Saans had the expedition organized by noon of the second day. The round, nearly featureless ship was located two leagues south of the village on a bluff overlooking a hidden valley. An extensive wooden cradle held the odd-looking ship, preparatory to liftoff. The entire affair was mounted on gigantic wheels, allowing it to be moved from place to place under the heavy foliage and protected from view. The sauroids weren’t taking any chances with its safety.
Most of the work was already done. The villagers had kept the ship in a constant state of readiness in anticipation of finding someone to help them launch it. All that remained was to move the guards and the Knights aboard and restock the perishable provisions. The Wanderer was pressed into ferry service, moving personnel and supplies across the dense jungle. When the Egg Nest, the sauroid ship, was launched, the Captain’s skiff would be tied to the back of the larger ship and towed along.
The final task before launch was to load one of the Rings of Ryal on board. When it was ferried over on boats, dozens of guards accompanied it along with the king and General Saans, both in full armor. The sauroids wouldn’t allow the Knights anywhere near the precious artifact and made it clear they were willing to die to prevent its theft or destruction. It took the rest of the afternoon and part of that evening before it was safely loaded and secured on the Egg Nest and ready for launch.
The next morning, General Saans and a complement of guards lined up in front of the ship in formation, while Seasar inspected them and it. After a brief discussion, the Knights decided to join the formation, and the king inspected them as well. He finished his inspection and turned to address them all. A great crowd of villagers had made the trek through the jungle to be there for this special occasion and he raised his voice so all of them could hear.
“Today is a momentous day for our people. A great undertaking reaches a new point along its destined path, and a new door is opened. A new age has begun!” For twenty six years we’ve worked for this day, worked and bled, and in some instances, died to achieve the victory that we see here before us today.” A small group of sauroids wearing black armbands broke into quiet tears at his words.
“We all know the great mission we have undertaken, we know our purpose, we know our dedication, we know our resolve! And our children will thank us for it!”
He continued in this vein for some time, the crowd alternately crying and cheering, sometimes simultaneously. The Knights began to feel slightly out of place. They were intruders on another people’s celebration and they knew it. Just when they thought he would never end, a wave of astonished murmurs began sweeping the crowd. It started at the back then moved forward as sauroids turned to see what was going on. The king saw he was losing his audience and ground to a halt, searching for the source of the interruption. He gave a sudden gasp as did the soldiers around them.
The Knights exchanged puzzled looks and broke ranks to see what was going on. They saw it almost immediately.
Approaching over the trees was a great, flying, feathered serpent, its rainbow-colored wings beating so fast they were almost invisible. It was 15 cubits long, five cubits longer than the diminutive Wanderer, beautifully colored, but sporting a mouthful of menacing fangs.
The Knights exclaimed in fear and pulled their weapons. Elric summoned his power for a spell and Mira strung her bow with lightning speed. The soldiers around them cried out and flung themselves on the Knights. “No, no! This Ryal! Do not anger him!”
Horace flung his attackers off before their words sank in. He paused, sword held at the ready. “Ryal?” he said uncertainly, eyeing the beautiful but fearsome-looking creature. The other Knights paused in their struggles with the alarmed sauroids. They held their breath as the great serpent descended to the ground in front of the king. It shimmered briefly then an immense sauroid, twice normal size, stood there.
A voice spoke in their heads.
Have no fear brave Knights of Gaia. I am Ryal, defender of these people, and to them, a god. I would see only that you do them no harm.
Although the Knights weren’t used to having voices in their heads, they slowly relaxed, daring to believe there was no threat. From their expressions, it was clear Ryal’s words were also known to Seasar and his people. All of them had sunk to their knees, heads bowed.
Aaren spoke for the group, his voice sounding loud and harsh compared to Ryal’s soft, mental communication. “I assure you, we have no wish to harm anyone. In fact, if it weren’t for their invitation we wouldn’t be here at all.”
I know why you are here, Aaren Valed. But whether you know it or not, you have brought great evil to this land.
Ryal’s words sent a shock wave through the Knights and caused Seasar raised his head to stare suspiciously at them. Aaren spread his hands in bewilderment. “I don’t understand.”
You have brought undeath to this world. Inside a mountain, you slew the living, one of whom has risen as a member of the undead.
Katrina sagged in sudden comprehension and muttered to her friends, “He’s talking about that stupid pirate. That crazy maniac was serious after all.”
