Rhen Joul was not easily cowed. He had fought many battles, he had hunted in the Deep Seas and he prided himself of having overcome being surprised ever again. But, frankly, he was perplexed now. Of course, it would not do to show that to his subordinates. Therefore he replied to his Rhyall's last statement with a sharp bark of dismissal, "That's nonsense."
The Rhyall gave him a worried glance. "Salva Rhen Joul, I do not wish to be disrespectful, but our readers – "
"The readers be damned!" Joul roared and loomed over the cowering Rhyall, his grey gills quivering with anger. "They cannot simply have snuck up on us without our scouts ever catching a whiff of them! We know how to guard our borders! Don't we? I said, don't we?" The Rhyall nodded hurriedly, but Rhen Joul was no yet finished with his tirade. "The planet's gravity would never have allowed them to drop out of hyperspace that close! I think you are trying to hide the fact that you and your colleagues have not been paying attention! Hah?"
The Rhyall gave up. He hung his head meekly and shrugged. "If you say so."
"I didn't quite catch that!" Rhen Joul snarled. "What?"
"I said," the unfortunate Rhyall repeated miserably, but in a louder tone of voice, "that if you say so it must be that way."
The Salva bellowed a laugh. "Hah! Are you trying to placate me? Well, it isn't working, I can tell you that! Why did they manage to get so close without us detecting them, can you tell me that, Mr. Clever?"
"No," the Rhyall mumbled.
Rhen Joul deflated a bit and suddenly there was nothing boisterous about him any more, only something very deadly. "Then let's find out, that would be a start. Don't you think? There's only two of their ships. I say we crush them, then see what we can salvage. Perhaps the wreckage will give us a clue." Slowly, he turned toward the viewport of his flagship and maintained a calm air despite the horror he felt. Only two. But how had they managed to escape their sensors? "Inform the Council on Foulhan," he ordered quietly. "We are going to attack."
The three ships under his command were heavy Shock Cruisers, much bigger than what he thought were scout ships deployed by the enemy. It never occurred to him that the crews aboard those two vessels might not have hostile intentions. Leaning forward, he gripped the railing circling the command stand in the midst of the command center of his flagship and frowned hard at the organic things that flitted across space as if taunting him. "This is a trap," he whispered suddenly. "To see how we will react."
"Sir?" The Rhyall seemed uncertain.
But Rhen Joul never was. "Zoom in on that moon there, will you?" A smile split his face in half as he found his suspicon confirmed. In Foulhan's Deep Sea a hunter could never be too cautious. And one could never know where a craken might be lurking. These predators could make their skin take on the texture and colour of anything they rested on, be it fine sand on the bottom of the ocean or the rocky cliffs of the coast. Their attack came quickly and was deadly. Every time. Either you saw the craken first or you never did. "You see the ship hiding above that moon? The surface looks almost like the stone formations in the valley below it. But they haven't quite been able to get the shadows right." It was, he had to admit, a very impressive ship. And very big.
"Sir, are we still going to attack?"
"If we turn to flee now, they will know we have seen through the trap and will destroy us. They might even destroy us anyway," Rhen Joul added lightly, "but first, let's give them a taste of what we can do." With a grunt he snatched up the head-comm that would connect him to the commanders of the sentinel ships guarding his vessel. "Rhyall Al Der, Rhyall Shyyn Ru, deploy half of your fighters each and have them herd those two ships over towards the moon. Now." The order related, he bent over the curving display that made up the right side of the railing. It glowed with a dull, yellow light. The two enemy vessels were two red dots, and they were now joined by a third that was positioned right above the dark blob representing the small moon.
"Sir, that ship will attack for sure, if we threaten to blow its cover," his ship's Rhyall, whose name was Horal Shir, tried once more.
Rhen Joul calmly turned to look at him. "Yes," he replied. "That is almost certain. I am anxious to see if they might not spring another surprise on us."
He looked up at the giant screen that dominated the entire front of the command center to see two flights of Lappayan fighters pass across it. They were slim ships that glowed silver in the light of the stars, like a school of tiny fish flitting through the Deep Sea. They were incredibly fast. Nevertheless, the enemy ships matched them easily. "The maneuverability is impressive," Horal Shir murmured under his breath and for a moment his lips peeled back in a display of sharp teeth and grey gills that flashed white with anxiety for just a moment.
