Friday, August 27, 2010

Chapter 32 - TRAPPING THE TRAPPER

Pip booked us another trip, this time in my name, mirroring my parent’s flight. It would be a week before that flight came through though.

This time we would attempt to set a trap with me as the bait. We went to Braxton’s shop and borrowed a back room to change.

When we came out, my hair was red again and slicked back and my beard was gone. Also, I was wearing a white silk shirt and black satin pants with knee high, patent leather boots. I made my cape out of silk lined velvet. I felt like a dandy though I kept my sword. I had never dressed like this; neither did my parents, though they had the money for it. I changed what Pip wore too. He would be a servant hired to watch over me in the absence of my parents since I was still under age.

Braxton laughed when he saw us come out of the back room. He had never seen Pip all fancied up.

Now I had to attract some attention and we had a week to do it. I booked a room at the hotel, but spent almost no time there. I subjected myself to an elaborate tattoo of a dragon, much like the one on my sword, on my right hand that extended up my arm. The head of the dragon rested on the back of my hand, the body rested on my forearm with the legs wrapping around it and the tail coiled up around my upper arm almost to my shoulder. I had them color it a silvery blue. Why not? If I was going to do something like that, I might as well make it mean something. Braxton liked it, though he couldn’t imagine why I’d want to make it blue. I didn’t bother to tell him.

It wasn’t long before we attracted some attention. A flashy rich kid walking around the seedy part of town will do that. Twice someone tried to relieve me of my credit chip but that wasn’t much of a problem. What was interesting to us was the fact that we had acquired a tail. He was a good tail too. Neither one of us would have noticed him if it weren’t for my magic and Oscan’s training, which allowed me to keep a casual awareness of my surroundings that was far wider than eyes or ears alone.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Chapter 31 - UNDER COVER

I had long since grown used to running with my friends whenever we had distance to cover and their legs were somewhat longer than mine, but Pip couldn’t keep that kind of pace. He wasn’t used to it at all, and we were forced to stop only a few minutes after we started.

After he caught his breath, he asked, “Were you going to run all the way to the space port?”

I thought about the distance. We were about two hundred miles away from the spaceport and I had planned to bypass the village. “No, I figured we’d have to stop for lunch,” I said. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but I was mostly serious.

He started laughing. “It’s impossible to cover that kind of distance in one day. What’s your hurry?”

I just looked at him. “You’re not used to running, are you?”

I gave him some water to drink. I figured there was probably a way I could help him do better, but I didn’t know how to do it, so I let him set the pace. We walked; it felt like a snail’s pace.

We reached the spaceport shortly before noon on the seventh day after leaving my friends. As we entered the town, I saw that things had worsened since the last time I had been here. Posters of my latest picture were posted all over the place. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it outside of its presence, because it was a fresh-faced picture of me that bore little resemblance to what I looked like now. I had a scruffy blond peach fuzz of a beard and my red hair reached below my shoulders when it was loose. Right now, it was tied back in an unkempt ponytail.

Pip looked from the first poster we saw to my face. “We’ll have to do something about that right away,” he said, and led off. “Someone’s bound to see through the differences. There’s not too many red heads around.” He booked us a room in a seedy little motel and then went shopping. “Take a shower,” he said before he left.

I did as he said without further prompting. Baths in the creek, though cleansing and invigorating, just weren’t the same as a nice, long, hot shower, and it had been several days since I had been to the creek.

When I was finished with my shower, I remade my undershirt and undershorts, leaving the dirt and sweat behind. I remembered that it was Carm who had given me the idea. After watching me try to wash and dry my underclothes for the umpteenth time, he suggested, “Why don’t you just make new ones. Make them out of the old ones.” It had been so much simpler than washing them and then trying to dry them without setting them on fire. Fire was always a bit temperamental for me.

I was just buckling my pants around my waist when Pip returned. “Take your shirt off and come over to the sink,” he said. He was pulling something out of a bag.

He bent me over the sink and washed my hair again, or at least I thought that’s what he was doing. When he was finished, my red hair was gone. Then he worked something into my beard.

“I was going to shave that off,” I said.

“You can shave it off some other time, for now, I think this’ll look much better. What do you think?”

