The days passed with irritating slowness for Billy. Most of the second day had been spent in repeated but fruitless arguments with Nexus, who refused to see Billy’s point that Drake was perfectly capable of killing Reps all by himself; and that Billy should therefore be returned promptly to Earth. Nexus had at first tried to explain about the nature of prophecy, and the absolute necessity of Billy being here to carry it out. But Nexus must have grown annoyed by Billy’s continued arguments, because the old wizard finally stopped talking to Billy at all. Instead he made a bottle of some dark liquid appear, drank it all, and became quite inebriated. In that state, the old man alternately laughed and cursed, but rarely at anything Billy was saying. Billy finally acquiesced, agreeing to do the mission. Nexus sobered up long enough to tell Billy that was good, but Billy would need to complete his schooling first. Great. School.
Now at the middle of the third day Billy was at the end of his patience. He was frustrated not by the need to learn about this place, but at the total irrelevance of the subjects. Billy needed to learn about his targets. Where, how many, their defenses, their fighting tactics. But Nexus dawdled on history, geography, politics, even languages!
“Takashema, you’re daydreaming again!” grumbled Nexus, glaring at Billy with his blind white eyes. Billy found the old man’s ability to stare directly at him disconcerting – and Billy suspected that was why Nexus found it so effective.
“Nexus, I don’t understand the need to go over all this material,” responded Billy. “Like this Condeu language. I already had a spell put on me to understand languages.”
“Not precisely correct, young man.” Nexus tilted his head to match Billy’s, and for extra effect exactly mimicked Billy’s frown. Billy abruptly straightened.
“There was a spell cast on you that enabled you to understand the Mileu language, which was that being spoken by the majority of the wizards present in the chamber. There are numerous other languages spoken in this world, and you understand none of them.”
“Why didn’t Kratia give me understanding of all the languages at once?”
“It wasn’t necessary. Why waste the extra energy required?”
“I really don’t understand this,” Billy complained with a frown.
“That’s rather obvious,” answered Nexus. “But I believe that you have the capacity to learn, so I will try to teach you.” Nexus said. “Unless you would prefer to attend classes downstairs with the other new students? Being surrounded by a dozen preteens might be good for you.” Nexus walked over to the open window cut in the stone of his tower room. His face peered out through the opening, seeming to take in all the bustle of the courtyard hundreds of yards below.
“Nexus, can you see?” asked Billy. “Or are you putting me on?”
Nexus frowned. “A little of both, I suppose. I really am blind. Can’t get any sort of image through the eye, nor can I get any response from the optic nerve. But with the right spells I can reach out my mind to touch the essence of what is around me.” Nexus paused for a moment, turning back to face Billy. “It’s sterile, though. I can tell you the color of the apples in my bowl; describe to you its exact shape. In my mind that information is recorded precisely and analytically. But I have no holistic sense nor intuitive understanding of the raw data my magic brings to me. A blessing and a curse. I can analyze to excruciating detail almost any object or activity, but I can’t tell you if it’s beautiful or ugly.”
With a flutter of black wings and a squawk, Crow appeared in the window and landed on Nexus shoulder. “Ah, Crow! What news do you bring to the old man?” asked Nexus, bending his head near the bird’s beak.
“I need a drink,” said Crow.
“I think not. Tell me what you have seen,” said Nexus. There was a minute of guttural squawks and chirps, and some snatches of what must have been Mileu, since Billy picked up a few words.
“Merely gossip,” said Nexus, turning to face Billy again. “Nothing so important as to interrupt your training. Though at your speed, the training will take years!”
“Why can’t you just use your magic to teach me?” asked Billy. “Like the way I was taught the Mileu language.”
“Because you have to want it,” replied Nexus.
“I do. Anything is better than this snail pace crawl over unimportant details.”
Nexus shook his head. “You don’t want to learn these lessons, you merely want to have them done with.”
“But I learned the language…”
“Of course you did! You heard people talking and you wanted to know what they were saying. You opened the gate for Kratia’s spell to work on you. Well, you have to want to learn this the same way!”
Billy frowned, and so did Nexus. “Billy, what is it that you want most now?”
“How to get back home!” Billy snapped.
“You already know how,” Nexus replied. “You have to complete this mission against the Reps. Only then will the Circle again release the restrictions that prevent transport between our worlds.”
Billy sighed. “Teach me about the Reps. Let history and geography wait awhile.”
Nexus paused in thought. “Why not? The order in which you learn the important facts is not vital. We will begin with the Reps!”
Billy closed his eyes, expecting the knowledge to come flooding into his mind. But he could detect not even the faintest stirring in his thoughts or memories. He opened his eyes, to find Nexus’s face only an inch from his.