"It is, "Rhen Joul agreed quietly. "Let's move. Rhyalls, keep pace but keep the distances as they are." The three Shock Cruisers surged forward, following the silver fighters. Those had a hard time controlling the flight path of the two scout ships. But the moon up ahead and the three cruisers following behind were slowly closing the net. When the scout ships tried to escape by changing their course upward Rhen Joul did not have to say a word. The two flights of fighters moved in to block their path instantly. Now it got tricky. The two scouts could not escape the box the Lappayan ships formed with the moon as fourth wall, so to speak. They had tried to get away before the cruisers could come close enough to make identifying the larger ship lurking above the surface of the moon with sensors rather unnecessary. Now the giant ship would either strike, or –
Horal Shir jerked back when space exploded in a display of orange light. The cruiser shook under the impact and he was thrown forward against the railing. Rhen Joul, he found, had instinctively followed the force of the blow and leaped down into the crew pit surrounding the command stand. "Sir!" Horal Shir called out desperately.
hit aft," the Salva replied coolly, "just as I thought. Abandon the assignment.
Rhyalls, call back your fighters. We are leaving. And before we do, I want an
identification of that big ship up ahead. No scanners, mind you. We'll have to
identify it on sight, should we encounter it again. Then draw back. How many
ships behind us?"
"Four. Scout ships, like the other two," Horal Shir replied, eying the display critically." There'll be more, watching us."
"Now you understand," Rhen Joul answered, pleased. "Let's get out of here. But not back to Foulhan." His expression turned grim. "I will want a stop-over at Lalesh. I hear the Star Keeper is currently the Abernake's guest."
"A long way," Rhyall Horal Shir muttered, "just to hear Maraan babble on about cosmic harmony."
"You'd prefer chaos, Horal?" Rhen Joul shot back, denying his second title and surname deliberately. "Only a fool would want that."
Horal Shir's gills flashed a dark grey as he replied, "Your orders for the fleet?"
"They are on a reconnaissance mission and their scouts have been seen. They will retreat a bit and we will increase the patrols on our borders. Put the order out. And get us out of here. Now." With that Rhen Joul left the bridge. On his way to the machine room he met senior machinist Wou Thyl, who looked agitated. "I heard from the navigator," he began without preamble. "Salva, I must protest your decision to travel to Lalesh. We have been hit hard, and I cannot guarantee that the ship will hold out that long. We need to return Rfyrk to the docks of Foulhan."
Rhen Joul gave him a level look, then nodded. He trusted Whou Thyl's judgement implicitly. And, besides, the enemy might have a scout follow his contingent to see where they were headed. That they had gone to the length to design this trap only to study his tactics also told him, chilling as it was, that they probably already knew about Foulhan. Not a comforting thought. "Then I will take a fighter out to Lalesh. It will be faster anyway," he said. Two guards with him. Yes. That would suffice. "Rhyall Horal Shir will bring the ships back to Foulhan." At just that moment the deck lurched underneath their feet and he lashed out to balance himself against the nearest wall of narrow passageway. "I'll see you all later," he added, then stalked away. The passageway was riddled with reinforced holes and for a moment Rhen Joul considered slipping into one of them and taking a crawlway down to the hangar, but decided against it. Without water to propel him through they were fairly claustrophobic even for his tastes. By the time he had reached the ship's lower belly, where the silver fighters were tethered, two pilots were already waiting for him. One handed him his own gear. "The Rhyall has been informed?" he asked as he took the head-set.
We will drop out of hyperspace in a few moments and then we leave for Lalesh."
"Excellent. No time to waste." Rhen Joul shrugged out of his long tunic and flicked his muscular tail with a smile, before he donned the head-set that would allow him to communicate with his fellow pilotes. Horal Shir was a competent enough commander, despite his irritating behaviour back there. He would manage without the Salva for a few days. Looking up, he checked on the slender tubes that held his fighter tethered to the ceiling. Then he opened the lower hatch of the small vessel and slipped inside. The controls were all cramped into the slender nose of the fighter and a harness was suspended from the ceiling to assist the pilot in keeping his balance during take-off and landing. Rhen Joul plugged in the receiver of his headcomm and put on the harness, then pressed a button over his head and grinned, when a hole opened above him and cold salt water poured into the compartment. Soon it filled the ship from top to bottom. By then Rhen Joul had already contracted the muscles in his throat to close his windpipe off and switched to breathing through his gills. He briefly considered unlocking the harness once more, then decided against it. A discreet pinging noise warned him of the ship's imminent return to realspace. Inside the cocoon of cold water he felt nothing, but when the hangar door opened into infinity he smiled, as his slim vessel was shot out into the darkness of space like a silver arrow. The engines ignited automatically and he set course for Lalesh, his companions by his side.
