Sleep did not come easily to Billy. Neither mantra nor meditation restored his normal sense of inner peace; there was a gnawing feeling of incompleteness, which in turn led to anxiety. All due, Billy suspected, from the strangeness of his surrounding, his lack of knowledge and familiarity with where he was and who was there with him. He lay quietly on the bed and waited until the old man’s breathing had eased into the easy rhythmic pattern of deep sleep.
Silently Billy rose and dressed, his movements swift and sure in the darkness. He slung his pouch over his shoulder and slipped out the door.
The deserted, dimly lit corridor contained no lamps, torches, candles, or other visible explanation for the illumination. The circular corridor was about six feet wide and nine feet high, constructed of massive stone blocks set without mortar. He flicked a shuriken at the door. It stuck with a soft thud. Now that he had marked his starting point, he began walking the corridor. He quickly discovered the inner wall had a single door, which opened to a dark hole about six feet across that plunged to an undetermined depth. Billy closed the door and continued around the corridor. There were only three doors on the outer wall, one of them Nexus’s apartment. He also verified there was only a single passageway intersecting the circular hall. The straight passage extended thirty feet to a door that opened onto the stone staircase.
The chamber where he had first arrived in this world lay through that door, and up two levels. The way there was straightforward, and he didn’t expect to find anything unusual along the way, but he wanted to prove that he could get there. After all, if this was a magic kingdom there might be some kind of spell to make a person get lost. If so, Billy wanted to find out about it now. He trusted his senses and his abilities, and needed to assure himself that the trust remained valid in this strange world.
He arrived at the top level of the tower without incident, but before opening the huge double doors to the chamber, he stepped onto the balcony, feeling the cool night breeze caress his face. No one stirred on the courtyard below. An enormous moon hung suspended in the night sky.
Billy held out his arm and spread open his fingers: he could not cover the disk of the moon. Much larger than Earth’s moon, at least in appearance. Strange as well: this moon had no patterns of seas and mountains like the patterns of Earth’s moon. No craters pockmarked its face.
The rest of the sky was empty. Billy thought at first that there must be cloud cover blocking the stars, but the sky was clear, crisp black. There were no stars.
To the right of the moon Billy saw a small, dimly glowing ellipse. Whether the ellipse was a cloud, a star, or a whole galaxy Billy had no idea. It didn’t matter. The sky was certainly none that could be seen from Earth.
From the balcony of the Tower Billy could clearly see many of the buildings of Guildtown. None of the buildings appeared to be more than two or three stories high, although it was hard to tell from this height. Smoke came from a few chimneys, and two of the buildings spilled light and faint music into the air, and the barely heard sounds of a shouting, singing, and clapping.
Just beyond the western border of the town, a wide river spilled into a great sea. The landscape looked distorted somehow; the horizon seemed too close, like he could almost see the waves on that sea from miles away and six hundred feet up. Perhaps by the same optical illusion that made the moon appear so large. Or perhaps this planet was a different size that earth, and just had a big satellite. It didn’t matter to Billy. This wasn’t home, and there was no way back. Unless he played their game.
Billy turned and pushed on the large double doors to the Circle Chamber where he first arrived. The doors opened easily, but when he tried to step through, he ran into an invisible wall. He could see into the chamber perfectly, but no part of his body could cross the threshold. But something felt odd, especially at his feet. And his waist. It took him a moment to realize that his boots and clothes were not being stopped; only his body. He took out a dagger, pushed it forward.
It went in as far as his hand. Shifting hes grip back let him push the dagger in further. He pulled the dagger out, replaced it in the hidden sheath of his uniform. Magic.
Billy easily made his way back to Nexus chamber; he left his shuriken stuck in the door and returned to the stairs. He wasn’t done exploring. Damn, but he was going to get some exercise tonight! Going down several hundred feet of spiral stairs would be bad enough – but the thought of the climb back up made him shake his head. He began skipping quickly down the stairs, hoping to find something more interesting at the bottom.
Six minutes later Billy reached the base of the Tower stairs. A set of large double doors faced him, almost identical to the doors at the top of the Tower. Billy listened at the doors for a moment; hearing nothing, he opened them silently. Wondering if he would be blocked again, he cautiously leaned forward. Meeting no resistance he stepped into the empty corridor beyond. The corridor went straight for about twenty feet, then curved gently to the right. The passageway ended in three doors, left, right, and center. The center door was the largest and appeared to be the most used. Billy slipped through it, his feet soundless on the polished stone floor, all his senses alert.
The door opened into a large oval room, filled with overstuffed chairs and small ornate tables, and a few statues. Fine silk carpets covered much of the stone floor, and tapestries and paintings adorned the walls. Two other doorways were visible, one on the opposite wall, and one on the right wall. The doors at the far end of were massive double doors, constructed of what appeared to be a dark wood reinforced with thick ironwork. They stood about twelve feet high and perhaps fifteen wide. The doors were closed and barred, and two hulking guards armed with swords stood alert on either side. They had not yet seen him.
