He ran in this direction. Small boy in a blue shirt!"
"Well I ain't seen no pickpocket, and I got cargo to run, if those fancy-pants fly boys ever get their flimsy birds out of the way. Now git, will ya?"
The good thing for Kit was that the officers left, agreeing that they would split up to cover more ground. The bad thing... there was a loud clunk above him, the pilot had laid something heavy over the top of the chest. Later when Kit was left alone to try to push the top open, he found he could not.
To his chagrin and sadness over missing the airshow entirely, he lie in the chest for what seemed to be at least an hour, worrying about what he was going to do if and when the gruff-sounding pilot found him at the other end of the delivery. Eventually the plane took off, and the pitch darkness and soothing hum of the plane's engines lulled him to sleep…
Much later that afternoon, the plane was far over the open sea. Bored, the pilot leaned back in his seat, steering the flight yoke with his knee and grumbling about how, for all the traveling he did, the scenery never seemed to change.
He thought he saw something peculiar zip by in the clouds out of the corner of his eye, but when he gave it a better look, the sky was as lonely as it ever had been.
He sank a little lower in his chair, mumbling to himself. Then, again, he was almost sure there was something just outside his plane, to the left. He was reluctant to even look this time, until he realized that the 'something' had engine noises... and was drawing closer. "Wait a min ― holy moley!"
To his shock and horror, two CT-37's were flying right on his wing. The wolf skull insignia on their tails left no mistake about it: "Sky pirates!"
The two pirates in their cockpits grinned and waved at him, then one ― a particularly ugly canine who looked more like a starved weasel with a big broken snout ― set his flight goggles over his eyes and gave the pilot a foreboding 'thumbs down' signal, signaling the fate of his cargo-carrying plane.
With shaky hands, the pilot made a sharp right toward a bank of brewing thunderclouds. The two pirate planes followed him closely, occasionally firing an erratic burst of bullets past his side. But when he finally made into the thick cloud covering, the pirates seemed to back off. "I... I think I lost 'em," he huffed.
The skies began to darken, but he kept his course. He would rather take a chance with a storm than let the pirates find him again. "They ain't never gonna find me in ― huh? Yikes!"
When the clouds parted, an ominous shadow fell across his windshield... he had but a brief glimpse of a bulging purple hull and yellow eye, cold and lifeless... then all too suddenly, iron-clad jaws opened wide and hungry like a great sky monster lunging at its prey.
The pilot had no chance to turn away... the Iron Vulture had swallowed whole yet another trophy.
It was a quick and quiet capture, using a large net to stop the plane inside the Iron Vulture's gullet. All the pilot could do was watch and tremble as pirates surrounded his plane, and took an ax to the rear hatch to break into the cargo hold.
"Knockety-knock, my cankerous catch," said Don Karnage, leading a cavalcade of buccaneers inside. "It is I, the plundering wonder…"
"D-Don Karnage!" the pilot stammered.
Karnage shook his head. "Tisk tisk… you forgot to roll the R, yes-no? Naughty naughty! That is why I do the introductions around here. Dumptruck, take this pestering pilot down to the brig and see to it that he is thoroughly intimidated… and make him afraid, too."
As Dumptruck dragged the pilot off, Karnage took a look at the cargo, rubbing his hands with anticipation. "Well well well, what goodies have we today, hm?" The first thing Karnage happened to see was a large, heavy case of canned pinto beans placed on top of a chest, to which he promptly turned his nose at with a bit of a shudder. "You may remove this from my presence," he told Hal, snapping his fingers.
The other pirates began stripping the plane of its parts, inside and out, while Ratchet searched about the cargo, opening chests, crates, and looking into barrels, checking for anything of interest. "Uh, lessee… *sniff* paperweights, campin' gear, *sniff* fishbowls, a package from Thembria, *sniff* a sleepin' kid, some soda straws… a kid?"
"What are you meaning, a kid, you nincompirate?" Karnage looked inside the opened chest himself to see what one of his relatively-intelligent lackeys was talking about. His eyes widened to find a sleeping bear cub. "A kid!"
Kit suddenly awoke, and before he could remember where he was, saw Ratchet and Karnage peering down at him, and then, Ratchet reaching for him. Startled, he gasped and tried to knock his hand away, but the mechanic snatched him by the scruff of his neck and yanked him out.
"Ow!" yelped Kit, and he lashed out with every bit of instinct he learned on the street. "Hey! Lemme go, you sonofa ―!"
Don Karnage recoiled, watching with pleasant surprise as this boy cussed, swung, and kicked furiously for his freedom, and how Ratchet was giving it his all just trying to restrain him.
"Hey!" shouted Ratchet. "Knock it off, ya little runt!"
"I said let go of me, ya mutt!" Kit swung his fist and connected with Ratchet's jaw, surprising the pirate, but not stunning him enough for him to release his grip. "Take that!"
"That's it!" snarled Ratchet. Finally overpowering him, he managed to pin Kit's arms down and clamped his hand across the boy's mouth. "For cryin' out loud," he panted, then asked the Captain, "What'll we do with him?"
Kit stared at the captain, but behind his defiant glare, he was terrified. Karnage grinned and leaned toward him with his hands on his knees. "My my, what have we here?"
The boy replied by biting down on Ratchet's hand as hard as he could. Ratchet howled and let go of him, and Kit ducked between Karnage's legs and burst out of the plane.
"Oh my gosh, where ―?!" Kit suddenly found himself amid the largest airplane hangar he'd ever seen, surrounded by more attack planes than he could count offhand. But his awe was short-lived as dozens of scruffy-looking characters turned their attention towards him, dumbfounded and talking at once. Many had muskets, daggers, and axes in hand.
Ratchet stormed out of the cargo plane, furious. "C'mere, you!"
Kit bolted for the exit, the wide opening where the sunlight was flooding into the hangar. He thought he was home free, until he suddenly realized... this was no ordinary hangar. "Wha'?" He slid to an abrupt halt, just inches away from the edge of the Iron Vulture's prow, looking down to see clouds instead of ground.
He staggered backwards, but before he knew it Ratchet had swiped him by the ankles and held him upside down. "You ain't gettin' away with that, kid!"
"No!" As Kit struggled with him, the watch and wallet fell out of his sweatshirt. "Let go of me!"
"You bet I will," Ratchet said, holding him over the edge. "Happy landings!"
"Uno momento," said Don Karnage. He didn't give chase like Ratchet, but had watched the entire scene thoughtfully. It did not go unnoticed that the boy was half handcuffed, which piqued Karnage's curiosity considerably. "Let us not be too hasty. Ratchet, set the boy down."
"Set him down," the captain ordered.
Kit grabbed Ratchet's shirt and swung again, this time below the belt. The pirate doubled over, dropping him on his head.
With the world spinning before his eyes, Kit dazedly scooted back away from the gathering crowd, his heart pounding like a sledgehammer. Suddenly he ran out of floor; he peered down as his vision unblurred, staring down at rivers and grassy mountains from thousands of feet above.
Someone briefly tugged him by the arm away from the edge before he rolled off. "Careful, my boy," the person said. "That last step is a dilly, yes-no?"
Kit looked up at him, and at the others. He had nowhere to run. A horde of questions shouted in his mind all at once. Who were they? What did they want? Where was he?
Karnage picked up the wallet and watch and observed them. "Hm, interesting. Yours?" he asked.
Kit got to his feet, but just stared at him, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
"Gato got your tongue, boy? I asked you a question!"
Kit discretely swallowed a lump in his throat that felt bigger than the Spruce Moose. "Th-they're mine," he said, rather timidly.
The captain gasped sarcastically. "You don't say!" A couple of the others began to chuckle at the boy, and still others didn't have a clue as to what was going on.
Kit frowned, drawing some mettle in spite of their teasing. "Yeah, so give 'em back!" he snapped.
"We shall see," Karnage said, opening the wallet. He found a driver's license and snickered, particularly regarding the date of birth listed. "Ah, Mister Henry Crain, I presume? My, perhaps you do look younger in person."
Kit hesitated. "Well, uh…"
Then Karnage looked the pocketwatch over. 'Only brass,' he thought. "And I suppose this is yours too, you pickpocketing pip-squeak?"
"That's right, so hand it over!"
Karnage smiled, amused at the boy's spunk. "Fine, fine, take them."
As he handed them back to Kit, Ratchet showed his bloodied hand to Karnage and pleaded, "Capt'n, what about this? He bit me!"
"Hee hee, so he did," laughed Karnage.
Kit spat strands of Ratchet's fur out of his mouth and wiped his lips. "Captain?" For a moment, his fears and concerns slipped away as he regarded the strangely-accented wolf and his curious attire. His blue coat, trimmed with red cuffs and brass buttons, was classy in its own right, but a century or so out of fashion. He had a cutlass at his left side, with a gold hilt shined to a fine polish. "What are you a captain of?"
"Why, look around you, boy," Karnage said, gesturing to the entire ship. "All you see!"
Kit's heart began to race again. It all fell into place with the countless stories he had heard from many pilots. The airship, the crew, the planes, the captain… "Oh my gosh... air pirates…"
"Correctemundo," Karnage said proudly.
"You're Don Karnage," Kit uttered.
"Yes yes, my reputation concedes me," Karnage said, flattered by the boy's apparent awe. "So tell me then, what fantastic stories have you heard about my wonderful self?"
"Yes, go on, don't be shy now."
Kit stared at him, mouth agape as he stammered for words that wouldn't get him hurt.
Karnage crossed his arms. "I am not hearing fantastic thi-ings..."
"Well, I… I heard you were a guy to keep away from," said Kit. For his own welfare, he did not want to say exactly what he had heard about Don Karnage, particularly the choice names pilots referred to him as, although so far he had not seemed to be quite the monster people made him out to be. Still, there was nothing easing about that, standing on the brink of a five-thousand foot fall.
"Can we toss 'im now?" one pirate asked.
Karnage rubbed his chin as he thought about it. "Perhaps I could let the boy give me one good reason not to."
Pirates were then gathered with an amused interest, thinking whatever the kid was about to say, it ought to be worth a laugh. With so many strangers' eyes and ears all the sudden paying attention to his next word, leaping from the ship and taking the fall, if not for the inevitable sudden stop at the ground, was a tempting option. After a moment's thought, he puffed up and said, "You wanna end up hurt like your friend over there, just try it."
Guffaws bellowed from the pirate crew (Ratchet being an exception, he snorted in disgust), the kid had not disappointed them. "Perhaps you would care to try again," said Don Karnage.
"I... uh... I could tell you a secret," said Kit; as his thoughts were scrambling for an escape, his eyes were darting around the hangar, at least what he could see between the pirates standing before him. "Something you don't know."
"Such as?" asked Karnage.
"Such as... I bet you don't know about the huge black spider crawling on your shirt!"
With that, Karnage blinked, and became a one-man whirlwind, swatting at his chest and shoulders as if he was trying to douse a fire on his coat. At his frantic command, the other pirates surrounded him to find the critter and get it off of him now... Dumptruck suddenly smacked him on the back, so hard that Karnage went head over head over heels to the floor.
"Der, no worries, I got it," exclaimed Dumptruck. While the captain sprawled on the ground wondering what hit him, Dumptruck plucked a piece of purple lint (freshly crushed flat) from Karnage's back and examined it. "Gee, dis is the funniest lookin' big black spidey I ever seen."
By the time Karnage stopped seeing double, he was furious, as a reward for Dumptruck's ready assistance, he lunged at the mastiff and throttled him. "You idiotic imbecile! I should have your ―!" He paused, realizing the boy had set up a distraction, and sure enough, the boy had disappeared. "What are you all looking at? Find that boy!"
And so the pirates scattered around the hangar, checking under the planes and behind crates, and after several minutes they had no luck. Karnage, fuming, looked inside one of their larger seaplanes, a vessel assembled from parts of many different planes. In his mind, it would have been the nearest most likely place to hide, but the plane was empty. He took a moment, with his foot tapping, to think where else the boy could have gone, and he was just about to step out of the back of the plane when he heard a metallic rattling... like a handcuff chain.
Karnage went back inside the middle of the plane and listened... the rattling noise was coming from under his feet, where there was a hidden compartment. He opened the hatch, and yes, there was the boy, crouched down and looking up at him with a big uh-oh on his face.
"How did you know about that space?" asked Karnage. "Get out of there!" But Kit was frozen in panic, and stayed where he was with his arms over his head. "Don't make me make you, boy," said Karnage. "And I asked you a question. Learn to answer."
Kit eventually understood that the wolf was not going to lay a finger on him, at least if he obeyed; he complied and climbed out of the compartment, though slow and shakily. "I just recognized the plane," he said. "Well, the fuselage, anyway. They were used in the Great War for smuggling."
Karnage looked him over from head to toe, scratching his chin. "You know something about planes, do you."
"Yeah... y-yes sir."
Mad Dog poked his head in the seaplane, with the others close by. "Boss?"
Karnage waved them all off. "It's fine, leave the boy alone, all of you." Then, back to Kit, he said, "Stowed away in a barrel. Where were you going?"
"Nowhere," replied Kit.
Karnage gave him a hard glare, a warning that he was in no mood for anything but the right answer.
"No, I mean it," said Kit, "I don't know where. I just had to hide." He raised his handcuffed wrist with a weak and nervous grin, hoping one of the most infamous criminals in the world might empathize with unfortunate encounters with the law. Karnage sighed and gestured for Kit to keep the cuffs held out in front of him while he got on one knee and dug in his coat pocket.
"So, my boy, you have a name, yes?"
"Uh, yeah. It's Ki―" Kit hesitated, thinking of some of the handles he had heard about the pirate's used, and 'Kit' seemed a bit inappropriate for present company. "It's... Cloudkicker."
Karnage cocked his head at him. "Cloud… kicker?"
"Yeah, Kit Cloudkicker!"
"Is that so? Then tell me, Mister Cloudkicker, who taught you about planes?"
Kit shrugged and shook his head. "Myself, really... I've been in just about every single kind... flying's everything to me."
From his pocket Karnage had produced a lockpick, and in a jiff Kit's handcuffs were loosened and discarded.
"Thanks," exhaled Kit. He nearly felt dizzy, for the moment had taken him by large surprise that this pirate captain actually made him feel safe. Karnage had a bit of a smirk about him, and Kit sensed in the pirate's eyes an understanding that none had ever afforded him.
"You could use something to eat," said Karnage.
"You mean it?"
Karnage nodded, and led Kit back into the hangar, where finally having a chance to do so, Kit marveled at all the planes parked around him. "Cripes, you guys have a lot of planes."
"You like what you see, eh?" Karnage asked.
"Those are CT-37's, aren't they?"
The captain was impressed. "Yes, yes they are."
