Morvanger sat down on the hard yellow sleeping mat he’d purchased on Haliphon for this trip. It was supposed to help challenge him in meditation by being cold and uncomfortable and succeeded brilliantly even when he was already in so much pain. The wound to his shoulder was serious, maybe even mortal. He shuddered inwardly and closed his eyes, rocking backward.
“You may look like a child,” Barian said, “But you are truly a warrior.”
Glaring at him with a slit of an eye, Morvanger sighed.
“I should have been prepared for that.” He shook his and lay down on the mat to keep the dizziness at bay.
Barian sat down beside him and prodded his shoulder with his middle finger.
“I’m sorry for getting you into that. Are you alright?”
Morvanger felt the skin on his shoulder, the holes shrinking smaller and smaller, the tissue beneath returning to its old state of repair. As the blood flow returned steadily to his head, he sat up. Barian touched the wound on his arm with his thumb, and the pain immediately dulled.
“The power of the Fegra Clan.” Morvanger grinned at him and raised his arm experimentally. “I had forgotten.”
“You are welcome, Elder Tolt.”
“I appreciate your respect, Barian. Do you know why those four were pursuing you?” Climbing to his feet, Morvanger peered through the shadows of cell. Barian rose to his full height, a good foot and half higher than Morvanger standing.
“I don’t know why, but they are persistent as well as clever.”
“Was that all of them?” Morvanger walked to the cell’s door and secured the emergency lock with a nudge of zendil.
“Probably not.” Barian paced to the other side of the room. “But even if it was, I would still have the same request for you, good elder.”
Morvanger turned, bundling up his tentacles around his head and pulling up his hood with his hand. Barian bowed his head and sank to his knees.
“I request that we travel together. I still have much to learn about the arts of our people. Please train me.” He remained in that position for a few minutes and Morvanger felt a gnawing sensation in his mind. He knew he had no choice as he examined the feelings racing through the young Nualito’s mind. He was so earnest, so open with his feelings.
“How could I refuse?” Morvanger said.
“Thank you master.” Barian raised his face from the floor, a broad smile stretching the pale part of his face.
Morvanger laid a hand against the door, remembering the apprentice Rissa had with her when she’d left him. His hairless head fell slowly against the cold metal of the wall. He wanted to say something inspiring, something a real mentor would say.
“Don’t make me regret this, traveler.”
* * *
His travels had been long, and they’d taken him across the length and breadth of spirit space and into the bright realm, but Morvanger had never before had an apprentice. There were still new things in this universe.
With the damage he’d done to the swordsmen, he decided they would be safe training for if the pursuers tried again.
They could find no place to practice Zendil on board the tower ship, and with the intolerable slowness of it’s route, they spent the time with less urgency than Morvanger had done when he’d been Barian’s age. But when he’d been that age he’d still thought of himself and mostly human and was only just been awakening to being a Nualite at all. On the last few hours of the voyage, nearing the final hop to Salla, he found the time to evaluate Barian’s Alsha skills.
The mind arts of Alsha were difficult for many young Nualites more used to transforming their bodies than their thoughts. In Morvanger’s tiny cell he discovered that Barian was not one of them. Every mental gesture and switching-scheme of his mind revealed more of his transperceptive abilities. Morvanger felt himself swayed through fear, joy, and regret as Barian sat in silence, hands folded. He was still quite raw, not in full control of what he made his subjects feel except in the broadest sense. The time was well-spent, but the truth of the matter was, that he approached Morvanger’s level in raw power already. He would surely be a great Alsha wielder in a hundred years. When they finished practicing, Morvanger slapped Barian on the back with a tentacle
“That’s enough for one day, Barian. Ah, let us rest.”
Barian bowed his head and rose from the mat, and as he did, Morvanger smiled without knowing why. He broke out of the alsha manipulation Barian had used on him with a shake of his tentacles and then smiled again. Barian showed much promise.
* * *
The hop was scheduled to take place within the hour and Morvanger sat cross-legged on the ship’s observation deck. He mused over why the humans were hunting for his new apprentice. The boy was only two decades old, truly a child, though a precocious one. Two of Morvanger’s tentacles curled around the arm rests of the chair behind him while the others lay in a pile on the seat. The stars outside grew dim as the hop approached, but the glimmering arrays on the outside of the ship darkened with them. Unusual, Morvanger thought. The reverse usually happened, and that meant something was wrong. Rising without a word, Morvanger turned from the window. He found Barian standing there, veiled as a nondescript human in a white cloak.
“Master, a ship is approaching us through the blight realm.”
He’d seen it. This boy had seen it, and before Morvanger. His eyes were keen.
“Ah, I understand. Let us investigate.” He strode around the chair and past Barian. “I don’t think we’re in danger, but we must be prepared.” Buttoning up the front of his cloak, Morvanger led the way toward the elevator leading to the lower observation deck. Barian’s anxiety toward that area told him it was important to look there.