“It is not enough merely to wait and expect, Billy Takashema! You have to want to know the information. Intensely! Precisely! Your subconscious defends itself well, and only by great desire will its defenses be lowered.
“Dwell on this: whether you understand the Reps or not, you will have to face them. And if you face them without knowledge, they will kill you. Painfully. Completely. And the Circle won’t waste the energy to send a corpse back to its home world.”
Billy felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise up in anger. He glared at the old blind man, who was glaring back at him. Then Nexus smiled; innocent and serene, and the ludicrousness of the situation made Billy smile as well.
Nexus was right of course. He knew Billy had a well developed sense of survival, and that those senses were telling him now to pay attention and learn! Billy sighed, and resolved to learn everything that Nexus could teach him, even if he had to learn it the hard old‑fashioned way.
Billy bent over the sensiball, in which the image of a loathsome, lizard-like creature with leathery wings was flapping over a moonlit landscape. He studied the creature: its appearance, especially from a functional standpoint; and its speed, as judged from the apparent motion above the ground. What was the proboscis for? The talons ‑ as sharp as they looked? The night sky ‑ did that imply the creature was nocturnal? How did that affect its vision? Or did it use infrared? Or echo location? What was its peak speed? How maneuverable was it at close quarters? How could one fight them? The questions flooded into his mind.
Billy felt his awareness of the Reps deepen; a tingling feeling washed over his skin as an eerie feeling of déjà vu gripped him. Suddenly he felt weak and dizzy, and pushed himself back from the desk. The weakness and tingling sensation faded, but he realized that he now knew the answers to the questions he had been pondering. The facts associated with the Reps were fixed with great clarity in his memories.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Nexus asked. “Magic by itself can neither help nor hurt you, Billy Takashema. It is a tool. A means to an end. Remember that. And now I think you’re ready for the little trip that Nasan suggested.”
He followed Nexus out of the apartment into the hallway. Instead of heading for the stairs, Nexus went to the central column, opened the door and stepped into the darkness. Billy stared open mouthed. Nexus was floating in the air.
“Come on, Billy. This is our version of the elevator. I’ll share my levitation spell with you.”
Hesitantly Billy stepped into the open shaft. He felt buoyed up. Then they were drifting downward. Billy decided it felt kind of nice.
“Normally, I would drop like a rock, and then stop myself just before the bottom,” said Nexus. “But if I were to do that now, I suspect that your fear would make it impossible to actuate the spell, and we would fall to our deaths.”
Billy took a deep breath, but stayed calm. Nexus would not let anything happen to him. The wizards needed him.
“Good control,” said Nexus as they reached the bottom and stepped out.
The library was not what Billy had expected. There were no endless shelves of books lining all the walls and hallways; there were no scrolls stacked neatly into niches. There were many tables, at least twenty, and most had soft padded chairs around them. Atop each table was a clear sphere about eight inches in diameter. At five of the tables there were people standing, staring into the sensiballs. At three other tables, there were people sitting, and also staring into their globes.
There was a librarian, of sorts. He was sitting behind a large desk, but rose as he and Nexus approached.
“Lord Nexus! A pleasure it is to see you! So seldom do you grace the library with your presence. It has been years.” The man gave an enormous smile, which reminded Billy of a picture of the Cheshire Cat that he had seen long ago in a children’s book.
“Lembro, I am sorry that I have not kept in touch. My duties and my own studies have kept me rather busy,” replied Nexus.
“Ah yes, duties! Would that I could escape mine!” said the librarian, nodding. “Will you be making an addition, or just a reading, Lord?”
“Just a reading today. For my pupil, Billy Takashema.” Nexus waved his hand in Billy’s direction and Billy nodded. Nexus opened his robe and pulled out a dimly glowing ivory rod. He handed it over to the librarian, who placed it in a receptacle on the desk. Leaning over, Billy saw that inner side of the desk was laid out like some sort of control panel; there were schematic representations of all the tables in the room, and at the circles corresponding to the occupied tables, glowing rods had been inserted. As Billy watched, the librarian moved to insert Nexus’s rod into one of the circles far removed from the others.
“Lembro, I don’t need a private chamber. There are several empty table here. We’ll take one of them.”
The librarian nodded and pushed the wand into one of the circles. “Table 4, Lord Nexus,” smiled Lembro.
As they walked over to there table Billy asked, “Nexus, what is the purpose of the wand?”
“The library isn’t free. Their rates are reasonable, but they must meet their operating expenses.”
“With magic wands?”
Nexus smiled. “Have you forgotten our first conversation already? Do you still think the wands are magic?”
Billy frowned. “You said wands are energy sources. Like batteries, I suppose. But I don’t see why magic has to be concerned with energy. Magic is…magic. It just happens.”
