Chapter 1 – The Journey
They had climbed the Mount of Trumpets before the storm began, and they began to set up the tent on the rocky summit just as the winds started to rise. Every time a gust broke against his face, Morvanger shuddered. The thresher wind, cold and sharp, smelled of blood from the thousands of cattle slaughtered at the foot of the mountain earlier in the day. The light from the sun began to fade as his mother lifted the tent’s roof with a push of her zendil arm. Adjusting his footing on the black stone of the summit, Morvanger looked down the slope. Low-hanging red and brown clouds obscured the structures below except for the high spires that served as look-outs for the human village built around the mountain’s sprawling base. Trembling at the sight, he turned and took his mother’s hand. She led him inside.
Sitting down in the dark tent, the thresher wind roaring outside, Morvanger stared into the fire his mother had lit in the center of the floor. The walls shuddered around them as she sat down opposite him, hands folded, and eyes closed. The fire crackled with sparks and the black sticks turned slowly to ash beneath the flickering orange flames. Mother had told him this was important. He shivered, bare feet tingling, feeling returning to them after the walk up the mountain path. Mother patted his back with her zendil arm, feeling like a warm breeze.
“What do you see, son?”
Staring into the fire, he furrowed his brow.
“I see dogs… Dogs that are humans.”
“Good, son. Now look harder. Where are they?”
Morvanger’s eyes closed for a moment and he folded his hands as he had when he’d first sat down. When he opened them again the flames had turned green, putrid and sickly. Rymen smoke began to rise from the black sticks and he breathed in the sweet-smelling stuff with his very next breath.
“Oh, mother, ah, the dogs, the humans-” He sucked in another breath and shivered. “They’re fighting, fighting on top of a mountain.”
“Yes. That is good.”
Morvanger felt cold inside, his warming feet were forgotten. He didn’t like the smell of the smoke anymore. It seemed too sweet, and still it grew sweeter.
“The mountain. It’s all bones, all the way up and down.” His hands broke apart and the smoke filled his vision, hiding the fire from view. He screamed in the sickly-sugared haze. “Mother, it’s ugly. It’s wrong. I don’t like it.”
She circled around the fire and he felt her real arms close around him, warm and strong, stronger with the force of the zendil. He felt her cheek against his and her touch kept him from screaming even though he wanted to.
“Mother, those dogs- those humans were going to kill each other.”
“Don’t worry, son. We won’t live among them forever.”
“I hope you’re right, mother.” Morvanger stared into the flame, the smoke dissipating. As the images in the fire faded, his mother released him, climbing to her feet. Flames crackling, she began to hum a lullaby she’d sung for him often throughout his young life. He lay back on the mat and soon, despite the stench of blood and smoke, and despite the sound of the wind, he was soon fast asleep.
* * *
His hands folded, his mind’s eye opened, peering back into the sun and star-lit passages of his previous incarnations, generations ago. Terrariums filled with reptiles, still-floating fish in bowls, and all the other animals that only seemed to last weeks in a lifetime that now encompassed centuries passed before his eyes. They all fell away, no longer capable of sharing his time. When he’d been a child, they were welcome, but as man, no longer. He felt the sad tug at his stomach and wondered if maybe he’d lived too long, but he’d still never seen anything as terrifying as that vision on the Mount of Trumpets.
Five hops from Haliphon, Morvanger Tolt finally rose from his circle of memories, quit his cabin, and found his way to the ship’s viewing deck, where the stars were visible in the distant blackness. His journey would take him far nearer to a handful of those little lights, but the first step was still to reach Salla. Folding his legs beneath himself, he saw down by the windows and closed his eyes to focus on his breathing. When he was satisfied it was normal, he got back to his feet. Hops took their toll on him these days, and he could never be too careful when it came to his health.
Turning, he walked back to the open bar along the wall near the elevator. The lights had been turned down and there was only a single human man tending the empty counter. Morvanger walked up to the bar and climbed onto one of the stools that stood there, bolted to the floor. The bartender came towards him shaking his head.
“Okay, kid, good joke.” He stopped in front of Morvanger. “Sorry, but it’s the captain’s rule not to serve alcohol to children, doesn’t matter how big you are.”