"Man, I'd like to ―" Kit almost forgot where he was for a moment, starting for the nearest planes like a moth drawn to a flame, and thought he should maybe ask first. "I mean, you think I could see some up close?"
"Go ahead," shrugged Karnage. As soon as he said it, he noticed how the boy's eyes lit up. It was a telltale sign; the kid was not fooling about how much he wanted to fly.
"Can I hop in one?" asked Kit.
"Knock your socks off, if you had any."
Excitedly, Kit approached the nearest plane, Karnage watching on. "Tell me, Mister Cloudkicker, you think you could fly one of these someday?"
"You bet I could," Kit answered, without a second thought. Then he saw a red and black plane, one with a shiny finish to it. "I bet that's yours, isn't it?" He jogged over to Karnage tri-wing attack plane, all smiles.
"Of course! After all, it is the best looking, yes?"
"Yeah," Kit agreed.
"It is my own perilously pirating―"
"Custom CT-39 tri-wing," Kit cited. "It's one of a kind!"
Once again, Karnage was impressed. He was merely going to say 'plane.' "Perhaps you would make a fine pilot."
Kit brightened. It sounded like the chance he always wanted. "You really think?"
Then Gibber came along and whispered in Karnage's ear. "Yes, I know he is too young," the captain said. Kit's face fell... he hated to hear that. "Ehm, how old are you, anyway?" asked Karnage.
Kit leaned back against Karnage's plane and crossed his arms cockily. "Sixteen."
"Sixteen?" questioned the pirates, in unison.
"Ha!" laughed Ratchet. "The brat doesn't even look old enough to ride a tricycle, if ya ask me."
Karnage knew he was lied to, but in this instance it made him like this boy all the more. "Forget it. You said something about being hungry, no?"
"If it's not too much trouble, I wouldn't mind," said Kit coyly. He went back to Karnage's side, for amid the gruff figures and shifty glances of the crew, Karnage, in his sight, was a beacon of awesomeness.
"The follow me, I suppose," said Karnage, not just a little flattered by the boy's admiration. As he led Kit away, he did not quite like so much the attention from the gawking crew. "As for the rest of you, go do... something... piratey!"
For Kit, thus was the beginning of many adventures under the wolfish Jolly Roger. It could be said it was the fate of destiny, but pirates and destiny never got along well, for theirs was like a dandelion seed scattered in the wind: once in motion, quite unforeseeable where it might go.
They wouldn't have it any other way.
Digging up the past
Far in the South Pacific, the ocean was calm where the Iron Vulture drifted, under a moonless but bright, starry night that turned silver the black plumes of smoke rising from the airship's dorsal rotors. The serenity was a sharp contrast to just hours before, where hovering over the port city of Alpacito, capital of the largely rural and mountainous country of Alpacatan, in the midst of a gruesome thunderstorm, the pirates' vessel became a viable lightning rod and lost half its engines.
The heist was a spur-of-the-moment decision captain Don Karnage had conceived and ordered that very morning. Few pirates knew exactly what their leader coveted from the infamously impoverished and overcrowded city, but what they did know was passed down from pirate to pirate in unmistakable code: 'treasure.' Around midnight, the Iron Vulture descended over the city from stormclouds that had made its detection impossible, and a dozen pirates slid down from rope ladders onto the roof of the city's natural history museum. With no more resistance inside the building than a handful of security guards, the raid was over almost as quickly as it began, but the airship rocked in the wind, trembled in the lightning, and was struck by two rounds of artillery shells from the local militia before Karnage and his party climbed back up the ladders, bearing against an onslaught of wind and sleet. To the captain, despite bringing only one item back on board, the heist had been well worth the trouble.
In the captain's quarters, Kit Cloudkicker held the newly stolen item in his lap; it looked quite ancient, a piece of history in his very own paws. It was a chest-like object, about one foot in size, rectangular shaped but flat like a thick book. Layers of barnacles, moss, and black ocean grime had been very recently scraped from it; it still smelled mustily of the sea.
Its corners were made of darkly-tarnished bronze, while its sides were ashen granite, chiseled on each face with large runes. The top was fastened on by eight bronze latches, each with disk-shaped knob; it was different from the other sides in that it was made out of a scaly black leather, hard as stone, and at its center was a small socket cut in such a way that it appeared to fit a gem; it was surrounded by a decorative beveling, faded and worn, of two wings reaching around into a circle. They were not feathered and bird-like; they appeared to Kit to be something more of bat wings, or something he had seen from a picture book about dinosaurs. The artifact was a bit heavy, but for mostly stone still light enough that he could discern it was hollow inside, perhaps fragile enough that it would probably break into pieces if he dropped it.
'Maybe it's a caveman's jewelry box,' he thought. In truth, he had no idea what it was, or why it should warrant a pirate's interest. If it was something made of gold or silver, or something with jewels, or at least something shiny, perhaps it would have made better sense.
He picked up a magnifying glass from the desk and looked over the details of the runes and carvings. Also on the desk was a newspaper, written in Spanish, with a large photograph of the artifact on the front page, and from sources unknown, a hardback copy of Cuneiform and You.
The lights aboard the airship flickered dimly, again. It was happening every other minute since the Vulture escaped the thunderstorm, a distraction not making Kit's investigation of the artifact any easier.
He held the chest up to his ear and shook it, and there was indeed rattling from within; something was being kept safe under the latches. He attempted to pry the top open to see what was inside when he heard a Spanish-accented voice speaking right outside the door, accompanied by the splish-splosh of wet footsteps. "What are you meaning Ratchet needs until sunrise?" A few seconds of quiet meant that Gibber was once again whispering the answer in the captain's ear.
"No, no, and more no!" replied Don Karnage. "We are not far enough from those gatos and their patrol boats to wait until sunrise. It's three o'clock already! I don't care what he has to do, just tell him to have my ship up soon, or I am going to use his thick dum-dum head for an anchor! What kind of sky pirates do you expect us to be floating here like the sitting duckies?"
With a weary sigh Karnage pushed open his cabin door, eager to catch a moments peace and change out of his wet clothing; but when he looked up to his Kit fidgeting the artifact, one might have thought his heart jumped to his throat. "Ack! Boy! Put that down at once!"
Startled, Kit almost dropped it at Karnage's tone, but Karnage made a running lunge and snatched the relic out of his grasp. Clutching it carefully in his hands, he glared down at Kit angrily. "Boy, if you have put the tiniest scratch on this I will mangle you into mulch! What have I told you about keeping your prying paws off my things!"
"Easy, I wasn't hurting it," Kit replied, rattled at Karnage's outburst. The captain usually didn't get that excited with him over such things. "I was looking at it, that's all. Honest!"
"Looking? Looking?" He grabbed Kit by the back of his sweater and yanked him from the chair so that they were almost nose-to-nose. "Do you think valuables from museums are for looking at?"
Karnage blinked and set him down. "Oh. Well, not plundered-by-pirates valuables from museums. You have no idea what I had to go through to get this!"
"I guess I don't," Kit said quietly, backing away from Karange's desk. "I didn't get to go."
"Care to repeat that last part, Mister Me-and-My-Smarty-Type-Mouth-Would-Be-Loving-To-Scrub-Dirty-Kitchen-Pots-For-a-Month?"
Kit muttered something intelligible of an apology. "Look, I'm happy for you, okay? You got what you wanted, right?"
Karnage looked at the artifact admirably, regaining a calmer composure as he appeared to slip into a sudden daydream, the grand scope of his scheme with the artifact flashing before his eyes. "You know, I did do quite wonderful, if you do say so yourself."
"But...what is it, anyway?" asked Kit. "What's inside?"
"That is for me to know and for you to to have the pleasure of pondering how your cunning captain is going to show his genius once again. Now shoo, go ponder!"
"You know, the last time you said that, we went on a diamond heist and ended up to our armpits in clam chowder."
Karnage cringed. "First, boy, never bring that up! Second, this has nothing to do with clam chowder."
"Neither did the last time. But one thing after another, and there we were, swimming in clam chowder! I had chowder in my ears for a week!"
Karnage's eyes narrowed at him, viciously. "Say 'chowder' one more time, I dare you."
Kit shook his head, silent.
The captain pointed to the door. "I told you to scram! And stay scrammed!" He sat down at his desk and began picking at the chest's latches.
"Are you gonna open it?" Kit asked. "Here, lemme see, I think I figured out―"
Karnage slapped his hand away. "What did I just tell you?"
"And who is still here not scramming?"
"Okay, okay, I'm scramming!"
Kit began to leave the room, but turned back just before the doorway. "One quick question?"
"One quick answer is no," Karnage snapped.
"How much is that thing worth?"
"How do you know?"
"Be-cause, it's old."
Karnage threw his arms in the air and brought them down to his desk with clenched fists. "Do you see a date stamped on this thing, boy? How should I know!"
Kit frowned and backpedaled out the door before random desk objects began to hurl his way. Karnage had gotten up and pushed shut the heavy steel door behind him with as hard of a slam as he could, completed by the click of the locks snapping into place.
Kit gave him a dirty look through the door. "Chowder."
The door began to unlock... Kit ran away.
Jock the helmsman was one of, if not the most laid-back and agreeable of the entire pirate crew. He was usually more interested in finding a comfortable place to nap than pillaging. But tonight, alone on the bridge, he had his hands full, far more than he would ever care for, anyway.
He pushed and pulled at the various levers and throttles that controlled the Iron Vulture's engines. On a nearby table was two-way radio, with Ratchet's voice blaring at him from the top deck of the airship: 'No, ya dummy, I said rotors two, four, and eight running, and the rest off! Ya got all of 'em hot on the starboard side!'
Jock grumbled under his breath and took a step back to see where he went wrong.
Kit approached the helm from behind him. "Any luck on the repairs?"
"Bah, can't even think straight with that mutt blowin' in my ear," replied Jock.
Kit nodded knowingly. "You need any help?"
"Aye, if ya wanna grab a musket for me."
"A musket? What for?"
"This radio's hollerin' like a sufferin' banshee. I'm thinkin' I may have to put it out of its misery soon."
'Jock, ain't you listenin' or not!' yelled Ratchet. 'I got fires startin' up here!'
"You mean your misery," said Kit. He went over to one of the bridge's large, round windows, an tuned the out the commotion behind him as he gazed out into the night. The storm lumbered onward far in the distance, and occasionally accented the edge of pitch-black horizon with blurred flashes. Nearby, the vibrant silver glow of the stars danced across the ocean's lively crests.
Something happened to catch his attention; it was a wake parting the water, circling around and under the airship's prow. Kit put his nose all the way up to the glass, holding his breath so to keep it from fogging. He recognized the wake as created from a seaplane with two pontoons, but wider than what would be expected of the pirates' CT-37's; the craft appeared to have stopped just underneath the window, but Kit could only see it as a vaguely-shaped shadow. He was about to as Jock if he knew anything about it, but the helmsman was far to busy with his own problems.
'Jock!' lamented Ratchet over the radio. Judging by the background noises coming through in the transmission ― shouting, clanking, drilling ― thing up on the top deck were no less than chaotic. For once Kit could count his lucky stars many of the crew did not think much of his strength, otherwise he might have been counted on to be up there, and share with the calamity. 'Hang it, Jock, you even know what you're doing!'
Jock stopped manipulating the levers for a moment and scratched his nose. "Now that you mention it... no."
A loud hum suddenly rumbled through the Iron Vulture, drowning out all other sounds... then the airship's heavy metallic frame began to shake like an earthquake, with a terrible creaking noise.
"What's goin' on?" Kit yelled, covering his ears. All the lights began to dim and flicker; some lamps on the walls exploded in a burst of sparks.
Then, as the shaking receded, the tone of the hum became lower, until both faded away altogether.
Kit and Jock looked at each other, stunned, wondering what had just happened. Everyone aboard the airship most likely shared the exact same expression, as one could hear a pin drop in the sudden silence.
But not for long...
'Jock!' screamed Ratchet again, this time with much more urgency than ever before.
The helmsman flinched, nearly falling forward. He cleared his throat and picked up the radio microphone. "Um... yes?"
'Ya flea-bitten idiot! Ya just killed all the engines!'
Past the point of concern anymore, Jock pushed the radio box of the table, smashing it apart. "Oops. Seems I killed the radio, too."
"I'd say it fell off accidentally," Kit said, gaining a nod of approval from Jock. "Whaddaya think happened, though?"
"Some sort of power surge, I suppose."
Jock shrugged and sat back against the helm wheel, one of his infamous napping places. "Could be. Don't care. It's late."
Kit wished him luck and decided to head for bed; at this late hour, he didn't want to be around when the captain blew his temper over the blackouts again. The ship was mostly deserted on the inside; still the halls creaked and groaned under the ship's own weight, and echoed with distant shouting and hammering noises.
On the way to the berths, Kit got as far as the hangar entrance before he saw Karnage stomping in his direction. If he did not know any better, he could have sworn steam was venting out of his ears. Kit ducked into the hangar to get out of his way. Huffily, Karnage went on toward the bridge, swearing vigorously in a colorful blend of Spanish and English. The night was about to get even longer.
Being an air pirate rarely presented a dull moment, which fortunately more than made up for it presenting many a dull brain. If Karnage wasn't scheming plot after pillaging plot and taking the Iron Vulture all across the Pacific in search of adventure (which in pirate terms, always translated into "plunder"), there were always the more minor but hardly infrequent mis-adventures within the pirate clan itself... such as in recent example, some of the pirates were still picking gorilla bird feathers out of their fur from last week when a herd of the stenchy foul burst loose out of the hold of a captured plane and ran amok through the ship. Kit could never think of the incident with a straight face... especially remembering Karnage's shriek when he awoke one morning finding two of the mangy beasts sleeping under his bed covers.
Also, of course, there were the planes. Karnage "owned" dozens of them, from his infamous fleet of CT-37 interceptors to special seaplanes the pirates had designed and built themselves from salvaged parts of wrecked and stolen aircraft. Kit had already known his fair share about aircraft since he was very young, but not as much as he learned with the pirates, finally being so close to them and being part of their regular upkeep. He helped keep them clean, usually washing a few of them a day as part of his chores, and helped wherever he could in their organization and maintenance.
He often found himself daydreaming over what plane would eventually be his when he was older (hopefully by age twelve, if not sooner, though he suspected the captain might have begged to differ). He knew better than to think their planes were the best craft in the sky, but they were airplanes nonetheless, and they still looked flat-out fun to fly. Whenever chance permitted, he would climb into one of them and get a righteous feel for what it'd be like to actually fly by himself.
In fact, standing alone in the dark and deserted hangar, the thought had suddenly occurred to him that for the moment, he had the entire fleet to himself, a moment too rare to pass up. The CT-37's were lined up and pointed toward the Iron Vulture's nose, poised ready to be launched at a moment's notice.