I looked at the stranger in the mirror. My hair and beard were both black now, which made my skin look too pale except where it was red - I didn’t tan. I don’t think my mother would have recognized me.

Pip wasn’t finished with me yet. I had always kept my hair pushed back. My mother could seldom pin me down long enough to keep my hair trimmed to her satisfaction, so it had always been on the longish side, and over the last eight months, it had grown unchecked. I had taken to keeping it tied back with a strip of leather. Pip sat me down on a stool, wrapped a towel around my shoulders and began to cut. By the time he was done with it, my hair looked quite shaggy, still hanging below my collar in back but there was little point in tying it back any more. “Leave it hang and break yourself of the habit of pushing it behind your ears,” he said, as he smacked my hand, which was reaching to do just that.

He looked at his finished product. “I think that’s good enough. A scar across your face would cinch it, but I think you’re too young for something like that. They might look too close if they saw you with a scar at your age.”

When he pulled the towel from around my shoulders, he saw what he had missed before. “Are those bullet holes?”

“Yes, they are.” I turned to let him see all of them. “There are two more below the belt.”

“And you’re alive?” I could hear the wonder in his voice.

“The magic has a few advantages.”

“You must be invulnerable,” he said, as he slowly handed me my shirt again.

“No, I can be killed, just not easily.” Durmas had told me that a fatal strike to the heart or the head would kill me instantly. Too much damage could do it too, but after my last trip off-planet, I wondered what ‘too much damage’ could be.

Next, he pulled two large wads of cloth out of the bag and handed me the larger one. It turned out to be a full-length hooded cloak; I’d seen a lot of people wearing the like. “We need to change your appearance. Someone might remember what you were wearing when they were pumping those bullets into you.”

I held up the cloak. “I could have made this if you had told me.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. I’ll have to remember that in the future.”

I looked at my leather shirt draped across a chair. My leather clothes were just raw uncolored leather, kind of reddish. “I could change the color of my leathers too.”

“You can? Good idea,” he replied.

I buckled my shirt on, and then, at a touch, I made the leather black. It went with my beard and hair. I looked at the effect in the mirror. It was such an unrelieved black. Then I had an idea. I touched my right shoulder. Under my hand appeared a basilisk crawling over my shoulder. Its fanged mouth rested over my heart and its long sinewy body coiled over my shoulder and down my back then I turned it’s black, brown and gray diamond scales to shades of blue - basilisk for my magic, blue for water.

All Pip said was “Wow.” Then he said, “Wear the cloak anyway.”

I sat down on the foot of one of the beds. “I’m hungry. Do you want to eat here or would you rather eat out.”

He recovered from his surprise and returned to the business at hand. “We still need to book our flight. Let’s go eat at the docks. How do you make food anyway?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.

I bent to put my boots on and finished buckling my many buckles. My boots each had four buckles. There were five up each leg of my pants to the knee, three on each arm of my shirt up to the elbow. Already buckled were the three up my left side, and two on my left shoulder. It was all a bit of a pain, but I was long since used to it. My sword belt was the final touch. I looked quite dangerous, if I do say so myself.

As we walked across the town toward the docks, Pip suggested, “You look pretty pale; it might not be a bad idea if you act a little less than healthy. Maybe you could develop a slight cough if you talk too much, just a little something to account for your less than healthy color.”

I hadn’t planned on doing much talking, but I could do something of the sort if I had to.

We ended up rattling around the spaceport for two days before our ship would arrive, unload its cargo and load up again in preparation for departure. In order to pay for our fare, Pip had arranged for us to work as part of the crew. My credit chip had plenty of credit to purchase a flight, but we didn’t look like wealthy travelers, so it was best not to act like it.

When we were getting ready to lift off, Pip noticed my unease. “Are you all right, McTavish? You look a little more pale than usual.”

“I’m fine,” I replied. I was short with him, but frankly, I was terrified.

“What’s the matter, Liam?” he asked again.

I just growled at him; I was having enough trouble reliving my horror in my head, I didn’t need to talk about it.

“Suit yourself,” he said, and he climbed into his pod.

I felt the temperature drop. It happened rather fast and I had to squelch my desire to stay warm. I closed my eyes and thought of being hot. If I could convince myself that I was hot enough, the cryo-pod would be able to do its thing, I hoped.

