696 Closed Ranks
Ves maintained a wary attitude throughout his stay aboard the Temple of Haatumak. Even after the Seventeenth Altar led them away from the eerie pool of blood and the human-like entity that resided within, he still remained a little too jumpy for his own good.
Fortunately, his suit of armor and the cape that enveloped half his form helped a lot to hide the nervousness in his body language. As for his face, he consciously focused on keeping it as immobile as possible.
Of course, concentrating his mind on anything risked getting picked up by whatever detection methods the worshippers of Haatumak installed throughout the interior of the vessel.
Still, from the elaborate and deliberate showmanship around the entity known as TekTak, Ves figured that it wouldn't be easy to replicate the same feat. The energy wave that emanated out of TekTak also spread out in an expanding sphere, meaning that if physics didn't completely screw up, the expanding field should have been subject to the inverse-square law.
In simple terms, the energy wave should have lost enough power that by the time the delegations exited the central chamber, it should have been so dispersed it wouldn't be able to do anything about his mentality at all.
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He couldn't. Not when the Seventeenth Altar led the Swordmaidens and the Vandals deeper into the bowels of a ship that was possibly related to the dreaded Five Scrolls Compact.
Considering that the Compact may very well be his archenemy, Ves couldn't afford to let down his guard.
As they walked through a number of corridors featuring the same kind of scenery as before, they finally emerged in a medium-sized compartment that looked cleaner than the rest of the ship. At least here the cultists actually made a decent attempt at matching the efficiency of cleaning bots.
Ves blinked as they met yet another robed fellow sitting at a desk in the center of the largely empty compartment.
"Coinlord, the delegation from Lydia's Swordmaidens and the Flagrant Vandals wishes to discuss.. business with us."
The man called the Coinlord extended a gnarly finger from his voluminous sleeves. "Understood. Begone now."
With that brief exchange of words, the Seventeenth Altar silently stepped outside the compartment, upon which the hatch slid shut.
"I would invite you to take a seat, outsiders, but I am afraid this compartment is lacking amenities."
"We can stand." Major Verle replied in a curt tone. Denying them seats during a business negotiation was a petty move, but the cultists probably didn't care. "We'd like to make a deal."
"Very well. Step closer. I shall bring up the suggested contract so we may discuss the finer points."
Compared to the Seventeenth Altar and the other robed figures, the Coinlord sounded a lot more normal than the others. It probably came with the job if he was responsible for taking care of the business side of running the Church of Haatumak.
Commander Lydia, Major Verle and the Coinlord all huddled around and started to negotiate. Ves idly listened in on the conversation. Besides handing over a substantial but not too painful sum of K-coins, the Coinlord also demanded some inexplicable requests the Vandals and the Swordmaidens were obligated to fulfill.
Many of these requests fell in the range of sending a number of Vandals to pray to Haatumak for three days in a row aboard the Temple.
Another request entailed sending another delegation to conduct a sacrifice to Haatumak. The cultists demanded a human sacrifice, the more the better. This request caused Major Verle and the Vandals to balk, but Commander Lydia calmly stepped in at that point.
"The Swordmaidens will provide the sacrifices. Just like before."
The Coinlord nodded underneath his robes. "Very well. Be aware that your sacrifices do not quite meet our requirements. If you wish to satisfy our lord, you must bring a greater number than you brought before."
"We shall bring half as much on top of the normal quota."
"Acceptable, if only just. I suggest you bring livelier sacrifices next time."
None of the Vandals officers present were stupid. They realized that the Swordmaidens have very well condemned some of their own slaves to death. Commander Lydia bartered away their lives like trading away chickens at a market stall.
Ves almost scooted away from the Swordmaidens. The brief exchange highlighted the fact that while the Swordmaidens may seem friendly to the Vandals, their pirate heritage still ran through their genes. They stuck to morality only when it suited them, and disregarded it whenever it became a hindrance.
As the horse-trading dragged on, his mind began to wander off a little. The presence of Ves, Mayra and the others seemed superfluous. It appeared they only accompanied their mech commanders in order to make them look more impressive. So far, they played no role in the negotiations.
His eyes rolled around the empty compartment and wondered why the Temple of Haatumak built such a huge space only to place a single desk and chair in the very center. The bulkheads were oddly bare. Besides some subtle alien script sprinkled here and there, the entire compartment looked as barren as an empty cargo hold.
Did the Church of Haatumek spend all those resources to build a massive and impressive looking ship, only to scratch their heads when they had to put all of that internal volume to use?
Ves saw nothing in the compartment. His nose and ears sensed nothing either. It was completely empty and devoid of any furnishings, markings or anything else.
The emptiness disturbed him and nagged at him. He wasn't the only one who felt that way, as many of the Swordmaidens and Vandals fidgeted as they stood at attention behind their leaders.
Something was giving him the creeps again. The closed compartment had cut him off from the sounds of the praying worshippers, the sight of strange idols carved out of the bulkheads and the insectoid smell emanating from the bodies of the robed figures.
He should have been comforted by the lack of disturbing stimuli. Instead, their absence had the eerie effect of making him jump at shadows that didn't exist!