Two of the statues flanked the door by Billy, and he easily slipped behind the one on the right. From there Billy studied the lay of room, the shadows, and the behavior of the guards. Although brighter than the upstairs corridors, the lounge was not particularly well lit. The light came from a few small luminous balls that floated near the twenty foot ceiling. Their light cast multiple dark shadows from the furniture and statuary. Potential hiding places.
The guards were silent and attentive, eyes constantly in motion, but Billy noted a methodical pattern to their sweeping gaze and was careful to remain motionless and in shadow when either of them turned toward him. Interestingly, the guards’ routine included a study of one another, providing a quick assurance of their continued mutual alertness.
As he watched, one of the guards tilted his head and opened his mouth as if to speak; the other guard jerked his head slightly, and the first man shut his mouth before having made a sound. The second guard moved his fingers in an intricate pattern, to which the first guard replied in kind. Although obviously a sign language, Billy could not translate it. There lack of tension assured him they were not alerted to his presence.
Billy enjoyed the prospect of a challenge; something to which his training and skills could relate. He breathed deeply, willing himself to become one with the dark, silent shadows. He slid along the wall, moving to the right. Crouching low, he surrendered the cover of the statue in favor of a large chair that blocked the view of the guards. Timing his next move to coincide with the two seconds which neither guard was looking this way, he slipped to the shadow of a table, brushing against it, merging with it.
From its shadow he waited and watched the guards. The guards maintained their vigil without variance. Billy looked slowly around, listening, smelling, reaching out with all his senses. He memorized the patterns of light, sound, and texture, seeking to become one with the room and its patterns.
A particularly acute sharpening of his senses brought the entire room into brilliant focus in his mind; he knew its layout, its construction material, its age, its dimensions; he knew the room as if he had lived there his entire life; knew it as if he had designed and built it; knew it with a certainty that left him momentarily disoriented.
Billy shivered with sudden cold, and a muscle in his leg started to tremble as a wave of dizziness hit him. The feeling of heightened awareness faded, and for a moment he felt the touch of fear. He breathed deeply and slowly, calming himself. He forced his fear away, although the unexpected weakness and chills still concerned him. Perhaps he had caught some exotic virus that only flourished here; if so, they better be able to cure it before he went on any real missions.
The detailed memories of the room remained in his head, and without rational explanation for how he might have gotten them, he found he trusted them completely. Recovering his strength and composure, Billy glanced at the guards to recheck his timing, then merged with the shadow of a statue as he continued his way across the room. His new memories told him that the door just ahead on the right wall would lead to a library. What better place to seek some answers?
“Noise! Noise! And so clumsy with the spells! Imprecise!” muttered a man as he walked out of the very door Billy was approaching. Billy dropped beneath the concealment of the large table.
“Well, where is he?” the man asked of the guards, who immediately snapped to attention, while looking completely dumbfounded.
“The apprentice that’s running around out here. Making a racket and trying to cover it up. By the Desolation!” (Billy noticed the guards stiffen almost imperceptibly) “Why do you think I work on my sensory spells at night? Because it’s supposed to be quiet! Quiet. That’s why. And you have orders to maintain that quiet. And that includes ushering apprentices out of the hall while I’m trying to concentrate. Go get him and send him to bed.”
“Lord Nasan,” replied one of the guards. “We have seen no one pass through the hall since nearly an hour ago.”
“Nonsense! I heard someone brush against a table just a few seconds ago. He’s got good control of his breathing, but the footfalls and contact with furniture make distinctive sounds; louder than the creaking of your leather jerkins as you breathe, and enough to be a nuisance.”
The guards spun around, bristling, hands on the hilt of their swords, eyes narrowed in an intense sweep of the hall. Nasan laughed.
“You really didn’t hear him?” They shook their heads. “You didn’t detect his spell?”
“No, Lord Nasan.”
“And you don’t know where he is now?” They shook their heads again.
Nasan sighed, fingering the wand that dangled from his belt. It glowed faintly in his hand for a moment, and he smiled.
“Billy Takashema, go back to bed. I’m sure Nexus will be more than happy to give you a proper tour when you’re ready to appreciate it.”
Billy rose, seeming to materialize from the shadows. The guards started towards him, but Nasan raised a restraining hand. “I had thought Rauders knew magic as well as they know soldiery,” Nasan said chidingly to the guards.
“The Taka Shema goes where he will,” muttered one of them. The second guard gave the first an almost imperceptible nudge before speaking.
“It is nothing more than our age and boredom, Lord Nasan,” he said. “We ask your pardon.”
“Of course. But please escort Mr. Takashema to Lord Nexus’s quarters so I can continue my work.” The guards saw to their task. Billy did not resist, peacefully ending his first day in Salmineria.