Honeyed lips and honest truth are seldom allies.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Horace’s jaw dropped. What happened?
It was as though the mind flayer ship had been cut in half, right down the middle. Half of it was rotating end over end about two hundred cubits in front of him and the half he was on was doing the same thing. The other half didn’t have an atmosphere envelope around it though, which meant the life chest, at least, was on the half he was on.
The Sky Hawk, looking strangely bent, floated nearby, a gaping hole in one side telling of the damage it had sustained. Tiny figures leaped away from the Sky Hawk and sailed toward him. His friends were coming to rescue him! He waved frantically at them then grimaced in quick agony again. He sank back against the pile of rubble holding his arm tightly, waiting for his friends to get to him.
It was starting to come back to him now. The mind flayer had been stalking toward him when a sudden, blinding flash had turned the world into an inferno of hellish proportions. He wasn't quite sure how the mind flayer ship had arrived in its present, shattered condition (it looked broken more than burned) but he was sure his friends would tell him later. A scrambling noise sounded behind him and he sprang to his feet.
He looked around frantically for a weapon, plowing through the broken timbers, tangled ropes, and shreds of cloth. Something in the pile snapped and a heavy beam slid back against his leg, nearly pushing him off the deck. He lunged forward and caught a belaying pin stuck in the pile. It held and he pulled himself back up.
The scrambling noise got closer and he could hear footsteps. He threw a frantic glance over his shoulder at his friends. They were still too far away to help him.
Rage flared up inside him and he bellowed a challenge at his unseen assailant. “Come on! What are you waiting for? Finish it!”
A cultured, baritone voice answered him. “Finish what?”
Horace stared as the owner of the voice came around a tangled pile of timbers. It was the man he had seen fighting the mind flayers, the one he’d come to rescue. Short and stocky, his leathery face crinkled in a jaunty grin, he clambered over the loose debris with deliberate ease, no motion wasted. He was bowlegged and heavily muscled, almost as wide as he was tall. His graying hair and beard were neatly clipped and his clothes, although worn and patched, were clean and pressed.
“Altman Reeves,” he said brightly, shifting a long sword to his left hand and sticking out his right. “Altogether pleased to make your acquaintance, my good man.”
Horace stuck out his left hand and shook awkwardly. The hand that clasped his was tanned and weather-beaten from years in the sun. Calluses scratched him and the fingernails were cut short, almost to the quick. It was the hand of a sailing man. “Horace, of the Sky Hawk,” he replied, indicating the circling ship with a jerk of his head.
Altman nodded, dark eyes snapping and dancing. “Aye, and a fine one from the looks.” He peered intently at the ship. “Two-masted short galleon with a single jib sail, three decks plus the fore and aft castle decks.” He rattled off the stats as if he was reciting well-known facts. “And if I might be so bold, what port are you out of?”
Horace stared at him stupidly for a minute, pain fogging his mind. Port? What . . . ? Then it hit him. “Oh. Uh, I'm not sure it was a port exactly. Just a village with a millpond on the western edge of the Akhu Plains.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We captured it from the evil wizard who kidnapped Illene from her father’s caravan because she was born on Midsummer and he was taking her to Harpel to be sacrificed so The Sword could take over the city and we were chasing him to get her back and stop them,” he said all in one long breath.
If Altman was caught off guard by this torrent of information he showed no sign. He clasped his hands together behind his back and rocked back and forth on his heels. “In that case, you'd be laying a course from Gaia to Harpel,” he said thoughtfully.
Horace wasn’t sure if it was a question or not so he settled for a noncommittal, “Uh huh.”
“And yet here you are, almost to Heraup’s orbit. Quite a detour,” he said, the question obvious in his voice.
“Heraup?” Horace felt like he was swimming upstream in a river of mud. The pain in his arm was making it was hard to focus. He was fading in and out.
Altman gave him a curious look. “The next planet closer to the sun, although it’s more a collection of asteroids at this point.”
“Oh yeah! Heraup. Yeah, uh, nice place.”
“Why did your captain lay a course for Heraup when your destination is Harpel?” he asked quickly.
Horace’s confusion was increasing in lockstep with the pain in his arm. He could barely think. “Well, I don’t know, it seemed like the thing to–”
Altman interrupted. “You don’t know where you are – do you?”
He shook his head numbly.
“I see.” He reached up and stroked his beard. “In that case, I really must commend you on getting as far as you have on your own.” He nodded at the destruction around them. “Good show and all that.” He shot a quick glance at Horace. “Good thing I’m not allied with this evil wizard of yours, isn’t it? What with your being so free with your answers and all,” he finished.
Horace was stricken. He’d never even considered that!
“Oh, don’t worry,” Altman said, seeing the look on his face. “I'm not. But you should be more careful in the future.”
“Aaren once told me to put a leash on my mouth.”
“Good advice. Who's Aaren?”
Horace glanced toward the figures still floating towards them. They were almost there. “Maybe I should wait until my shipmates get here to say anything else,” he said cautiously.
Altman's eyebrows went up in surprise and he looked irritated for a moment. Then his face cleared. “Serves me right,” he laughed. “I suggest you guard your words more closely, then turn around and ask more questions.” He bowed formally. “Very well, sir. I shall await the arrival of your companions.”
“Great, I –” Horace swayed on his feet and began sagging back against the pile behind him. “I think I better sit down,” he said thickly.