“Fallacious conclusions drawn from insufficient evidence.” Nexus shook his head. “Magic needs energy to work, and if you didn’t have a ready source, your own body metabolism provides it!”
“If you can get the energy from your body, why bother with wands?”
“Because the amount of energy needed is determined by the difference in the energy states of the before and after conditions of the environment affected by the spell, plus the energy involved with the dynamics of the spell itself. Your body just isn’t powerful enough to actuate most spells.” Nexus grasped the gold and ivory rod clipped on his belt, and lifted it up. “This is an energy wand. Charged with electricity. There’s a considerable amount in this one. About 100 Megs. Quite a bit more than your body could handle! Wands like this can be used to directly power almost any device in Salmineria. Furthermore, the energy in these wands is the medium of financial exchange; our currency, so to speak.”
“The wands are not magic,” Billy intoned, still reluctant to give up his concept.
“Billy, very few inanimate objects can sustain a magic spell; The Elves used to be able to enchant objects. But now that they are gone, spells endure only so long as a wizard or the Crystal is casting it.” He smiled. “In a strange world, it is unwise to carry old assumptions. Seek the truth of this world, Billy.”
They reached Table 4 and Nexus continued. “Take this library as an example. The sensiballs are not in themselves magic, but they have an intricate atomic structure that was designed and created with magic. The unique material and structure allows storage of data at the quantum level, amplification of the tiniest electromagnetic or vibratory signals, and sensitivity to both thought and magic. They are a part of the magic spell that Lembro and the other librarians cast for us.”
“Wait a minute. Their spell; you aren’t going to use your own magic for this, Nexus?” asked Billy.
“Of course not! This is a public library; open to non-magicians who wish to use it. The librarians do most of the spelling here, not the users. Of course, the library in the Guild is self-service; that’s why I brought you out here. You may want to do some research on your own, without me holding your hand.”
Billy nodded, but not really comprehending much. “How does this place work?”
“Very straight forward. You place your hand upon the sensiball,” he pointed to he transparent globe on the table. “And concentrate on a question. If you really want to know the answer, your question is transmitted to a central archive sensiball that is networked to all these. If the information is found, it is transmitted back to your mind via the sensiball. If the information is not found, the librarian is notified via a spell that links him to the sensiball. He then delves magically into other library archives, searching for the answer to that question. If it is found, and you are authorized to have that information, it is fed back to the sensiball and either made visible or impressed directly upon your mind, depending on your preference. If the answer is either not on file, or denied to you, you are so informed. The energy expended on the spells, plus a small additional charge for overhead, is deducted directly from the energy wand that I deposited with him. Understand?”
Billy nodded, following a little more this time. He placed his hands on the ball and concentrated. Nothing happened. Nexus rolled his eyes; a very disconcerting act for Billy, who saw the milky white cataracts vanish under the upper lids, then reappear.
“Billy! You have to concentrate! You can’t just think, ‘let me know everything’. Focus your questions! Narrow your scope! Your mind doesn’t have the capacity to absorb everything in the archives and I don’t have enough energy on deposit to pay for it even if you could!”
Nexus stood up. “Just a moment – I want to make sure the library has the information we need readily available.” Nexus walked back to Lembro and murmured something quietly. Lembro nodded, and Nexus returned.
“Now, Billy. Are you ready to concentrate?”
“The wands. Maybe I’ll get it straight on what they are.”
“Fine. Do it then. I’m not doing it for you.”
“First I have to touch the Sensiball?”
“It is not vital for a wizard, but it is necessary for the common folk. And even many wizards touch it; it helps keep the link to the library open while your thoughts concentrate on the topic of interest.”
Billy focused his thoughts on the wand tied to Nexus’s belt. He stared at it, desiring to know everything about it. What was it made of; how much energy did it hold; was it rechargeable, and if so, how was it recharged? Many questions, which brought up more questions. Concentrate. Concentrate.
Billy felt a sudden sharpening of his senses, reminding him of the way he felt the two nights before, when he had gone exploring. He shuddered at the sensation, and though the feeling of weakness hit him again, he kept his concentration focused. The knowledge of power wands unfolded in his memories.
All the answers, in full.
With respect to the wands, Billy absorbed as much information as the library had to offer, and knew with certainty that he had it all. Billy looked at Nexus, hand still on the sensiball. “This sure takes a lot out of.”
Billy went sprawling across the floor, caught totally unprepared by Nexus’s blow. He rolled, twisted, and came up in a crouch facing Nexus. He hadn’t known the old man could move so fast, but he wouldn’t be caught off guard again.
“Don’t you ever, EVER, talk while you have a spell in action!” shouted the wizard, his billowing white hair lending a maniacal tone to the words.
“What the hell was that for, Nexus!”