He climbed inside the cockpit of Karnage's tri-wing warplane and grabbed the flight stick with both hands. "Okay, ya mugs," he said to an imaginary squadron, "Enemy planes ahead! Break off and punch 'em full of holes!"
Adding his own engine and gunfire sound effects, Kit was soon lost in his own imagination, and in the middle of a dogfight high in the clouds. "I got their leader," he shouted, pulling his plane sharply into an inverted loop. Fiery bullet tracers whizzed by his windshield as he maneuvered behind the enemy fighter. With itchy fingers and one eye peering through his gunsight, he delicately but firmly pulled on the stick until the cross-hairs moved over his opponent's tail. He had him! "Fire!"
He squeezed the trigger, and, back in reality, all six of the tri-wing's cannons spit out a series of explosive rounds, annihilating a wooden crate at the far wall and putting a number of dents in the airship's inner hull. Kit whisked his hands away from the flight stick. "Omigosh!" he gasped, shrinking back in the seat. "I'm gonna get skinned!"
There had already been one incident where Kit accidentally released a CT-37's parking brake while playing in it, which sent the plane rolling into a recently-plundered pile of goods, namely a vat of molasses. Karnage had just about blown his top, and Kit spent several days cleaning the plane immaculate inside and out. No, this would definitely not bode well, either...
Kit was about to jump out of the plane ― and start thinking up an alibi ― when he heard footsteps from above.
From the lowest catwalk, Mad Dog peered over the railing, squinting to see the hangar floor. "Anybody here? Hell-llo?"
Silently, Kit had slid down to the plane's floorboard and tucked himself underneath the console, keeping his ears open for Mad Dog's every move. There were the *clank* *clank* *clank* noises as the pirate trod down the metal steps to the floor, then the scritchy-scratches as he rubbed his brow in utter confusion, and the sniffs and snorts detecting the odor of burnt gunpowder in the air.
"Huh? Hey, whose hidin' by the planes," Mad Dog shouted.
It sounded like Mad Dog was running towards the captain's plane. Kit sighed and was just about to surrender when he heard the pirate let out a sudden "Oof!", immediately followed by a thud that sounded as if a body had fallen limply to the floor. Kit waited still for a moment, testing for any sound, and then he could only chuckle; it wasn't as if this was the first time Mad Dog had clipped his head on a wing and knocked himself cold.
But it was no sooner Kit stirred to crawl out of the cockpit when he was practically plucked out, grabbed by his arm and throat. Before he could as much as yelp, he was hoisted up, one large hand wrapped tightly around his face, another holding his arm behind his back. "Don't make a sound, kid," a deep voice rumbled near his ear. "Or I can really give you something to scream about."
A muffled cry came from Kit, who struggled with absolute futility to escape. Whoever the intruder was, his grip was like hardened cement. He moved his hand from the boy's mouth and wrapped it under his jaw in a hard, vise-like grip. "Settle down, now," the stranger said, quietly but yet with such intensity it made Kit stop struggling as if frozen by his very words. Mad Dog's unconscious body was sprawled under the plane, grim proof this wasn't a prank pulled by any of the other crewmen. "Real simple, kid, I'm here to take back what you pissants stole from the museum tonight, and I'll slaughter every single one of you to get it. But you help me out right, and that might not have to happen. Understand?"
"Yes," Kit replied, in all but a choked whisper.
The stranger loosened his grip just enough for Kit to talk freely. "Where is it? Heaven help you if you don't know."
"The ― that box?"
"That 'box'," the stranger replied. "You've seen it. Where is it?"
"Are you nuts? You think you're gonna take it? You're gonna get yourself k―!"
The stranger silenced Kit with a curt jostle. "I appreciate your concern. Where do I go?"
"Oh, I'd love to tell you," Kit said through his teeth, to which the stranger retaliated by twisting his arm up further behind his back. Kit's cries were muffled by the brute's hand.
"Richter, easy, for goodness sake," a second male voice chided behind them, this one with a British accent. "He's only a lad."
The first stranger ignored him. "I asked you a question," he said to Kit, the tone of his rough voice becoming irritated.
"Wh-why should I tell you?" stammered Kit.
"Kid, I will tear your arm off," growled the stranger.
Kit felt that was reason enough. He pointed the direction of an adjacent hall. "It's in the captain's room. On his desk."
"Captain Karnage," the stranger said, contemplatively. As he turned to his accomplice, he let Kit back on his feet ― at least to where his toes could touch the floor ― holding fast to his left wrist. "I could stomp that roach, do the world a favor."
"Yes, but we only need the artifact," said the other. "Our timing is superb, what with all of them running around on up top, and I'd suggest making little incident as possible."
The gruff stranger let go of Kit's arm, swept his feet out from under him, then rested his heavy boot over the boy's chest. With only the flood lights set at the ceiling high above them, Kit could only see a hulking silhouette. "I'm not gonna fuss with you, brat, so listen. If you make me waste the time to tie you up, I'm gonna start with your neck first. Stay useful and you might not get hurt so much."
"But you got no idea what you're doin'," Kit grunted, pushing up against the brute's foot.
"You just stay quiet and get me to the captain's room," said the stranger, picking Kit up again by his wrist. "I'll worry about the rest."
Kit took a hard swallow and gestured toward an adjacent hallway, where he led the intruders. It was there that he finally attained his first good look at the two: Richter was a freight train of a bear, while his accomplice a thin, gray fox. Besides the contrast of their sizes, Richter wore worn fatigues and a hunting vest, and the other a much dressier, open-collared white shirt and trousers. The latter stayed behind his partner, anxiously watching their flanks for approaching pirates.
Suddenly, Hacksaw had just rounded the corner and met face-to-face with the group, at point-blank. He didn't so much as blink before Richter burst forward and kicked him in the mid-section, then grabbed him from behind in a choke-hold that brought the pirate to his knees. Hacksaw's eyes bulged and glazed over red, and Richter had positioned his arms in a manner ready to snap the pirate's neck.
"No!" cried Kit, but was grabbed and muffled by the fox, who turned his head away, wincing.
"For heaven's sake, just knock him out!" said the fox.
Richter stared hard at Kit, who had just noticed with no small concern that the big bear had three grenades tied to the side of his belt, as well as a large machete strapped to his right thigh. Richter cracked just a slight grin and nodded, kept his arms steady under Hacksaw's jaw until there was no more struggle, and let the unconscious body drop. "Let go of the kid," he said. "Don't think we need to worry about him makin' a scene."
Kit drew a shaky breath and started forward again, moving as if his ankles were bound by ball and chain.
"And this isn't a honeymoon cruise, Borden," Richter snorted to his partner. "You better keep in mind they won't return the favor." He gave Kit a push to get him moving faster. "The instant this goes south, all bets are off."
Kit led the two through the corridors and up a flight of stairs. He glanced around, hoping to spy just one opportunity to get away and warn the rest of the crew, but he was never out of reach of Richter's grasp. They found Don Karnage's cabin door wide open, and the chest still on his desk, everything as he had left it upon taking off on his latest storming tirade.
Richter shoved Kit onto the floor and out of his way, picked up the artifact, and unceremoniously snapped it open. From inside, he took out a stack of leathery parchments bound by a weaving black ribbon so that they opened as pages in a a book. The surface of the parchments were cluttered with ornate symbols and runes. On top of Karnage's desk, the intruders sorted through the pages hastily, until Richter found one that piqued his interest; it was full of sketches that resembled something of blueprints. While he studied it, the gray fox knelt down next to Kit.
"Say, what's a lad like you doing here, anyway?" asked the fox.
"I got a better question," said Kit. "The heck are you doin' here?"
"Easy, now," said the fox. "I just want to know if you're okay."
"Aw, I'm touched," Kit grumbled. "I'm a lot better than you two are gonna be any second now. You think you're just gonna waltz on out of here?"
"Well, one can hope," the fox grinned.
"Gah, I hope not," said Richter, running his finger down a parchment with one hand and absently caressing a grenade with the other. His coarse features looked ecstatic as he stared at the diagram. Apparently, smiling wasn't a habit. Kit glanced over at him and rubbed his shoulder, which ached something fierce; he felt oddly fortunate it was still attached.
"I'm sorry for my partner, I know he's a bit on the rough side," the fox said. "I don't know what to say. I know you're hurt... I'd like to help, I guess I just don't know how, at the moment. My name's Tyler, by the way. What's yours?"
Kit hesitated for a moment and looked up at the stranger. He had a slight but gentle smile about him, sympathetic eyes, and, even as a stranger, a countenance that one might expect he was a naturally nice person; but, given recent events and the lug with the machete, not quite enough charm to warm up to.
"Go fly a kite," said Kit.
Tyler stood up, frowning. "Well."
"We got somethin' special here, Borden," Richter said, sifting through more of the leather pages. "Look at this..." Richter flipped back to where he found the 'blueprints' and held it out for Tyler to see. It had sketches of an intricate design of gears and pulleys, all surrounding a star-shaped symbol with two glyphs in the middle. "I don't know what this is, but we want to know. That's the king's seal on it."
"What of any maps?" asked Tyler. "What I wouldn't give for one measly map."
As the two discussed it, Kit started scooting his way toward the door.
"One more inch and I'll tear you in half, kid," Richter suddenly said, without turning to look.
'Rats,' Kit thought.
"He's got the right idea, though," said Tyler. "We'll figure this out later."
Richter placed the parchments back in their stone container, and fit the lid back on. "What about the brat?"
"Well, good question," said Tyler. "I'm not sure."
"I say let the brat go," said Kit, but it was a suggestion easily ignored.
"I could take care of him, quick," Richter said, making Kit start.
"Yes, I know you could," said Tyler, "but I think you're a bit better than that."
"I ain't gonna snuff the anklebiter, relax." Richter glanced around for opportune places to tie Kit to, or even stuff him inside, until they made their getaway. "For cryin' out loud, if this isn't the bedroom of a pansy," he muttered, noticing Karnage's fluffy red bedspread and matching velvet drapes.
Tyler paused in thought for a moment, then knelt next to Kit again. "Is your father one of the pirates here? Any of your family?"
From over the fox's shoulder, Kit was watching Richter with wide eyes and didn't seem to hear the question; the grizzly had just ripped off a power cord from a nearby lamp and was studying a chest at the foot of Karnage's bed as if measuring it for size. "This just might work."
"Just keep your dirty mitts to yourself, ya big elephant's butt," Kit said, holding his hurt shoulder. Though he tried to conceal it, he was quaking inside; still, somehow, giving Richter lip seemed like the smartest thing to do.
A contemptuous sneer wrinkled Richter's snout, and he took a long stride word the boy and wound his hand back, about to cuff him over the head, but only for Tyler stepping in front of him. "He did do what he was asked to, Jesse."
"He is not one of your nephews, mama bear," Richter growled. "He's one of them. You keep playing nice, and he's looking to get your throat cut!"
"Just let me try for one second," Tyler said. Then he spoke to Kit, "Lad, quickly now. Why don't you just come with us, away from these barbarians."
Kit looked at him like he had spoken a completely foreign language. "Huh?"
Richter wasn't exactly pleasantly surprised with the notion. "Are you outta your head, Borden?"
"Well why not? There's foster care for little ones like him, I'm sure he'd be placed somewhere nice. Anything has to be better than this mess."
"This mess is my home, tea-bag," Kit snapped. "Look, you two got what you wanted, so why don't you get lost. If you think you'll be lucky enough to get out."
Richter ran his hand down his face, frustrated. "Forget the sweet-talk. These crooks don't think like you do."
"I don't know what you have here, but you've got to imagine that there are better places in the world to be," said Tyler. He held out his hand to help Kit up. "Please, lad, no time here. You'll not be harmed."
Kit shuddered, wrestling with a visceral reaction from deep inside at the mere thought of an orphanage. But then, after a hard swallow, he looked up at the fox with eyes wide with wonder. "You mean it?" he asked coyly.
"Of course," said Tyler. Richter raised an eyebrow, incredulously.
Kit smiled and took Tyler's hand... then promptly leapt off the floor, pushed the fox on his rear, and made a running beeline out of the room. He shouted as loud as he could: "Hel―!" His cry for help and his run for safety were abruptly stifled by a brutal swat from Richter. Kit bounced off the wall and lay sprawled on the floor, stunned and nearly motionless.
Richter glowered over the boy. "Nice try, bad decision."
"I'm not quite sure you had to strike him like that," said Tyler, scowling.
Richter ignored him, and just as Kit began to stir, he clasped his free hand around the boy's neck, and hoisted him up toward the ceiling.
"Let's just leave him be, then!" Tyler cried. "Stop hurting him!"
"He won't be feeling a thing," said Richter, in a hushed and chilled tone. "He's gonna go for a nice, little nap."
Choking, Kit's eyes welled with tears, his feet kicking wildly but to no avail. The lights on the Iron Vulture started to flicker again.
Richter glanced around the room. "This don't look good..." With a brief buzzing sound, the ship lost power, and there was pitch blackness, save for the star-shine from the broadside window.
While the two intruders muttered among themselves how they were going to get out, Richter had unwittingly loosened his grip just enough... Kit got his chin under Richter's thumb...
"This is all we need," Tyler said. "What do you suggest now, candles?"
"Will you shuddup and let me―yeowch!" yelped Richter, and in the darkness there was the clank of the stone chest hitting the floor. "What the―! Dammit!"
"What bloody happened?"
"The brat bit me! He got away!"
"The tome!" cried Tyler. "You dropped it!"
Kit had shook away from Richter and made a break out the door, hurriedly feeling his way through the dark, toward the bridge.
Tyler dropped on all fours and felt for the dropped parchments. "He's going to get help, we don't have much time!"
"I'm goin' after him!" Unfortunately for Richter, he wasn't quite as familiar with the airship as Kit. When it ran for the door, he missed by a good three feet and ran smack into the wall, knocking himself flat on his back. The onslaught of swearing that ensued rivaled the clamorous noise from the flight deck.
With heaving breaths and favoring his hurt arm, Kit ran through the corridors, tripping several times and bouncing off the walls. He was almost at the bridge when the airship's lights again flickered to life. His coarse shouts for help were all too weak.
"That hurt, kid!" Richter growled from the end of the corridor.
Kit picked up his pace as fast as his legs would carry him, but Richter was simply too fast. In a beat, he caught up with the boy and swiped him off his feet, pinning him against the wall with his forearm. "Let me show you how much!"
Meanwhile, Karnage sat in his chair in the bridge, exhausted, his throat dry from all the yelling he had just done. He wasn't at all pleased with the temporary power loss. Mad Dog, Dumptruck, and Gibber were all beside him, in case he felt the need to once again remind them what eediots they were.
