“How soon will we be out of the asteroids?” Horace asked.
Aaren did some fast mental calculations. “It will be at least two minutes before we can use our star engine. We’ll never catch them.” His jaw tightened and he grabbed the speaking tube. “Katrina, keep an eye on the Vis. When they jump or engage system speed, track their course as best you can. Maybe we can follow them.”
“Sure” A moment later she raced out of her cabin up to the fo’c’sle and attached a complicated-looking instrument to the railing. It looked like an overgrown sextant mated with a clockwork mechanism. She tightened a clamp and peered through a lens at the Vis, making adjustments to various dials and levers. She waved back at him. “I’m on them. We’ll be able to follow them,” she said with more confidence than she felt.
But two minutes later when Aaren announced that the Sky Hawk was also free of the asteroids, the Vis still hadn’t engaged her star engine. She continued moving sedately along at normal speeds.
The Knights were confused.
“What are they doing?” Horace asked.
Aaren shook his head. “I don’t know and I don’t care but it gives us a chance. We’ve got more sail than they do. Now we’re out of the channel we can catch them.” He turned to Garrick. “Full sails! Give me everything you’ve got!”
Garrick waved. “Full sails, aye!” He turned to the crew. “You heard the Captain. Put out every bit of sail she’s got!” The crew leaped to obey. Within moments the Sky Hawk began to pick up speed.
“This is a break we can take advantage of,” Aaren told them. “Now we’re free of the asteroids we can jump the instant they do. They can’t get away from us now.”
As the Vis approached the edge of the asteroid field, Bashaak heard Blanrus berating the men working on the altar in the room below. The mage’s voice went on and on in a shrill, bullying whine. The priest shook his head in annoyance. He was reaching over to close the hatch between the two rooms when he heard something that transfixed him in place as effectively as if he’d been turned to stone. “Move faster! If you don’t get this altar ready for the transference I’ll see you in the deepest pits of Hell itself!”
Bashaak leaned back, his hands loose on the wheel as he considered it.
So, the spell Blanrus was planning was a spell to transfer something? Interesting. But transfer what? He turned it over in his mind, ticking off the bits of information he knew.
Number one, the spell required a virgin sacrifice. Not just any virgin either. Blanrus’ list of requirements had specified a twenty-year-old, female virgin born on Midsummer at noon. Virgin sacrifices were a rarity no matter what the rumors might say, but when they were used they released tremendous amounts of magical power. The precise nature of Blanrus’ requirements indicated that the power released from this particular virgin would be nothing short of phenomenal.
Alright then, number two, the ceremony had to take place on Prince Urdan’s birthday. That meant that Urdan was the focus of the spell. The Sword had already declared war on the Prince with their failed coup so it made sense that they’d try something else aimed at him, but Bashaak had long since come to realize that Blanrus, despite his outward show of working for The Sword, was really only in business for himself. Yet he was still intent on conducting the ceremony, which meant that whatever the results would be, he wanted them as badly as The Sword did. His recent actions proved that if nothing else did.
But what about number three?
Bashaak stroked his chin and gazed unseeingly out the windows as the Vis emerged from the asteroid field and continued in a straight, unswerving line. A transfer, Bashaak thought to himself. But a transfer of what? And from where to where? Whatever it was it required incredible amounts of power, and the Prince was the focus. No wait, that couldn’t be right. If there was a transfer there had to be two focuses, two nexuses. But what was the other nexus? As soon as he asked himself the question, he knew the answer.
There couldn’t be any other nexus. The location obviously didn’t matter. The altar wasn’t the key, the mage had abandoned two of them, one in The Sword’s hideout and the other in the warehouse. He was building yet another one in the room below, so while the ceremony required an altar, it didn’t matter which one it was. Since the girl would die to provide the power, she couldn’t be the necessary nexus. That left only the mage.
Bashaak drummed his fingers abstractedly as he pursued his line of reasoning. In a burst of irritation, he slammed the blue lever all the way forward to full system speed, unmindful of their heading.
Okay then, he thought, the spell would transfer something between Urdan and Blanrus and required ungodly amounts of power to do it. It was the power that kept eating at him. What would require that kind of power to transfer it from one person to another? What were people made of that could be magically transferred?