Morvanger’s lip twitched. He stared at the man behind the counter for a few seconds, finding the words to explain his situation. Finally, he moved back the hood of his cloak with the tentacles from the back of his head. The bartender’s eyes widened as the five heavy-brown tendrils emerged and fell around Morvanger’s neck.
“You’re not human. I can tell now. So what the hell are you?
Morvanger raised an arm and pointed his thumb at his chest.
“Nualito,” he said.
“Nualito.” The bartender said the word again, sounding it out, and looking thoughtfully at Morvanger. “You mean a wizard?”
“Ah, I do. I’m beginning the journey again, so I appear quite young, I know.”
With a snort of laughter, the bartender shook his head again.
“Okay, what’ll you have?”
“Wine, please. Make it a big one if you can.” Morvanger bowed his head. The bartender laughed again, loudly this time, as one of Morvanger’s tentacles pulled a mint from the pouch at his belt and dropped it onto the table.
“Sure thing, buddy, sorry about the misunderstanding.”
“It’s alright.” Morvanger pulled his hood back up with his tentacles and hid them again. The bartender brought him a bottle of wine and as he went for a glass, Morvanger raised a hand to stop him. “Wait.”
“What’s the matter?”
Reaching into his money pouch again, Morvanger placed two-more coins on counter. He read the bartender’s surprise with a single glance at his face.
“I want it all.”
“If you pay like this, I guess I can’t refuse.” The bartender set the bottle down in front of Morvanger. “Do you want a glass with that?”
“No thanks.” He took the bottle in one hand and pulled off the cap with the other, wincing at the hiss it made. The bartender frowned and took Morvanger’s money off the counter before walking back toward the other end of the bar. Morvanger looked at the bottle before him on the counter. He used to drink with his human friends when he’d been growing up, and last time he’d been on Salla he’d drank violet wine colored by royal grapes grown by the elders there. This time he would not because this time he traveled alone and would need to keep his wits about him.
Taking the bottle from the counter, Morvanger sipped it. He swallowed without taking time to enjoy the taste. A voice came from behind him from the doorway, and he felt the introduction of a new mind to the aura of the room. He turned on the stool, lowering the bottle of wine from his lips as he did.
The newcomer was clearly a Nualito. He was tall and thin, his face unnaturally pale in places but marked by dark redness in others. Except for his tentacles Morvanger passed himself off as a human easily and this other would likely be even more comfortable among them than he was. Striding to the bar, the newcomer sat down beside Morvanger, never looking in either direction. He whispered something breathlessly soft so that Morvanger barely overheard it.
Morvanger turned and looked at him in profile. He appeared young, but that meant little for a Nualito or a Nualita. He could easily be ancient, perhaps even older than Morvanger himself. With no way to test his gii ratio there was no way to tell his true identity. This might not even be his true form, though Morvanger could not detect any veils on him. He looked at Morvanger, eyes wet with pain and fear.
“You, you are Morvanger Tolt?”
Morvanger set his wine bottle on the bar counter.
“Did you ask for my help?”
Approaching Morvanger and the other Nualite, the barman frowned.
“You want anything buddy?”
Climbing down from his stool, Morvanger gestured for the red and white-faced Nualito to follow him. With a sweep of his tentacle, he grabbed the bottle from the bar and pulled his hood back up to hide it from view. He strode for the doorway, the other Nualite in his wake. They made their way into the corridor outside. As they walked, Morvanger kept his eyes moving, picking out all the side-passages and elevator doors on either side of the room.
“My name is Barian.” The Nualite following him pulled a cloak tighter around his shoulders with a rattle of armor plates. “I am being pursued.”
“Indeed.” Morvanger adjusted his scarf with his hands as his tentacle corked the wine bottle and stowed it in a sling on his back. “How do you know me?”
Barian caught up with Morvanger with a long stride and looked down at him, eyes still shining with tears.
“When I left my clan they gave me a data file that described all the new guardians for the year. You have a memorable appearance, Elder Tolt.” Barian stopped walking and peered down a side passage. Following his gaze, Morvanger saw the elevator doors at the end of the corridor slide open. A dark-robed woman strode out of the compartment beyond the doors. She made her way down the hallway with hurried-step, her face hidden by a cowl. Barian ducked back around the corner. “She is a human witch. She’s the one hunting me.”