Whether it was my thoughts or my recently attained control, I don’t know. I woke just fine along with the rest of the crew with no one guessing that I might be the kid whose pod had malfunctioned and yet had not died from the gravitational forces of take off. I learned that the subject still came up at least once per trip, and Pip asked enough questions, and knew enough about my background to be able to put two and two together.

Before we docked again, he looked up those reports and read them in detail. He never told me what he read, but he did say, “If I hadn’t seen you do the things you do, I never would have believed it. I’m having trouble believing it anyway.”

“It isn’t one of my favorite memories.” The subject, painful as it was for me, reminded me of my . . . well, I suppose it was my first kill. I had to warn him. “Pip, did you happen to see the report about a murder on board that same flight?” I asked.

“Yeah, I did. I don’t see any connection, though. You were in the infirmary when it happened.”

“There is a connection. He was found in the infirmary next to my bed. When I use magic, I burn up a lot of energy. You’ll notice when I use a lot of magic that I’ll eat a lot too. I had used a great deal of magic, and . . . I needed to eat. I didn’t have any control. I . . . I sucked the life out of him. You need to know this. If I get hurt really bad, you shouldn’t come near me. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again, but you should be warned just the same.”

Pip looked at me in horror then he left our quarters. I wondered at the time if I would ever see him again or if he would vanish as soon as we landed. I needn’t have worried. I found out later that he had gone and read the medical examiner’s report on the body. I don’t know what it said and he never told me that either. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read it myself.

The last of our debt to the captain of the ship was to help with the unloading and then we were free to go.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chapter 30 - WATER MUSIC

For perhaps the first time in my life, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was in a whirl. Dawn found me pacing a short distance from where everyone slept. I drew my sword; I had energy to expend. I gave it a few experimental swings. We had never done much that might be considered formal moves or routines, but I felt the need to fight someone and there wasn’t anyone here I wanted to fight. What I wanted right now was a real good workout.

Pip came up to me. “You need to find your music,” he said softly, so as not to wake the others.

“What?” I asked.

“Watch me,” he said, and he began what I could only call a dance, but it wasn’t any kind of dance I’d seen before. The moves were slow and graceful, quite incongruous with the wiry little man who performed them. “Try it,” he said. “I have friends who do something like this using all sorts of weapons. Sometimes I use daggers, but mostly I just like to do it like this.”

I tried to imitate him and felt clumsy. I drew my sword and tried again; I felt clumsier. “What do I do?”

“Do whatever is in your heart, just make it slow, calm and complete. Find the music that is in your soul and let it come out through your hands and your feet. Don’t worry, it’ll happen, you’ll see.” Then after a few more agonizing minutes of watching me watching him, he said, “Close your eyes. Your music is in your soul, not in my hands.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated on my moves. I remembered all the different things Tsan had tried to teach me, and tried to do them all very slowly and carefully. This was hard. My sword was getting surprisingly heavy. Then, as if knocking on the inside of a glass ball, I had the idea of incorporating my magic into this . . . this thing I was trying to do.

My magic was Water Magic; the sound of water was my music. The soft patter of it was all around me. I opened my eyes and saw waterspouts. As I watched them, I made them move and sway. I made them sprout what could only be described as arms. They reached out and splashed themselves across my sword. They swayed and danced before me, begging me to widen their splash, sending spray everywhere.

I was soon drenched, but I was elated. The morning sun turned the water into drops of silver and gold. I wanted to do this forever. I could have, I think, but the spell lost its glamor when the sun climbed too high and the water wasn’t golden any more; it was just wet. I put the magic away and came to a stop. I didn’t put my sword away; it would need to be dried first, like the rest of me. I felt so much better now. I stood there in the early morning warmth of the sun. My mind was quiet. I felt like I could stand still like that for hours.

I was just thinking of turning to give my thanks to Pip when Carm started sneezing. He had done his best to stay out of the sun and still watch, but there had been little shade. He looked guiltily at me with his hand over his mouth. The part of his face that I could see looked redder than usual. “Breathe, Carm, before you suffocate yourself,” I said; I was laughing by now. He finished his morning sneezing fit while I dried my sword and then my hair with a dry cloth. The rest of me could dry in the sun.

