Nestled in the arms of a small bay was the village. The streets at first seemed to be flooded, then on closer inspection, turned out to be canals. They ran between the buildings in no discernible pattern, in several instances, flowing into the buildings to form loading docks. Rafts and small boats plied the watery streets. The Knights also caught glimpses of shadowy forms swimming underwater as well. A huge net was strung across the streets where they opened into the lake, forming an efficient barrier to any marine predators that might be lurking in the deeper waters.
Aaren turned the Wanderer and descended toward the village, slowing as they approached. They stopped and hovered in midair scant feet above one of the canals. Their sudden approach startled the villagers, halting traffic and causing a near panic. Shutters slammed shut on the buildings around them and boat handlers swerved their craft into the nearest landing bay or dove over the side into the safety of the water. Within the space of a dozen heartbeats, the busy street was totally deserted except for the Wanderer turning slowly in the air.
The Knights looked at each other in confusion. In all their planning and efforts to reach the village, somehow they’d never taken into consideration the possibility the sauroids might be afraid of them or see them as invaders.
“Uh . . . now what?” Horace deadpanned.
“Why don’t we tell them we’re friendly,” Elric suggested hopefully.
“Tell who?” Katrina wanted to know, indicating the empty street. “We scared everyone off.”
They swung around to find Jon pointing down one of the streets at an approaching flotilla of canoes. Each one was packed to the gunwales with spear-carrying lizard men, advancing angrily. “They don’t look scared,” the thief said faintly. “They don’t look scared at all.”
Mira was in shock. The sight of the advancing lizard men took her back to her mother’s death. All of Beorn’s reassurances about them vanished from her mind. She gripped her sword tightly, fighting the urge to scream bloody murder and fling herself at them. Her jaw muscles jumped and her grip tightened until her knuckles were white as death.
Aaren took in Mira’s condition in a glance then stretched out am arm to Horace, pushing him toward the window. “Tell ’em we’re looking for Seasar,” he ordered him. “Hurry!”
Horace pushed back. “But we don’t speak the same language,” he protested.
“Just do it!” Aaren insisted.
The fighter shrugged. “Alright.” He turned and leaned out the window to yell at the approaching lizard men, “We’re looking for Seasar! Can anyone take us to Seasar!”
The reaction was immediate.
One of the lizard men in the lead canoe held up a taloned hand and all of them slowed, milling about uncertainly. A buzz of conversation filled the air.
The Knights exchanged surprised looks.
“What do ya know, it worked,” Horace muttered. “How’d you know that would work?” he asked over his shoulder.
Aaren grinned. “A hunch.”
The comment caught Mira’s attention and brought her back to the present. It reminded her of a similar comment he’d made regarding Altman and she smiled in spite of herself. Some of the tension drained out of her.
The lizard man who’d held up his hand gestured for his crew to move his canoe closer to the Wanderer. “Wa do you wan wiss the mighty Seasar?” he called in a hissing voice.
The Knights looked expectantly at Horace who turned to Aaren. “Now what?”
“Tell him Beorn sent us,” Aaren answered patiently.
“Oh, yeah.” He turned back to the window. “Beorn sent us. He said Seasar would pay us for helping him launch a ship.”
His words set off a violent stir among the gathered troops. Their hissing voices were raised in a massive outpouring. They were gesturing and waving their arms at each other, the Wanderer, and some distant point behind the village. The leader turned and shouted at them angrily. He had to repeat himself several times before they quieted down. When order had been restored, he turned back to the Wanderer. “Wa proof do you have zat wa you ssay iss true?”
Katrina tapped Horace urgently on the arm. “Here,” she said, holding out her chart. “Show this to him. It’s a copy of Beorn’s charts. He signed it over here in the corner. I wondered why he did. Maybe this is why.”
Horace grabbed it and displayed it eagerly to the lizard men leader. “Beorn lent us copy his charts . . . he even signed it,” he answered.
The lizard man craned his neck trying to see it better, then tapped his one of his crewmen on the shoulder indicating he should go get it. The crew member dropped his oar and dove into the water. He swam over cautiously and plucked the map from Horace’s outstretched hand. Holding it out of the water, he swam back.
“Oh, that was smart,” Jon said bitingly. “What if they decide to keep it?”
“Pretty good discipline,” Horace noted, ignoring the thief. “These guys are organized.”
The leader took his time inspecting the chart. While he was pursuing it, the Knights took time to inspect their hosts.
At first glance they looked like the standard lizard men they were all familiar with; reptilian humanoids, four to five cubits tall with a tail extending a little over three cubits behind them. Their skin tone ranged from dark green to gray to brown and their scales gave them a flecked appearance. A small line of ridges started on the crown of their heads, moved down the middle of their backs, and on to the tip of the tail. Their elongated snouts contained a mouthful of savage teeth and their hands sported razor-sharp claws. They were normal to that point but a closer inspection revealed some subtle differences.
