A morning of intense bargaining with Beorn resulted in off-ship quarters being found for the ship’s crew while the repairs were underway. Only Garrick (after assuring the Knights of his loyalty) would remain on board to protect the Sky Hawk and its equipment from pilferage. Although none of the Knights really expected Beorn or his workers to steal from them, they preferred not to take chances. Garrick’s presence was a form of insurance.
Provisions from the Sky Hawk’s stores were loaded onto the tiny Wanderer. A Captain’s Skiff, like the Wanderer, had a small, specially designed skiff engine that could propel extremely small, lightweight ships at a maximum speed of 150 leagues per hour. Those tiny engines had severe size and weight limits though. It could only handle a maximum of 28 talents of weight. The six Knights and their armor and weapons weighed about 16 talents. The little ship, only 10 cubits long and 7 by 7 cubits high and wide, constructed out of the lightest type of wood possible, weighed another 10 talents. That left only 2 talents for food and supplies.
They crammed their supplies into the Wanderer’s diminutive storage lockers, tucked under the narrow bench seats on either side of the main cabin. The Knights checked their armor and weapons carefully for flaws or damage that might mean the difference between life and death. Elric took special care to waterproof his spellbooks against the humidity and abundant swamps Beorn had warned them about. There would come a day when he wouldn’t need spellbooks anymore, but until then he needed to take very good care of them. Extra canisters of oil for the weapons and armor were also packed. Backpacks were waterproofed as were map cases, boots, gloves, and virtually every item that they were taking. They constantly weighed everything to make sure they stayed under the Wanderer’s strict weight limits with enough left over to bring back the gold Seasar’s people were supposed to pay them for their work.
Throughout the morning of packing and preparation, Aaren and Mira kept a careful distance between them, maintaining a flinty silence whenever circumstance forced them together. Aaren had healed his face and ribs but Mira’s knuckles were still bruised and discolored, and she was too proud to ask their only healer for relief. Now and then she would hiss in pain when her hands scrapped against a wall or she flexed her fingers too far. The rest tried to relieve the strained atmosphere but to no avail. Their every attempt was soundly rebuffed by the two angry Knights.
It made for a difficult morning.
Beorn shook his head over their angry behavior and tried to lighten the air by remarking that Seasar’s village was near a small lake, not too far from a larger one. The Knights were grateful for this unlooked-for largess from the dour dwarf, but Aaren and Mira maintained their stony expressions and walked away in opposite directions to continue packing.
“Don't mind them,” Katrina apologized. “They’re not mad at you, just each other.”
“Aye,” he rumbled. “I’m not blind ye know. But they can’t let such things interfere with working together. That’s a good way ta git yerself kilt or worse.”
“They’ll get over it,” she reassured him.
“They’d better. Lizard Rock ain’t no walk in the park ye know. There are some parts of it even Seasar’s people don’t go.” Jon and Horace, always eager for news of danger (although for different reasons) sidled closer to hear more. “There’s this one part they talk about, where the trees and grass grow right down ta the water’s edge and on out inta the lake. It goes from marsh to swamp ta lake without any boundaries,” he told them. “They call it Syth-Finn, and anyone who goes in there never comes back.”
Jon shivered with anticipatory dread. “What’s in there?”
“The only ones that know that are the ones that never came back,” the dwarf shrugged. “It could be anything from an over-grown croc ta some demon from the Nine Hells. Who knows?”
Even Horace felt a shiver run down his spine at the mention of a demon.
Elric was more blasé. “It’s probably not any big deal,” he said reassuringly. “It’s only when something is unknown that it’s scary. Once you know what it is, it’s not so bad.”
“Not always,” the dwarf countered stubbornly. “There’s pirates that use Lizard Rock as a hideout sometimes. Knowing about them don’t make it any better.”
“Pirates are no problem,” Horace boasted. “We can deal with them.” He patted his sword lovingly.
Beorn shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see when ye get back if ye do. And speaking of which, ye can’t git back until ye leave, so git going. He shooed them away. “Go on, git.”
There was a chorus of farewells and last-minute instructions to Garrick as they boarded the Wanderer. Jon tossed a coin to give Aaren or Elric the honor of being the pilot. Elric called tails as the coin twinkled in the air and the rogue palmed it quickly.
“Heads.” He showed them the coin.
Aaren turned wordlessly and clambered into the seat. Unlike the skengine on the Sky Hawk, the Wanderer’s reaction chamber was built into the pilot’s seat, creating one solid unit. He inserted a special rune key Beorn had given them and three of the ten diamonds lit up. Jon winked at Elric. With Aaren occupied as the pilot, he and Mira wouldn’t be striking sparks off each other and making life difficult for the rest of them.
