Cathedral wanted both the Nualites brought in alive, and Phere guessed the group targeting the wizards knew it. Straightening her back from the crouch she’d been in to open the hatch at her feet, she reached to the rack where her swords hung on the wall. She took them one at a time and slipped each of the twin short-blades into the loops on the sides of her belt. The starpike’s warning note chimed from the control capsule and she walked over to the bubble of transparent gel that sealed access to the tiny ship’s fighting station. Tapping the green and red hologram that appeared before the bubble, she heard the chime again, this time followed by the Cathedral Operator’s voice in the nearby speakers.
“Entrance codes acknowledged. Tower ship compliant.”
Phere sighed as she walked over to the hatch.
“What’s the situation, Cathedral?”
“Both Nualites are still unaccounted for. The captain is reporting a pressure spike in the lower part of the ship, near the viewing window.”
“That sounds like Nualite Zendila,” Phere said. “I’ll get down there as soon as I can.”
“Go after the other one first. He was sighted near the lift on the fourth deck.”
The warning chimed again as the connection broke off. Phere returned to the hatch. Its locks unsealed and she pulled it open.
When she dropped through the hole into the boarding corridor of the tower ship, she never felt truly weightless, just a little lighter, before she landed on the metal floor beneath the starpike. Starting off at a jog, she reached the door to the third deck and found it open. The marines who’d landed before her had been through here, though they hadn’t left any sign of it in the docking tunnel. Phere stepped into the ship and checked the corners. A marine nodded to her from his position, his steely mask betraying no sign of personality. He must have told she was coming ahead of time. Cathedral was pretty good about that sort of thing.
Not the worst employer a girl could find in this part of space, Phere thought as she followed a winding corridor past the marine and toward the spot the elevator had been marked at on the starpike’s view screen. A scream of pain reverberated down the hallway to her ears and she broke into a run. As she reached a sealed door at the end of the hall, she caught the sound of swords clashing beyond it. She stared at the barrier for a second, and then swung her open palm toward it, though not quite enough to actually impact. A burst of red light shot from her palm and into the door, breaking it wide open with a scream of tearing metal.
The two men struggling in the center of the room both turned to look at her, their swords pressed blade to blade. Two other men lay on the floor, groaning, and from the look of it, not trying to get away. The younger-looking of the two in the blade lock shouted something in a foreign language, that of the Nualites, and then stepped backward.
“Help me,” he said, sweat dripping down his pale, red-patterned face. “I have done no wrong, yet these bandits accost me.”
Phere recognized the Nualite as Barian Loomus, the fugitive from Morello she’d been sent after. She leapt forward, one of her spirit swords leaping into her hand as she closed with the man who Barian had been fighting. As her sword passed in front o his, she slowed to a stop, glaring sideways at him.
“Stand down. This wizard is under Cathedral’s protection.”
The man sneered, but Phere noticed his movement as he loosened his grip on his sword. He switched the sword into his left hand, and drew a dagger with his right. Phere’s second sword caught the small blade just over its guard and held it a few inches from her side. Looping the blade of the other sword around the man’s wrist, she twisted his sword from his grip. It fell to the floor with a clatter. The man’s sneer turned to a look of terror.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
Phere delivered a chop to the wrist of the hand holding the dagger. The small blade followed the man’s sword to the ground and he stepped back, still in a fighting stance. He looked frantic, though, glancing from Phere and then to Barian, and then back again.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. So fast.” He gritted his teeth and lunged toward her as he finished speaking. His hands found something at his belt, but Phere didn’t give him the chance to use it, whatever it was. Her spirit sword drove down into his moving arm, emerging in red as he stumbled on past her. He sprawled on the floor with a cry of pain and rolled over onto his back. “Damn you.”
Phere turned and looked down at the wounded man as Barian approached slowly, dropping his sword as he did.
“He asked already, but I’m curious too.” When he wasn’t panicking Barian’s voice was very soft. “Who are you?”
Glancing in his direction, Phere sheathed her second sword. A trickle of blood from her other blade dripped onto the floor.
“Phere Hyrim, with the guardian scouts. You are Barian Loomus, aren’t you?”
“I am, and I seek your protection, but…”
Shaking her head, Phere walked to the elevator behind Barian. She pressed the call button.
“You have it,” she said. “Now, let’s go find Tolt.”
“Yes. Thank you, miss.”
“Just call me Phere.” The doors opened and she stepped into the elevator car. “Do you know where Tolt is?”