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." He muttered silently to himself. He repeated these words because they felt apt to this situation.
This notion predicated on the premise that a threat likely existed, and may be closer than he thought!
He remembered earlier with TekTak that the Church of Haatumak may not be so oblivious to spirituality than the rest of humanity. If the Five Scrolls Compact had already scratched the surface of the secrets behind the spirituality phenomenon, then it may not be farfetched to assume the Church touched upon the same secrets!
On an impulse, Ves exerted his Spirituality and sent out a tiny pulse in imitation of TekTak's move. A ripple emanated from his mind in a small sphere, spreading far enough to cover the entire chamber before dissipating.
He frowned a bit.
His own pulse appeared to have encountered a minute amount of resistance, yet there shouldn't anything in the compartment but air!
He repeated the pulse, and encountered the same kind of airy sensation that he felt whenever he passed over his Spirituality through a human body.
It made him feel a bit suspicious. What was up with the Coinlord and his strangely wide but empty compartment?
Though he carefully pulsed a few more times, varying the parameters of the energy waves his mind emitted, he couldn't figure out anything else. It was as if something was right in front of him, but he was too blind to spot its presence!
Only his sixth sense seemed sensitive enough to detect something amiss, but it couldn't replace his conventional human senses.
An inspired idea flitted across his mind. If his senses lacked the sensitivity to spot the hidden presence, then why not try to leverage the strength of his Spirituality to enhance its capabilities?
It sounded like a risky idea. He did not wish to mess up his eyesight at this crucial moment. Yet if he simply stood still and pass the time in silence, then decision to do nothing would continue to haunt him for a long time.
He simply couldn't resist the temptation of knowing.
Besides, if he popped his own eyes for some reason, he could simply let the doctors of the Vandals clone a new pair of eyes to replace his old ones.
He carefully released a tendril of spiritual energy from the center of his brains. Slowly and steadily, they extended towards his left eyeball, leaving his right one unaided for the moment. There was no reason to employ both of his eyes at once for this impromptu experiment.
Nothing seemed to happen as the invisible and intangible tendril of energy ran through his left eye. The energy tendril and eyeball existed in two completely different realms. There didn't appear to be any overlap for the energy tendril to latch on.
Ves needed to find a way to interact. He couldn't figure out any other way than concentrating his mind to focus on the idea of the energy tendril enhancing his eyesight.
Surprisingly, it happened easier than he thought. The energy tendril exhibited some kind of rudimentary intelligence as it abruptly enveloped his eyeball and saturated specific tissue with an abundance of its energy.
Was it working?
Then his eyesight changed.
The vision coming from his left eye continued to show a large and empty compartment. Besides the armored and caped forms of the Vandals and Swordmaidens, the only other objects that occupied it was the Coinlord and his desk and chair.
The vision from his left eye showed a very different sight. Though the images from his left eye became a little blurred, he still perceived a massive difference from what his other eye transmitted back to his brains!
His enhanced sight plainly told him that the compartment was packed with dark-robed cultists!
Perhaps a hundred cultists stood side-by-side, filling up every available space and leaving virtually no free space between their bodies!
The cultists stood next to the bulkheads, next to the Coinlord and his desk, next to Commander Lydia and Major Verle, and more alarmly right in front of Ves and the other members of the delegation!
Frighteningly enough, their bodies and their dark hooded faces faced the nearest visible entity, resembling the behavior of metal files when thrown at a magnet. Those closest to the Coinlord stared at the worshipper in charge of business transaction, while the invisible entities that stood only a finger's width apart from Ves stared directly in his face!
He suppressed every possible reaction he could make! He even pressed an internal button in his suit of armor to lock it up entirely so that he could focus on keeping his expression and eye movements as neutral as possible.
He couldn't let the dark cultists know he detected their presence!
His concentration proved to be a great help in this endeavor. He reacted quickly enough to halt his facial twitches before they could fully convey his shock of recognition.
Ves especially fought back his impulse to stare directly in the eyes of the cultist whose face was only five or so centimeters away from his own!
What was going on?! How could so many cultists sneak inside this compartment and remain invisible and undetectable? Despite facing a dark-hooded cultist right in front of his face, Ves did not sense that cultist's breath at all!
Were the cultists even physically present in this compartment? If Ves were to stretch his arm forward, would he bump into their bodies or go right through them as if they existed in another plane?
A small part of his mind doubted whether his left eye wasn't making things up. Surely there couldn't be so many invisible cultists in the compartment? Neither his human senses nor the sensors of his combat armor detected anything amiss! Therefore, Ves started to doubt whether the presence had manifested in the compartment in a physical form.
On an impulse, Ves temporarily unlocked his armor suit and abruptly raised his arm as if to stretch it out of boredom.
He expected his arm to go right through the cultist standing in front of him. He did not expect the cultist to quickly move backwards, avoiding the armored limb entirely.
The robed figure's movement had a ripple effect on his fellow cultists. Every invisible worshipper next to him moved backwards to provide more space, causing the invisible figures behind them to make way as well.
A simple gesture from Ves caused almost half of the cultists to rear back!
Ves seriously became distressed. Were these cultists physically present in this compartment? How could that be!