Chapter 2 – Cathedral
The ship hung over Salla, lights blinking across its surface, and as the starpike flew into its docking tunnel, Morvanger felt an odd sense of awe at the amount of power that still resided within this dead shell. Gii only took its true form within living things, and the wizard Cathedral had been built upon had been dead for millennia. Still, the specter of the great being lingered where these humans walked and ate, and slept, and fought.
Slipping the ship into the moorings within the dock, the witch, Phere, stood up within the control bubble. Morvanger looked at Barian as the woman made her way back down the length of the corridor. His apprentice seemed to have some sort of respect for Phere, judging by the way he looked at her. Morvanger didn’t know a whole lot of humans, even witches, who could hold their own against him for so long in a straight fight, but he didn’t want to admit it. She hadn’t said a word to either of them since taking the controls half an hour ago. Apparently something had her on edge, judging by the way her emotions had been roiling when Morvanger had reached out to her with his alsha. She still had a lot on her mind, he guessed. He hadn’t been her only problem recently, he guessed.
Phere opened the hatch and stood to one side, looking at Morvanger and Barian.
“You two go first,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t want to trust you, but I can’t right now.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, but Morvanger sensed something unusual about her aura. Her gii was recoiling, a common problem for humans who indulged in the arts of witchcraft. Naturally, she’d feel nervous at the moment. Her powers were suppressing themselves for the time being.
Rising, Morvanger touched his shoulder reflexively. Barian had healed his wound on the way up, but the tear in the fabric of his tunic reminded him of the shot to much, and the paint was too recent. With his cloak gone, his tentacles swung free behind his head.
“Alright.” He walked to the hatch, and glanced at Phere before beginning to lower himself down to the floor of the docking tunnel.
Dropping the few feet to the floor of the dock, he stepped to one side and waited for Barian and Phere. Phere dropped down last, as Morvanger had expected. The way the red and black-cloth hugged her legs made him chuckle inwardly as she descended. Humans could be the most provocative when they were modest, he thought. Glancing at Barian as Phere landed between them, he saw the young journeyman’s face alight. Yes, he trusted this girl. Morbanger hoped that didn’t turn out to be foolish.
Phere took the lead and they made their way through the artificial gravity to door leading into Cathedral itself. The way docking tunnels were added to ships disconcerted Morvanger sometimes. He didn’t like looking back and seeing the void of space, without the powerful force controllers inside the ship keeping him from falling free, would spell his doom. Tugging on the collar of his tunic, Morvanger continued to the door after the others and followed them inside. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake in surrendering.
* * *
“Morvanger Tolt,” the voice came from the speaker over his head, harsh but feminine, like those Nualitas who partook of too much Rymen smoke. “You are the controller of a Living Veil, are you not?”
Sitting perfectly rigid on the stool in the center of the dark room, tentacles coiled around his neck where the Yare Vendalla had been removed by the guardians on the outside of the chamber, Morvanger looked upwards.
“Yes, I am.” He looked back down, eyes closing. “I am one of the five who acquired them during the Insurrection on Haliphon.”
The voice returned, shrill, and full of anger.
“And you are a native of Haliphon, are you not? And are you not also, a guardian?”
“I am both, but I only protect Nualites.” He did not look upward, but instead focused on his feet. His bare toes were still damp from the shower they had forced him to take before entering the chamber. His torn tunic clung to his skin, and he knew even now that they weren’t planning on letting him go with any ease. “I have no stake in you humans.” He looked back upward and repeated himself louder. “No stake.”
The voice hummed for a moment in the speaker, and then vanished. A second one, steely and cold spoke a moment later.
“We guardians of Cathedral seek to protect more than your one species, Nualite, and more than our own. We require the assistance of capable warriors such as yourself to do this. Make no mistake, we do not wish ill on you wizards, any of you, but the galaxy is under threats greater than your petty quarrels.”
Morvanger knew what that meant. This woman was trying to show the caring side of Cathedral. He wished her ‘care’ didn’t sound so much like derision.
“We have been here longer than you,” Morvanger said, speaking upward to the mike. “We have seen more of this space than any human. It is likely there are Nualites alive who remember when this ship you call Cathedral was alive. She was like us, a wizard.” And still is, he wanted to add, but thought better of it. The humans wouldn’t like it if he insinuated that the universe was larger than them as well.