“Is ‘but’ all you ever say?” Phere punched the button for the lowest floor. Even if this Nualite wouldn’t help her, she still had a good lead. The amount of raw gii coming from the observation deck at the bottom of the tower ship had excited Cathedral’s operators. She would check it out.
The doors closed and the descent began.
* * *
Phere led Barian out of the elevator car, but he followed only reluctantly. For a moment she wondered how he felt, this wizard being rescued by a human. Surely she hadn’t done so much as to make him feel like he needed to repay her? She didn’t know, but what she had heard about Nualites was limited. Sometimes they could be many times more passionate than the most driven human, but moments later they were cold and unfeeling. Phere didn’t like them. She reached the end of the corridor that led into the observation deck’s main room.
When she peered around the corner what she saw there made her pull back immediately. Amidst the scattered human bodies, a huge face, 6 feet tall, loomed before the windows. Despite being surrounded by jagged black spines that stretched from floor to ceiling, the face was smooth and white. Its eyes remained closed and lips flat, expressionless. Phere turned to Barian who’d covered his eyes with his hands.
“What is that? That face?”
He moved his fingers slowly down his face, revealing wild, terrified eyes.
“The face looks Morvanger Tolt, but that is not his body.”
“What do you mean that’s not his body? Phere glanced around the corner, seeing the face drifting on a trail of the same black material that made up the spines moving with it. She focused, closing her eyes to channel her gii more effectively into her movements. The red craft that burned in her body would likely be her only defense against something so large.
Barian gave a yell, and Phere opened her eyes. The face of Morvanger Tolt loomed at the end of the corridor before Phere. Her spirit swords flew into a guard position reflexively, even as she felt a tug at her mind. Barian took a fighting stance, but Barian grabbed her by the arm.
“You have to flee,” he said. “He doesn’t know you.”
Phere’s eyes narrowed as she stepped back from the looming face.
“It’s my job to take him back.” She looked up at the massive face, watching those closed eyes. This wasn’t an ordinary Nualite. “Stand back.”
Barian’s grip on her arm tightened.
“You must not try to fight him, miss scout.”
Without looking away from the face, Phere swung her empty hand back at Barian, chopping down on his elbow. She felt a shock of pain from his tough Maldividus, but he released her, stepping back.
She glared up at the face before her. Its eyes flew open. Bloodshot, it gazed down at her and Phere felt a weight of gii fall onto her, pushing her down. Leaping forward, she fixed her eyes on Morvanger’s. As their stares met, she released her red gii. Flames burst up along the broad white brow, but barely burnt there before falling to the floor before Phere. Morvanger’s face didn’t move, but the black tendrils reaching out from it slashed through the air after Phere. She ducked one and stepped back from another clump. If the red gaze didn’t hurt this creature she might have to resort to something with more power.
Before she could refocus her gii, she felt a wave of nausea run through her. Glancing back at Barian, she saw him trembling, staring at Morvanger. Her nausea increased, and she grew unsteady. Looking back, she saw Morvanger’s mouth open slowly, lips parting, revealing a deep red tongue. Phere focused on it desperately as her head began to spin. Flames erupted along the tongue from her red gaze. The giant face screamed and Phere’s view shuddered. Barian cried out, and the world went black.
* * *
He sighed with frustration and settled back to the floor. The black remains of the River faded around him, as he looked up at Barian, who was lowering the unconscious red-clothed witch to the ground.
“Master,” Barian said. “Are you alright?”
“I, ah. I am.” Morvanger sounded out the words. “Yes, I am alright.”
“Where is the other witch?” Barian asked, looking around the room strewn with unconscious humans. “I don’t see her here.”
“I don’t know what happened to that Nialla woman.” Morvanger sighed and pushed himself up onto his feet. He looked at the face of the girl Barian had set down. She had burnt the river. That was a surprise. Morvanger glanced at Barian. “She appears to have escaped.”
Barian winced as he walked over to Morvanger, glancing back at the girl on the floor behind him.
“What should we do, master?”
Morvanger closed his eyes and extended his Alsha, finding the ship full of frightened and angry people. He couldn’t tell if any of them would be dangerous, but it looked like waiting for the hop would be out of the question.
“Ah, yes.” Morvanger’s tentacles lashed, pulling up his hood. He turned toward the window. “We’ll have to ride the rest of the way by ourselves.” Behind him, he heard Barian picking his way through the chaotic tangle of fallen humans. They were all breathing, and Morvanger could sense their tangled emotions with his Alsha.