He set his jaw grimly, his face fixed into a rigid grimace as his lips remained peeled back all the way to reveal his sharp teeth and gills. Why had the Star Keeper not warned them of these intruders? Checking on their coordinates he gave a satisfied not. Well. In a few hours he would know more.
"Are you ready to leave now?" Maraan asked, with little hope. He shivered where he sat. The cold was seeping through the thin fabric that separated him from the bare ground and he felt really uncomfortable. The creature had refused to accompany them back to the capital and before Alen'Di could lose his temper again Maraan had mediated a truce. The creature, who obviously expected any obstacle to remove itself from its path out of its own volition, had explained quite patiently that the labyrinth might help it remember. It spoke to it and triggered something within its soul, it claimed. Alen'Di, realising that it would not back down and a refusal of its request would only spark more violence, had granted it a night's respite. Curious, Maraan had volunteered to keep it company, but now he was regretting that decision sincerely. The creature was crouching in the middle of the labyrinth, eyes closed, the palms of its hands resting on the ground before it. It had not moved once as the hours flew by and darkness engulfed the valley. Now the first rosy light of morning flowed down the sheer walls of the cliffs and Maraan felt his legs twitch. A cramp. Great. With a sigh he struggled upright and almost stumbled, as his muscles refused to support his body. "I said, are you ready to leave now?" he repeated a bit more loudly and walked over to the creature cautiously. Its head came up abruptly and in its pale eyes he saw its thoughts resurface from whatever dimension they had lingered in for the past hours. It stood, to Maraan's mild annoyance never wavering, and turned to face him fully. "Someone's coming," it said. A frown appeared on its forehead, but it vanished as quickly as it had come and in its stead the creature flashed Maraan a quick, cold smile. "Let's go back to the spire. I am certain that your friend Alen'Di is anxiously waiting for us." It strode away into the labyrinth without waiting for Maraan, who stumbled after it hurriedly. "What was that?" he demanded anxiously.
"What was what?"
"That – that grimace! I thought you had felt something, perhaps, or remembered. You said someone is coming. How can you tell?"
The thing stopped and turned to stare at him in disbelief. "You mean you do not know that the entire planet vibrates when a landing ship drives the wind through the catacombs below the surface?"
"This is not my home-world," Maraan retorted sharply out of embarrassement. But then he turned innocently curious once more. "Is that why you touched the ground in the center of the labyrinth?"
The creature hesitated, then replied, "Sort of. But there was more to that. The past speaks to me, you see?"
"What does it tell you?"
"Nothing that should interest you," the creature answered curtly, but Maraan could tell that it was disturbed about something. What was it it had seen in the past? Of course, he could imagine that experiencing what had occurred here all those years ago was horrendous in itself, but he also believed that it was not the deaths of those people that put the creature on edge. Not, after he had witnessed how indifferent it could be in killing those who stood in its way. So what was on its mind?
"Let's go, Maraan." There was an edge to its voice that allowed for no rebuttal. And so the Star Keeper kept silent and follwed the creature out into the dawn. They did not have to walk far. Alen'Di had wisely left some guards behind and they silently took the two of them back to the citadel, where they were told that the queen was already waiting for them. With her was, of course, her guardian, but also someone else, someone Maraan had not expected at all. For a moment he stood in the doorway, hesitating, enthralled by the warrior's presence at the queen's side. But he had met Rhen Joul before, he knew a bit of him, and automatically his eyes flicked back to see how the strange creature reacted toward the Lappa, only to find it smiling knowlingly at the newcomer. "I smell death," it declared haughtily as it strode forward to confront the Lappayan Salva. Cocking its head to one side it asked, "There was a battle?"