"Let me go!" Kit's voice screeched in the distance, making Karnage's ears perk up. "Somebody, he-elp!"
Karnage groaned, and stood up in a huff. "What is going on now! Boy, you better be dying out there, or you will be!" The captain stomped out of the bridge with his 'favorite" lackeys right behind him. Just outside the room, he saw Kit in the grasp of a brute of a bear, while his partner had just rounded the corner with the chest in his hands.
"Intruders! My map!" Karnage reached for his cutlass, but before he could stretch an inch of steel from its sheath, Richter dropped Kit and charged at him like a raging bull, shoulder tackling all four pirates back into the bridge like bowling pins.
Richter looked down at the fallen pirates, wanting to do more damage while he had the chance. Then he sneered down at Kit, a cold smirk forming on his face. "You wanna save 'em, kid?" He plucked one of his grenades from his belt, bit off its pin, and threw it into the bridge, in the midst of all those still gathering their wits. "You got ten seconds. Fetch."
Karnage woozily began pushing himself from the floor. He was too dazed to see Kit pointing to the grenade that rolled between his arms, or hear his shouts of warning.
Richter was counting down with his fingers. Kit ducked with his arms over his ears, eyes tightly closed. Richter clenched his hand into a fist as the time for the grenade should have run out... but nothing happened. He frowned. "Dud. Shoot!"
"If you're quite done, I'd say right now would be a good time to depart," Tyler said, backpedaling in the other direction. "We'll be a tad outnumbered any second!"
Richter reached for another grenade.
"We just might need those other two getting out of here!" Tyler warned, as the pirates were just getting back up.
With some reluctance, Richter silently agreed and started the other way, and the two intruders ran out of sight.
In the bridge, the Captain has just gotten back up, his eyes red with fury. "Get up you moronic morons!" he barked to his crew, giving Mad Dog more than a little help to his feet with a kick in the rear. "After them! After them now! Block every door! They have my treasure map!"
In one year's passing from that night, many things had changed, for the pirates, for Kit, even for the intruders who managed to steal from thieves. And some things had not changed much at all; not far where the air pirates had first acquired the artifact, more items like it were being sought, and interests were still at work in the thick, expansive clutches of the Aplacatan jungle, the Antranador Basin.
There, in a place far removed from the concerns of clocks and calendars, a crew of archaeologists was hard at work excavating the ruins of a citadel, long drowned in the jungle. Dawn was just rising, inciting a duel of shadow and light through the thick boughs of the giant, ancient trees. One defensive wall of the citadel still stood, built of stone and rusted iron pillars. The leader of the expedition, an Oxfurry professor of history by the name Bagheera, sat on the wall and wrote in his journal, using his knee as a flat surface. Fluently his pen filled the blank pages with a fervent train-of-thought:
Rhamastan. Piece by piece, clue by clue, we are drawing near to one of history's grandest treasure troves. We are acting on faith in the truth of legend as much as anything else, still, we can all sense it, and it gives us enthusiasm beyond what strength the jungle saps, hour by hour. It is here, somewhere.
Somewhere, indeed. I sit here in the midst of a jungle so vast that modern cartographers still have yet to chart its far reaches. There is no needle small enough, nor a haystack large enough, to make such a comparison. The gates of Rhamastan are hidden to the ages. Currently, my crew and I are excavating about the ruins of one of the largest ziggurats we've yet to discover, in utmost secrecy to the prying eyes of our opponent, and I believe we have finally hit paydirt.
Bagheera paused to look up at the structure before him. Rising to treetops that surrounded it, the ziggurat was comparable in size as any of the pyramids of ancient Aridia, possibly larger, for it was difficult to tell exactly how much of the structure, and the city that once adorned it, remained under the ground. Its top, which once had come together in a step-like triangular shape, was by now worn down to a rounded knob, where presently one of his crewmen stood taking measurements.
Comparing our references with the ruins we have discovered in the area, a year's search for the capital of the Felocian empire, the citadel Sin Rha'amakhan, has come to fruition. The size of the walls, the ruins of the gates and watchtower placements, and the appropriate size of the ziggurat temple all corroborate this one conclusion. There are two mountain ridges immediately on either side of the site, which would lend credence to the tales that the citadel was consumed by a gigantic landslide during the Aridian-Felocian War.
I will gladly accept whatever morsel of information we might uncover here, though our priority is to seek out the tomb of the Gatekeeper of Rhamastan, Zul Rhakeith. Our recovered records told that he designed the very gates of Rhamastan, made them undefeatable. He was later mortally wounded in the final assault in Arida, and was brought back to the citadel to be laid to rest... no doubt with all his possessions and record of accomplishments, such information that I hope will lead us to our grand destination.
Against us now are thousands of years of mystery and a very large amount of dirt. Entering the ziggurat is now priority one. Much of it is below ground, and what we see is like the tip of an iceberg ― or perhaps even the head of the tombstone. It is the only structure left standing, and it is our only means of further information. To consider the amount of time it would take a crew of our size to remove all the dirt and find its gates... well, I should live so long. Our time is short here. We have made a good camp and I think we have plenty of food. It's ammunition on which we are running low.
Thus, I have hardly any qualms about blasting our way inside. My crew is currently planning the placement of our dynamite supply. Perhaps I betray the ethical standards of my profession in this, but I've spent far too many years on this quest to impose upon myself too heavy a burden of preservation.
Suddenly a shotgun went off in the near distance, making Bagheera jump. Then a second blast. "Hang it all ― what happened?" he hollered out.
"Varan!" shouted back one of his crewman, who was unseen, from somewhere in the foliage. "No worry, it's dead now."
"Bloody lizards," Bagheera cringed. He took a cautious glance around him, making sure there weren't any such beasts nearby. Though an Antranador varan would hardly be able to climb the wall he sat upon, the mere thought twisted his stomach.
We remain hopeful. Though, after so long, that in itself is nothing short of a dare... I'm growing tired, that I admit. We all are. We've been in this jungle too long, deprived of every comfort. The weather is either hot and humid or stone cold, the giant condors in the hills, the giant varans in the jungle, not to mention mosquitoes and snakes...
"Argh," he growled, scratching the back of his neck.
Oh, how I shall remember the mosquitoes. We must take great care of ourselves against the creatures here, for we have no means of emergency assistance. Our radios malfunction the further we go into the jungle, a phenomenon we've grown used to by now but are baffled as to what may be causing the interference. I can't help but muse the interference is from underground, somehow, from the dead citadels. The earth here holds many secrets.
Bagheera flipped to a fresh page to continue, but a buzzing noise from an approaching airplane caught his attention. The crewmen at the site stopped working and looked to the sky as the small craft flew overhead, and, to their surprise, a lone figure jumped from the plane.
Bagheera tossed his journal aside and sprung to his feet. "Good grief! Who on earth...!"
A white parachute bloomed opened, sending its occupant gliding down and out of sight into the trees, where everyone ran to. By the time most of them arrived, the parachute was hopelessly tangled in a thicket, leaving the jumper swinging just above the ground.
"Blimey, it's a woman!" said one of the crewmen.
"Hello there," she replied, struggling to get out of the harness. While she was hidden from the waist up by a briefcase she held in both arms, the men took particular notice to her legs kicking from the shorts of her khaki field uniform. "Now would it be too much to ask for a little h―whoops!" The tree branches suddenly snapped, and she fell into the brush below.
Bagheera cut through the crowd, out of breath from the mad sprint he had just taken. "Somebody tell me what's going on around here!"
"Some broad just jumped out a plane!" someone answered.
"Was it somebody's birthday?" another inquired.
"I'm not 'some broad,' thank you," she said, pulling herself from the foliage and adjusting the large spectacles on her nose. "And thanks for the help."
"Dear heavens," exclaimed Bagheera. "Are you all r ― er, Myra?"
"Mr. Bagheera!" She grabbed the panther's hand with both of hers and shook it vigorously. "So good to see you again!"
Bagheera blinked. "Myra! Well, yes, I ― likewise! You'll pardon me, I'm just a bit surprised! Why if I'd known you wished to join us, I would have been most happy to have made arrangements." Bagheera held Mrya's parachute pack as she wrestled free of its harness. "Arrangements that wouldn't have included jumping out of airplanes, if you'd prefer."
"Oh, a little jump," she said. "It's nothing!"
"I trust that you're finding us there means you've researched the parchments we handed you," said Bagheera.
"Of course! Kept it all top secret, as you requested. I can't wait to tell you how fascinating they were!"
"But we've been telephoning your office for weeks! You've never replied."
"No phones out on the field, I'm afraid. But I'm so glad we could meet here!" She held her briefcase up and patted it on the side. "I started comparing those parchments to the hieroglyphs in Pharaoh Oporkon's tomb describing the war, and I definitely think we're on to something!" Over Bagheera's shoulder, her eye caught the ziggurat. "Oh, look at that wonderful building!"
Myra hurried toward the ruins, speaking to no one in particular about how long she had wanted to explore a Felocian city. The others followed shortly behind.
"She's Aridia's Minister of Culture, and for the most part, a walking historical encyclopedia," Bagheera explained to his questioning crew. "Value her opinion, and you'll all be gentlemen around her, understand?"
"I know her," said Bagheera's nephew and chief assistant, Stephan. "She's the one Tyler used to go on about."
"Shush now," scowled Bagheera. "That's none of our business."
Myra and Bagheera sat in his tent, two fold-up chairs at a card table, where Myra was unpacking her briefcase: notes, photographs and sketches of maps, hieroglyphs, and cuneiform parchments.
"A year ago, a crew of fishermen snared a sarcophagus on their ship's anchor," said Bagheera, flipping through Myra's notes as she kept adding to the stack; the notes were quite unorganized and apparently hurriedly written. "It belonged to a royal Felocian scribe―an incredibly rare find, absolute luck. They only resurfaced half the casket, the other half was presumably crushed by the anchor, and who knows what else with it. But what they were able to salvage was a burial tome, containing several pages of information we had never seen. It had details about this site, Amakhan, a short account of Rhakieth the Gatekeeper, and the schematics for how the gates of Rhamastan were forged here. You've likely noted that Felocian cartography is very cryptic and not a terrible help to us, thus it's taken the better part of a year to comb the jungle finely enough to be where we're at now."
"Did Aplacito City give you much trouble over acquiring the tome?" asked Myra.
"No, not quite," replied Bagheera. "They never knew we had it. Tyler managed to apprehend it from a group of bandits who burglarized the museum shortly after the discovery."
"Oh, my! How is Tyler? I haven't seen him for ages."
"He's tending to matters back home, but he's very much involved in this. Now, what was found inside the tome was what we sent you. We were hoping to find any cross-references from the Aridians."
"And indeed I did!" beamed Myra.
"Most importantly, Myra, did you find anything about Rhamastan itself? Where it was, or is?"
"Nothing like that, I'm afraid. Strangely, there's very little recorded about what should have been a most significant victory for the pharaoh." By this time, much of Myra's documents were scattered on the floor. She picked out a photograph from the tomb of the Aridian Pharaoh Oporkon, and hieroglyphic symbols on the wall that told the story of his reign. "After the fall of Amakhan, the Aridians re-grouped and sieged the Felocians for 'two thousand sunrises'. They never say where exactly the siege was, and it just suddenly ends by saying they won by, quote, 'sealing their doom.'"
"Really. They never reclaimed their plundered wealth?"
"It never said. If they had, I think there would have been mention of it."
"Did it say anything about afterward?" asked Bagheera. "What happened to the Felocians?"
"The context of the hieroglyphs suggest victory through annihilation," said Myra. "The presumption there would be that none of the Felocians survived."
"Annihilation." Bagheera leaned back in his chair, scratching his brow. "If they so thoroughly decimated the Felocians, why did they not take back anything to show for it?"
"I also found corroborative information on Amakhan." Myra picked up a short stack of notes and shuffled through them. "Well, it's all here somewhere! The Aridians wrote that they had all but taken the city, when from out of nowhere the mountains came down. Everything wiped out except for the temple!"
"Did it say what they believed caused it to happen?"
"They didn't, but I noticed your Felocian scribe did. To believe him, the king rigged the city to self-destruct."
"Felocian engineering at its most terrible," nodded Bagheera. "It's not the only account we've found verifying that claim, though what I wouldn't give to know what they used as an explosive. Even for their cunning, it was a few thousand years too early for TNT."
"If it's true, we're sitting on a mass grave. Thousands... maybe hundreds of thousands..."
Bagheera picked out Myra's photographs from the table, scanning over the hieroglyphics. He chuckled, "Well, it's Greek to me. I'm glad you're helping us sort out the other side of the story."
"My pleasure! Officially, I'm here to see about recovering any Aridian property that was looted during the war. Better late than never, I suppose."
"Best of luck on that," Bagheera said, flatly; he didn't look up from the photographs.
She tilted her head at him, not sure what to make of that reply.
"Myra, the most important thing this venture is... well, it's not politics. Aridia may have its interests, I'm sure the Alpacito and Oxfurry will want their say in the matter as well. It could be a very complicated, messy situation."
Myra laughed. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to claim it all for yourself!"
Bagheera laughed quietly, if not nervously. "I don't know about all of it," he muttered.
From outside the tent, someone shouted, "Uncle, all's ready for the dynamite!"
"Jolly good, Stephen!" Bagheera shouted back. "Light it up, boys!"
"The... dynamite?" asked Myra. "What would that be for?"
Bagheera stacked up the photographs neatly and left them on the table. He grabbed his water canteen and skirted out the tent quickly. "Blowing a side or two off the temple."
Myra sat blinking, as if dazed. "You're... blow it up?" She ran out of the tent after him.
"We can't get into it any other way," said Bagheera, giving a thumbs-up to his crew standing around the ziggurat. "A team this size, it'll take too long to dig to its base. This way, at least we can break into a passage."
"It's been here for thousands of years! You can't just blow it up! That's not what―"
"It's not what we do, yes, I know," snapped Bagheera. "Except this time."
"But― but ―" Myra stood in front of him, stammering to find the words to express her protest. "How could you!"
"I'm choosing the better good. There's no secret there's ruins in the jungle, but just finding ruins won't help us. There are few enough people as it is who will lend us the slightest bit of credibility, and the list grows shorter every time all I can show for risking life and limb in this snake pit are photographs of crumbled watchtowers. The chancellor of Oxfurry will decline funding if I can't bring back something substantial. Alpacito City itself will hardly spend its resources exploring, just fools like us who are willing to go the distance. We're not here to gawk at old ruined walls, or ogle at statues."
"All stand clear!" a crewman shouted. "Blasting in ten seconds!"