“Talking! Don’t. Talk. When. Spelling. You should always spell in silence. It’s too damn easy to slip into a prophecy spell.”
“I didn’t cast a spell,” Billy muttered.
Nexus offered a hand to Billy. “I’m sorry I hit you; it was the quickest thing I could do to break your spell.”
“You mean the library’s spell.”
“No, yours. Good one, too. And no wonder it took a lot out of you; you did it the hard way. Double hard, in fact.”
“What are you saying, Nexus?”
“First of all, you cast that spell yourself. The librarians did not assist you. I had Lembro see to that.”
Billy’s eyes widened. “I cast a spell?”
“But I didn’t say any magic words. No incantations, no rituals.”
Nexus smiled. “There you go again, carrying old assumptions around. Magic isn’t words and phrases. In fact, talking is the worst thing you can do when you’re spelling. Don’t ever talk while you spell. It isn’t safe. It can kill you.”
Billy’s head was spinning. “I cast a spell!”
Nexus nodded. “And it wasn’t even your first. Nasan told me you were casting a spell of concealment on your first night here.”
Billy looked stunned. “No. I couldn’t have.”
“You’re a natural, Billy. Untrained, inexperienced, but a natural, nonetheless. We have work to do, and it won’t be easy. Most talented mages are discovered before they reach their teens, and promptly entered in the guild. You’re a very late starter.”
“But the spells, they take so much out of you!”
“The way you did them no wonder!”
Billy looked puzzled. “What do you mean, Nexus?”
Nexus pointed his finger to his head. “Billy, you have got to start using that brain of yours a bit more. Why don’t you check all that new found information you just received and find out if anything is relevant to your situation.”
Billy was quiet for a moment, thinking. He smiled. “I didn’t use a power wand; since all spells need an energy source, my spells drew on my own body’s energy.” Billy stopped smiling. “I’m lucky the spells I cast didn’t need more energy than they did. I could have killed myself!”
Nexus laughed, an unusual cackle that turned some heads. Billy scanned the faces throughout the room. Lembro was smiling, as were a few others. Most were indifferent, lost in their own sensiballs. Some of the librarians were frowning, though none would dare to chastise a Lord. Except maybe one.
A dark robed mage with thin black eyebrows and a hooked nose glared at Billy and Nexus. Billy thought he looked familiar. The mage made no move towards them.
“Billy, it isn’t quite that easy to get wasted by magic. Let me show you how to draw on the power wand, and you can do some research on the Strictures.”
“I know how to use a wand now, Nexus,” Billy responded. “At least, I have the knowledge of how to do it. But there’s a person at the far side of the room glaring at us. He looks angry. Are we in trouble?”
Crow twisted his head around to stare at the mage, then leaned over and whispered something in Nexus’s ear.
“Oh, that’s Dacsinj, the Chief Librarian. He hates disturbances, but he isn’t any bother. At least, not while you’re with me. And I’ll leave word that you are to have run of the library even when you’re alone.”
“Other people are staring, too.”
“That bothers you, does it. I suppose a ninja tries to stay out of sight so much that being visible is practically a phobia. Not much help for you there, Billy. You’re a stranger here. And a VIP to those who know why you’re here. Don’t let it bother you. Here, use my wand.”
Billy took it.
“Now, concentrate on the Strictures. They are accessed so often they should pop up quickly.”
Billy gripped the wand in one hand, touched the sensiball with the other. He concentrated. Suddenly the seven Strictures of the Blue Crystal appeared in his mind. He pulled back from the sensiball, made sure that he wasn’t casting any spell.
“Wow,” Billy said. “That’s way cool. I understand them all.”
Nexus grunted. “The basics, at least. Now, you should be aware of the various tenth level spells that the Circle has entered into the matrix of the Crystal.”
Billy looked blank. “Plain language, please?”
Nexus glared. “Access the information that you just learned! What’s level refer to?”
“The number of wizards that have joined minds to cast a single spell.”
“Good. What’s the matrix?”
“Ah, I think it’s the recorded programming and commands that controls how the Blue Crystal operates.”
“Good. So the recorded tenth level spells are what?”
“The spells cast by the full Circle of Lords, which consist of ten wizards. If the spells are designated as permanent by the Circle, the Crystal absorbs them into its matrix, and enforces them thereafter until canceled or changed.”
“Very good! You move to the head of the class,” said Nexus.
“Okay. But what keeps an even larger circle from just overriding your tenth level spells?”
“Good question. The answer is that humans are so damn individualistic, our motives and personalities so varied, that it is very difficult to fully merge very many minds. It sometimes takes months to fill a vacancy on the Circle of Lords, because each of our minds must be harmonious with every other mind in the Circle. And that is for good, honest wizards. Evil, selfish wizards can rarely form even a third level spell. They just can’t share power.”