Before him, the window looking out into space showed almost total darkness, the stars hidden by the ship’s own glow. They were a hop from any planet, and the additional Cathedral troops would be on their way soon. Morvanger would have liked to know what they wanted, but it was too risky if they were truly shostile. Barian caught up with him.
“Are you planning to cross over to the blight realm, master?”
“Yes, ah, I think so.” Morvanger looked up at Barian. “Can you manage it by yourself yet?”
“I can. Thank you.” Barian bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Shall I?”
Narrowing his vision, Morvanger stared out the window. He wondered about how close he could get to the darkness this time before they caught up with him. The madness of the River transformation had been harsh. He’d only barely kept from killing everyone in this room with its terrible alsha breath.
“Yes, go forward.” He bowed his head.
Barian folded his hands. Morvanger did the same, and closed his eyes along with his Alsha senses. Sparks of pain spread through his tentacles and they started lashing beneath his hood. He refused to open his eyes even as the pain spread to the back of his head and neck. It lasted only for a moment, and then he opened his eyes. The ship was gone, and Morvanger stood beside Barian on a pile of stones rising out of a sea of liquid so black that it appeared like tar more than water. He drew a fragment of stone from the leather pouch at his belt and held it out in front of himself.
Jagged cracks ran across the surface of the gray rock. It felt cold in his hand even as Morvanger raised it to pitch it into the water. With a splash it sank into the lapping waters at the base of the rocks on which they stood. Barian opened his eyes slowly and looked at Morvanger.
“Master, what are you doing?”
“You’ve never summoned a steed before, have you pupil?” Morvanger let out a breath with a laugh. “I’m afraid you have much to learn about how Nualites can travel.”
As Morvanger spoke the black water splashing against the rocks where Morvanger’s summoning stone had sank began to roil with movement. Long, shadowy limbs burst from the water, accompanied by the equine faces of a pair of warp steeds. They were as large as the horses humans had brought with them when they’d crossed over so long ago, but their tails were longer, and the gleaming blue-black scales that covered their skin made it obvious this was a wizard’s steed.
“What are they?” Barian’s voice glowed with awe, though darkened by a little fear. His alsha presence dimmed, and he blinked as one of the steeds walked over to him, multi-hoofed feet covering the broken ground with ease.
Morvanger touched the silver and black mane of the other steed near where it emerged from the scales on its neck.
“They are creatures of darkness, natives of this realm, and friends to us. Ah, Barian, climb onto that one’s back and follow me.
We must hurry or something less friendly will find that summoning stone.” Morvanger lifted himself with a boost of Alsha and dropped onto the back of his steed. He glanced at Barian, who, with his height, had easily managed mounting the other. “Stay close, and watch for the light’s of Salla,” Morvanger said, looking out across the water. “These steeds will shorten the journey, but it is still a great distance from here.”
Barian glanced at Morvanger and smiled.
“Amazing,” he said.
They took off across the black ocean, their steeds treading the waves as if they were solid ground.
* * *
When Phere woke it was to the sight of one of the marines checking her pulse at her wrist. She sat up, pulling away from him, with a moan.
“What happened?” She felt her forehead, where an ache was growing. “Did you capture that monster?”
The marine shook his head.
“We haven’t seen him.”
“Hell.” Phere climbed to her feet, one hand on the wall to steady herself. “He surprised me, but never mind now.” She walked past him in the hall, ignoring the cautioning sound of his voice.
Making her way back to the elevator she leaned against the wall to rest. She had an inkling of what had happened. The two Nualites had vanished, probably by stepping into the blight realm, which any of their species could do on demand. Phere’s briefing had been specific on one other point as well. Morvanger Tolt, at least, was heading for Salla where there was a Nualite Weaving Stone. That meant all she’d need to do was cut him off. Phere checked for the sword in her belt loop. She’d left the other blade in the hallway, she remembered, but she didn’t dare get it.
The operators at Cathedral might want to stop her, she knew. They would be thinking of her safety, but the concerns of those old nuns were misplaced at this point. Phere rode the elevator back to the level she’d landed her starpike on. She had the ship, and she still had the mission. Morvanger Tolt couldn’t be a Nualite, and he was too dangerous to let him go free. She understood that now. The operators would understand too once she captured that thing. As she made her way into the docking tunnel, she bowed her head. Strength over fear.
* * *