"Certainly we can learn from each piece we find," Myra pleaded. "The chancellor should appreciate that much, at least!"
"I've only mentioned half the problem. The other issue is much more pressing. We are in a race, my dear lady. Out-financed, feasibly outnumbered, most definitely out-gunned if it should ever come to it, and the one advantage we have over our opponent is that he does not yet know of this citadel, but that certainly won't last long."
The crew had begun to count down from ten.
"A race?" asked Myra. "I don't understand, against whom?"
"Shere Khan," the panther replied.
As the countdown came to 'ONE!', Mrya and Bagheera ducked down and covered their ears. The explosion was loud and fiery, and blasted smoke and dust over the entire campsite. After a lot of coughing, and taking cover from falling shards of shattered stone, the team looked up at the fruit of their labor: the tip of the ziggurats was gone, and a passage gaped open.
"Uncle, come look!" said Stephen; he was the first to run back to the ziggurat. "We did it! We found a way inside the bugger!"
The broken slope of the ziggurat revealed a hole that was the top corner of a room or tunnel; the crew hurried with pickaxes and shovels to clear the debris and helped make the opening at least large enough to crawl inside.
Bagheera was the first to go; he practically plunged himself inside, flinging out handfuls of stony debris behind him as he crawled through. He slid and tumbled headfirst onto a hard floor, finding himself amid pitch blackness, save for the beam of sunlight piercing through the hole, which revealed little but uncertain shapes and shadows within a short distance.
He coughed, the dust was thick in the air; in the ray of sun, it looked like a dense, glowing white fog setting solid around him. He scooted back toward the mouth of the opening for a last breath of fresh air, and to call for a lantern. "Hurry boys," he said as they fetched what he requested, "I've no doubt there'll be plenty to see in here!"
"I'm coming, too!" said Myra. She tried to slide down feet-first, but to her dismay, she landed squarely on a person below.
"I'm sorry," she gasped.
"For what?" ask Bagheera, from beside her, not below.
Myra jumped back. "Didn't I just step on you?"
The crew lowered down a lantern and a flashlight to Bagheera through the opening, and with a quietly echoing click of the flashlight's switch, the walls of the room were touched with light for the first time in an age.
Outside, Stephan and the others waited to hear Bagheera's reaction, yet they heard nothing. "Uncle? What do you see?"
"Don't come down here!" ordered Bagheera. "Any of you!"
"But what is it?"
Bagheera and Myra stood close together, his flashlight sweeping the floor. It was cluttered with broken scraps of wooden beams, scattered chunks of stone from the crumbling walls and ceiling, and countless dozens of skeletal corpses, each wearing plated and chain battle armor, most pieces still embedded with swords and arrows that killed their wearers.
"It's a war zone," Bagheera replied. "Send us down more light, boys, we're going to need it!"
"I recognize this," Myra said, kneeling down over one of the fallen soldiers. "It's Aridian armor."
"Felocian and Aridian alike fought to their end here. Heaven knows what kind of traps that may still be active. We'll have to be on top guard."
They were on a balcony of sorts; to the sides it would have continued as a tunnel, but not too far out crumbled rock had blocked passage. To the front was a ledge, and below the ledge was further pitch blackness. Bagheera climbed on his knees over the ledge and peered down with his flashlight, but the flashlight did little to show anything about the ground below. He then took a coin from his pocket and thew it down, listening for how long it took for it to hit bottom, which was not more than two seconds.
Myra received two lanterns from the crew above, and handed one to Bagheera. He stood up to dust off his trousers, though in such a dusty room it was quite illogical, if he had actually thought about it. He called out to Stephen, "Lad, get us the longest rope you can find and tie the end down good... we're going down there for a better look."
Soon after, Bagheera and Myra descended by rope to the level below. They stepped down into a dank corridor, littered with more armored corpses. They followed the way through slowly, keeping careful eyes on the ground before them. The walls were featureless, except that on either side there were rows of what looked like half-shaped bowls that must have been used as oil lamps. The corridor had a sharp incline to it, and was cluttered with rubble that had broken off from the walls, which made it dangerous if one didn't watch his footing. It would descend straight ahead for long stretches, then turn left, then repeat the same pattern, leading them in a square spiral down toward the base of the structure.
It was all so still inside the ziggurat, an uneasy silence that would not seem possible in a living world. Only their footsteps, though lightly taken, filled the void with their own scratchy echos. The air was warm and stuffy, and held and unpleasant scent of the likes of rot and mildew.
The corridor began to level, and soon opened into another room, where straight ahead they saw on the far side, through traces of black grime, a large, faded picture that was painted on the bare bricks of the wall itself. They stood for a long moment to observe it. It was an image of a battle scene, where soldiers dressed in ancient armor and carrying spears and large shields surrounded a wounded reptilian beast in the midst of the forest. One particularly large figure, a lion whose armor was highlighted in gold trim, held a foreboding, curved sword over the beast, as if about to be relieve it of its head.
"How wonderful," said Bagheera, through a shortness of breath. "I've seen nothing like this. We've found sculptures, but never paintings."
"They style is so realistic, so far ahead of its time." Myra held her lantern close to the wall. Many of the bricks were gone, leaving black spaces in the image like missing pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. "The exaggerated one in the middle, he must be the king."
"King Rhama, indeed. He's declaring his might over the world. I wouldn't be entirely sure, but I think the creature he's standing over represents the god Sargon, a demon of death and chaos. That is quite odd indeed... what we've known of the king is that he had quite an affinity for Sargon."
Though at first reluctant, lest she accidentally scratch the paint, Myra carefully wiped away some of the grime from the image of the king's armor. In the glow of her lantern, the golden highlights began to glisten in a manner the rest of the paint could not. It was a detail that particularly caught Bagheera's attention.
"Now that's no ordinary paint," he said.
Myra nodded in agreement, having seen more than her fair share of lustrous Aridian pharaoh sarcophagi. "It's real gold."
Bagheera smirked, then began to laugh out loud.
"They've been mining this country for gold for centuries, with not a single vein to show for it. But the Felocians knew where to look... and I know there's more where that came from!"
To their right was a wide archway, from where they could hear faint echoes of slowly dripping water. Crossing through it, they found themselves standing upon a ledge that overlooked a vast sea of blackness. Given how long he had been walking down that first corridor, Bagheera figured they were well toward the bottom of the ziggurat, and were now standing over the main court. They could not see much from where he stood; the space was simply too big, and the brightness of their lanterns and flashlights were humbled amid the overwhelming darkness.
They followed the ledge around, passing by many more entrances to other rooms along the way. They poked their heads into each one briefly; the shadowy shapes of corpses were everywhere, their bony fingers wrapped around their weapons and skulls agape with battle shouts. It was too difficult to tell if there were more to the rooms than that, so they agreed to return to them sometime later for a more thorough search.
They found a stairway and took it down to the main floor, where as they walked about, they began to discover just what a task lay ahead of them. As heavy and massive as the ziggurat was, millennia of ravage earthquakes had their toll on it. They had to climb over broken stone pillars that were strewn across the floor, which itself was covered in slippery, mossy grime over a porous black rock bed. They saw where the heavy brick walls had been cracked wide and long enough to let dirt, strings of moss, and tree roots seep inside. Trickles of water also fell through, leaving small pools in some places. Unlike the rest of the structure, the floor was clear of any dead soldiers.
They spotted what looked like a towering pile of dirt and black rock. It seemed to go up and up, to the very top of the room. A closer look revealed giant beams of wood lying near the foot of the mound, and many, many skeletons protruding from the mess.
"The temple gates," said Bagheera. "I don't know how Rhama blew the citadel up, but can't you see it happening, right where we're standing: the soldiers from both sides suddenly engaging in an urgent truce, scrambling to shut and brace the gates before they're consumed. The force of the blast crushed the gates and them with it."
"You're good at this," smiled Myra.
"Ha ha, I know! Come now, there's another passage this way!"
It was a cold, foggy morning in Cape Suzette. Woken suddenly by unintelligible squawking noises, Baloo groggily rolled over and opened one eye to check the time. The hands on the alarm clock were still pointing far too low for it to be time to get out of bed. "Good gravy," he muttered, and buried his head under his pillow. So close to the bay, it was not uncommon to be bothered by seagulls and steam whistles, and usually he could sleep right through such nuisances, but there was something inexplicably nagging about the noise he heard now.
Kit came in from the bathroom, wiping a bit of toothpaste off his sweater. He began to make his bed quietly when he noticed Baloo stirring. "Mornin', Papa Bear."
"Mm. Kid, be a pal and go shoo those seagulls away from the window, huh?"
"Those aren't seagulls, that's Miz Cunningham. She's already downstairs, on the phone."
"What time is it?"
"Not even eight. I couldn't sleep. Sounds like she's arguing with someone."
"Huh, an' not me, for a change. You goin' somewhere?"
"I'm gonna go down the street and grab some muffins. Maybe I'll see if the guys are up and wanna do somethin'."
"Have fun." Baloo yawned widely from under the covers, sucking his blanket into his maw.
"You think she's okay? She's been kind of edgy lately."
"You know how she is. Business, business, business."
"I think she might be in a little trouble. Pettifoot's furniture's gonna cost ten thousand clams."
"Fer that ol' junk? Now how'n the world did you find that out?"
"Last night, in a letter she left in her desk."
"Not the 'super-private trespassers-will-be-shot' drawer? How often do ya go through that thing, anyway?"
"What if she can't cover it... you don't think we might lose anything, do you?"
Kit heisted for a moment. "Like... what if she has to sell the Sea Duck?"
Baloo sat up as if he'd been prodded by a hot poker. "Whoa, time out, Lil' Britches! Nothin' like that's gonna happen."
Glumly, Kit straightened the remaining wrinkles from his bed. "It's almost happened before."
"Hey, c'mere a minute." Baloo waited for Kit to approach the side of his bed, and said, "You're thinkin' about all this way too much to be good for ya. Now why are ya jumpin' to conclusions?"
"I dunno. I just don't like it when it's like this. You guys are always fighting about money."
"Now that ain't true. Heh heh, we fight about lots of things!"
Despite himself, Kit giggled at that. "I guess that's true."
"So cheer up, will ya?" Baloo smiled, lightly tapping the boy on the cheek. "Besides, if was that bad, Becky'd have us over our ailerons in some new quick-money scheme... you gotta figure as long as we're not makin' milk shakes with kangaroos, we're all right."
"I know… but still," said Kit. "I just don't like it when money's so tight around here."
Baloo fell back on his pillow. "Well, money ain't everything, kiddo."
Kit cocked an eyebrow. "But you're always broke."
"Now that ain't true! Well, maybe it is, but that don't matter."
"And remember that whole 'double-my-money' thing? What about that?"
"Free enterprise, kid. Free enterprise."
"And how many weekends have you tried to get off for treasure hunts?"
"Hey, I paid my tab off at Louie's by doin' that!"
"Nice try," chuckled Kit. "Face it, money's good. And I don't like it when Miz Cunningham gets so wound up about it. Or you."
"Aw, I'm all right," said Baloo. "And ol' Beckers just needs ta learn how to relax a little. So we lost a little cargo this month. It ain't the end of the world."
"And last month."
"It wasn't our fault, ya know."
"Yeah, but nobody's blaming the pirates."
"It's just a lil' bad luck, that's all."
"A little," Kit scoffed.
"'Sides," said Baloo, "mopin' around 'bout it won't help anything, ya know."
"Yeah, you're right. No more mopin'." Kit grinned and held up two fingers. "Navigator's honor."
"Now yer talkin' some sense," said Baloo.
"You wanna get some breakfast with me? Get a start on the day?"
"Nah, you go 'head. Not that I don't think it's gonna be a be-yoo-tiful day..." Baloo rolled over and threw the blanket over his head and yawned again. "But just not for 'nother two hours. Or five."
"Suit yourself," shrugged Kit. "See ya."
Downstairs, at her desk, Rebecca Cunningham held the phone in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. "But Mrs. Proudfeather, you have my word that Higher For Hire will deliver your crystal safe and ― yes, I'm sure chandeliers are very expensive… I understand your concern but ― who? Mrs. Pettifoot? Oh, she's a friend of yours? Well yes, she did hire us to deliver her antiques… yes, that unfortunately did happen, but that wasn't our ― no, that's true, we don't have armed security, but Mrs. Pettifeather, I mean Mrs. Proudfoot, I mean…!"
She set the telephone down for a moment and let out an aggravated groan, then continued somewhat calmly, "Mrs. Proudfeather, there hasn't been an air pirate spotted for weeks, and ― but even we get robbed now and then, but it's very few and far between, I assure you! There's no reason to cancel your―Mrs. Proudfeather, please listen to―!"
"Hello? Ugh!" Rebecca slammed the phone down. "I'm going to tell that old bat what she can do with her pretty crystal chandeliers."
Kit stepped down the stairs quietly, and slowly enough while he was out of Rebecca's sight to where he heard much of the conversation. When he reached the bottom floor, Rebecca was slouched over her desk on her elbows, rubbing her eyelids. Molly was wrapped in a blanket and fast asleep in Baloo's easy chair.
Kit cleared his throat. "Good mornin', Miz Cunningham."
She sat up, a little startled. "Oh! Good morning, Kit. How are you?"
"Fine, thanks. Still wakin' up."
"I'm sorry if I woke you," she said. "I don't like being here this early."
"It's no problem. I'm, uh, goin' out, you need anything?"
"No, I don't think so. Will you be back by eleven? I just made a terrific deal with the museum downtown. We'll have a big delivery today."
"Sure," said Kit. "Wouldn't miss it."
"Good! See you when you get back."
"Right." Kit opened the front door, but stopped, and looked back at her. "Uh... how are you?"
"Me? Fine! Just fine." But a sympathetic frown from Kit left her feeling discovered. She sighed, and smiled at him. "I'm a little swamped today, but I'll make it."
Kit nodded and went on his way. Rebecca slid back in her chair, popping the aspirin bottle open. "I'll make it, all right, but no promises that there won't be any casualties."
Back in the Antranador Basin, Bagheera's crew took their boss's absence as an opportunity for a long-awaited (and very extended) break. Stephan and another sat in the shadow of the trees with a deck of cards.
"I'm beginning to get worried, Jimbo," said Stephen , taking his eyes off his hand of cards to glance at the ziggurat. "I never imagined he would take this much time."
"Aw, nothin' to worry about," said his jaguar companion. "The ol' bugger's quicker than a bloomin' jack-rabbit when he needs to be, you know that. Don't know about the broad, but she looked like she could hold her own. Now you got any two's or what?"
"Go fish," replied Stephen. "And I suppose you're right. You know, I must be getting paranoid. I swear, even now, I seem to feel the ground shaking a little. And you know where that would leave him down there."
