Billy stepped into the empty hallway. He reached out with his mind, concentrating on the glow-balls as he clutched at the power wand in his left hand; he felt the forces of magic stirring around and through him. He focused it, willing the light to fade slightly. The sphere dimmed perceptibly.
Billy withdrew his concentration for a moment—he felt the magic fade, but the glow-ball remained dimmed. Billy smiled, though he knew that this was just a tiny step in his plans for tonight. He turned his mind to the hundreds of corridors and open halls that twisted throughout the guild, and the network of glow-balls that illuminated them. His memory of the guild layout, gained from a building schematic in the library, was suddenly and acutely sharpened, as direct knowledge of the layout was superimposed by his magic spell. Eyes closed, Billy could see the entire structure of the guild building floating before him, an eerily detailed three dimensional model of almost infinite detail. Slowly, very slowly, he dimmed the lights in strategic locations. He felt and saw the shadows deepen almost imperceptibly along the corridors.
Billy smiled as he ended the spell. The spell in itself would not arouse any attention from the wizards; Billy had learned that wizards routinely adjusted the light level for their individual comfort. But it wasn’t the wizards whose attention Billy wanted to avoid; it was the ever vigilant ex-Rauder guards that he needed an edge against. Billy had embarrassed them on his first night here, and they had responded by becoming almost inhumanly attentive to their surroundings while on duty. For the last three nights Billy had been unable to slip by them undetected. And though he was not under any restrictions, it had become a personal challenge for him to duplicate his earlier success.
Tonight he thought he could succeed. The spells he had learned should give him just enough of an edge to make his ninja training effective against the Rauders – if they didn’t know what he was up to. They were very good at their job, and had earned Billy’s respect.
Billy paused, listening with magically enhanced hearing, employing a spell Nasan had taught him. At first all seemed quiet. He increased his sensitivity until he reached a level where he was bombarded by hundreds of mundane sounds—the rustle of bedcovers as people stirred in their sleep, the footfalls of guards on rounds, the creak of a chair as someone leaned back. Billy sorted through the sounds and determined that all was well. The ex-Rauder guards had not even noticed the change in lighting. It was time for a little more exploring, and a visit with Nasan.
A half hour later Billy was crouched in shadow just beside the entrance to the library. As usual, Nasan was here working late, and had left orders for the guards to restrict visitors to the library. Billy had found it a challenge to slip by them, but now that he had succeeded, he was wondering just how to approach Nasan. He had seemed friendly enough at their first meeting, but it just hadn’t been enough time to form any firm impressions.
The Lords were the absolute rulers here; it wouldn’t do to get them pissed off.
“Well, Billy, are you coming in or not?” called a voice from inside the library.
Billy slumped and sighed as the Rauder guards came running over, alerted by Nasan’s voice. He stood and spoke to the open doorway as the guards came up beside him. “Lord Nasan, I would like to come in and talk to you for a while.”
“By all means, do,” said Nasan, who had risen from his desk and was now approaching Billy. “Guards, you can let him go. It’s clear enough that Billy has the ability to go where he wants whether the destination is guarded or not. It’s probably simpler that I humor him.”
The guards withdrew after bowing towards Nasan, who was now approaching. One of the guards also bowed to Billy, but was nudged rudely by the other. Nasan chuckled. “It appears that Gorn thinks of you as a Lord, Billy.”
Billy shrugged. “I think they respect skill. I had to be very careful in getting past them. They are much more attentive than the type of people I normally deal with.”
“Rauders are an exceptional race. They are trained from birth to be warriors. Even these cast-offs, exiled from their tribes for various crimes, retain such skills and personal qualities as to make them the best guards or mercenaries in Salmineria.”
“Then why not send a squad of Rauders against the Reps? I still don’t see the need for me or that jarhead Marine that arrived with me.”
Nasan led Billy to a pair of large deeply padded chairs along the wall and the two relaxed into the padded seats. “The Rauders love to fight, but only on an individual basis. They won’t mount an organized attack on anyone or anything unless they are convinced that it’s necessary for their survival. The Reps haven’t made any attacks on Rauder villages, so it would be useless to try and enlist their support. As for ordering our guards to attack the Reps, that option fails on legal grounds. Magicians are allowed to hire security guards, but not to maintain an army. Any attempt to mobilize our guards to fight an outside force, even the Reps, is a violation of a pact between the Guild and the Esafs that dates back to the Wizards War.”
