Back onboard the Sky Hawk in the Captain’s quarters where no one could see, Aaren turned on Altman like a wolf. “What did you do here? Beorn wants to kick us out because of you!” They’d barely been able to persuade the angry dwarf they’d only recently picked up the florid navigator as a survivor from a mind flayer ship. Even at that it had been a near thing so great was Beorn’s wrath at Altman.
“My dear Captain, whatever can you be talking about?” Altman protested. “I merely came down the ramp. It was Beorn who was behaving rudely, not I.”
Aaren’s fist shot out and grabbed the navigator by the front of his shirt and pulled him close. “Don’t give me that,” he thundered. “You never told us you and Beorn knew each other or that he had cause to hate you! Now he thinks we’re in league with you!”
Altman pawed ineffectually at Aaren’s fist. “Captain, be reasonable. We are working together, which puts us, as you say, in league with each other.” His honeyed voice covered the slow movement of his hand into a pocket at his side.
Elric, standing back, saw the stealthy movement. Aaren and Mira had filled them all in concerning Altman’s possible use of magic, and fear tugged at his heart. He activated his Sight to reveal the presence of magic. He looked at the navigator squirming in Aaren’s grasp and his eyes shot wide in alarm. “Look out!” he shouted, leaping forward.
His warning came an instant too late.
Altman tossed the contents of a tiny potion bottle down his throat and bellowed with sudden power. He broke Aaren’s grip on his shirt, tossing him across the Captain’s stateroom like a rag doll. The priest smashed into the wall with bruising force then dropped limply to the floor. Jon’s head was caught in Altman’s follow-through and he went down with a crash.
Horace’s hand streaked for the hilt of his sword, whipping it out with a roar.
Elric tried to stop his forward plunge. He needed room to cast Art, but before he could backup, or even slow his charge, Altman backhanded him with savage strength. Agony shot up his left arm and he fell to the floor, tears blurring his vision.
Mira gasped at the sudden violence as well as Altman’s magical strength. The fight had only just started and already half of them were down. She drew her sword, thankful she had decided to wear it while they were debarking and plunged into battle. From the corner of her eye, she saw Katrina and Horace joining the fray. She swung and her sword rang against hidden armor, vibrating painfully in her hand.
Horace heard the ring of steel on steel and changed his stroke in mid-swing. Radiating a mystical, blue light, his sword tore through cloth and steel. Blood decorated the blade and Altman snarled in pain.
Horace cursed. That should have been a killing blow, he thought angrily. Before he could launch another attack Katrina swung her blade at the infuriated navigator.
He caught it.
The three of them gasped in shock. The sword should have cut his hand in two, but instead, he yanked it out of Katrina’s grip, broke it in half, then hurled the pieces in her face. The point struck her jaw and went all the way through to the other side. She shrieked in blind agony and dropped to the floor, pulling frantically at the metal embedded in her flesh. Blood covered the floor as she thrashed around in pain.
Mira was functioning on pure adrenaline, her mind yammering in fear. It was impossible for anyone to do what Altman was doing, impossible! He sprang forward and she danced back, parrying wildly with her sword. Horace came to her aid but this time his magical blade hit armor and bounced off.
Mira’s head whirled. Six to one and Altman was winning! He swung a fist at her that sizzled through the air. She barely got out of the way, using her sword as a shield. The navigator’s fist hit her sword, nearly tearing it from her grasp.
Horace swung again, putting every ounce of his strength into it. He connected solidly for the first time and Altman screamed. Blood gushed down his chest in a brilliant fountain and he stumbled backward, searching for room to maneuver. He tripped over Jon’s body and fell heavily.
Horace whooped and lunged forward to finish him off, his sword held high, humming angrily. Altman rolled desperately aside and the blade embedded itself in the floorboards. He rolled on up to his knees, delivering a roundhouse punch to Horace’s chest. The big fighter was hurled backward from the blow, only his polished armor saving him from dozens of fractured ribs. He managed to retain his grip on his sword and struggled to regain his footing, holding it desperately in front of him.
Mira tried to keep the navigator busy but her strength wasn’t enough to penetrate his armor and he hurled her back. Her head struck the wall. She sagged, consciousness spinning away down a dark hole.
Horace gained his feet and took a fighting stance before the door. “Come on! It’s just you and me now!” he shouted defiantly. “Come on!”
Altman laughed painfully. “Why should I let you have another chance at me when I can be sure of winning – my way?” He slid a hand into his pocket and pulled out a slender wand.
Horace cursed when he saw it. He leaped forward desperately.
“Fitth-ta!” Altman yelled triumphantly.
Three glowing missiles sprang from the tip of the wand and dove for Horace’s chest. He turned to avoid them but they turned with him. They slammed into him and he bellowed, staggering backward. He gritted his teeth against the pain, fighting to stay on his feet. If he went down they were all dead. Vaguely in the distance, he could hear yells and the sound of running feet. Gotta hold out just a few more seconds he thought, just a few more seconds.