"Ain't been a good quake here for a 'undred years. Your call, mate."
"Um... fours, I guess."
Jimbo winced and reluctantly handed him two of his cards. "Bullocks. I 'ate playin' wit' you."
Down below, Bagheera and Myra were running for their lives through a hall they had trespassed. He knew they were in trouble the instant he felt his foot brush against what seemed to be some sort of trip wire... and they never saw what chased him, but had only heard the loud rumbling of something immeasurably heavy and metallic rolling toward them at speed. They fled back into the main floor, and threw themselves down to the side of the hall entrance.
Bits of rock began to break and fall from the ceiling as the rumbling grew louder, and the loose pieces that were already on the ground began to shake. There was a great clashing noise, and they could only see the blur of some large monstrosity spew out of the hall, taking most of its archway with it, then another loud clash as it smashed itself against a giant chunk of fallen pillar, where it finally halted.
When all the ruckus had faded, and the room fell silent again, Bagheera helped Myra up and they slowly stumbled toward the mysterious instrument. It consisted of three round disks that rolled like wheels, which seemed to be cast out of iron, and each were about seven feet in diameter, and probably weighed a ton. They had sharp, serrated edges and were all attached in the center by a single shaft, crafted together to make one of the most wicked traps Bagheera had thought the Felocians conceived. He gulped as he touched the edge of one of the disks. His fingers were a little shakey. "A simple boulder would have sufficed."
"I think that means they didn't want anyone going in there," said Myra.
They looked at each other and nodded. "Right!"
Above the entrance of the passageway, there was an inscription, half of it which had just been destroyed by the giant slicer. "I didn't see that before, but look at that name! No wonder they set the trap!"
"I can't make it out."
"It says Amalatu," said Bagheera. "It means Gatekeeper. I think this is it!"
"Then we could have his tomb here?"
"His tomb! My dear, we couldn't ask for anything better! We must be on guard, though... his was one of the minds to design the contraption that brought the mountains down around this temple, and no doubt that over-sized pizza slicer as well. I imagine he gave some consideration to grave robbers."
They trekked into the hall again, and despite Bagheera's eagerness and haste, they were forcibly cautious than their previous attempt through the passage, particularly about where they stepped. There was now plenty of loose rock and three distinct gouge markings on the floor, which had been cut by the giant disks. A ways in, they looked up and could see the shaft in the ceiling that the 'slicer' had rolled down from. Just beyond it, where the floor was no longer broken, the passage swung to the right, and beyond the turn began a descending stairway.
They soon came to a junction in the corridor, where one passage went ahead and the other to the side.
"Which way should we go?" asked Myra.
"We're likely approaching catacombs, and I'm not sure how many ways they'll branch off. From there, though, perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to split up, and cover more ground before we run out of light. If Rhakeith's tomb is here, it's terribly important we find it quickly."
"Sounds like a plan, but try not to get yourself sliced up this time, hm?"
"Oh, hardy har. Good luck! We'll meet back here shortly!"
Bagheera thoughts obsessed over what he could find down in the depths of the tunnels, but the longer he walked, the less apparent it was that the passage was ever going to end. Soon his legs and feet began an achy protest; the passage was aggravatingly repetitive, with not so much as a scratch on the bare walls that was worth interest. It just kept going; he had to have left the vicinity of the temple, and was now somewhere under the buried citadel. He stopped for a minute to wipe the sweat of his brow, and took a brief glance behind him to contemplate how far he had gone. 'All I can say,' he thought to himself as he resumed his trek, 'I better not leave this hole in the ground finding a whole lot of nothing... again.' "―Whoops!"
He stopped and stumbled backwards, finding the ground had suddenly disappeared in front of him. "What in the world..." The passageway abruptly ended and dropped into a pit. He couldn't see the bottom, but what he could see were dozens of sharp, thin spikes, reaching upward from the darkness and longing for an offering to impale.
Bagheera swallowed when he realized how close he'd come to falling on them, and inwardly chided himself for letting down his caution. "That would have been cute."
Shining his flashlight to the other side, he could see that beyond the pit, a wall stood where the corridor merely ended. He looked left, right, down, and even peered into the spikes as best as he could, yet could not spot any other way to follow. "For heaven's sake, a bloody dead end! Confound it, the entire tunnel's a distraction!"
With a tired sigh, he sat down, with the weight of failure down on him and the pressure of lost time against him. They had found soldiers and war relics, art and decor of the ancient temple, and that much would have made most explorers delighted; still, none of that was what he was truly hoping for. His heart was set on a bigger prize.
He sat silently sat against the wall; but when he rested his head against it, it suddenly occurred to him that the bricks he leaned against seemed looser and more brittle than the previous areas of the corridor... like the other side was hollow.
Immediately, he sprang up with a delighted burst of energy and cast his flashlight on the bricks. He couldn't believe he failed to notice it before: the bricks where of a lighter color and smaller size than the rest of the corridor, stacked without adhesive; as such he could tell that there was more to explore on the other side, an area that had been hastily sealed off.
He pushed at the bricks, but they hardly budged, so he began kicking them instead. He kicked until his toes begged for mercy, kicked even harder, and with each blow the bricks became looser and looser, until he forged himself a small hole to crawl through.
On the other side was a vast chamber housing two gigantic bronze statues. Their luster long eroded, each was as tall as a house, and they were warriors crossing spears over an entry, upon which a large a large slab of chiseled granite, apparently meant to seal the room, was left haphazardly leaning. Embossed on the granite were cuneiform letters made of gold that read Rhakeith's name. Elated beyond words, Bagheera ran his fingers over the letters, finding one was loose, and he easily plucked it free.
"This is it," he laughed, "His tomb. And..." Then he frowned. "And who the devil opened it?" With a closer look, Bagheera saw that the granite seal was unblemished; it had not been pried with, but rather it had not been put into place properly. "It was never sealed," he mused. "They never had the time between his death and the invasion."
With some effort, he was able to push the seal just enough to slip inside. There was a short staircase to descend, and beyond that, something that made his fur stand on end: the chamber ahead was well-lit.
"Dear me," he exhaled. The room was in shambles, full of overturned and scattered objects, including scrolls, a rack of ornately crafted warblades, warrior figurines, and statuettes of different animals, made of polished jade and jet. Four baseball-sized white stones hung from the walls in cages, each shining a bright but soft star-like glow that reflected off the relics and saturated the room with a silver hue.
He left his lantern and flashlight at the entrance as he ventured further inside; he could hardly believe his own eyes, but the smile on his face was evidence that the value of this discovery was weighing in... not so much in knowledge and exploration, but in dollars and cents. He pulled a jackknife from his pocket and tried to pry one of the glowing stones out of its cage, but it wouldn't budge; he would have to wait for better tools.
There was a large, foreboding sculpture at the far side of the room; his expression grew a bit more solemn as he approached it. He stood practically eye-to-eye with a dragon, sculpted in gold, bigger than he was tall. Its jaws opened ferociously wide, and everything from its many saber-like fangs, scaly skin, down to the narrow pupils of its ruby eyes were forged with extraordinary precision. It was the only thing left standing upright, was hunched over a golden sarcophagus, one of its clawed hands was set down on top of the casket, posed as if it was holding it shut, and the other hand was outstretched, holding what he recognized as the casing to a Felocian burial tome, not unlike what the air pirates had stolen a year before from the city, except this one, like so much of the decor around it, was of gold and not stone.
"Hello, Sargon," Bagheera murmured, moving in for a closer look. "Oh, you are worth a pretty penny, I hope you know." He was mostly fascinated with the dragon's jaws, and how, inanimate as they were, looked able to bite him if he drew too close.
There were pieces of old body armor strewn at the foot of the sarcophagus, which Bagheera assumed must have been the attire of the gent in the box. Upon the shield and the breastplate were inscribed his name, Zul Rhakeith, and on the casket's top as well. Then he looked over the chest in the dragon's hand, and read the inscription on its top face: 'A slave to the lord's soul.'
"Goodness," grinned Bagheera, "Not exactly a popular summer read, are you there." He picked the tome's casing straight up with both hands and began to pry it open immediately... that was when he heard a strange hissing noise, and it was coming from the dragon statue's jaw. It was shortly followed by a strong odor that smelled something like kerosene. It did not take but a jiff for him to realize: "A trap!"
He turned and ran, clenching to the golden tome in his arms like a precious child, stumbling over all the scattered relics along the way. Just as he squeezed out of the tomb's entry, he and the door were knocked down by a hot, vicious blast that set the chamber ablaze. A scolding wave of fire passed overhead.
Rolling on his back with his clothes smoking, he discovered he had landed on his lantern and smashed it, but he was fine, and so was the tome, which presently he valued more than his own fur. "Well," he huffed, "that wasn't so bad."
He suddenly yelped when a deafening explosion cracked from the chamber, then another one, and two more, and the lights inside the tomb were vanquished, leaving him in utter darkness once more. Everything began to shake, cracks races up the outer side of the tomb, and up the ceiling where rubble began to fall.
"Now it's bad! Very bad!" He snatched up his flashlight and ran for it, and just narrowly avoided the spike pit again. About half-way from where he had come, the shaking receded, and he dropped to his knees to catch his breath. Behind him, there was no trace of fire, but his flashlight saw an impenetrable pile of rubble and dirt blocking the path to the tomb.
"M-Myra? Myra!" He had actually forgotten about her being there, but the shine of her lantern rounding the corner was a welcome sight. "Over here! Are you okay?"
"We need to get out of here! There could be another earthquake!"
"No, it wasn't an earthquake," Bagheera tried to explain, "it was... it was... Myra, you should have seen it!"
Not long after, Myra and Bagheera climbed back to the top of the ziggurat, and they could hear their names being called from a distance. It was Stephen. "Uncle! Are you all right? Can you hear me? Myra?"
"We're here!" Myra shouted back; Bagheera's throat felt too scratched and raw to bother trying. "We're coming up now!"
The crew supplied them a rope and hoisted them up, and had plenty to stare at. Bagheera's clothes were still smoking and his jacket was in places charred black as his fur, a sharp contrast to the shiny golden artifact he was holding.
"I didn't know what to think," Stephan said. "We heard an awful noise and ― well, thank goodness you're okay!"
"So to speak," wheezed Bagheera . "Just… *cough* a few… minor obstacles." He brushed by them all, hardly even made eye contact as he stumbled outside, where the bright daylight forced him to pause to rub his eyes for a moment.
"What did you bring back?" asked Stephan.
"There's so much more in there!" Myra said, excitedly. But before she could elaborate, Bagheera cut in, hardly not noticing that his new possession caught many an eye, and aroused many a question:
"Lads, as you can see, we found some things down there, lots of soldiers, lots of old odds and ends. As for what I've brought back, it's pretty as you can see, but I couldn't tell you what it is just yet. I ask you be patient. First and foremost, we need to get this out of the country as soon as possible. If someone could kindly get a radio signal through, contact Maria in Alpacito and tell her to get a hold of Tyler. And if you all would excuse me, I'm a tad... parched."
"But, that's it?" Stephan asked. The entire group, murmuring, was growing a bit indignant over Bagheera's secretive behavior. "Why can't you tell what you have there?"
The elder panther stopped and faced them, mustering a confident grin. "Sorry, lads. All in good time, trust me. But a simple answer to your question, I believe I found..." He dug into his pocket, and tossed the gold cuneiform rune at Stephan, striking the group with astonished expressions. "Proof. Now, rest up! There's more where that came from."
As Bagheera went inside his tent, Myra asked him quietly, "Why so reluctant to share it with them?"
"They're a good bunch," said Bagheera, "but what they don't know might not somehow be mentioned to someone working for Khan."
"Blimey, it's real," said Jimbo, after giving the rune a test-bite to see if it would bend. "What do you suppose he had with him?"
"I don't know," Stephan replied. "But he won't let us down. He's on to something big, you can bet."
There was a particular plateau on the outskirts of Cape Suzette, near the rises of the famous cliffs that gated the city, where Kit often found to be a quiet place of refuge from an otherwise busy and downright hectic life. Chilled breezes seeped through his sweater as he sat in the shadow of the old, rusted remains of a scrapped Air Force bomber, where from such a spot he overlooked a steep, misty ravine, cut jagged and deep in the cliffs, that wound back toward the jungle-covered rises behind the city. 'The Graveyard', the area was known as, for there were several old planes just like the bomber scattered throughout the cliffs, long abandoned, left there from the days of the Great War.
Occasionally he threw stones out toward the ravine, where after the afternoon fog burn you could see water at the bottom, though now the stones would fly until they vanished into the mist. His thoughts drifted over the past couple of months, a series of unfortunate incidents that left Baloo and Rebecca at each other's throats more often than ever.
Perhaps it was all a coincidence, as Baloo had always said of it, but Kit had his doubts, and well suspected Baloo and Rebecca did as well. Customers rarely calling in hardly seemed coincidental after losing expensive cargo three times in two weeks to air pirate attacks.
The first incident ended when Baloo "lost" the pirate attackers by using a favorite stunt (and often last resort)... pulling the Sea Duck into a vertical climb, waiting for the pirate planes to climb after it, and releasing the cargo into the air to fall upon them. It wasn't such a huge deal when he did it with Fandango mangoes that one time, but considering his cargo was thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing and lingerie for "plump" women, it made more than a dent where profits were concerned. (although, at the time Baloo and Kit secretly conceded that seeing a pair of fancy, hippopotamus-sized bloomers hitting Don Karnage in the face made it all worthwhile... and then there was the big brassiere cupped over Mad Dog's snout...).
During the second incident, they had been carrying a full load of collectible, hand-crafted porcelain dolls back toward Cape Suzette, where they would be packaged and sold... but when Baloo made one too many dare-devil rolls to disorient the pirate planes, the shattering noises from the cargo hold were probably far more dreadful than Karnage actually stealing anything from them. When Baloo had finally brought the Sea Duck down to look at the damage, Karnage and crew surrounded the plane and boarded... but the captain took one look at the disaster, smacked his forehead, and, as he left, cursed at Baloo for making him waste bullets, fuel, and twenty minutes of his valuable time.
Then the bigger problems started to set in just a few days afterward, when they were to deliver a shipment of antique furniture for a wealthy elderly woman named Pettifoot. The Sea Duck was laden with heavy, solid oak dressers and tables, radios, picture frames, and cabinets. Just like the previous incidents, everything was perfectly fine until the pirates showed up. With the plane so heavy, Baloo had no choic but to land and let the pirates board. From then it was a matter of being held up at gunpoint until a pirate seaplane big enough to take all the antiques away arrived. Karnage was absolutely giddy at the plunder, and was more than pleased to let Baloo and Kit go unscathed... he had a lot of redecorating to attend to, after all.