Their eyes, reptilian though they were, had an unusual quality to them, a light that bespoke an almost human intelligence. Their posture was slightly more erect than normal and their brow was somewhat higher instead of sloping quite so much. Their snouts were slightly shorter than regular lizard men and their lips were more fully developed, allowing for a greater range of vocal sounds, and there was something about their hands that was unusual too. It was too slight to quantify, a nagging difference that eluded definition as if their hands and fingers weren’t quite so savage or beast-like.
They also wore more than the usual strings of bones and beads normal lizard men did. All of them wore metal armbands with stylized markings that possibly indicated rank. They also wore a thigh-length tunics, belted at the waist, made of some strange, shimmering material, almost like metal except that it fell like cloth. A number of them bore well-made shields and spears, and a handful in a far canoe held crossbows of unknown design, subtly adapted to fit their hands.
When all of these differences were added together, the impression was one vastly different than the beasts the Knights, and Mira, in particular, had expected. These were an intelligent, articulate, and enterprising people with a unique culture of their own. They weren’t monsters they realized with surprise, they weren’t monsters at all.
The sauroid leader lowered the chart. “Thiss iss Peornss’ mark. I recognisss it well.” He studied them intently for another minute or two, then came to an abrupt decision. “You follow me. I take you to Seasar.”
Horace looked at Aaren for instructions. He nodded. “Tell him we’ll follow him.”
Horace waved a hand at the sauroid leader. “We’re right behind you.”
The creature gave a gesture of satisfaction and barked a series of orders at his troops. The canoes turned, one after another, and headed back the way they came. The leader trailed behind them past several intersections then turned aside to wind deeper into the rows of buildings. The Wanderer floated silently behind him, trailing along like a giant balloon.
They wove in and out among overhanging trees and low buildings until the Knights were forced to radically alter their first impression about the size of the place. “This isn’t a village,” Elric exclaimed. “It’s a city!”
“And there’s an awful lot more of it underwater,” Mira added uneasily, still fighting to keep her hackles down.
“Like an iceberg,” the mage commented thoughtfully.
“Or a good military formation,” Horace muttered.
Aaren frowned in irritation. “Come on people, let’s have a little optimism here. They haven’t offered us any harm or threatened us, and now they’re taking us straight to Seasar. What more do you want?”
“Ever heard of the spider and the fly?” Katrina asked him. “It starts off a lot like this.”
“Very funny,” Mira said acidly. “That’s not what I wanted to hear.” She moved closer to Aaren and gripped his shoulder for comfort and support.
He reached up and patted her hand, shooting a reproving glance at Katrina.
The canoe they were following sailed through a curtain of hanging vines and leaves, forcing Aaren to lower the Wanderer into the water and maneuver it like a ship. They nosed through the vines, water slapping gently at the hull, and sailed into a cool, dimly lit wonderland.
A giant tree, the trunk, over 70 cubits in diameter, soared up out of the water and spread its branches over a vast, half-submerged building of coral and whitewashed stone. Arched doorways gave into large hallways that disappeared into the interior. The Knights saw stairs and corridors branch off at irregular intervals, water glinting in some of them. Tiny globes of light, in every color of the rainbow, were mounted inside and outside the building, others dangled from the great tree overhead. Uniformed guards stood watch on various balconies and low towers, their forms and faces hidden behind colorful, but functional looking, armor.
“It looks like a fairyland!” Katrina gasped. “My parents told me stories about places like this. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to go adventuring!” She leaned eagerly out of the Wanderer, craning her neck in every direction, trying to see everything at once.
Mira felt some of the tension drain out of her. Creatures who created something this beautiful couldn’t be all bad, she thought.
The canoe pulled up to a jutting dock. The leader jumped out, gesturing for the Wanderer to pull in behind him. Aaren nosed the little ship in and relaxed his hold on the ship’s power. They settled slightly deeper in the water and were still. He grabbed the rune key and slid it into his pocket. “Ride’s over gang. Let’s go see what our friend wants to do now.” He pulled his muddy boots on, grimacing with distaste at their appearance.
Horace popped the hatch open and leaned out, his wild mane of hair blowing in a gentle breeze. “Whew! That feels good,” he exclaimed gratefully. He stepped up to the deck and inhaled deeply. “Smells good too.”
The rest of them quickly joined him then closed and locked their ship. The sauroid leader came over to them and bowed slightly. “I am Saans,” he hissed respectfully. “And your names are?” He paused expectantly.
“Aaren Valed,” Aaren said, returning the bow. “My companions are Mira Highmoon, Elric Ickär, Katrina Shiyr, known as the Swansong, Jon Mitsvah, and Horace Karash, the Smith’s Son.” He indicated each of them as he called their names and they bowed in turn. Saans followed the introductions closely, bobbing his head at each of them. “Forgive our appearance but we were caught in the rain last night and haven’t had a chance to clean up.”
Saans’ eyes crinkled and he uttered a quick series of hissing pants. “Undersssood. We are sssill cleaning up from se ssorm as well,” he said in an amused tone.