But Altman wasn’t going to give him those seconds. Murderous joy lit his eyes as he raised the wand again. He opened his mouth to laugh, then screamed in sudden pain. The wand snapped in his hand as he spun around, revealing Jon’s dagger embedded full length in his back. He slammed the rogue up against the wall with bruising force.
Now! Horace sprang at the wounded navigator but Altman saw the move and ducked, taking the blow on his hidden armor.
The door to the saloon burst open and five crewmen spilled in, led by Garrick. In the companionway were more crewmen. Altman realized he was cornered and fumbled for a ring on his finger, muttering under his breath. Garrick shouted hoarsely and he and his men sprang forward. There was a silent flash and Altman vanished, their searching blades cutting only empty air.
When Aaren came to, his healing powers were pushed to the limit to restore his friends to health, especially Katrina. Her broken sword had penetrated her jaw on the right side of her face and gone all the way through and out the left side. Before he could heal her they had to take the sword out. She screamed and thrashed from the terrible agony, her struggles so powerful it took six men to hold her down while Horace and Aaren pulled the blade out, the metal scrapping horribly on bone. Mercifully, she finally passed out and they were able to proceed with the bloody job at a faster pace.
By the time she came to, her wounds had been healed. But the terrible pain seemed to have crystallized something inside her, and her eyes had a new depth and power to them that previously hadn’t existed. Exactly what it was in her that had changed none of them could say, except to note that it had.
In the two days that followed it became obvious all of them had changed. It was their first defeat, and it left a mark on them. Before the battle with Altman, there had been a raw cockiness about them, a naive belief in their own invincibility. That was gone now, replaced by a more realistic appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses.
Aaren’s prayers and Elric’s studies had a new intensity to them, and Horace’s attention to his sword, always close, began to verge on obsessive. Mira’s graceful stride lengthened and softened until she resembled a stalking panther, her steps swift and silent. Jon practiced hourly with his daggers, throwing them from every conceivable position and angle. And throughout it all, Katrina watched silently from behind burning eyes.
After several days passed in this fashion, Beorn began to tire of them taking up his dock space and sent one of the gnomes to them with his condolences for their loss to Altman. The diminutive creature pointedly asked them when they would be ready to negotiate for the repairs. Aaren told them they would be ready the next day.
The following morning they trouped down to Beorn’s office, leaving Garrick in command. Marak and Taanen had requested shore leave in barely civilized tones and Aaren had gratefully granted it. The Knights weren’t sanguine about leaving those two unguarded on the Sky Hawk, and their absence took a heavy load off them.
Beorn’s office turned out to be a combination blacksmith shop and living quarters. It was close and hot; what little ventilation existed was only the flue on the forge. The messy room was littered with the uneaten remnants of past meals, half-empty tankards of ale, soiled clothing, raw metal, soot, and the hot, brassy odor of molten metal. The brawny dwarf had doffed his shiny armor and was now outfitted in what they later came to realize was his normal attire; baggy pants tucked into high boots, brown jerkin, and a wide leather apron decorated with a thousand pockets stuffed with every imaginable black smithing implement imaginable. Red, scaly gauntlets that shimmered with magic, protected his hands from the heat of the furnace, and his beard was separated into two braids, tied back out of harm’s way. He was covered in soot from head to toe and rivers of sweat ran down his face in grimy rivulets.
He looked up as they trooped in. “Hello again,” he grunted, hefting a glowing ingot out of the forge. “I’ll be with ye in just a moment.” He dumped the hot metal in a bucket of water, disappearing from view in the explosion of steam that followed. There was a muffled clang, followed a few moments later by a volley of heartfelt curses and growls. There was a whole series of rapid taps then another explosion of steam. This time a pleased grunt issued forth. “That’s better,” he said as he appeared through the curtain of steam. “Ye jist have ta be smartr’n the steel,” he told them happily. He brushed his hands together. “Now, what kin I be doin for ye?“
Aaren related to him the story of their time on the Sky Hawk, starting with its capture and ending with their wounded landing at the space station. He spared no details, simply telling the story straight and true. The others pitched in now and then to help with the details, but mainly they kept quiet and let him talk. Beorn listened attentively, grunting once that the only good mind flayer was a dead mind flayer. Aaren finished by recounting their fight with Altman and giving Beorn a detailed description of Jon’s list of damages the Sky Hawk had sustained in the fight.
Beorn rubbed his chin thoughtfully when he was done, unmindful of the fact he was adding yet another layer of grime to his face. “Them long beams popping like that ain’t so good,” he told them bluntly. “When a ship breaks her back, it ain’t easy fixing it. Toughest repair job going in truth. Expensive too.”
“We’ve got some gold,” Aaren said uneasily, “but not a lot. How expensive is expensive?“
The dwarf shrugged. “Ten thousand, maybe more.”
A horrified babble broke out.