Elric returned the wink.
Since they knew where they were going, their destination was right in front of them, Katrina was in charge. Only her navigational skills, as untried as they were, were needed besides the pilot. Aaren backed the Wanderer out of its berth and slowly turned around. Even though the engine was tiny and limited, the smaller size of the ship made it much easier to maneuver than the Sky Hawk. It didn’t need sails, steering wings, or rudders. It could be steered single-handedly by the pilot without the need for any controls, as if it was nothing more than an over-sized flying carpet.
They all took a last look out the starboard portholes while Katrina was consulting with Aaren on their course. From their position beyond the docks, they could see the entire length and breadth of the wounded Sky Hawk. Its broken back was obvious from their vantage point and it was clear the ship wasn’t going anywhere until Beorn’s repairs were finished.
“Doesn’t look so good, does it?” Jon asked, giving voice what they were all thinking.
Horace shook his head. “Frankly, it looks beat to pieces.”
“You can even see where the nose is all scrunched together,” Elric added.
“The bow,” Jon corrected absently, scanning it for other damage.
Mira stood slightly off to one side, only partially listening to their comments. The sight of the Sky Hawk’s wounds were the first thing to penetrate since the previous night’s altercation with Aaren. The extent of the damage shook her badly.
There was a long gash in the hull, courtesy of the mind flayer ram. Through the ragged tear, she could see the dangling lines and bent gears that controlled the position of the ailerons and rudders. Here and there she could even see into the ship proper where the ram had penetrated all the way through the inner hull. The forward plating was severely bent from the catapult barrage they’d sustained and the botched ramming attempt. It did give the bow a scrunched together look like Elric said. As they drifted further away their motion took them up above the ship and the curvature in its length became more obvious, making it look like a gigantic bow. The Sky Hawk wasn’t just wounded, she thought in dismay, it was practically dead. Abruptly it dwindled and shrank, taking Beorn’s repair station with it as the Wanderer accelerated toward Heraup. She turned away from the porthole in silent grief.
“You’re sure about this course?” Aaren asked Katrina worriedly. “It looks like we’re heading straight away from Lizard Rock. Shouldn’t we be going that way?” He pointed off toward the sunward horizon of Heraup.
“Nope. Heraup’s rotation will bring it around to us,” the bard said with a confidence she didn’t feel. “This is the easy part anyway. Weaving in and out through those floating islands is going to be the hard part.”
“Tell me about it,” he growled.
Mira tried to ignore them and peered forward at the pale blue giant ahead. Only a few minutes had been required to take them down to the fringes of Heraup’s atmosphere. The monstrous planet was now ‘below’ them and getting larger by the moment. Far below were whirling dots, flashing as they passed, growing larger as the Wanderer dropped further into Heraup’s atmosphere.
The further they went into Heraup’s atmosphere, the more the ship began to be buffeted by the wind. Aaren grimaced and slowed their speed to compensate. The pitching and rocking subsided but never completely stopped.
A squawk of fear drew their attention to the portholes. Jon pointed numbly at a passing island. A fanged, chunk of granite larger than the Sky Hawk was sliding by not more than twenty cubits away. “Be careful!” the thief quavered. “We almost ran into that thing!”
Aaren nodded, his face white with tension. “I know, I know, but it’s the ones up ahead I’m worried about.”
As one they craned their necks and peered ahead. A collective gasp escaped them. A swarm of floating islands was hurtling toward them, spreading out in all directions. Some were tiny hunks of rock, others were gigantic asteroids, bigger than Beorn’s repair station.
Nearly half of them were globes of water.
The water islands came in all sizes, just like the ones made of rock and dirt. They ranged from little balls the size of the Wanderer up to ones the size of a floating ocean. There were deep, sea green ones, dark and mysterious as any planetary ocean, whitecaps cresting and breaking in the wind. There were clear, almost transparent balls of water, scintillating and sparkling in the sun like diamonds. Others were pale blue, still and calm, reflecting the sky around them, hiding their depths beneath a mirror-smooth surface. Some were shot through with light, evidence of some titanic disturbance far beneath the waves, while others were wreathed in towering thunderheads and crashing lightning.
The rock islands were even more varied.
Although some were bare rock, others were entire, miniature worlds of their own. They saw forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, and plains dotting the surfaces of dozens of them. Some even had ice caps and frozen tundra. Vast herds of bison and antelope made tiny with distance, roamed the plains and valleys of those myriad worlds. Every imaginable shade of green was displayed in magnificent profusion and many of the worldlets were covered from top to bottom with dense, steaming jungles.
The Knights gaped at the astonishing variety and beauty displayed before them.
