The storms in Salla’s sky broke in the distance even as Morvanger and Barian emerged from the blight realm on their steeds, high above a rippling, blue-green sea. Looking over his shoulder, Morvanger saw Barian shaking his head in wonder. They rode down through air and onto the water, the hooves of their steeds clipping over the waves.
The sun began to set as they reached the beach, and they were far from the Salla Clan’s Weaving Stone. The wind whipping through Morvanger’s clothes made the ride feel faster, but he knew they did not have the same speed in this dimension. They would not reach the Salla Stone before night. This world was too close to the veil separating real and blight. It would be easy for the other creatures he had summoned in the blight realm to track them if they kept riding for too long. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the younger Nualite grinning.
“Barian, stop your steed when we reach that forest.” Morvanger pointed to a spot not far from the beach, near a shadowy hilltop tree line.
“I will try, master.”
They reached the hill a moment later, running up hill. Steeds like this barely tired after even such a long run through the blight realm. Still, they had slowed considerably since then, and Morvanger too could feel weariness tugging at him as well, and the miniature burn on his tongue had begun to hurt again. He reined in the steed with a tug of his alsha in its mind. It didn’t resist, and slowed to a stop on the slope. Barian’s steed wasn’t so quick to respond. A loud thump came from in from behind Morvanger. He looked back, to see Barian tumble onto the hillside, and roll to a stop. Now riderless, the steed galloped into the forest, leaving both the others behind. Morvanger released his own steed. It hesitated for a moment and then ran off after Barian’s.
Turning back toward Barian, Morvanger pulled his hood back with his tentacles and loosed the Yare-Vendalla around his neck. He started down the hill toward Barian.
“Are you alright?”
Barian picked himself up gingerly and blinked.
“I’m fine, thank you, master.”
“Ah, good.” Morvanger shook his head. “If we’ve really gotten away it should be simple to reach the Weaving Stone tomorrow.” He wrapped his tentacles into a bundle that hung down his back. “Say, Barian, why haven’t you ridden before?”
Looking toward the forest, Barian shrugged.
“My master at the Fegra Weaving Stone didn’t like the blight realm.” He sighed. “Master, if I may ask a question.”
“You may.” Morvanger started walking up the hill and Barian fell into step behind him. “What is it?”
Barian gave a sigh and kept walking.
“Why didn’t you ride the whole way?”
Morvanger stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder at Barian. His tentacles uncurled from their place at his neck.
“There are dark things in this region of the blight realm.” He shuddered as he thought of the first and only time he’d seen the River himself. The bodies had long ago sunken beneath the dark tide. “It’s no good to risk it if there are alternatives.” He sat down on a large stone that rested near the base of a cluster of small trees with green leaves. Barian followed him toward the point, and then lowered himself onto the grass a few yards away.
“I understand, master.”
* * *
They made a camp of veils that more or less concealed their position with what looked like an out-growth of the forest. Morvanger meditated for a half an hour after Barian fell asleep. He received no visions, and actually wished he had some rymen sticks to burn for increased accuracy. Still, he couldn’t detect anything but ordinary animals in the area when he laid down to go to sleep beside the stone he’d been meditating on.
On the edge of his dream, with his eyes closed and his tentacles resting in a semi-circle, Morvanger heard something. The whirr and thump of a boot engine was unmistakable, and he sat up, tentacles falling onto his back. Squinting upward, eyes hunting for a sign of life, he saw it, moving over the sea. It looked like the needle-shape of a starpike fighter, like the ones Cathedral used. He picked out the life within it, but couldn’t tell the pilot at this distance. At least it wasn’t a drone. He could reason with a human if it came to that.
Morvanger got to his feet and nudged Barian with a zendil arm. Shaking his head, Barian looked up at Morvanger, eyes gleaming in the darkness.
“What is it?”
Morvanger shrugged his shoulders.
“They followed us. Ah, stay back. I will investigate.”
Wrapping a personal veil around himself, Morvanger shifted onto all fours. He had the right build to make a good animal disguise, and chose a bull-toad native to southern Salla. Inching toward the edge of the veil on all fours, he kept his eyes on the starpike.