They felt their hearts sink.
Aaren struggled to keep his sudden dismay off his face. “Then we will track down this monster and destroy it.” His brave words belied his fear of facing such an unholy creature. Physical threats were one thing, but the undead could steal your soul.
Ryal shook his head. That will not be necessary. The creature will find you, on Harpel.
It is your place to destroy that which you helped to create, but such battles must not take place here. Therefore I have exiled the creature to Harpel. There you will fight and destroy it, or be destroyed.
Harpel? The Knights looked at each other, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Having delivered his message, Ryal shimmered and returned to his normal form. He rose into the air, gave a great cry, and sped away.
The crowd slowly rose to its feet, following Ryal’s progress with worshipful eyes.
The king rose too but gave his god a more thoughtful and searching appraisal. He turned and regarded the Knights with the same look. He started to say something then hesitated and shook his head. He gestured privately at Saans. “Take the ship and leave quickly. The ceremony is interrupted, it will be impossible to recapture the mood. Go.”
Saans bowed low. “As you command, mighty Seasar.” He flicked a hand at his troops and they filed aboard. He followed them, nodding at the Knights to join them.
Still in a state of shock, the Knights reluctantly boarded the strange brood ship and took their stations. Elric had been elected to pilot the ship, so he climbed up to a tiny bridge on the top of the ship. The other Knights laid hands on the wooden handles and began cranking a series of collapsible arms into their full, extended position. Lacewing glistened in the sun as the sails were stretched out.
Saans found them. “We need the navigator up on the bridge,” he told them.
Katrina nodded and disappeared with him.
The sauroid’s ship was different than anything the Knights had seen previously. Like the mind flayer ship, it was totally enclosed, but where the mind flayer ship had open balconies, the Egg Nest had none. It was spherical and painted flat black. Aside from a rudder on the stern and some ailerons on the sides, the ship was nearly featureless. Two arms extended out from either side of the ship with sails shaped like bat wings on them. When the arms were cranked closed, they disappeared into covered slots on the ship.
Elric was ready when Saans gave the order to begin and he lifted the ship off the ground accelerating up into the sky. Lizard Rock dwindled and shrank behind them. Within minutes it had become just one more floating island in the mass of islands whirling around in Heraups atmosphere.
Katrina relayed directions to Elric and he obeyed, turning the wheel this way and that to avoid major concentrations of islands similar to the one they’d flown through on the way in. The Knights stood by the extended arms, ready to change their angle as needed to help maneuver the ship. Katrina had more confidence in her abilities this time and she was glad to have the distraction to keep her mind off of Ryal.
Elric felt a sudden change in the ship when it left Heraup’s gravity. “We’ve left Heraup’s gravity field. We’re free to use banking speed or system speed.”
“Yeah, I could feel it too,” she answered. “Hold us steady on this heading and I’ll give you a new course in just a few minutes.”
“Will do,” he replied.
As the ship left Heraup’s gravity, its internal local gravity took over, but the sauroids had designed it so its gravity was similar to a planet. The result was that the central cavity where the eggs would be held was weightless. The floors above the watery nest were rounded. Every direction a person looked, the floors appeared to dip down.
With its local gravity stabilized, the sauroids began pumping water in through the Ring of Ryal, through the simple expedient of submerging the one on the planet in the lake and letting the water pour into the ship. The operation was fast and efficient. The incubation tank was filled in minutes.
Katrina finished her calculations almost at the same time the tank was filled. She gave directions to Elric and the crew. The ship swung around and the mage accelerated them to system speed. She conferred briefly with Saans then picked up the speaking tube. “It’ll take us about half an hour to reach our destination,” she told them. “Until then there’s not much for us to do except sit back and take it easy.”
They accepted her estimate and settled down for the wait as best they could. Ryal’s warning about the undead pirate had turned them into virtual pariahs. The sauroids were noticeably giving them a wide berth. Even Saans was reluctant to stay with them.
The minutes seemed to drag. When Elric finally announced their arrival at their destination, they felt a huge sense of relief.
That relief was shattered a second later when he made a further announcement. “Uh, I hate to say this, but we’ve got company. And they’re flying the Jolly Roger!”