“They’re coming right at us!” Horace cried. “We have to get out of here!”
Aaren shook his head grimly. “There’s no time, we’ll have to weave in and out among them.”
Their faces blanched at the prospect looming ahead, but before they could do more than open their mouths to protest, they were among them. “Hang on!” The Wanderer dove between two worldlets, barely avoiding a collision with first one then the other as Aaren fought to keep them alive. Their eyes widened into saucers in their faces and they grabbed for the comfort, if not the safety, of the handgrips attached to the bulkheads. A sudden, wrenching turn to starboard all but threw them against each other. They tightened their grips and prayed.
Katrina’s knuckles were white on the back of the pilot’s chair. Leaning over, she shouted in Aaren’s ear, giving him directions. His own knuckles were white with tension and he nodded his head, sending the Wanderer dipping and twisting through a series of high-speed loops and turns as he wove through the hurtling worldlets.
As fast as it started, it was over. They were through and the dense pack of floating islands was retreating behind them.
They left out a collective sigh of relief and loosened their death-grips on the rails.
Katrina pointed to a solitary worldlet following some distance behind the main body of islands. “That’s the one we want,” she said nervously. “Assuming we didn’t go off course back there.”
His heart still pounding in his chest, Elric looked out the window at the immensity of Heraup’s atmosphere. “I can see other groups of islands like the one we just went through,” he commented weakly. “They’re all over the place. How can anyone navigate in this crazy place? Nothing ever stays put.”
Katrina’s expression was strained. “Plotting our course here was a real eye-opener for me. I’m starting to see how people can do it, but it’s a major headache.”
Jon stared suspiciously at her. “You can?” He shook his head without waiting for an answer. “Either you’re smarter than I thought or you’re a better liar than I thought.”
Aaren’s voice cut them off. “Everyone hang on, we’re going in!”
They grabbed for the handrails and peered quickly out the portholes at their destination.
Below them was a large worldlet, almost thirty leagues in diameter. Like many of the others, it was covered by dense jungles. Here and there, miniature mountain ranges poked their heads above the trees and lakes. The lakes were dark green, murky, and dangerous looking. Drifting fog banks obscured much of the jungle and steam rose from every direction, adding to the humidity and clouds.
They dropped lower, passing in and out of the heavy clouds. Aaren slowed their speed even further to avoid colliding with the craggy peaks.
The Wanderer’s shadow flashed silently over one of the lakes and they saw something huge and dark moving in the depths. A moment later it was gone, leaving them with the impression of long, sweeping flukes and tremendous power.
“A jungle version of Hell,” was Horace’s grim conclusion. He pointed off to the north where a volcano belched fire and smoke. “It’s probably hotter than a baker’s kitchen, even in the shade.”
“And humid as Carrzulm too,” Mira commented sourly, breaking her self-imposed silence for the first time since leaving the space station. “I can’t wait to get there,” she added sarcastically.
“Alright, so it’s not going to be fun,” Katrina said, putting away her charts. “We knew that going in, but it doesn’t mean we have to gripe about it. Let’s just do what we came here to do and leave.” She tied down the flap on her chart case and turned away to direct Aaren to a likely clearing. “Down there,” she pointed.
“I see it,” he grunted. “Hang on people, I’ve never landed one of these things before, it could be rough.” Since all of them were already hanging on to the handrails, they merely tightened their grips and braced themselves.
The tall grass rushed up at them. Aaren’s eyes narrowed in concentration and he slowed their speed. He over-did it and they began rising away from the clearing.
He growled under his breath.
He tried to cancel their speed entirely but forgot to maintain their equilibrium against the worldlet’s gravity.
The Wanderer dropped like a rock.
Screams filled the tiny ship.
He recovered quickly but the sudden upwards acceleration drove them to their knees. A vagrant gust of wind swept the Wanderer sideways and the Knights found themselves tumbled into a back corner in an untidy heap. The ship canted sharply from their weight, dancing around drunkenly.
Aaren swore and tried to correct for the unbalanced ship’s bizarre angle.
Slowly it leveled off.
The Knights pulled themselves out of their pile and stood up, moving away from the back corner – removing the weight Aaren was counter-balancing. With nothing to counter, his balancing act failed and the ship pitched violently forward, throwing everyone to the floor again. They slid into the back of Aaren’s pilot chair with a resounding thud and accompanying yells of pain.
Aaren bellowed over the commotion, “Stay where you are! I can’t do anything if you keep moving around on me!”
He struggled to right the ship again, dropping altitude as he did. The Wanderer bobbed like a maniacal worm on the end of a hook for another moment or two then finally settled to the grass with a quiet sigh.