The speaker cut out for a second, and then Morvanger heard a third voice. This one, he recognized from the last time he’d been in this room.
“Morvanger.” The voice was sweeter than either of the other two. He remembered her singing as a little girl, and it hadn’t changed much. “Forgive the Abbesses, please. They are unused to speaking to equals. Dare I say it, but they lack some tact after all these years.”
“Caya.” Staring into the darkness of the speakers, Morvanger couldn’t hide his surprise at the way his friend talked about the Abbesses. It was almost as if… “Caya, how can you speak so casually of your superiors? What has changed?”
Caya spoke her next words softly, but they still echoed in the room in spite of her gentle tone.
“I have changed, Morvanger. While they outrank me, they are used to it.”
“Ah, they think you’re pretty special then.”
“They think the same thing about you.”
A door opened in the featureless in front of Morvanger a pair of robed and habited nuns ushered him out into a white-washed hallway. The gleaming furnishings and gilded banister leading up the staircase to the viewing deck told Morvanger he was on the top chancel deck. It had been here he’d first met Rissa. Here he had stood and sworn to fight for justice. That had been decades ago.
Morvanger made his way up the steps with one hand on the railing. He tried to reach out with his alsha, but something stopped him. His brow furrowed as his eyes sought for the creatures in the room as he neared the top of the staircase. At last, he found them. Caya Auwin still had much of the girlish looks about her from when Morvanger had first met her twelve years ago. She wore a long white dress with a high collar, and stood beside a chair that overlooked Cathedral’s gray bow armor. Caya didn’t turn as Morvanger approached but even from here he could sense the living veil around her. When he drew within a feet of her, a sudden clapping sound came from beside him, and Phere materialized out of a red mist. She bowed her head to Caya, but had one hand on the sword at her belt the whole time.
Halting in his step, Morvanger raised his eyebrows. Phere had recovered from the recoil of her witchcraft faster than he’d expected. His tentacles rose into the air around his head as Caya turned. Seeing her face full on, he realized she had grown more than he’d first thought. Her calm lips broke into a smile when she saw him.
“You’ve changed, Morvanger.”
He stilled his tentacles and laid them onto his back.
“So have you.”
Giggling, Caya put a hand to her chin. She stood taller than Morvanger now, but not by much. Glancing at Phere, she sighed softly.
“There is no need for that weapon, Phere. Elder Tolt will not harm me.”
“Yes, of course.” Phere’s hand fell from the sword’s hilt and she stepped back from Morvanger and Caya. “Sorry for interrupting.”
Caya shook her head, sending a wave through her long brown hair.
“No matter, I was merely reminiscing.” Her eyes met Morvanger’s. “Why do you look so different, Morvanger? Is it because you completed the journey once again?”
He bowed his head.
“I thought Nualites were different from humans in that way.” Caya raised an eyebrow. “I have heard you go through life unchanged regardless of age, but you look young now. Your face–” She reached out and touched his cheek. “You look like a child.” Withdrawing her hands, she looked down at her feet.
Morvanger knew the gesture. It reminded him of those years ago. When the little girl she had been became embarrassed she would do the same thing. He folded his hands.
“I never told you, I suppose, but I am not a full Nualite.”
Tilting her head, Caya gave him a smile.
“Truly, you are man of secrets.” She turned back to the window. “Now, allow me to formally offer you the protection of Cathedral, in return for your services when we should call upon them.”
“Thank you, but–”
She raised her hand and shook her head.
“You are my friend. Accept this deal, Morvanger. Please.”
Meeting her eyes he saw real desperation there. Cathedral would make due without him, of course. They didn’t need a second-rate wizard-guardian like Morvanger, but they wanted the river. Those Abbesses might even fear the power of a living veil like his, and that meant they might try to destroy him if they couldn’t have his support.
“Fine.” Morvanger closed his eyes and extended his right arm. He felt Caya take his hand and hold it in hers. He opened his eyes as she kissed his curled fingers.
“Thank you, Morvanger.” She raised her head, eyes shining.