Altman dropped his sword and sprang forward to help. “Look at me! Here you are bleeding all over the deck and I’m standing around asking questions about everything under the sun.” His firm grip steered Horace to a comfortable spot on the rubble. From somewhere on his person he whipped out a long piece of checkered cloth and wound it around Horace’s arm, pulling it tight and fastening it with a pin that appeared from the same invisible place as the bandage.
Horace tried to thank him, but the words came out garbled and far off. His vision began narrowing down to a tunnel in front of him. Vaguely he heard voices approaching, somebody was asking about him and Altman was answering. Then mercifully, he passed out.
Aaren shoved his way past Altman and bent over Horace to listen to his heart. He checked the wrapping on his arm and straightened up. “Pretty good job,” he said. He eyed the sword on the deck behind the stranger and asked, “What happened?”
Altman followed his gaze to the sword but conscious of being outnumbered, made no effort to reclaim it. “I don’t know really. When you rammed us we got tossed around quite a bit. I suppose he broke it then, although it’s possible he broke it earlier.”
Jon, Katrina, and Elric joined them. “No one else is alive,” the dapper rogue reported. “None of the mind flayers either.”
Aaren nodded briefly. “Take over while I tend to Horace.” He knelt to pray for healing power.
Jon turned to Altman. “Who are you and how did you come to be on board?”
The grizzled man arched an eyebrow at him. “It’s quite a long story,” he said warningly.
Jon shrugged. “We’re in no hurry.”
“I see. In that case,” He pulled out a pipe and pouch. Within a few minutes, the pleasant smell of scented tobacco filled the air around them. “Nothing like a pipe for a good story,” he said, blowing a huge smoke ring. He sat down carefully with the air of a man who has important things to consider. After a moment, he began his tale.
“I was born and raised in Vaneer on the western side of the T’thalian Empire. My father was a fisherman who was lucky enough to have his own ship. It wasn’t a very big one, it only took five men to crew it, but it was more than adequate for our needs. It had belonged to his father before him and his father before him. I suppose it would have eventually been passed on to me if not for my mother. She was a would-be adventurer whose party was slaughtered their second time out. She was the only survivor, a mageling with scant training, no money, and no friends or family. I don't know what ill-fated adventure she went on, or where to, but when it was over she was in Vaneer. There she met and married my father and eventually I was born.
“Although she never gave any indication of unhappiness at leaving the adventuring life, she continued to practice what little magic she knew. She tried to pass it on to me but I have no talent for it. Her efforts weren’t a complete loss though. I learned to read and write – the first in my family – and understand numbers. She told me stories she’d heard in far away taverns and strange cities and put a wild yearning in my heart to see those places myself.
As soon as I could, I secured a job on a merchant ship that plied the oceans from the far north all the way south around the peninsula of the Unknown Land to Carrzulm to the dusty kingdoms of the Midbar desert, up the coast to the island of La-Dan. For five years I served on that ship, the Tangled Fin, gradually working my way up through the ranks until I made assistant navigator. That year we wintered in Thorizdum and I saw my first starship.
“It was a tiny thing, maybe a third the size of yours, but I thought it the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. A flying ship! It fired my imagination more than my mother’s stories ever did. I hung around it, talking to the crew and asking endless questions. Every chance to board it, I took. Every opportunity to look over the charts, I seized. Every tour they offered, every moment I could beg, every instant I could be near it or on it or simply see it, I took.
“Until finally, the captain offered me a post as a junior deckhand. I said yes before he’d even finished making the offer.
“From that time to this I’ve never regretted it. It’s been the joy of my life. More than anything else I love to sail the stars. To see new places and walk under strange suns. New people, cities, races, new everything! It’s a never-ending variety.
“I’ve seen worlds like nothing you could imagine, as well as wars to curl your hair and age you before your time. Over the years I’ve seen sights, done things, and been to many places. I’ve had my own ship a time or two and amassed a small fortune in various banks throughout the stars. I’m married on three different planets and had squalling brats from all three, none the wiser about the others for all of them were raised under different suns. I've witnessed rare magics and seen battles of Art and power that would still your heart with terror. Flying swords and wishing rings and wands that cast every kind of magic imaginable, I’ve used a few and seen them all.
“One, a potion of rare power, transformed me from the doddering old man I’d become into a young man again. So I’ve done it all a second time. Gone further, seen more, tasted new wines, always more – and loved every minute of it.”
Altman knocked out his pipe, long since grown cold, and put it away delicately. He folded his arms and favored them with a wintry smile.
There was a long silence.
Aaren, long since finished healing Horace, pursed his lips. “That's a fine story, very moving and all, but it doesn’t Jon’s answer question. How did you come to be on board a mind flayer ship?”
A pleased expression crossed the Altman’s face. “Very good, sir! Very good indeed. Most would have accepted my story and questioned me no further, but I see that you’re a cut above the average.”
“Thanks,” he said shortly, still feeling a dull throb where he’d hit his head when the ships rammed each other. “Now answer the question.”
Altman bowed from the waist. “Easily done. I'm a navigator and I was most recently employed on the trade ship, Tamerin – a word whose origins I’m not familiar with. We were bound for Xyrn with a load of Pyrite, a recent discovery of questionable utility, when we were attacked by the mind flayers. Captain Blainforth was a fine man, practical and cautious, and chose his crew accordingly but it wasn’t enough. The flayers rammed us, locking our ships together and they swarmed all over us, capturing us in minutes. Since then,” he shrugged dismissively, “we’ve been dying one at a time.” He didn’t elaborate on the well-known eating habits of the mind flayers. “You rescued me just in time, I was the only one left.”