"How do you know?" Rhen Joul demanded with a suspicious frown on his forehead and for a second his lips peeled back to reveal his sharp teeth. To Maraan's surprise the creature recoiled at the sight of this hostile display and its face turned very pale. Curious, the Star Keeper wandered a little further into the room to see better, but he was intercepted by Alen'Di, who looked just as disturbed as Maraan was curious. "What in the star's name was that about?" the Guardian hissed in a low voice. Marran shrugged. "I have no idea, let's see how this plays out," he suggested amiably and gently pushed Alen'Di aside.
"How do you know?" Rhen Joul was just repeating and Maraan noticed that he had taken hold of the creature's arm. For all it's menacing demeanour back in the sanctuary, next to the warrior it appeared almost diminutive. And knowing about the poisonous tubes that were the Lappan's fingers, Maraan feared for his protégé, and was astonished at himself that he thought of the creature as his charge. Strange. When had he thrown his misgivings overboard? Back in the sanctuary? He had not made that decision consciously, that he was certain of. With a frown he mused that perhaps there was far more to this stranger than he knew, something magical.
"I know," the creature answered at last, and tried to free itself, but the Lappan's fingers dug only deeper into its skin, holding tight. "Let go!"
Rhen Joul firmly shook his head. "No, not before you tell me exactly what you meant. This is important."
"I wonder how?" the queen asked gently as she joined the two of them. An instant later Alen'Di was by her side to protect her. "You said you smelled death. I second Salva Rhen Joul's question and I also have one of my own." Here she turned toward Rhen Joul. "You said you needed the star Keeper's advice. Am I correct to assume this has to do with the portents of battle?"
"Yes, my queen, it does," the warrior replied gently. "Strange ships have been scouting out the Lappayan territories. They have tried to test our fleet's abilities in a trap designed to observe our reactions. I have reason to assume that these strangers are hostile and prepare an attack. Therefore I was hoping to find out more from the Star Keeper. But perhaps this – person – knows more. What is your name?"
"Syran Dill," the creature replied and gasped, seemingly surprised at its own answer.
"You speak Lappayan?" Rhen Joul asked, aghast.
Maraan, who had been rendered as speechless by the thing's reply just as the others, only now came to his senses and injected, "He lost his memory when he came here and since then we have found out that he is a priest of sorts. His name, "Enduring Wisdom", proves that," he explained to those who did not understand the language of Rhen Joul's people. "Syran Dill, that is really your name? You remember, don't you?" he added gently, addressing the priest himself.
The man stood silent for a while, and his pale eyes were filled with such utter amazement, that Maraan did not dare to repeat his question, but the queen was less shy. "Syran Dill," she said, "Tell us how you came here, then. Or do you intend to keep that secret now that you remember why you suffered amnesia?"
"I wish I would not remember," Syran sighed. he shook his head as if to rid himself of a particularly disturbing thought, then smiled at Rhen Joul. "The ships that attacked you, they will destroy you, if you do not destroy them first."
"How do you know?" the Salva demanded and stood back with a sceptical look in his eyes.
Maraan noticed the slight edge in the man's vocie and thought that Syran's patience must eb wearing thin. There was something he had remembered that required further thought, that much was clear, and it was also obvious that the priest wanted nothing more than to do his thinking undisturbed. Perhaps, once he was clear on his feelings, he would share that secret with them. But not right now. Carefully he stepped forward and put a hand on Syran's shoulder. "Will you follow me? I think we should all rest. It has been a long night. In the meantime, perhaps, Rhen Joul can give us further details of his close encounter."
After a moment's hesitation the queen gave an approving nod and even Rhen Joul seemed to agree. Alen'Di, though, was not satisfied. "Now that you remember," he pressed out, "Perhaps you will admit responsibility for killing two of our people."
"I already told Maraan that the responsibility was theirs. They attacked me. Their death was not intended."
"They are still dead," the queen reminded him.
"I know them to be sheltered in the faith of the Abernake. That is all the solace their relatives will need."
very cold, for a priest, Syran," Rhen Joul commented drily. "Perhaps the Star
Keep er is mistaken about your profession?"
"I am a warrior, and a priest," Syran shrugged. "I fight for my faith, if that is what you want to know. And, before you ask, I will not answer any questionis about the past, until I myself am certain why all this has happened." It was a cryptic reply, but the look in his eyes forebade any further conversation on that topic. So Maraan half turned toward the door, an invitation that Syran took at once. Just as the two of them passed beneath the door Maraan heard Rhen Joul say, "I want him with me, when I return to the fleet. Both of them."