“Follow me.” Morvanger’s eyes fixed on the elevator doors. “Those bandits pursuing you are still on board.”
“Yes, obviously.” Barian bowed his head and caught up with Morvanger in a few long strides. He froze as the elevator doors slid open. Four people stood in the doorway, the woman and the three men from before. She glared straight at Morvanger.
“This time you shall not escape, even if you are an elder.”
Morvanger reached toward his throat with one hand and loosened the scarf. He’d named it Yare-Vendalla, in his mother’s language, because it would protect him even where he could not. He poured a tiny portion of gii into his Maldividus and heard a sharp crack as it collided with Barian’s beside him. His eyes narrowed as he met the woman’s glimmering blue gaze. She didn’t look nervous, but she certainly felt unsure. She was afraid of him and he could play on that. Murder could not be an option on this sort of ship. After the hop, on Salla, he could take a life if he needed to, but not here where the River could cause more damage still. Morvanger locked his Alsha grip on the woman. She would fear him more before long if only he could break her will. The men with swords would not be a threat without her.
The three of them advanced, but the woman remained behind. Barian took a step around Morvanger, both hands covered in Zendila light. Morvanger nodded with comprehension. The boy would protect him. Barian raised his open palm toward the swordsmen.
“Come fight. I will do my best not to hurt you.”
“You punk.” One of the swordsmen swung his blade overhand at Barian.
The woman’s willpower broke the focus Morvanger’s Alsha, and she took a step out of the elevator. This did not bode well. Barian slipped out from under the blade and dodged backward to avoid the backswing. The force arts were most necessary in a fight like this, and Morvanger knew Barian would only be in more danger if he fought without full understanding of his techniques. He didn’t have long to think. The woman appeared beside him, the same blue specter hit Morvanger’s side.
He grunted and it pressed him to the floor.
“My name is Nialla, of the family Isa,” she said. “You are about to die.”
Morvanger heard her words clearly despite the blue shape’s pressing him into the floor-plates and pinioning his left arm. Its saliva ate into his Maldividus and flesh and the pain grew with every second. He did not dare shut his eyes, but even a single break in the witch’s concentration would surely end the spell. Swords clattered and rang on Barian’s Maldividus, but Morvanger couldn’t see what was happening. A man cried out, then a woman, then the blue shape faded from around Morvanger and he picked himself up. Barian stepped between him and Nialla.
“Take care, master.” He bowed his head and prodded Morvanger’s wound wiith his middle finger while holding up his other hand. On the other side of the room, the three men readied their swords, circling around Nialla. She raised her hand and started another incantation. Her will was too strong to break now with his gii leeched away by her cursed necklace.
“Why are you hunting this child?” Morvanger asked, feeling his wound seal completely. “Who employs humans to kill Nualites?” He hurled himself to the side, dragging Barian with him as he did. Nialla’s blue specter flew past, smashing into a chair behind him. Sprawling on the floor, Barian gave a shout.
Though he kept his footing, Morvanger remained off-balance. A swordsman moved up on him cautiously. He didn’t look confident. In fact, Morvanger realized with a probe of Alsha, he was terrified. Focusing for a moment, with only a pinch of his gii, he crushed the man’s will. His sword clattered to the floor and he ran. Nialla grabbed his shoulder as he passed her, but he broke free and continued to the elevator. She glared at Morvanger.
“Nualite,” she said. “You’re bothersome.”
He didn’t answer her, but with the last of his gii he forced his Alsha over first one of the remaining swordsman and then the other. It was a sloppy movement of power, but it worked. Both of the men lost their nerves. They broke away from Nialla and retreated. She glared at Morvanger.
“Bothersome.” She followed her companions at a run.
“Odd,” he said. “Barian, follow me.” Morvanger quickly lost his lead as he walked toward the observation window. Barian’s long legs carried him ahead of Morvanger, and he peered through the glass to the outside. Closing his eyes, he covered himself in the veil of a tall human with yellow hair. Morvanger covered himself in his own illusion before reaching out with his transperceptions.
Anxiety dominated the people of the ship, and all the Alsha he had would never have been enough to swing them any other way. The emotions in the second ship, yes there was a second ship, were muddled, difficult to follow. Morvanger sensed the fear of the swordsmen ebbing as they descended in the elevator. He headed for the opposite elevator and pressed the call button.
The elevator arrived after only a few seconds, and the two of them rode it down. With his Alsha spread out like this he couldn’t tell who precisely felt what, but the emotional impulses in their minds were still clear enough he could quantify them. Those in the other ship were harder to read, somehow, as if under the veil of some other creature.
As the elevator raced through the ship’s middle levels, Morvanger turned and looked up at Barian, who looked back at him.
“Something’s wrong with that other ship. It’s big, but hazy. Do you feel it?”
“I feel it.” Barian put his hand against the wall of the elevator. “But I don’t understand it.”
Morvanger unfocused his Alsha on the other ship until he saw could feel only the sorrow of a lonely death that seemed to encompass the entire thing.