Souls . . .
Bashaak froze in place.
Urdan in Blanrus’ body and Blanrus in Urdan’s body? The prince onboard the Vis and Blanrus on the throne of Harpel? Bashaak stared at the map Blanrus had given him. If the Knights hadn’t set the Vis on fire, they would have continued on deeper into the asteroids. The altar would have been finished by now and Blanrus would be long gone before the ship was ground to bits. The map didn’t contain a trap, he realized in growing rage, the map was the trap.
The Vis suddenly slipped out of system speed, slowed down by the influence of some large mass nearby. The furious priest didn’t bother to look outside to see what it was. He sprang to the hatch and dove through to the cabin below, unlimbering his mace as he landed lightly beside the altar.
Blanrus left off haranguing the workers in surprise. “What are you doing?”
Bashaak didn’t bother to answer. His mace caught the unprepared wizard full in the chest and flung him back against the wall with a crash. Blanrus hit his head and slumped to the floor. The two workers yelled and pulled out their swords. Bashaak caught their blades on the handle of his mace and heaved, throwing them out of his way. He searched the unconscious mage quickly, slipping the Prize out of Blanrus’ pocket. There was a noise behind him and he dove aside as a sword whistled overhead.
The two men began yelling for help as they fought. They attacked him furiously, trying to batter him down with great, club-like blows. He scrambled to his feet, fighting awkwardly with one hand while searching frantically for the scroll with the other. Before he could find it a slashing stroke nearly tore the mace from his hands. He gasped in shock. The flat of a sword came whistling down with bruising force. Light flared behind his eyes and the world went dark.
The two warriors heaved a sigh of relief. Blanrus moaned and sat up. He saw Bashaak’s body on the floor and smiled in spite of the pain in his own head. The door burst open and two warriors leaped in, swords at the ready. They relaxed after taking in the situation.
“Lock him in the steerage,” Blanrus ordered, picking himself up cautiously. “I’ll tend to him later.”
“Are you sure?” one of them asked uncertainly. “What if he tries to escape?”
“Of course I’m sure!” Blanrus shouted, wincing at the pain in the back of his head. “Put him in the steerage,” he continued in a lower voice, “and you two get back to work.” He rummaged through Bashaak’s pockets until he found the ‘Prize’ as Bashaak called it, and pocketed it with a tight grin. “As long as I’ve got this, he won’t try to escape. Count on it.”
“Aye, my lord,” they muttered. They picked the priest up and hauled him out. The others sheathed their weapons and resumed working on the altar. It was almost done.
Blanrus noted the progress they’d made and left, moving gingerly. Bashaak’s betrayal meant that the Vis was dead in space wherever she was, which meant it was time to start the ceremony. Those thrice-damned ‘Knights’ couldn’t be far behind and he wanted to be long gone by the time they arrived. They had proven tougher than he’d bargained for and he didn’t feel like battling them again so soon. If the altar wasn’t fully prepared he’d just have to make do. He was running out of time.
He went into the captain’s cabin, ignoring Illene, and immediately began changing into his ceremonial robes, taking a healing potion as he did. Once he was ready he grabbed the girl and hauled her up to the wardroom where the altar was. “Tie her down,” he ordered the men. “Then get out and don’t come back until I call for you.”
They obeyed with frightened looks then fled. He locked the door behind them. He made sure the hatch to the bridge was also locked then unloaded an ornate box he’d brought with him. Inside were vials containing different colored powders, an alcohol burner with a tiny kettle, incense, purified water, a gold rod inscribed with elaborate runes, measuring spoons, an ancient leather-bound book. and a jet black dagger. He carefully laid his implements out, smiling as he did and Illene knew her death was upon her. She shuddered at the sight of the dagger and discovered to her surprise she wasn’t quite so resigned to death after all. She desperately wanted to live.
Blanrus watched the expressions flashing across her face, her thoughts plain to see. “Pleading won’t do any good,” he said, stopping her before she began. “Like it or not, ready or not, death is all that awaits you this day. Get used to it,” he said brutally. He lit the incense and opened the book, it’s binding creaking with age. He found the drawing that he was looking for and began tracing it on the floor around the altar with a thick piece of chalk.