“That was . . . that was amazing,” said Lagge. “I think I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

“It was positively beautiful,” said Carm.

Brom, the strong silent type, just nodded and Larak looked quite taken aback. I could tell that he was thinking about it very hard. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he didn’t try to teach his next students to do something of the sort.

Though my mind was washed clear, I was still a bit giddy. It was almost as if we were out on our first furlough from the cave, except I was the only one feeling it this time. I came down from my euphoria quickly though, and after an uncomfortable breakfast and even more uncomfortable farewells, we parted company.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Chapter 29 - THE MESSENGER

My wounds may have spared me from the punishment of our training, but I was still expected to attend. This reprieve didn’t last but a few days since I had problems watching our missions happen when I felt like I should be helping and not just directing. Thanks to my magic, I was back up to speed within a week.

About ten days later, the blacksmith’s daughter showed up. “Master Liam,” she said timidly. “There’s a man asking questions about you around town. My father thought you aught to know.”

She had addressed me as Master Liam. I hadn’t even had my sixteenth birthday yet. I think I was almost as much surprised by that as by the news she brought.

“What about the guards?” I asked as soon as my brain was working again. There had been no warning about the guards last time because they were my people and not seen as a threat at the time, not until after they had shown their desire to use force.

“The guards are still there. So far, he’s managed to avoid them. Father doesn’t think they are aware of him yet. They were ever so angry after you all got away. Anyway, since he doesn’t seem to be working with the guards, father thought you might be interested in meeting him. He doesn’t know I’ve been sent here.”

I looked at my friends. Their looks all said ‘why not’ so I nodded. “Tell him to head east out of town; we’ll find him.” I waved Oskan over to us since he had remained out of hearing for this conference. “Oskan, could you take her back to her father’s. I don’t want her or her family to get into trouble for being out of town suspiciously.”

He nodded and folded the girl in his arms and vanished. I really am going to have to learn how to do that.

We are not east of town so, after informing Durmas of our plans, we headed out.

We found him the next night by a small campfire. I waited until he lay down and then I slipped up on him and extinguished the fire.

Since the fire doused so quickly, he sat up abruptly and saw my form by the dim moonlight of the small second moon. “Who are you? Are you McTavish?” he asked.

“I am,” I said. “What do you want with me?”

“I thought Braxton was just trying to get rid of me when he sent me out here. Anyways, he sent me. He told me what you told him. I did a little poking around and found out some interesting things. Well no, I should correct that; it’s what I didn’t find that tweaked my interest. I found which ship your parents left on easy enough and where that ship made its next landfall, but somewhere between here and there, they vanished. They were on the passenger list when they took off from here but not when they landed there. Since they’re well known scientists, both of them, I thought it was rather odd that you were the only one looking for them. I also find it very odd that the village back there is swarming with imperial guards, and that all of them are looking for you, and yet there’s still no mention of a search for your parents. I know, I checked. You’d think they’d look for them before they looked for you. The way I see it, somebody already knows where your parents are - somebody big - and they don’t like you runnin’ around loose.”

I had to sit down while he spoke and was comforted to hear Brom move in closer behind me. I hoped that he had made that sound for me to hear because, if this had been one of Oscan’s exercises, we would be on the losing side very fast.

I saw that the camp had been a dry camp, so I made a cup of coffee and offered it across the coals to him.

He accepted it tentatively and drank it gratefully after he identified what it was.

“What is your name, sir?” I finally asked after trying without success to figure out what I should do next.

“My name? You can call me Pip, everyone does.”

“Mr. Pip . . . .”

“Just Pip. Mr. is just too much,” he corrected.

“Pip,” I started again, “What now? I want to find my parents, but I just don’t know what to do next.”

“Well, if I was a might shady, I’d say just give me your credit chip and I’ll try to find your parents for you, but since Braxton referred you to me, I’ll be a might more honest. You can’t do anything from here. I thought you just being here was bad enough, but you’re cut off from communication while you’re here, not to mention the fact that it looks like they’re trying to nab ye.”

“They have already failed once.” I thought for a while more, then I heard a soft creaking sound off to my right. I leapt to my feet and drew my sword only just in time to knock the arrow aside.