Throwing back his hood, Morvanger put his arm out in front of Barian. He had not hoped to fight a battle so soon after drinking, but it would be necessary if this woman did not listen to reason.
“Ah, fear not. It is my duty to protect you.” He stepped around the corner, loosening the scarf with a tentacle. The woman in black stopped walking a few yards from him. Morvanger’s eyes moved up the height of her cloak as she uncovered her face to reveal a grim expression. A pair of black braids fell down by her ears, and she wore a blue necklace around her throat. He raised his arm to stop her from coming any closer. She let out a low breath.
“Nualite, stand aside.”
“Don’t you know I can’t do that?” Morvanger’s tentacle fell away from his scarf as it finished the adjustments. “You will not have the one behind me.”
Barian stepped out into the hallway behind Morvanger, whose eyes flicked in his direction for only a moment.
“I don’t know what your witchery is, human, but you cannot fight us both.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She touched the ring of interlocking blue stones that hung around her neck with her index finger and dragged the point along it.
“I’m not alone, wizard.”
Hissing and clanking announced a set of doors in the hallway behind Morvanger and Barian opening. Three more black-cloaked figures emerged from it and began walking toward them. Barian looked back with a sigh of dismay.
“It’s me you want,” he said. “Don’t harm this elder.”
Morvanger set his child-like jaw.
“Don’t be a fool. Get in front of me.” He grabbed Barian’s arm with a tentacle and tugged him forward even as the humans behind them drew swords, murder on their minds. The young were too valuable to sacrifice, Morvanger thought, far more valuable than he himself. He took a step toward the woman before him, releasing Barian to walk beside him. “We must get to my quarters,” he said. This was why human spacecraft were no way for a wizard to travel. He kept his arm extended in front of him to shove the woman out of the way only too late did he notice the ring of stones she wore. It shimmered with the crimson of Morvanger’s gii, a theft of his power. “Barian, run.”
The thrust of a sword from behind took Morvanger in the shoulder. His Maldividus slowed it to a crawl and the blade deflected at the last moment. Morvanger spun. His tentacles lashed out, grappling the attacker’s forearm to his side. He felt a sting in his left arm as another blade pierced his Maldividus. As the third swordsman moved in to strike, Barian swung his hand down, shattering the blade that had just cut into Morvanger’s arm.
Shards of metal flew between the Nualites and the swordsmen. Morvanger winced as he looked at the wound on his elbow. It was barely more than a pinprick but it still hurt. Even after all these years, things like this still harmed him. The fragments of the broken sword clattered to the floor and Morvanger threw himself to the side. The final swordsman thrust past him and two tentacles seized his wrist. He toppled to the floor.
Morvanger whirled to face the woman, tightening his tentacle on the last man with a weapon until he heard a crunch in the wrist and a sword clattered to the floor. Moans of pain and cries of anger came from the two men on the floor. The cloak with the broken sword turned and ran back the way he had come. Morvanger focused on the woman, eyes narrowed.
“You will not have this traveler.”
Her shape flickered, shifting before Morvanger’s eyes, though she made no real movements, simply staring him down. She touched her collar again and smirked.
“This necklace has already devoured a considerable amount of your active gii, wizard. Do you still think you can defeat me?”
Barian put a hand on Morvanger’s shoulder, a concerned expression on his face.
“She is right,” he said. “That trinket shines with your power.”
Shaking his head slowly, Morvanger set his feet in a fighting stance. He searched his body for the energy, the power to wield the force arts. Before him, the woman uttered an incantation. A spectral shape flew from her open palm, electric blue fangs in a crackling maw. It clamped down on Morvanger’s shoulder, cracking the Maldividus there. He thanked his mother for its natural thickness even as the phantom teeth drove slowly into his flesh. His arm felt numb, and his blood quickly coated his coat around the bite.
He did not cry out.
Sending a lash of gii-powered force from his right hand, he struck. The woman’s spell failed as the wraithlike black and yellow whip of Morvanger’s zendil hit her stomach. She flew backward, the blue phantom dissipating in the air. Striking the wall with a thud, she slid to the floor. Morvanger sensed a familiar jumble of emotions from her and then it faded into pure terror as she blacked out. Barian took his arm and guided him to the elevator, picking his way gingerly over the broken pieces of the sword that had scattered everywhere.
* * *