Horace bounded over to fling open a window and they looked out. A pirate ship was flying high and to the starboard in front of them. It was half again larger than the Sky Hawk, long and slender, 20 cubits wide, a needle of death, surmounted by two ballistae near the bow and two catapults toward the stern. A long, open deck ran between the heavy weapons and two long skies were attached to the bottom of the ship by short pylons to give it hard landing capabilities. A black flag with the skull-and-crossbones on it fluttered from the main mast and heavily armed pirates lined the nearest railing, waving their swords in angry gestures.
Saans all but levitated up the stairs to join them at the window. He took one look and cursed profanely. “Those are the pirates that use the mountains by the Syth-Finn as their hideout.”
Mira gave him a look of surprise. “You knew about them?”
He nodded heavily. “We took our engines and life chest from the wreckage of their sister ship,” he admitted, “and they’ve been harassing us every since. That’s why the Egg Nest was on wheels, so we could move it around and keep them from finding it.”
“Why doesn’t Ryal do something about them?” Jon wanted to know.
The question irritated their companion. “We have to do some things ourselves, you know. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Yes, they do,” Aaren agreed, giving Jon a warning look. “But right now we have an attack to deal with. Elric will have to stay here, but the rest of us can take the Wanderer and attack them from their flank.”
“Excellent idea,” Saans said in a surprised tone. “Do it fast though, it looks like they’re getting ready to make their first pass.”
Saans left to direct the fight from the Egg Nest while the Knights jumped the short distance to the Wanderer where it floated at the end of its tow chain. After inserting the rune key, Aaren noted that only the first two lights were still fully lit. The third one had gone dark. Every time the Wanderer moved, the engine burned some of it’s fuel, and they’d been using the Wanderer quite a bit. If it got much lower they’d have to sacrifice some of their gold to power it back up again.
Horace and Katrina manned the single ballista on top of the Wanderer. Mira strung her bow. Jon stayed below with Aaren, there wouldn’t be anything for him to do unless they grappled with the pirates. If they did, his ring of invisibility would come in very handy.
Horace untied the tiny ship and threw the chain aside. “We’re free,” he yelled down to Aaren. “Let her rip!”
The priest smiled as the Wanderer shot away from the Egg Nest.
Elric leaned forward over the controls of the Egg Nest, watching the pirate’s attack dissolve in chaos as they realized their quarry had outflanked them. The Wanderer arched up across the void, swinging around behind the pirates for a strafing run. He smiled and spun the wheel, rolling the Egg Nest into position. “We’re ready,” he called through the speaking tubes to Saans.
The General grunted acknowledgment and shouted loud enough to be heard all over the ship. The seemingly featureless Egg Nest now revealed her true armaments. Tiny blisters all over the ship, each concealing a ballista, suddenly peeled back. A full broadside of them fired simultaneously with heart-stopping thuds. The blisters closed and the crew members fell to reloading them frantically.
Horace fired at the same time and Aaren banked them up and out of the Egg Nests line of fire. The pirates were caught between two attackers and all they could do was die. Three of them were struck outright by the ballista bolts and hurled off the ship into the void, dead before their feet left the deck. The other bolts had been aimed at the pirate’s heavy weapons and all but two of them struck true. One catapult tipped over from multiple impacts and crashed on the deck. Whatever it’s load was, it must have been flammable because a sudden whoosh of flames roared up, searing the crew on the other catapult. The crew screamed in panic, slapping frantically at the flames. One forward ballista took a hit in its mechanism and jammed uselessly. The crew of the remaining ballista, unnerved by the heavy attack, missed the Egg Nest with their own bolt.
Horace let out a whoop of joy and began reloading the Wanderer’s ballista. Mira fired a couple of arrows but the distance was prohibitive and they merely struck the hull.
Elric rolled the Egg Nest again, more blisters peeled open. The pirates dove vainly for cover. That broadside finished off the remaining ballista.
Katrina was almost beside herself with a wild kind of joy. “This is great!” she shouted. “Think of the ballad I’ll make out of this!” She danced a jig and waved her sword at the dying pirates.
Aaren completed a gigantic loop and brought them around on the pirate ship again. Horace was ready for him and fired their ballista. The bolt scored a direct hit on the pirate ship near the stern. A tremendous shudder ran through the ship and a crack appeared in the hull.