“Nexus says that Kratia would love to have an army.”
“Kratia has a valid concern in that a lot of innocent people are being killed. But she knows the law, and abides by it. The world will never again see an army led by a wizard.”
“So she needs me.”
“Precisely. One or two people cannot be considered an army. Yet she thinks the two of you can pack an equivalent amount of destructive power.” Nasan stared critically at Billy. “To be truthful, I think the ‘jarhead Marine’ has a better chance of wiping out the Reps. He’s trained to perform mass killings. You, on the other hand, specialize in individual assassinations. Kratia must think more of the Reps’ abilities than I do if she believes that they must be individually stalked and assassinated.”
“Nexus said that Kratia believes the Reps are organized in a hive social structure,” Billy replied. “If the queen were killed, the hive would become disoriented, leaderless. Easy to wipe out.”
“So we send in a ninja to assassinate the queens of each Rep nest? Then send in the marine to do the mop up.” Nasan grimaced. “I suppose it might work. It is certainly worth a try anyway. But my willingness to support Kratia is based more in frustration than in confidence. Nothing else has been effective. Although with the prophecy I suppose success is a certainty.”
“What do you mean, prophesy?” asked Billy.
“Nexus didn’t tell you about the prophecy?”
“No. He did say that prophesy was very dangerous and should be avoided.”
Nasan grunted. “He’s certainly right about that. Prophecy is dangerous. But it’s also very powerful, which I suppose is why Kratia used it.”
“She cast a prophecy? About the Reps?”
Nasan nodded. “She did. Indirectly. Kratia maintains a staff, and one of the wizards on her payroll did the actual spelling, but she crafted the words he used.”
“What exactly is the prophecy?”
“Normally you could look up anything you want using one of the library sensiballs, but Icon and the rest of us Lords agreed to restrict certain information to only us, and those we believe have a valid need to know.” Nasan smiled at Billy. “I think that includes you. Follow me.”
Nasan led Billy to the back of the library, to a closed door that opened to the Lord’s touch. Dacsinj was inside, hunched over a scroll. He abruptly stood and moved in front of his scroll. He bowed to Nasan. Billy found that he could not pass the threshold.
“My Lord, how may I be of assistance?” Dacsinj asked.
“I am showing Billy the archive. In particular, I want him to see the prophecies,” answered Nasan. Nasan turned to Billy, saw he could not come in, and cast a very short spell.
Billy nearly stumbled forward as the invisible barrier no longer blocked him.
Inside was a room filled with racks holdings scrolls and sensiballs.
“Welcome to the archives, Mr. Takashema,” said the chief librarian. “Only the Lords and the library staff have access here,” he said. Then, looking at Nasan, he added, “And their guests of course.”
“These scrolls are impregnated with white crystal powder, so they can’t be magically altered,” said Nasan to Billy. “It takes a third level spell—that is, three wizards with linked minds working in harmony—to access the Blue Crystal directly. The Crystal maintains a matrix of information including the Strictures, prophecies, and all permanent higher order spells. Each day our chief librarian and his staff access the Blue Crystal. He memorizes the information, then writes down any updates on these scrolls. He also copies the information to these special sensiballs, for easy access by the Lords.
“Let me show you,” said Nasan, placing his hand on a sensiball. Instantly the interior of the globe showed three scrolls. “There are only three current prophecies. Here they are.”
Billy stared into the sensiball, looking at the scrolls. He felt Nasan sorting through them. Billy knew the first was about the Esaf Mileu, the second was about Nexus. The third and last was the prophesy that a wizard named Juran had cast, acting for Kratia. It said “A ninja and a mercenary shall come from earth bringing skills and tactics that will end the scourge of the Reps.”
“It’s sparse on the details,” said Billy.
“Most prophecies are,” answered Nasan. “The more wiggle room you have, the better your chance of surviving the spell. Specifying the what, when, and how is a sure recipe for getting yourself killed.”
Dacsinj coughed discretely. “Will you be needing anything else, My Lord? I have a lot of work to do before retiring for the night.”