Aaren guessed that the hiss-panting was the sauroid version of laughter and smiled in return. “Your people work quickly then. If you had not told me otherwise, I would have thought your city in perfect order as it is.”
The corners of Saans’ mouth quirked briefly. “You are kind, Aaren Valed.” He stood back and waved them up the dock.
“Pleass, follow me.”
The Knights nodded and fell in behind him.
Saans led them past a throng of curious onlookers and into the great building, which they guessed must be the palace or city hall. He took them down a long hall. They turned several times and climbed two sets of stairs. Guards stood at regular intervals, armed and alert.
Word of their arrival spread rapidly. Doors popped open all along their route and curious sauroids stuck their heads out to watch them pass. A buzz of conversation sprang up at their backs until the entire building sounded like it was full of hissing snakes. Even though the Knights knew it was harmless, the sound still made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.
Aaren put a supportive arm around Mira’s shoulders. “How are you doing?” He could feel the tension vibrating her entire body.
“Not good,” she admitted miserably. “It’s all I can do to keep from screaming and going crazy.”
He nodded sympathetically. “Well, hold on. It can’t be too much further.”
His words were prophetic. A moment later they stopped at a set of double doors. Two guards lowered their spears across the door in the time-honored manner of all guards. They hissed questioningly at Saans. He barked sharply at them in return. Apparently satisfied, they raised their spears and opened the doors.
“‘Who are these guys?’ and ‘What are they doing here?’,” Horace translated as they went in.
Jon gave him a funny look. “You understand them?”
“Nah. I don’t need to,” he answered. “It’s what any guards in their position would be asking.”
Saans overheard the exchange. “The big one is right,” he laughed over his shoulder. “But do you know what I said in return?” They were starting to get used to the hissing slur in his speech and were able to ignore it.
“Probably something like, ‘They’re with me and I outrank you so get out of the way’,” Horace replied.
Saans liked that. “You and I think much alike,” he said. “We must talk more later.”
Saans led them into a large room, not quite a throne room, but larger than a standard reception area. Several chairs and couches were strewn around and a large pond dominated the center of the room. Hanging plants lent a jungle air to the room and floating globes cast a rainbow light through the leaves and glinted off the surface of the water. Three sauroids lounged in the pool, snacking on smoked bits of meat, and drinking from oddly shaped glasses that were designed for the sauroids elongated snouts.
One of them raised an arm and Saans stopped instantly, dropping to one knee. After a moment’s hesitation, the Knights followed suit.
“Rise.” The voice was that of a man accustomed to being obeyed.
They rose silently.
“Are these the crew of the skyship?”
“Yes, mighty Seasar. They claim they were sent here by Beorn, and they have this chart with his mark on it.” Saans held it up.
“Let me see.”
Saans passed it over silently.
Seasar was larger than the other sauroids, with a higher brow and a keen glint in his eye. A swirl of tattoos covered his lower neck and chest, and he wore gold armbands. A jeweled spear lay near at hand. He finished studying the chart and rose out of the water. He caught up the spear with an absent gesture and strode over to examine them. “Who speaks for you?” he said, looking from one to the next.
Aaren caught his eye. “I do.” He repeated his introductions of the group. “We were sent by Beorn to assist with the launching of a ship. Our own ship is in need of repairs and Beorn told us we could earn the money by taking this mission.” He gave Seasar an abbreviated version of their adventures so far.
“Ah, an adventuring group . . . yes?”
“And the ship you came here in is not yours?”
Aaren shook his head. “Beorn loaned it to us while he’s working on ours. It hasn’t got much range so I guess he feels safe doing it.”
“I see.” Seasar contemplated them for a minute. “I would like to believe your story, but the safety of my people must come first. Therefore, I must ask you to repeat yourself in the presence of my shamans. They will determine if you lie or no.” He paused, waiting for their answer.
The Knights shrugged and nodded. “We have nothing to hide,” Aaren told him. “We’ll be glad to repeat our story for your shamans.”
Seasar relaxed fractionally at his reply. “Good.” He turned back to the pool and addressed the two sauroids still floating in the water. “Do they lie or tell the truth?”
The two stood up and bowed formally. “The truth, mighty Seasar.”
They left the pool and walked out of the room.
Aaren felt a momentary jolt of respect for the sauroid king. He’d taken the chance of meeting a group of total strangers before their bona fides were established, but he’d had some magical backup with him just in case. The sauroid glanced at them, curious to see their reaction to his little deception. Aaren bowed. “Your wisdom speaks for itself, mighty Seasar,” he said, adapting the apparent term of respect that the others were using.
“It was learned the hard way,” the king chuckled. He handed the chart to him, then sniffed delicately. “I would like you to join me for lunch, but perhaps you would like to, ah, freshen up first?”
“Yes!” Katrina said emphatically, her eyes brightening at the thought.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any hot bath water, would you?” Horace asked hopefully.
“Yeah, don’t give him any cold water. He’ll scream like a banshee,” Jon snickered.