Aaren didn’t swerve away this time. Instead, he plunged on, closer to their enemy. Mira took advantage of the range and loosed two arrows, this time finding her targets. The pirates were thoroughly disorganized by this time, some of them fighting the fire at the catapult station and most of the rest either dead or dying.
Aaren eyeballed the size of the open deck on the pirate ship and made a fast mental calculation, then decided the Wanderer would just barely fit. “Hang on!” he shouted, “We’re going in!”
His companions sucked in their breath as he dove at the tiny stretch of open area on the ship below. They gripped the rail, wide-eyed and tense, fearing the worst. Jon braced himself for a crash. “You madman,” he screamed hoarsely. “You’re going to get us all killed!”
A tremendous crash cut off the rest of his words and threw them forward. The Wanderer slid to a halt with a terrible grinding sound of wood on wood.
The sudden stop had thrown Aaren out of his seat. He picked himself up with a laugh and hauled Jon to his feet as well. “See? Nothing to it!”
Jon was trembling in reaction. “You oughta see the inside of my shorts!” He slipped on his ring and vanished. One of the hatches flew open and Aaren followed his invisible companion into the fray.
Elric rubbed his eyes in disbelief at the sight of the Wanderer’s incredible performance. “He’s out of his mind,” he muttered to himself. “Absolutely crazy.”
Saans stuck his head through the hatch. “Does your friend always engage in such dramatic maneuvers?” he asked wonderingly.
Elric decided that it was time to rebuild some of their shattered reputation. “Nah,” he said nonchalantly, “sometimes he gets really wild.” He blandly returned Saans’ incredulous look, until the sauroid finally withdrew, uncertain if Elric was telling the truth or not. Elric smiled to himself then turned his attention back to the battle.
The pirates were stunned by the sudden appearance of the Wanderer on their deck. The impact from the landing had shaken the entire ship, throwing them off their feet.
Horace didn’t give them a chance to recover. He leaped over the side of the Wanderer, sword in hand. Within seconds it was red with blood. Katrina joined him an instant later. Hatches on the Wanderer flew open and Aaren was there as well. The three of them presented a united front to the astonished pirates and Mira’s bow sang a song of death from overhead.
The pirates soon discovered that some other, mysterious force was loose on the ship as well, striking from out of thin air. It drove them mad with fear and they hurled themselves at the foes they could see in a vain attempt to escape the one they couldn’t.
“You’re a complete lunatic, did you know that?” Horace shouted at Aaren as they threw back the pirate onslaught.
Aaren twirled his hammer like a baton and smashed an attacker to the deck. “You loved every second of it,” he laughed in return.
“But I’m a lunatic too!”
“I heard that!” Jon’s voice shouted dimly from somewhere on the ship. “You finally admitted it!”
“Aggr! Wouldn’t you – uff! – know that little shrimp – uhn! – would be listening,” Horace panted, mowing down pirates with great swings of his sword. “I shoulda known better.”
A few more minutes and the last of the pirates lay dead on the deck. The fire at the catapult was starting to spread and the air was getting thick.
“Come on,” Aaren ordered them. “Lets’ make a sweep through the lower decks then get out of here. This place is going up in smoke.”
Jon appeared in front of them. “This way,” he said. “I found a lock box in the Captain’s quarters.”
The Knights followed him. They raced through the ship, kicking open doors and doing a fast scan of the rooms, taking anything that might be valuable. These pirates seemed as poor as their brethren in the cave though, the lock box was the only thing they found. It was bound with heavy chains, locks, and steel bands. They decided that rather than spend time trying to open it there, they would take it along and worry about it later at their leisure.
Horace sheathed his sword and heaved the heavy box upon his shoulder. Even his mighty strength was hard-pressed to handle the weight and he staggered slowly up the companionway to the stairs. Aaren started to follow the rest of them back up but then a sudden thought occurred to him, and he raced down to the lowest deck where engines and the life chest were bolted down.
They were immune to most non-magical fire so he used a piece of charcoal to mark them as the property of the Knights of Gaia. After the fire burned itself out, they could come back at their leisure with the Sky Hawk and reclaim the valuable equipment.
He caught up with his friends as they were struggling to load the lock box onboard the Wanderer. “Where’d you go?” Mira huffed.
He put his shoulder to the box, helping them shove it onboard. “Marking the engines and life chest so we can come back later and get them.”
She grinned. “That’s my man!”