Out of the corner of his eye, Morvanger caught a glimpse of Phere’s face. She wore a sour expression, looking away from the two of them. Obviously, she didn’t like the way Caya was treating him. As their hands parted, Morvanger looked past Caya out the window toward the front of great ship. What caught his eye there was not the gleaming spires, or the weapon-pods, but rather the two long, narrow passenger modules attached just behind the forward guns.
“It seems Cathedral has grown,” he said. “I do not remember all those sections on her bow. What are they for, Caya?”
“Storage.” Caya followed Morvanger to the window. “The Order is growing.”
* * *
Barian had never been inside such a large ship before. Even the tower ship had been impressive, being nearly two miles tall, and this ship dwarfed it. Cathedral’s agents hadn’t been exactly welcoming between the required cleaning and searches. Nonetheless excitement at the situation made him want to explore this place. After dressing outside the shower he approached the nun waiting outside. She wore a blank white mask along with her habit, and her robe billowed in the wind from the small ducts in the floor beneath and behind her. Barian bowed to her.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Is my master alright?”
“I don’t know.” She didn’t turn to look at him. “You at least, are free to go.”
* * *
He wanted to wait for Morvanger, but the prospect of exploring Cathedral got the better of him. Barian followed the corridors more or less at random, but steadily moving towards the ship’s largest section, a disk hanging along the great underbelly of hull. The disk contained the public portions of the ship, Barian guessed as he walked out of the closed corridor and onto the top step of a staircase that overlooked a large, crowded room.
The crews and passengers had set up living space between the support-pillars and blocky gravity extenders. Colored flags announcing goods for sale in every language Barian knew, and many he did not, dotted the floor. Just like the marketplace on Haliphon where he’d first paid his fare for the tower ship. His money bag was light now, so as he walked down the staircase, he made up his mind not to buy anything but food. Barian’s stomach rumbled. He’d need something to eat to keep his gii circulating at full power.
Barian strode through the stands of humans buying and selling, until he found a stand that appeared to be selling something other than meat. As he got into the short line, he sighed. Morvanger had been taken in to be questioned, and all he could do was look for food.
* * *
Other than the new storage containers on the bow, there had been few changes to Cathedral that Morvanger could see. The massive ship was still part merchant hub, part warship, and part religious icon. The humans and wizards who dwelt within its twisting passages and spacious atriums always seemed aware that this ship was holy ground. Morvanger guessed Phere was either not a follower of that creed, or so used to this place it had dulled for her, because she seemed less in awe of it than most. As the two of them searched the lower disc for Barian, she kept her eyes straight ahead, and her chin up. He followed as best he could but without activating already depleted gii for zendila he quickly grew tired trying to match her pace.
“Please slow down, Miss,” he said. “I am old.”
She kept walking through the crowd, as if ignoring him. He followed her to the side of a pillar where she’d stopped. Morvanger met her exhausted expression with a nod of his head. His tentacles slung down from his shoulders, as he sighed.
“Why are you racing? You look at least as tired as I am.”
“Don’t worry about that.” Phere shrugged. “If you want to leave for Salla, we’ll have to do it soon. Cathedral probably won’t stay here for more than thirty hours.”
“I understand.” Morvanger wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with a tentacle. “But I can try to contact Barian with a mind art if time is that important.”
Phere nodded, putting her palm against the pillar’s white-metal side. She leaned on it a little, stable, but clearly tired.
“Do it, then.”
* * *
Reaching out with his alsha, Morvanger sought that peculiar sign that marked Barian’s mind. He found it quickly, not far from where he and Phere stood. Starting off through the crowd, Barian examined the mind. Peaceful, yet present, this belonged to Barian for certain. Turning a corner and walking down a narrow alleyway, Morvanger drew his Alsha back. Phere’s footsteps echoed down the corridor behind him as Barian came into view.
He sat on a steel bench before a green and red garden that stretched out beneath a row of sunlamps pouring their light down from the ceiling. Barian’s eyes were half-closed, and his hands were folded in his lap. Morvanger walked up to him, eyeing the trash sitting on the bench beside him. Barian’s eyes flew open.
“There you are, Master! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Ah, yes, an old friend just wanted to make me a proposition.” He didn’t mention that it would have likely been poor for his health to refuse. “We will be leaving for Salla within an hour or two.”