“Sorry, Dacsinj. We’ll be leaving now,” said Nasan. He and Billy left the archive and took seats in the deserted lounge.
“Lord Nasan, if Kratia is running this operation, why am I here with Nexus?” Billy asked. “And what’s going on between the two of them? I know I was a bit disoriented when I first arrived here, but I seem to remember a lot of tension between Kratia and Nexus.”
“Why don’t you ask Nexus?” said Nasan.
“I did. He said, ‘Never trust a wizard,’ and refused to talk further about it.”
Nasan laughed. “He did, did he? Well, I suppose that’s good general advice. We are all somewhat secretive and devious at times.”
“Is there something between them? I’d prefer not to get caught in the middle of a wizard’s feud.”
“Don’t worry about that, Billy. Kratia brought you here and evidently values you highly. Nexus values you as well, for he considers himself the greatest wizard in the Circle, and wants to handle your training personally.”
Billy considered this for a moment. “You don’t consider him to be the greatest wizard, do you?”
“You’re a good observer, Billy. You listen closely to words, tonal inflections and body language,” answered Nasan slowly. “I am reminded to act more like a wizard and keep myself more secretive when around you.”
A look of disappointment flashed across Billy’s face, until Nasan started laughing again. “Billy, I’m not upset. In fact, I’m paying you a complement!” Still chuckling, he added, “but take my words to heart as well, if you intend to continue your education in wizardry!”
Billy decided to continue his query. “I was considering his health. Specifically his blindness. I’ve studied some of healing spells, and I know that cataracts are easily cured. Why doesn’t he heal himself?”
“I supposed you asked him that,” Nasan said.
Billy nodded. “And he avoided the topic, finding ways to divert the conversation or engineer convenient interruptions. Once he muttered something about the curse of the Crystal, but he wouldn’t elaborate. I did a little research on him, studying what the library had to offer. Not much, but I did learn that he was a key figure in the Wizards War, and that he helped hunt down a renegade wizard named Murgorath. I wondered if there was a connection, and asked him.” Billy shook his head. “But he went into a rage, and told me never to utter that name again in his presence.” Billy looked at Nasan questioningly. “I really touched a nerve with him.”
“That you did, Billy.” Nasan was not smiling. “Murgorath is a name that upsets most people, wizard or plebe,” using the word commonly used by wizards to refer to non-wizards.
“Who was he?”
“Exactly what you said earlier. A renegade wizard. A Lord, in fact. Trusted by all, until he threw all Salmineria into war, and destroyed the entire kingdom of the Elves in the process.”
“Sort of like Adolph Hitler on Earth.”
Nasan shrugged. “Perhaps. I am not very familiar with Earth history. But I think Murgorath was more purely evil, and could use magic to express that evil in ways that would not be possible on Earth. Anyway, Nexus is particularly sensitive because he lost his only son in the war, and lost his sight as well.”
“I wondered if he might not have all his mental faculties,” Billy said softly.
“Nexus will turn one hundred sixteen years old in a few days,” answered Nasan. “That’s a respectable age, although it not unusual for some wizards to reach a hundred fifty or so. Icon is over one hundred twenty years old now, and he’s still the best Center we’ve had in three hundred years. Still, it’s difficult to tell just when the brain starts to deteriorate from age, because the effects can be subtle, and may not immediately affect the ability to cast spells. We learn with age, and the knowledge makes us act differently than we do in our youth. I am only sixty years old myself, and hardly qualified to judge the wisdom of my peers.”
“But you look like a man in his thirties!” Billy exclaimed.
“Magic can do wonders. Like cosmetic surgery in your world, Billy. Only infinitely better. Magic can restore organs, erase wrinkles, make you look and feel your best for as long as you live.”
“Then why aren’t you immortal?” Billy asked.
“Ah, the central question!” replied Nasan. “And quite simple to answer, really. It’s the brain, Billy. In every wizard’s brain there is a unique arrangement of cells that give him or her the ability to control the force of magic. But the specific location and arrangement of the cells is different for every magician; worse, a slight change in that cellular arrangement can destroy the gift of magic permanently.”
“So the limiting factor in aging is the brain,” commented Billy. “At least for wizards. What about normal people? Can they be immortal?”
