By the time they got back to the Egg Nest, a victory celebration was in full swing. The Ring of Ryal had been moved to the outer deck of the Egg Nest so Aaren could steer the Wanderer through it back to Lizard Rock. Arriving there, they discovered the celebration in the city was approaching near-riot status as the sauroids leaped for joy that their children would have a better future than them.
Seasar had already been briefed on the battle and was waiting on the dock for Aaren when they arrived. “So, I’m told you have an unexpected gift for the dramatic,” he greeted the priest.
Aaren shrugged happily. “I saw an opportunity and took it,” he said modestly.
“I see. Well, in any case, I understand you and your companions lost no time in leaping to the defense of the Egg Nest, even though that wasn’t required by our contract.”
The Knights stopped, thunderstruck.
“It never occurred to us not to,” Mira said. “I mean, what kind of friends would we be if we just sat around and let your ship be destroyed?”
No friends at all. A quiet voice intruded gently into their minds. They spun around and saw Ryal fading into view as he came through the Ring of Ryal. Seasar and the surrounding sauroids sank to their knees immediately.
The Knights weren’t quite so impressed. “Were you on the Egg Nest the whole time?” Jon asked indignantly.
Yes. I could not allow such an important undertaking to take place without going along. And I’m glad I did, your actions have done much to reassure me about your part in releasing the vampire.
Aaren felt his knees threaten to buckle. “Vampire?” He swayed on his feet. All the Knights had gone pale.
“You want us to destroy a vampire?” he said, desperately wanting to sit down.
You were instrumental in its release, its creation. You must also be instrumental in its destruction.
“But we’re not strong enough to take on a vampire!” Mira protested, moving up alongside Aaren. “We’d never make it.”
You are stronger than you think. But . . . it may be that you need some help.
The Knights looked up with renewed hope.
In return for your valiant defense of my people, I will give you tools and information to help you in your quest.
“You know about that?” Katrina asked wonderingly.
I know many things, bard. The chains on the lock box in the Wanderer suddenly fell off and it popped open. For instance, I know that in addition to the gold and jewels in that box, is a magical necklace. Each of the three pearls on it, when they are torn off and thrown at an enemy, will explode into a ball of fire.
Jon and Horace grinned at the mention of gold and jewels, but Katrina’s attention was caught by the description of the necklace. “I’ve heard about things like that,” she whispered excitedly to her companions. “My parents used to tell me stories about exploding necklaces. They even taught me some songs about them.”
But Ryal wasn’t done yet. There is a hammer of great power in there, along with three arrows that have special powers for slaying the undead, healing potions, and a book of spells. Elric looked up with interest at the mention of a spellbook but Aaren’s attention was captured by Ryal’s comment about a hammer of power. All these treasures are yours, spoils of war in addition to the gold my people have pledged to you. But the true gift I bring you is knowledge.
Horace gave the great serpent a quizzical look. “What kind of knowledge could be better than the treasure we found? Which would have been ours anyway, by the way.”
The kneeling sauroids jerked their heads up and stared at him, shocked at his sacrilegious tone of voice, but Ryal seemed genuinely amused. Knowledge that the man whose daughter you are pledged to rescue is a member of the government of the Carrzulman Empire? Knowledge that a priest of Carrzulm is responsible for choosing his daughter to be sacrificed? Knowledge that the man you banished from your ship has joined your foes on Harpel? Knowledge of the traps that the enemy mage is setting for you when you invade his lair? Do these things mean nothing to you?
The Knights were stunned at Ryal’s revelations, all the more unexpected for his simple, unassuming presentation. Aaren and Mira were the first to recover their wits. They exchanged an uneasy glance. “How do you know all these things?” he asked in wonder.
Seasar, still kneeling, chuckled at Aaren’s stupefied look. “He is Ryal,” he said simply as if that explained everything.
And who knows, Aaren thought to himself, maybe it did. He looked up at the feathered serpent floating overhead with new respect. “That kind of knowledge would be very valuable to us indeed.”
Ryal’s coiling body shimmered and was replaced by a scale model of Harpel. The model turned transparent, revealing a worm’s nest of tiny red lines – tunnels – under one part of the city spreading across the asteroid’s face. The maze of tunnels quickly enlarged, showing a wealth of detail. These are the tunnels and caverns where The Sword and Klee Blanrus are hiding, Ryal’s mental voice told them. You can see where the girl is being held – one section turned blue – and the black areas indicate traps laid by Blanrus.
Katrina pawed frantically through her pack. After a moment of furious digging, she emerged with a pad of paper, ink, and pen, and began tracing quickly. Her pen flew across the paper, copying the twisting maze of tunnels and traps. Elric moved over to stand by her shoulder, pointing out the placement of this detail and that. Their absorption was total. Jon ignored them. Searching for something to address other than a floating map, he stared at a point just off to the side of it. “What was that you said about Marak?”
He is a government official of Carrzulm, a spy posing as a caravan master, Ryal answered smoothly. He plans to slay you and take your ship once you’ve rescued his daughter.
Jon’s eye’s darkened with fury until they were almost black. His voice was ice cold. “And Taanen?”
Pledged to his master’s cause.