“Excellent, that suits me well.” Barian climbed to his feet and stretched both his arms and his fingers. He made a very awkward-looking tower in front of Morvanger. “I hope you aren’t uneasy as you seem, Master.”
Morvanger stared at him. Apart from surprise, his nerve went on edge. Barian must not have been paying attention, because otherwise he would have known Phere was there and they shouldn’t talk openly. He grunted, and shook his head.
“I’m fine, Barian. Don’t worry.”
“Are you sure, Master?”
“Yes.” Morvanger turned back the way he’d come. He needed to get to Salla soon. That stone was close, and the native
Nualites would certainly fight alongside them if they were attacked again. He walked past Phere, head down, tentacles coiling down his back. “We are ready to depart. I was simply worried about you, Barian.”
* * *
Morvanger planned to charter a shuttle, but Phere stopped him as he turned towards the terminal.
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll be going with you, remember?”
“Ah, yes.” Morvanger turned and looked back down the passage toward her. She still looked worn out, hardly a good time for her to be flying. “Perhaps we should wait, rest a while longer.”
Barian bowed his head. “That seems wise to me, Master.”
“Ah, right. Well, I wouldn’t be your teacher if you couldn’t learn from me.” Morvanger glanced at Phere. “Did you pursue us all the way here without rest?”
She made a face.
“Yeah, I did. What of it?”
“I feel if any of us needs to rest it is you.”
Phere put a hand on her hip.
“I told you, Cathedral is leaving orbit in a less than 10 hours.”
“So rest for a nine.” Morvanger scowled. “You humans always push yourselves. Life is a journey, but it is not a race.”
* * *
Phere didn’t know if she should be annoyed or grateful for Morvanger’s suggestion. She’d have needed to go back to her room to get her gear, and track down the sword she’d let the marines take with them back on the tower ship, so she decided on grateful.
Making her way back to her room, she passed through the compartment that linked the living section to the rest of Cathedral. Rugs of different colors covered the floor of the boxy gray room. They had each been supplied by different scouts over the years to keep the cold from the water pipes out. On the other side of the round table that sat in the center of the room, there stood a robed figure with her back to Phere, and a white cowl pulled up over her head. One of her sleeves hung empty, revealing her identity to her. Limeria Chronti turned to face Phere, her one pale hand setting the naked blade of the sword Phere had left with the marines before upon the tabletop. Phere had never liked the way the artificial parts of Limeria’s face never moved. Half her face had been lost in battle, including both her eyes.
“Phere Hyrim,” she said. “Greetings.”
“Abbess Chronti, what may I do for you?”
“You may sit down.” Limeria’s metallic voice chimed with artificial tenor. “Tell me what you are doing. You’ve disobey orders in pursuing the Nualite you were meant to protect. You even wounded him with the weapons on your star fighter, and you have refused to let another take your place. Why have you never taken your duty so seriously before now?”
Phere approached the table and put a hand on the hilt of her sword. She dragged the weapon from the table and slipped it into the loop on her belt. Limeria’s lidless white-eye lenses shone brighter, and her lips made a hard line. Putting a hand on her hip, Phere took a step away from Limeria.
“I’m sorry if I haven’t been attentive enough, Abbess.” She dipped her head in a polite bow.
Limeria withdrew her pale hand into the sleeve of her robe.
“I know. You need our money. You still don’t believe in the Cause.”
Phere bit her lip as she raised her head.
“I’m sorry, Abbess.”
A metallic click of her tongue served to warn Phere of Limeria’s displeasure a moment before she spoke again.
“Never mind that now, child.” Limeria paced around the table. “Please, tell me why you suddenly felt the need to contain Morvanger Tolt so urgently.”
Phere nodded, her hand falling from her hip, relaxed.
“He’s too dangerous to let roam free.”
“You concluded that on the tower ship, I suppose?”
“What did you see?”
“A monster.” Phere put a hand to her forehead, pressing a finger gently against each temple. “He’d transformed into some
something I’ve never seen before.”
“Right, yes. Tolt is a veteran of this region of the blight realm, like Caya.”
“That thing was nothing like Caya.”