Shortly thereafter, Rebecca received notice from the agency that insured the Sea Duck, "regretfully announcing" that her policy would not cover the lost cargo, and her coverage was thereby terminated due to "high risk of theft." Kit took no understanding of the technical details, things he lately often heard Rebecca argue over the phone about, details of business and finance that he had no interest in. To that extent, perhaps Baloo was right, and for what he really knew there was no matter to be very concerned over. Still, with business being slow, and from what he did understand of Rebecca's matters, that being Higher for Hire had not profited recently, it was hard to mistake that Rebecca was worried.
In all, it was not so much that Higher for Hire had been losing money that bothered Kit, but how Baloo and Rebecca reacted to it... usually unkindly, to say the least.
It was only the week previous that Kit lie awake in his bed late at night, burying his head in his pillow, trying to drown out the angry voices that carried all too clearly up the stairs.
'Hey, don't even try layin' this on me, Becky! You're the one who's got the checkbooks! Just 'cuz you can't cut it doesn't have nothin' ta do with me or my flyin', got that?'
'Oh, so I guess I'm to blame for everything, right?! Wrong! A business is only as good as its employees, remember that!'
'Don't ferget, lady, this employee was named Best Pilot in the World not too long ago!'
'If I remember, that wasn't to be confused with patsy!'
'Patsy? Why I―! If I'm such a darn bad employee, maybe you'd be better off with some other pilot!'
'Maybe I would! Don't let me hold you back!'
As Kit heard the door slam, he could picture Rebecca's face, tears running down her cheeks. He had never heard them be so cruel to each other, and all about money. It always seemed to be about money.
Baloo eventually lumbered into the bedroom, yawning. He looked over at Kit, who still had his head under his pillow. "You awake, kiddo?" he whispered. He thought of Kit lying there, knowing he must have heard everything, and felt an overwhelming pang of guilt. Kit pretending to be asleep to ignore him only made him feel worse. "Well, if yer awake… I'm real sorry, Lil' Britches."
Baloo and Rebecca had long apologized to each other, but it still bothered him, the thought that there would be a next time.
A sudden gust of wind swept over the cliffs, breaking Kit out of his thoughts. He noticed the sun, warm and high over the sky, and dug his pocketwatch from his sweater; he had twenty minutes until eleven o'clock. He started off toward the city hurriedly, thinking Rebecca was liable to have kittens if he made the delivery late.
Rebecca had long ago abandoned her paperwork (but not the aspirin bottle) and tapped her fingers on her desk, annoyed. It was almost eleven o'clock, the delivery would be arriving at any moment, and judging by the creak of the floor heard from upstairs, Baloo had just finally gotten out of bed. Rebecca had just finished acting out the part of a vocal alarm clock.
A truck stopped just outside of Higher for Hire and shut off its engine. Rebecca went to the foot of the stairs and called up at Baloo, "They're here!"
"It ain't eleven yet!" he replied.
"Ooh, that bear," she huffed, not immediately noticing her client coming through the door. "I don't know why the hell―LLO Mr. Borden!"
"Miss Cunningham!" The gray fox tipped his fedora to her. "A pleasure to meet you in person. I'm not, um... interrupting anything, am I?"
"Oh no no, come right in!" She escorted him to the chair in front of her desk. "Can I offer you a glass of water? Coffee?"
"Oh, no thank you." He sat down, taking a few glances around the room. "And please, call me Tyler."
"Quite a lovely office you have. It seems very..." he observed Baloo's old lazy chair, "... well, cozy!" He spied a shiny gold trophy standing on a nearby stool, and although he couldn't make out the entire inscription, he could read the larger letters that read the name Cloud-something-or-other.
"Our navigator won that," Rebecca explained. "Pretty, isn't it?"
"Well, I must say! I'm confident I've made a wise decision in doing business with you."
"Why, thank you! And please, call me Rebecca."
Tyler nodded. "Surely."
"Are things going well at the museum?"
"Oh yes. Quite."
"My pilot will be down in just a moment, he can help load the cargo."
"No need, really. I brought my own gents, they know how to pack and handle our exhibits with care." A loud crash was heard from outside the window, where the movers argued with each over who dropped the crate. Tyler cringed. "Most of the time, anyway. If you'll just have the airplane opened, we'll get down to business."
"Of course, right away!" Rebecca walked Tyler to the door, stopping at the stairs. "Ba-loo," she sang. "Are you ready?"
"Tell 'em to keep their shirts on!" yelled Baloo.
At Tyler's questioning look, Rebecca's face reddened. She forced a toothy smile. "Eh heh, we value a great sense of humor here at Higher for Hire. If you come this way, I'll just open our plane right up for you!"
Outside, Wildcat and Molly sat at the stoop of his houseboat, occupied with his tools, talking to and sorting them. The movers were already crowding the dock with boxes and artifacts of various shapes and sizes. Rebecca had to climb over the wooden crates to get to the Sea Duck.
Tyler was stuck between following her and keeping a worried eye on the movers. "Do be careful with that," he told one, who had a large vase in his hands. Then he spied the other two, carrying a life-size marble statue of a robed figure down the ramp to the dock. "And especially that! That statue's worth more than my house!"
"I haven't had enough coffee for this," Rebecca muttered as she swung her leg over another crate, inadvertently nicking a small bust with her foot, sending it rocking.
Tyler's ears perked up as if he heard the distressed artifact cry for help. He swung around and hopped over a few crates, snatching it just before it fell into the drink. "Whoa there! The bottom of the bay is not a good place for this one."
Rebecca let out a small gasp after realizing what she had done. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see it."
"It's quite all right. Not your fault." He rested the sculpture back on its base, and threw the three movers a contemptuous glance. "It should be packed away in a box, not just left on top to be knocked over."
The three shrugged and continued with their work.
Rebecca looked at it, a marble sculpture of a monkey in beaded jewelry, leering at her. 'Must be one of Louie's ancestors,' she thought. But she attempted to hide her distaste with a bit of feigned interest. "Is that valuable?"
"I should say so," Tyler replied. "The only known likeness of King Chimpanzance the Fourth of Babbolia. It's two thousand years old."
"Oh." Rebecca nodded politely. "How… interesting." She tilted her head, trying to find something redeeming about the ugly thing.
Tyler seemed to pick up on her thoughts, and gave her a look as if pleading for her to understand. "I trudged through two miles of an ancient sewer system, and swung over a pit of lions to find this."
"For that?" Rebecca blurted. "Er, I mean…"
Tyler hung his head, but couldn't help but laugh. "I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder, anyway. But I do need your utmost assurance that all of this will be delivered to Port Largo without a scratch."
"Why, of course!" Rebecca finally made it to the Duck's side cargo door and unlocked it. "I can completely assure you that one of Higher For Hire's credits is its smooth flying!" She opened the door and gestured inside, as if presenting the plane for inspection. "As you can see, our cargo area is exceptionally large and―"
"Tyler!" A short cougar in a shirt and tie, damp under the arms, ran towards the dock, waving a piece of paper in his hand. "Tyler!"
"Harold?" Tyler arched an eyebrow, surprised to see that one of his younger associates had ran all the way from the museum to reach him. "What on earth is it?"
Harold stopped and leaned over one of the loaded crates, trying to catch his breath. "We received a telegram―urgent from Alpacito City!"
Tyler's eyes widened. "Alpacito? Bagheera!" Making a long reach over the crates, actually crawling over one, he eagerly swiped the telegram from the cougar's hand, and opened it with the anticipation of a child opening a gift on Christmas day.
"Z-R tome secure… stop," he read aloud. A smile crept across his face. "Stress immediate transportation required, stop." He slowly lowered the note, a peculiar gleam shining in his eye. "Bagheera, I could kiss you."
Rebecca blinked. Somehow the message she overheard didn't sound good for the delivery.
"He found something big, didn't he?" Harold asked Tyler.
"Big things come in small packages, my friend," Tyler replied. "And this…" He shook the note in his hand. "This, is about the size of a beachfront mansion on Squeegee!" He waved his arms enthusiastically, and accidentally sent King Chimpanzance into the bay.
Tyler almost whimpered when he heard the splash. He looked back just in time to see the one-time king's white, toothy grin disappear into the cloudy water. "Oh dear. Is that water very deep?"
"I uh, believe so," said Rebecca. Somehow she wasn't that disheartened to see it go.
"Oh well, so what!" Tyler suddenly beamed. He promptly folded the telegram and placed it inside his coat pocket. "We'll call it lost at sea, find it again, and it'll be even more valuable!"
Rebecca was taken aback. No, this definitely didn't sound like it was good for the delivery.
"In any event, I don't have a moment to lose," Tyler declared. Then he called to the movers. "Uh, boys? Sorry, but you're going to have to put all this back in the truck. Take it back! Harold, help them, will you? Thanks."
"What?" the three cried in unison.
"What?" Rebecca squawked. "But why?"
"I'm sorry," said Tyler, "but I haven't the time for Port Largo right now."
"But-but our deal!" Rebecca stammered.
Oblivious to any upset tone on Rebecca's behalf, Tyler looked like he was ready to dance. "Oh, I assure you, my dear lady, the contract's still yours. But for now, we have much bigger dealings to discuss!"
"Oh yes. Grander!"
"What exactly is... grander?"
"Well, I need a ride."
"It's quite urgent," said Tyler. "I need to retrieve an item from Alpacito and come back as soon as possible. Can I count on you for that?"
"But you signed a contract, and Alpacito is much farther than Port Largo."
"I'll pay you three times as much, if I get there in time."
"Well, it's three times the distance, I'm not quite sure how you figure in all the―"
"Deal!" Rebecca exclaimed. Tyler almost fell backwards. She cleared her throat and continued in a more dignified manner, "When would you like to leave?"
"An hour ago, with all due respect."
"I'll just be one moment," Rebecca said, noticing there was still no sign of Baloo. She rolled up her sleeves and marched back toward Higher for Hire. "Sooner if I can find a frying pan..."
Kit came around the corner, bumping into one of the movers, who was carrying a tall and elaborately feathered headdress back to the truck. Kit could have swore he'd seen Baloo wear something just like it at Louie's before.
One of the movers nearly stepped on his toes. "Watch where you're goin', kid, will ya?"
"Sorry!" said Kit. "What are you guys doin'?"
"Dancin' the Flamenco, what's it look like? We're movin' stuff!" He brushed Kit aside, in no keen mood for conversation.
"Aren't you supposed to be moving stuff inside the plane?"
"Coming through, kid," huffed a second mover, who, with he and his partner taking an end each, was carrying a heavy wooden chest.
"What happened to the delivery?" Kit asked them.
"Heck if I know," one replied. "If it means somethin' to ya, talk to the guy in the hat."
Higher for Hire's door was ajar; Kit peeked inside, but saw no one. He went to the guy the 'guy in the hat', who was pacing in a circle at the end of the dock, repeatedly reading with unwavering attention the telegraph he just received.
"Hiya, mister," said Kit. "You know where Baloo and Miz Cunningham went?"
"I do hope they hurry," the fox said absently, checking his wristwatch. He didn't seem to notice Kit, though he was only a few feet away. "We can't linger much longer."
"Mister? You okay?"
"Huh? Why, yes, just in a bit of a rush." Tyler glanced at him, doing a double-take. "Say, I've seen you around. You've dropped by at the museum, haven't you?"
Kit shook his head, but as he looked up at the fox, the ghosts of a dreadful night suddenly sprang forth. Kit stepped back, nearly stumbling over his own feet.
"Wait, by Jove, I do remember you!" said Tyler.
"Tea bag?" asked Kit.
"Uh, no. Tyler. Ty-ler."
"Sorry, but... you're hiring us?"
"Us? You work here?"
"I'm the navigator."
"Ah! Well, yes then, I am."
Kit glanced around, looking for a particularly looming figure. "Just you?"
"Why, yes―oh. Oh, no no, nothing to do with him anymore. He's gone his own way." The fox smiled, "May I presume you've gone yours, too?"
Kit ducked his head, staring through the spaces between planks on the dock. "Look, I just wanted to know where Baloo was."
"I don't know, lad. If he's doing the flying, I'm wondering the same thing."
"Why're they loadin' the cargo up in the truck?" Kit asked him.
"Canceling the job for now."
"Canceled? But Miz Cunningham was counting on that deal."
Tyler looked over Kit's head, and saw Rebecca marching back to the dock, grumbling under her breath, with Baloo swatting her hand away from his ear.
"And if your pilot would be so kind," said Tyler, "I'm very much counting on a fast trip to Alpacito City."
Kit scowled at him, his fists were clenched. "It doesn't say taxi on the Sea Duck, does it? Ever hear of one'a those?"
"Kit!" chided Rebecca.
Baloo came beside him, putting his hand on his shoulder. "Whoa, Lil' Britches, what's wrong?"
"I don't think taxis go that far, my friend," said Tyler. He went to reading his telegram again, not noticing, or at least not minding, Kit's rudeness.
"Well, taxis go pretty far, 'specially when they're chasin' ya," said Wildcat from the stoop of his houseboat. He and Molly sat there sorting his tools, had not been listening to the conversation, but he did picked up a few words here and there. "They're always yelling something about paying for an affair."
Rebecca rubbed her brow, shaking her head. "That's fare, Wildcat. Not affair."
"Oh, man ― maybe I shouldn't have told him he'd have to buy me dinner first!"
"That's not what I ― oh, never mind!" She turned back to Kit, giving him a stern 'warning' look. "You watch your tone of voice, young man."
Kit brushed passed them, away from the Sea Duck. "I think I'll sit this one out, Baloo."
Baloo scratched his head. "You kiddin'? Why?"
Kit shrugged. "It's not a big deal."
"C'mon, kid, I ain't gonna find this place easy without ya." Concerned, Baloo watched him sweep his feet toward Higher for Hire. He couldn't remember a time when Kit declined to go up flying. "If ya want, I'll let ya start 'er up."
"Thanks, but I dunno. I really don't feel like―"
"Actually, it might be better if Kit did stay behind," Rebecca told Baloo. "I think he and I should have a little discussion about how we speak to very important clients."
Kit stopped dead in his tracks, groaning. Being allowed to start up the Sea Duck himself versus receiving an earful from Rebecca... there were harder choices in the world to be made.
"Sorry, but I need my navigator," Baloo said. "We can straighten this whole thing out later."
"Well... I suppose," said Rebecca.
Kit brushed past them and headed toward the dock, being sure to mouth to Baloo a quick and covert 'thank you' for getting him out of a sure-to-be lecture. Rocking on his feet, Tyler was having a difficult time standing still, very preoccupied in thought.