“You let me get too close, boy,” said Larak as he strode the rest of the way into camp and dropped Carm’s limp body at my feet. “You won’t be able to stop those little metal balls as easily as you did my arrow; not if you let them get that close.”

Carm was pulling himself onto his hands and knees with a groan. “Fine lookout you are,” I said, nudging him gently in the shoulder with my knee. He just groaned and reached for his head. This was something we had all endured many, many times.

I already learned that lesson, thank you,” I said to Larak. “Master Larak, this man may be able to help me find my parents, but he says I need to go with him. Do you think I can?”

Pip had jumped to his feet only seconds after I did, and now, assuming this giant was a friend, he offered his hand. “Pip, sir. Pleased to meet you.”

Larak made Pip’s hand vanish in his massive grip and then turned back to me with an appraising look. “You should go, and yes, I think you can. You’re far from finished with your training though, so I also think you should return as soon as possible.”

“We’ll head out in the morning then,” I replied, relieved that he had so much confidence in me.

“We?” said Pip in alarm. “Who’s this ‘we’ you’re talking about? I didn’t know there was more than one human out here.”

Carm had attained his feet by now and stood looming over my shoulder.

“My friends, of course,” I replied and I tipped my chin toward Carm.

“Listen, McTavish, he can’t go with you. This planet isn’t a full-fledged member of the empire yet, so these people won’t be able to leave the surface. Someone that size will attract too much attention anyway.”

“He’s right,” said Lagge as he too loomed out of the darkness behind Pip who whirled in surprise.

You have to understand Pip’s discomfort. I’m only a fifteen-year-old kid, but I’m still a bit tall for my age. Last time I measured myself, I had only an inch to go before reaching six feet. Pip was at least six inches shorter than me; that meant that Carm was a good three feet taller than Pip, and Larak was even taller. Brom was the tallest of the three.

“Even if we could smuggle one or two of them onto a ship, there isn’t a cryo-pod big enough to hold ‘em and I wouldn’t want to do a boost without one,” continued Pip.

I had a very good reason to agree with him, but just like laying my sword aside to go into town, leaving my friends behind in order to leave the planet would feel . . . odd.

Our extended silence must have indicated to Pip that we weren’t too happy with the idea. “I just don’t think it would be safe and it would hinder anything we tried to do.”

“That’s not it, Pip,” I said as I raised my hand to forestall further argument. “I understand and agree with what you are saying; it’s just that my friends remain in danger here as long as the imperial guards think they know where I am.”

The boys can remain with us until the guards leave,” said Larak. “Or we can relocate them to another village if we need to. We will keep them and their families safe.”

I was glad for the dark. No one would notice my discomfort. I wanted to pace. I wanted to go back and talk with Durmas. I wanted my parents to be safe.

Larak sat down by the coals and lit the fire again. With a motion of his hand, he had the rest of us sit too. After he made himself a cup of hot comak, a drink much like coffee but a lot stronger, I didn’t like it much, he said, “Liam, something strange has happened to your parents and it is right that you should go and try to help them. You have accomplished a great deal during your stay here. You have good control, though you may be a little timid, but that’s probably not a bad thing, considering the scope of your potential. You go with this man. We’ll take care of your friends here.”

To cover my discomfort, I made supper for all of us. Pip’s reaction was understandably one of shock. “How the hell did you do that?” he asked, afraid to accept the plate laden with food.

“Eat. It’s just food. You’ll get used to it,” I said, and pressed the food on him.

He took it. “But how did you do that?”

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.” We ate our meal in silence and just as silently, we bedded down for what was left of the night.

Chapter 28 - MANAGING HEAT

I woke several days later with only Brom as company. He helped me get out of bed, which I’m not sure I could have done on my own. At the table, he ladled me a bowl of stew and set it in front of me. “Tsan made it,” he said by way of explanation of where it had come from. “He figured you might wake up sometime today. Sorry it’s not very warm.”

“That’s all right; I can manage a little heat, thanks.”

Just as he set a bowl down for himself, the others came in, so he ladled them up as well.

Tsan gave me a once over and asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m feeling very abused, but I’m doing okay, I guess.”

“Good.” He clapped me on the shoulder, which jarred more than one painful spot, and then he left.

As soon as I could breathe again, I heated everyone’s stew and finished my own and then another, and then another.