“They are fundamentally similar.” Limeria raised her hand, fingers clenching into a fist. “Both are living veils based on creatures from the blight realm. They are only accessible to those who have traversed that place.”
“So that’s why he’s important to you.” Phere breathed out, letting as much of the recycled air out of her lungs as she could. Her teacher had told her about the dangers of working with people who’d do anything for their cause. “I want to help. Isn’t that enough?”
“The Cause is enough.” Limeria folded her arm over her stomach. “Do what you can to help, and one day you may know why what we are doing is important.”
* * *
Morvanger bought a new cloak at the market in the main disk of the ship. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if someone unpleasant recognized him on Salla. He couldn’t remember any enemies he’d made at the Stone, but that only made it more important not to tip them off. Barian would help, of course, as would their veils, but any Nualite near a stone could easily be smoking Rymen, and that would allow them to see clear through simple illusions, in addition to its other divining uses.
He hefted his money bag as he walked back to the dock where he’d told Barian to meet him. There was a lot to be done on the world below.
* * *
Waiting for Morvanger and Phere, Barian wandered the docking tunnel, eyes roaming between the spacecrafts landed there. Many of smallest ships were simply disks of polished silver and matte-black windows. The simplicity of those interested Barian almost as much as the more complex designs, like Phere’s ship. He wandered back along a line of pod ships only slightly taller than himself until he reached the starpike.
Its swept-back tail, about forty feet long tapered down until it rested on the floor of the docking tunnel. The control bubble bulged over the sleek nose of the ship, bluish against the black armor of the hull, even as it nose down, completing the arch of the ship. Barian whistled as he thought of flying down to Salla in that elegant machine. As much as Cathedral fascinated him, he was even more eager to meet the Salla Clan Nualites.
He leapt into the air, guiding himself by channeling a small amount of his gii into his zendil technique. Gliding upwards through the artificial atmosphere of the tunnel, he admired the starships from above for a few seconds before descending at a leisurely pace. When he landed beside the starpike, he found Phere making her way through the doorway at the other end of the hall.
He bowed his head as she approached. She stopped beside the tail of the starpike and put her hand on the black metal of the tail.
“Barian, do you know where Morvanger is?”
Barian shook his head.
“Don’t worry, he probably won’t be late.” Phere removed her hand from the ship’s tail and walked under the arch of its hull.
“Have you been here long?”
“A few hours.”
“Hours?” Phere looked back at him incredulously. “You must be bored by now.”
“Not really.” Barian smiled at her. “I’ve been examining the ships. They interest me greatly.”
Phere shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, if you get on board I can show you some of the controls. We might be traveling together for a while, so it can’t hurt to have another pilot.”
Unsure of how exactly what to say, Barian grinned.
* * *
Morvanger arrived at the docking tunnel and looked out into the blackness beyond the rows of ships with a shudder. He made himself walk to the side of Phere’s starpike, but found no one there. He didn’t want to use his Alsha to search again so soon, but with Barian missing it might be his best option. That witch Nialla might easily have followed them to Cathedral, and she could have disguised herself without too much trouble. Though he could only guess at her full capabilities the bite of her blue monster was not something Morvanger wanted to feel again.
“Master.” Barian’s voice echoed from the starpike’s speakers. “Get on board. Phere and I are inside already.”
Shaking his head, Morvanger gave a sigh of relief. He strode to the starpike’s side and then shot up to the open hatch in the low gravity. As he climbed inside, Phere emerged from the control bubble, sending a ripple through the gel as she did.
“I was showing him how to fly it, just in case.”
“Ah, yes.” Morvanger pulled up his hood with his tentacles. “I suppose using a steed from the blight realm might not always be practical.”
“Is that how you got here so quickly?”
“To Salla? Yes. Ah, I prefer traditional methods of travel.” He sat down on one of the benches protruding from the wall.
Phere turned away from him without a word and walked through the control bubble to Barian, who was just standing up from his place at the controls. He slipped past her, and left the bubble to join Morvanger in the hallway outside. Phere took her seat at the controls as Barian closed the hatch behind Morvanger. It sealed with a hiss and the starpike lifted off the floor of the docking tunnel.
* * *