“Then we’ve been on a fool’s mission!” Horace snarled, smacking a fist into the palm of his hand. His rage was the equal of Jon’s, the two of them looked ready to take Marak and Taanen apart with their bare hands. “All this pain and misery, for nothing!”
“We should have killed them when we had the chance at Beorn’s,” Jon added.
Horace was in full agreement. “Yeah! And forget going to Harpel! I’m not about to rescue his daughter. She’s probably as bad as he is, she’d be glad to help ‘daddy’ slip a dagger in our ribs,” he gritted angrily.
No. The girl is innocent.
The gathering tide of anger was cut short. “What?”
Marak has protected his daughter from the dangerous plots and intrigues of that dark empire. Until now she has been shielded from evil and death. She knows her father for what he is but has had no part in his schemes or dealings.
Katrina finished her sketching and the maze of tunnels vanished. Ryal reappeared in their place, looking down at them with sad, ancient eyes. The sins of the father have not yet touched the child. And though she sees his evil deeds, she loves him still, and pines for the day when he will reform his ways.
“Hopeless,” snorted Horace. “Better to hope a guillotine won’t kill you. Safer too,” he added disparagingly.
“Not necessarily,” Aaren objected. “Marak has been fairly civilized throughout most of our time together. And until just now, none of us thought there was anything wrong with him.” He didn’t want to mention his and Mira’s hunches and intuition about the man.
He started to say more but Katrina interrupted him. “Civilized?” she exclaimed with a laugh. “That was just an act! He was fooling us, pulling the wool over our eyes. It was just an elaborate charade.” She struck an angry chord on her lute. “Take it from someone who knows.”
Someone who knows? Mira started as a sudden thought occurred to her. “Uh, excuse me.” She held up a tentative hand. They paused and looked at her.
“Ryal says that he knows these things, but how do we know he’s telling the truth? What if Marak is innocent and Ryal is just making all this up? How do we know which is which?” she asked them.
The sauroids gathered around them were outraged at her blasphemy. They were on their feet in an instant, weapons in hand, and charging forward. The Knights fell back in a defensive circle, whipping out their own weapons.
The sheer force of Ryal’s mental shout stunned everyone, stopping them in their tracks. Sauroids and humans alike crumpled feebly to the ground.
Aaren and Mira sank down together, holding each other weakly. “What was that?” she gasped.
He shook his head. “Beats me,” he replied painfully. He reached up and gently massaged his throbbing temple. “That hurts!”
My apologies. A gentle radiance filled the area and the groans and moans died away. I did not wish for there to be violence between you and my people. Ryal swung around and focused his attention on the sauroids. The question was valid from their point of view, he said reprovingly. And even if it was not, I need no protection. I am quite capable of handling my own defense.
Seasar rose to his knees and bowed deeply. “Forgive us O’ Ryal, we meant to cast no aspersions on your greatness.”
You are forgiven. The regal serpent turned his attention back to the Knights. I offer no proof, Mira Highmoon. You will have to decide for yourselves if you trust me or not.
The Knights had regained their feet, the pain gone as if it had never existed. Mira was prepared for an elaborate explanation but Ryal’s refusal to defend himself left her unsure of her next move.
Ryal didn’t give her a chance to decide.
Your work here is done, Knights of Gaia. The gold my people promised is waiting for you. You have earned a place in the hearts and minds of my people, and if not there, then in the stories they will tell in the years to come. Go in peace.
The great serpent faded from view, and a sudden change in the air told them Ryal was gone.
There was silence for a moment, then Seasar got to his feet. “Ryal has spoken.” He gestured for Saans to help them load the sacks of gold into the Wanderer. He appeared deep in thought, and Saans said little while helping them move the heavy bags.
When they were done, the sauroid king approached them, waving his soldiers back. His mien was somber. “Twice in a matter of minutes you insulted Ryal,” he said, without preamble, “and twice he ignored it. Either he is more forgiving than we thought or our definition of ‘insulting’ needs to be changed, I’m not sure which. If you have done nothing else, you have given me much to think about, and for that I thank you.” He stuck out his clawed hand.
To everyone’s surprise, Mira was the first to grasp it. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said, deliberately giving him the royal title. “I’ve learned more than I thought possible here.” She kissed his hand as if he were in truth a mighty king.
Her actions were not lost on the watching soldiers. A murmur rose in their ranks.
She stepped back.
Aaren eyed her wonderingly for a moment. She had come a long way, he thought fondly. The very idea of such an action coming from her was beyond imagining, and to actually see it was something else! He shrugged mentally and followed suit. “It’s been an honor, Your Majesty.”
One by one the others stepped up and bowed over his hand, kissed it, and stepped back.
Seasar seemed caught in amber, frozen in surprise. Saans stood at his side, holding his breath.
When they were done, Seasar stood for a moment longer, then slowly came back to life. His head came up and his back straightened. He stepped back, clothed in dignity. “Fare thee well,” he said formally, “’til roads come ’round.”
“’Til roads come ’round,” they echoed. They boarded the Wanderer and cast off. Aaren took it slowly up out of the water as Saans and his soldiers stood at rigid attention. “Present Arms!” he barked. Their swords swept up in salute.
The Knights returned the salute then, Aaren applied power and they shot up into the sky.