“Ah, yes,” Morvanger whispered. “That makes sense.” The elevator’s bell chimed as they reached the bottom of the ship. “I barely dare guess at this, but that ship out there seems to be the humans’ Cathedral.”
The elevator’s descent continued.
* * *
Barian watched Morvanger as he loosened the scarf around his neck, but Morvanger didn’t know what to say to him. Even as they started off through the halls of the ship, veils covering them, he searched for a place they could escape. Cathedral was not just a ship, and the organization on board it would likely seek to detain both him and Barian if they suspected anything at all. Humans did not understand the journey, and Morvanger didn’t want their ignorance to be his undoing. When he and Barian reached the lower viewing deck, both in the guise of nondescript humans, they found it packed with other passengers, watching at the window. Morvanger slipped through the crowd. His strength and small stature made it easy to slip through, and Barian followed in his wake. They stopped by the window and looked out.
Cathedral was a vast ship, built from the corpse of an ancient star-wizard, and it dwarfed the tower-transport without any effort. Huge lumps of gnarled armor were crowned by rings of smooth-walled towers surrounding bulbous docking ports. As he watched from beneath his hood and shifting illusions, Morvanger saw a cluster of silver needles rise from an opening in one of the docking ports facing him. They flew past the tower, and out of sight. Morvanger’s alsha senses told him there were people on board those needles, and they were nervous. Opening his mind’s eye a crack, he turned back to Barian.
“What is this?” he said. “They plan to stop our transport.”
A few of the humans around him overheard his words and they drew closer, anxiety evident in the air, and with the essence of worry in the minds.
“Master?” Barian leaned down close to Morvanger’s ear. “What could they want?”
“I do not know.”
“What can we do?”
“Wait a moment, Barian. This is a time for caution, not action.”
“I can feel their fear. It’s focused on something on our ship.”
“I know.” Morvanger turned away from the window and pushed past Barian into the crowd. The further he walked, the more he found fear prominent in these humans. He was near the center of the crowd when he saw Nialla’s face, half-hidden by a cloak at first. She shed her outer layer of clothing and stood before him. He let his veil fall. She’d seen through it anyway. Her hand flashed out toward his chest, but he caught it with a tentacle.
“You should have given us the boy.”
“You should have given up.” His grip on her wrist tightened and he heard a snap. The limb came away from Nialla with a splintering noise. No blood flowed, though, and she did not cry out. The fake glass arm fell to the floor and shattered. Morvanger looked up from it in time to see the blue maw clamp down on his tentacle. Its teeth cut through his Maldivus, then his skin. Blood splashed his face and he fell back a step, ruined limb lashing. The crowd drew back from him as another of his tentacles wrapped around the wounded one, cutting off the blood flow to his wound.
This woman did not know what she was doing. Staring dizzily at her, he summoned most of his remaining gii. This battle would not be won easily, and that cursed amulet would be the death of him. Nialla raised her arm again. Wondering where Barian had gone, Morvanger loosened his scarf with another tentacle until it swung free. She struck again as he released it, and the scarf batted the blue specter away with a woven end.
“So, you have more resources, yet.” Nialla circled around the ring of silent onlookers. Most of them had likely never seen wizard or witch fight. Regardless, Morvanger did not want to be responsible for their deaths. Panting and swaying from the blood loss, he met her eyes.
“I am not a warrior.” Morvanger took a step into the center of the circle, forcing Nialla to make choice. She circled around behind him, and he whirled to face her as she did. His active gii would be gone soon, and this crowd would not help him even if they could. They were human. He bowed his head, tentacles going limp.
Nialla struck again with her ghostly blue jaws. This time the scarf flew aside too soon, and the maw widened to swallow Morvanger whole. He fought back, putting all his zendila skill into keeping the mouth from closing. Teeth dug into his shoulders, but they stopped there, his arms holding the jaws apart.
He let them go, leaping through the specter. Nialla summoned another maw with her other hand and it bit down on Morvanger’s extended arm, breaking it, even through his maldividus. He screamed with pain as he landed on the ground behind Nialla. Blood flowed from his arm, but it could still move, barely.
He rolled onto his back, and folded his hands. The time had come to unleash his River. This human would kill him otherwise, and the journey would be over. She stood over him, sneering as her spells faded and her amulet absorbed the last of his gii.
“I hope you know this wasn’t personal. Money motivates. That’s all.”
Morvanger closed his eyes, bloody fingers locking together.
“Io, Io, Io.” His voice sounded foreign to him. In this small space the living veil would be uncontrollable. “Io, Io, Io.”
“What are you saying?” Nialla stepped back from him, sleeves flapping audibly in the wind rushing at her from his position.
Morvanger opened his eyes.
“Io, Io, Io.” His words were hollow, automatic. He hated the feeling, knowing what was about to come over him. He’d always been weak as a warrior. The world spun as he completed the incantation and when it stopped he was the River.
* * *