As the Sea Duck flew through the Cape Suzette cliffs, Baloo absently tapped his fingers on the flight stick. The awkward silence in the cockpit made him fidgety. Tyler stood between the pilot and navigator's seats, anxiously staring out the windshield. Kit, meanwhile, seemed to be more interested in the passenger-side window.
Baloo figured it was up to him to break the ice. "All right, kiddo… which way do I turn here to get ta this place?"
Kit reached for a map, but before he could, Tyler interjected, "Just head out about one-six-zero, southeast. Should take us on a direct route."
Baloo glanced at Kit, and if he was at all able to read the boy's expression, it said, 'You want to sit in my chair?' Maybe if he had Kit confirm the heading. "Uh, Kit?"
"Sounds right, Baloo," Kit said quietly. "Just listen to him."
Tyler seemed to come out of a daze and realized what he had done. "Oh. Frightfully sorry, didn't mean to step on your toes like that. I just had it in my head."
"It's fine," sighed Kit.
Tyler didn't know what to think of Kit's glum reaction. He gave Baloo a questioning look, as if asking if the boy was always like this. Baloo raised his eyebrows and shook his head, having no explanation.
Tyler straightened his hat and coat, and started to leave the cockpit. "Well, I, uh… I suppose I should find a seat in the back and let you boys do your work."
"Fantastic," Kit replied absently. His face flushed when he realized he said it out loud; he could practically feel the heat of a scolding glare from Baloo.
Tyler looked at Baloo again and shrugged. "Well, anyway, good seeing you again, lad. You blokes let me know when we're close to landing." When he left them alone, a moment or two past between Kit and Baloo in silence. Baloo was obviously trying to think of the right question to begin with, and Kit was expecting it any second, dreading it like one would anticipate a police interrogation.
"So... you know that guy from somewhere?" asked Baloo.
"I don't know him," Kit replied, snappily. "I saw him once before."
"You all right, kiddo?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"It just don't seem like you've been yerself today," said Baloo. "Now, I guess everybody's entitled to a bad mood every now an' then, but uh… well, is there any perticular reason why you're givin' that guy back there such a hard time?"
Kit sat up like there was something that he had to say, but slouched back in his seat. "No."
Baloo glanced back, making sure Tyler wasn't within earshot. "Becky says this guy's got some money, and even for this taxi service he's payin' pretty well. She gave me one of those 'whatever-he-asks-for' numbers. He seems like a nice guy to me. Don't ya think so?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Well, if ya think so, then why―?" Baloo's question was halted when Kit turned his back to him entirely, leaning on the far armrest with his chin his palm.
"I'll tell him I'm sorry," said Kit. "Better to just drop it."
"Hey, we're best buds, right?"
"Well, yeah. Why?"
"Well, what are best buds best at 'cept talkin' 'bout things that are botherin' us?"
"Naw, it's an old story," said Kit. "When I said I saw him once, it was on the Iron Vulture. I'm not sure I want to talk about it."
Though for as little as he knew, Baloo somehow realized the touchy nature behind his question; Kit had never spoke of his days with the air pirates, nor ever had to, and they had been thus far pleased to leave it at that. "I read ya, kiddo, you don't hafta if you don't wanna. Sometimes it helps, though, ya know, gettin' things off yer chest." From the glum mood that surrounded them, he raised a friendly, encouraging smile. "An' ya can always try me."
Sighing, Kit took off his hat and ran his over his head his hair; his cheeks were warm and he was on the brink of sweating. "Well, when me and that guy crossed paths, it wasn't long before I left the pirates. We'd ― they, I mean, the pirates, they'd just pulled a heist off in Alpacito City, where we're going now... and I doubt that's a coincidence. I don't know much about what all went on, though. I stayed in my bunk the whole time. The ship got knocked around pretty good; there was a big thunderstorm, see, and we were right in the middle of it. It was just rockin' and shakin', like it was gonna explode. When the heist was over, the lighting ended up doing a number on the engines, so we had to land in the middle of the ocean for repairs. I mean, they did."
"S'okay, Lil' Britches. I got ya."
"So, I guess when the Vulture was down, that guy, and this other guy, managed to sneak on board. They must've been followin' us. They wanted this thing that Karnage stole. It was some sort of old chest. Karnage called it a map, I really don't know what it was. But anyway, they pulled it off. I don't know how, but they did it. And that's it, I guess."
"So… yer mad at him 'cause he stole somethin' from ol' Karny?"
"'Course not. I could care less about that. And I'm not mad at him, I just... I don't know. Just seeing him again out of the blue, it made me feel weird."
"What happened, kid?"
"Well... it's silly. I feel like I'm holdin' a grudge, and he's not the one who did it."
"Well... they made me show 'em where it was, the chest. I wouldn't have done it, but this guy Richter made me tell him where it was…"
"The other guy. Imagine the worst bully you've ever known, big like an army tank, and prob'ly just as strong. He plowed through a lot of pirates, even Dumptruck. Did it with no sweat."
"Sounds big," Baloo said, apparently believing that Kit was exaggerating. "So this fella started a big scuffle with those flea-bitten yahoos?"
"Let's just say he didn't exactly have a soft spot for pirates... any of 'em."
At that, Baloo's eyes narrowed, somewhat dangerously. "Whaddaya mean? He didn't hurt ya, did he?"
Kit put his hand on his shoulder, remembering how it ached that night. "Yeah," he whispered.
"Gee kid, I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"It's okay. But he got me to tell him where Karnage's loot was I almost got away from him… he picked me up, Baloo, by my throat. And then held me up almost to the ceiling... I couldn't breathe at all. I was scared outta my mind." He pointed his thumb toward the back, gesturing their client. "I think this guy convinced him to put me down, though."
Baloo shifted in his seat, scowling over his shoulder. "Tell ya what, our valued customer here better not be hangin' around that piece'a garbage."
"Nah, I asked him. He said they don't have anything to do with each other anymore."
"Lucky for him, 'cause I'd hand 'im a parachute." Baloo's meaty paws tightened around the flight stick. "And if you ever see this Richter character again, make sure ya point him out to me… so I can break his neck."
"Aw, forget it. It was a long time ago."
"Wait, this guy didn't try ta hurt ya, did he? If he did I'll… I'll―!"
"Don't worry, he didn't," said Kit. "He was nice. Told me his name was Tyler. If it wasn't for him, who knows what would've happened. I think he was even a little worried for me, bein' with the pirates and all. Heck, he offered to take me to an orphanage."
That had got a subtle reaction from Baloo, a curious raise of his eyebrow. "Was that... worse... than havin' to live with... ya know, pirates?"
Kit felt like maybe he had volunteered too much for comfort. Baloo had never expressed any curiosity as to why Kit had joined the pirates, but with that question he just asked, it let on that he seemed to think it probably wasn't much of a choice, and the kid never really wanted to be there. Since meeting Baloo, Kit had been good living in Cape Suzette, law-abiding, adapting to it all just fine, fitting in much like any other kid, liking it for the most part, finally being part of a loving home he could be part of forever. He took that fresh start with Baloo and ran with it, and really, it was all Baloo and Rebecca knew of him. But you couldn't be a pirate without being a crook, and if they ever knew of the tally of crimes he had participate in― willingly if not joyfully, sometimes ― he felt like he'd never be able to look them in the eye ever again.
Kit didn't answer him, though. He stared out the side window, out where the noon sun poured down across the ocean, setting the dark blue water ablaze with fiery white. In his mind, he heard the voice of Don Karnage, shouting through the Iron Vulture, pursuing the intruders, 'After them! Catch them, you fools!'
When things had settled down on the Iron Vulture, the two intruders had escaped with the plundered artifact. Needless to say, the captain was irate. As dawn was soon to break, and not a moment's sleep to be had by the entire crew, Kit had sought solitude from all the commotion in his berth. His shoulder ached as if a nail had been pushed through it, and his throat was bruised and hurt when he coughed. There was a throbbing knot on the side of his head, and he was still having trouble seeing clearly and walking steadily, thanks to the rattling blow he took from Richter. He didn't so much dislike the gray fox, but it was too bad, Kit thought, that Richter got away unharmed. He would have liked to have belted the big brute across his snout, if he wasn't about a dozen times his own size.
Don Karnage was absolutely scandalized, and had called all the pirates together in the galley to find out how someone could break into his ship and steal from him (for a change). Kit did not bother attending, and did not figure he would be missed, either. Woozily, curled up on his bunk and shut his eyes tight, he wished everything that had happened would be forgotten quickly. He imagined Karnage would just rant until he got too tired to speak, probably thump a few unlucky bystanders, and the whole thing would likely blow over by morning when more plunder opportunities presented themselves.
But that night, such would not be the case...
Ratchet burst through the door. "There you are! The Captain wants to see you. Right now!"
"M-me?" This couldn't be good.
Ratchet pulled him by the sweater out in front of him and pushed him along. "Hurry up, runt."
Kit stumbled forward, shaking him off. "Hands off, ya walking flea circus. I'm goin'!"
But Karnage hadn't waited for him to arrive. Just as Kit was approaching the galley, Karnage stormed out into the adjoining hallway, fuming and pointing at him with accusation. "Boy!"
Kit stopped in his tracks and swallowed... it felt as if he was swallowing rocks. Some of the pirates ― some of the larger ones, anyway ― followed the captain out, and Kit was surrounded. They were all glaring down at him, and he felt like he was shrinking.
"I want answers," demanded Karnage. "What happened?"
"You were the only one who was with them! How did those imbeciles get in here?!"
"I… I don't know," replied Kit. His heart beat furiously, fearfully. Dizziness was washing over him. The floor under his feet seemed to be rolling, rocking back and forth like a rowboat in rough waters.
"Do not be giving me that! Why did you not alert us?!"
"Captain, I… I tried! Really! But…!"
"And how did they know where to go? Because you told them, didn't you!"
Kit hesitated to think of some explanation, but he was speechless. He began to realize how much trouble he was in, for no pirate was foolish enough to believe confessing away one of the captain's prized possessions was to be taken lightly... nor was Karnage's unchecked temper.
"Didn't you?" asked Karnage again.
Clenching his shoulder, Kit surged enough mettle to defended himself. "Hey, I didn't see anyone else helpin' out, either! And that one guy was gonna tear my arm off! What was I supposed to do?"
"You ungrateful little fruit fly!" seethed Karnage, stamping his foot. "Am I supposed to be caring about your puny arm? Let him break it off and beat you with it, if he would!" Karnage drew his cutlass and laid the point against Kit's neck. The boy closed his eyes, wishing he had kept his mouth shut and lied instead. Karnage had never drawn his weapon against him before, but he wouldn't actually… Kit saw the fire in the pirate's eyes… would he?
"Miserable little wretch," growled Karnage. "We know what happens to traitors here, do we not?"
Kit didn't answer, but his trembling was clearly evident that he knew exactly what would happen. The blade pressed firmer against his skin. The sear of razor-sharp steel was imminent...
But the captain lowered his cutlass, and grabbed Kit by the chin to make sure the boy was looking dead into his eyes. "Perhaps, my boy, it would be wise never to forget that," he hissed.
Kit recoiled from him, fighting back tears. "But I tried... don't you believe me?"
Karnage looked away, wiping his hand down his face, and for a moment, his angry expression melted away. "Boy... you have to do better than try," he said in a low voice.
"He ain't no pirate," someone muttered from the crowd.
"A cry-baby," someone else quietly commented.
Karnage had heard them. It wasn't so much that they were talking about his own protege that riled him. It was not so much that, as he was rearing the boy in all things pirate, he had gladly taken credit for any job the boy had done well, and now was left looking bad. It was that they might have been right.
A smaller pirate with a long white beard happened to lock eyes with him at that moment... unfortunately. "What are you looking at?!" exploded Karnage, punting the stunted canine across the hall like an over-sized beach ball. Everyone else backed away, being sure to give the captain plenty of room to vent. "You are all a bunch of filthy, stinking, bone-headed, slack-jawing, toad-sniffing, belly-scratching, helpless, hopeless, spineless, brainless ingnoranimooses!"
Then when he paused to catch his breath, he glared down at Kit again, who was the only one who did not cower back.
"And you, Kit Cloudkicker, have cost us all a great deal tonight! If you do not start shaping up..." His voice became deep and serious, "Some very terrible things are going to happen."
Karnage turned around and pushed himself through the crowd. As he did, some of the more bullying pirates like Dumptruck, Ratchet, and Bandit Patch moved in, and aside from the growing hostility in their stare, they looked horrendously pleased to have a chance at the boy.
They were to his left and right, in front of him, and even behind him… and getting closer.
Almost paralyzed with fright, Kit made a plea to the one he trusted most. "C-captain?" Karnage took one small glance back, but pushed down whatever reluctance he felt in leaving, and disappeared from his sight. The pirates that surrounded him suddenly seemed to have grown a lot bigger, like skyscrapers, stretching as it were toward the ceiling. Through his eyes, they were getting blurrier by the second.
Kit clenched his fists, turning in circles at each one of them. His head ached, sweat was falling, and in his already dizzied state, the room began to spin and wave about before his eyes, and grew darker. The last thing he remembered before everything went black was them closing in, closer and closer, and suddenly a blunt pain in the back of his head...
Sometime the next morning, he awoke in his berth, on top of his cot's covers. He did not know all that had happened, exactly, but a new bump on the back of his head likely meant one of the pirates had landed a cheap shot to teach him a lesson.
Kit felt for his pillow and pulled it under his cheek, slowly recollecting the night. "Stinkin' cowards," he murmured as he felt over his bumps. He hated that he let them see him scared. He hated that he let them do the scaring. And then, he remembered the stranger's words: 'There are better places in the world to be...'
"Better places," he sighed. Despondently, he thought of Karnage walking away, turning his back to him. "Just not for me."
In the navigator's chair of the Sea Duck, Kit had become quiet, and was silent for a long moment. In the way he was slouching, low in his seat, his hat had rubbed against the back of the chair and slid to his nose. He didn't bother fixing it. Baloo realized his questions were treading in unfamiliar territory, and felt perhaps he had crossed the line, though fortunately he had no idea where that line was drawn. He was about to retract the question and change the subject, when at length Kit shrugged and replied, "The way I saw it, better to be a pirate than a prisoner."
Kit waited for it, some measure of judgment, disapproval, or disappointment. He tried quickly to explain it away, "I know that sounds like I wanted to be there, and I know they're just a bunch of cheap crooks. I don't want you to think that... that..."
Instead, he was met with a gleam in the big bear's eyes. "Ya turned out all right in my book, kiddo," said Baloo. "Nothin' about them days is ever gonna change a thing between me an' you."
"Yeah." Kit smiled ruefully, and adjusted his baseball cap, backwards as always. "I know."