Aaren shook his head. “You heard what I just told you. You know good and well we don't have that kind of money. But, we salvaged the engines, life chest, and so on from the mind flayer ship. Can we trade them for the repairs?”
Beorn shook his head sadly. “I’d like ta have ‘em, but selling high-end items ain’t easy. I can’t have that much money tied up in inventory. Sorry, but as much as I’d like ‘em, I can’t take ‘em.”
“But I just told you we don’t have 10,000,” Aaren protested. “What is this?”
“Reality,” he said crisply. “Look, I’m sorry about the shape yer in and all, but I’ve gotta make a living. Expenses are high and customers are few and far between. I gotta make sure I got enough to make it from one job to the next.”
Mira craned her neck to look out the door at the ships pulled up beside the Sky Hawk. “Few and far between? What about those?” she interjected.
“So ya got here just as I got busy. Can I help that?”
Mira scowled at his brusque reply. “But we’ve got to have our ship repaired. The ceremony is only a couple of months away. If we don't get there in time the girl will die.”
“I’d be real sorry ta hear that,” he said sincerely, “but the price stays. I’m running a business, not a charity.”
“But can’t you at least –”
“What about –”
Mira fumed helplessly, faced with the flinty-eyed dwarf. Nothing she said seemed to make the slightest difference. And now he wasn’t even letting her finish a sentence before he said no. But without the repairs, the Sky Hawk flew like a wounded duck.
Aaren had an idea. He cleared his throat. “We’re adventurers,” he said meaningfully, pausing to let it sink in. “If there was something or other that needed doing . . .” He trailed off gently.
Beorn hopped up on a tall stool, watching him closely. “Adventurers, hmm.” He paused. “Yes, I believe ye mentioned that once or twice.” He paused again and scowled absently down at his boots. “We might be able to work something out. There was a request that came in a while back.” His brow furrowed in thought then he came to an abrupt decision. “Here, come with me.”
He sprang to his feet and led them to the back of the shop where a low tunnel headed deeper into the asteroid. The tunnel twisted and turned like a demented worm. After an eternity of stumbling through the tunnel, they emerged onto the floor a gigantic crater. In front of them was a graveyard.
A graveyard of dead starships.
Starships of every size and description littered the floor of the crater. Some them were mere skeletons, naked ribs exposed to the sun, others were broken as if they’d been dropped from a great height. They were in every size, from a behemoth that bulked a dozen times larger than the Sky Hawk to tiny ships no bigger than an outrigger. The only thing they had in common was their dead, broken appearance.
“What is this?” Horace asked in awe.
“Junkyard,” the dwarf said casually. “People bring old, beat-up ships to me and sell em. I use ‘em for spare parts. Come on.” He led them into a narrow passage between two of the dead hulks. “Sometimes though, people bring me a ship to be repaired then never come back for it. Eventually, it becomes mine.”
“How long before that happens,” Katrina asked curiously.
Beorn laughed like a miniature earthquake. “Depends on whether or not they’re dead.” He rounded a corner and pointed at a tiny boat. “Like that Captain’s Skiff over there. The customer that brought it in tried to rob me and got caught.” He drew a stubby finger across his throat to indicate the thief’s punishment. “It’s mine now and it may help ye get the money ye need.”
“The money you’re making us pay you, you mean,” Jon grumbled.
Beorn shrugged. “Whatever.”
The skiff Beorn referred to was an enclosed rectangular ship about 10 cubits long. It narrowed to a point at the front like a seagoing ship and was slightly rounded at the stern. Two pontoons, one on either side, proclaimed its ability to land on water as did the tightly fitted doors. On top was a watertight hatch that gave access to a ladder leading down into the ship. A single ballista was mounted just forward of the hatch. It was painted sky blue except for the name which was painted in bright red – Wanderer.
Jon ran a jaundiced eye over the little ship. “What have you got in mind? And why this?”
The dwarf hitched his trousers up. “Well, like I said, I got a request a while back that ye might be able to help with. It’s from one of the sauroid colonies that live on Heraup.” He nodded his head at the giant hanging in the sky. “They’ve built themselves a starship and need someone ta run it for them. They said they’d pay ten thousand to whoever got there and could help them get their –”
“Wait a minute!” Mira exclaimed. “When you said sauroid, did you mean, lizard men?”
He shrugged dismissively. “I guess. Related to ‘em anyway. Now, like I wuz sayin, that’d give ye the money to cover the repairs on yer ship.”
Elric frowned down at the dwarf. “I don't get it. You’re giving us a ship to go to Heraup in?”
“But what’s to keep us from going to Harpel instead?“
Beorn grinned wickedly. “Ye don’t know much about Captain’s Skiffs, do ye? They don’t use da same kinda engines as starships. Their top speed is 150 leagues per hour, enough for scooting around in port, but not enough ta get ye to another planet.”
He started to say something more but a loud thud from behind them cut him off. They all turned and saw Mira, stretched out on the ground, passed out cold.