He reached a single tree further down the hill and slipped into the net of roots beneath it. Even though he’d only take his eyes off the starpike for a second, he found it far closer when he looked back. It started circling the hilltop in a tight arc. Its boot engine kicked out a steady hum that Morvanger found ominous. As it turned, slowing in its flight, he looked straight up into the cockpit. Human eyes might not have been able to pick out the pilot through the control bubble, but his senses handled it well. The Red Witch’s eyes were fixed on him.
A loud bang blew through the air and Morvanger staggered as the massive bullet clipped his shoulder. His Maldividus shattered, and a spray of blood flew from the wound, splashing down the side of his cloak. His veil dropped and he drew himself up to his full height. Tentacles loosened the Yare-Vendalla and the scarf flapped around his neck. His eyes locked on the starpike, on the woman’s face. She gritted her teeth as he sought to soothe her with his alsha.
She nosed the starpike down to fly lower to the ground, Perhaps close enough for Morvanger’s zendil to reach her. He ran
forward, passing under the starpike and thrust his hand up toward it. Then, Morvanger pulled with all his might, battling the boot engine to bring the fighter down. For a moment he thought he had it, but it swung free a moment later, boot humming. He turned to trace it. He’d have to jump, but even zendil assisted this would be difficult. The Red Witch’s eyes fixed on him again.
Flames erupted along his cloak, burning through the ragged garment in seconds. He felt a little of their warmth but his Maldividus dispersed most of it into the air around him. Slinging the flaming cloak to he ground, he kicked off the ground, forcing himself higher with spurts of downward zendil. Morvanger shot towards the starpike.
As he started to fall, just above the fighter, he formed a lash of zendila. Swinging it down, he grabbed the starpike’s tail with the end of the lash. The machine spun out of control as he fell, tugging it down. Before he could even worry about landing, he heard a sound like paper shredding in the air just over his head. He looked up, even as he focused his Zendila down to slow his descent. The witch appeared over his head in a burst of reddish mist, sword in hand. She fell onto his shoulder, driving the blade down so it nearly pierced the Maldividus of his arm. The starpike continued flying down the hillside, but Morvanger dissolved his lash and tumbled free. Unable to focus his zendil down, he hit the hillside a moment later. The witch threw herself off of him, and landed up slope on both feet. Morvanger rolled over a few times, before a grasping tentacle found an unearthed root and grabbed it to stop him.
He picked himself up with a groan and stared at the witch as she advanced on him. Her eyes blazed with disgust as she stopped about ten yards away. Morvanger touched his wounded shoulder, feeling the blood running from it. He glared at her, knowing the River would have a chance at defeating her, but not daring to use it. She wouldn’t give him time to transform, and he could hear the starpike circling around behind him on autopilot.
“Morvanger Tolt, please desist.” The witch’s voice reached Morvanger’s ringing ears just as the wind began to tug at the dark hair hanging down her back. “As a representative of Cathedral, I offer you my…” She met his eyes. “Our protection.”
His tentacles curled around his neck as he stared at her.
“You, you pursued us.”
“I needed to make sure you’d listen.” The witch shook her head as the starpike glided past her toward the top of the hill. “You Nualites are in danger.”
“Cathedral is certainly stubborn.” Morvanger watched the starpike turn back towards, him nose on. “You leave me no choice.” He limped up the hill from the tree.
The witch bowed her head.
“Thank you,” she said through gritted teeth.
Grunting, Morvanger walked past her as the starpike settled down on a clear patch of the slope. His tentacles moved to put pressure on his wounded shoulder and he staggered. Humans couldn’t understand the pain a wizard’s body felt after such a long life. The shot had struck him in a mass of old scars. The witch made her way up the hill after him, quickly catching up. Barian ran down the slope towards them as they reached the starpike.
“Phere, it is you! What are you doing? Master what–?”
Morvanger turned and nodded to him, blinking as Phere opened the Starpike’s hatch and the light from inside it poured out.
“We’re going with her,” he said. “For now.”
* * * End of Chapter 1 * * *