“The Circle decided immortality should not be available. We have a 10th level spell that prevents immortality spells from being cast. There are only two exceptions, which predate that ban.”
“The Esafs,” said Billy.
Nasan nodded. “Right.”
“But Nexus could be going senile. And no one could heal him if he were.”
“Don’t be worried, Billy,” said Nasan calmly. “Only part of what you say is true. If Nexus were senile due to deterioration of the brain, it’s true that he would not want to be healed because of the risk of losing the magic. But we certainly have the ability to determine whether or not there is damage to anyone’s brain. In fact, brain scans are one of the standard periodic tests that provide the Circle with some level of security and confidence that its members are genuine and are still fully functional. In fact, controlled copies of the Lords’ brain patterns are stored right here in the library, under tight security. Along with genetic scans of DNA, and secret personal mantras that serve as ‘passwords’. The library staff does immediate comparisons against everyone who enters the high tower, where the Lords meet in Circle. The Lords in turn make sure that the library staff is genuine and loyal.”
“Isn’t it unwise to be disclosing security related information to me,” commented Billy.
Nasan smiled. “The system is foolproof. This is Salmineria, Billy. Not Earth. Magic makes things work here with a precision and level of confidence that cannot be achieved anywhere else in the universe!”
Billy looked doubtful, but let the matter drop. “I still wonder why Nexus gets so emotional. The war was decades ago. And why hasn’t he healed his eyes? That’s not brain related.” With a sudden inspiration he asked, “Does it have anything to do with one of those other prophecies?”
Nasan sank back in the padded seat, reached into the folds of his robes and pulled out a long, deep-bowled pipe and a pouch of dried powdery leaves. “Let me tell you a small bit of a very long story,” he said. Then he was silent as he pinched some of the brown mixture into the pipe and touched one of the wands dangling from his belt. A red glow appeared in the bowl, and a wisp of smoke curled up from the now smoldering mass.
“It was the year 6898, and it was a very good year for Nexus.”
“Excuse me, Nasan, but are the years here consistent with Earth’s?”
“No, no. I’m talking Salminerian years. Don’t worry about the conversion, you can work it out later. Suffice it to say that this is the year 6949, and that a year here has more days in it than an earth year – 511, although we have shorter days. The total volume of time evens out so that our years do correspond, but because of the time differential, we speed by three times faster that Earth.
“As I was saying, 6898 was a good year for your mentor. He had just returned to the Guild after forty years of traveling the world, meeting the various races, learning new skills and perfecting old ones, healing and teaching, righting wrongs and generally making friends. Before he left on his journey he had been accounted as a powerful young master wizard; when he returned he was still a young man, in perfect health, and had already learned more than many of the Lords. He was elected to the Circle later that year, and before the year was over he was elected to be the Center. Unheard of! The very next year he was blessed with the birth of a son as well. Takair was his name, born of Nexus and Neosha, the beautiful Rauder bride he had taken on his travels. Takair was to be Nexus’s only child. Life was good for a while; it was still the ‘Seere luume’, an Elvish phrase that means the peaceful years. It was the Golden Years that followed the construction and activation of the Blue Crystal. Even the Elves had cause to celebrate, for the first Elf born in a thousand years was born in 6899.
“All was well for eight years. Though Nexus found his duties as Center required much of his time, he continued to spend much time in travels and visits with his friends, especially the Elves. The Elf child, Desna, had taken a special liking to Nexus and he to him, and often Nexus would spend evenings in Aloria. He loved his own family dearly, but young Takair showed very little magical talent, while Desna, like all Elves, had a natural and powerful ability.
“Then the Wizards War began, and chaos shook all the civilizations of Salmineria. Within a year the cursed Murgorath had overthrown Aloria and laid waste to scores of towns and cities. He seized Minas Palanar, the Tower of Warning, and renamed it Dreadmore, which in the black language of the demons is Krasbrinae. From there he mounted even more attacks, his armies growing bold and fearless like the Rauders. One of the places that he attacked was Guildtown, the collection of small homes and shops that surround this very building. Many people were killed. One of them was Neosha, though by fortune or fate young Takair survived.
“Then armies of the Esafs combined to assaulted Dreadmore, and Murgorath was soon forced to flee into secret caves deep in the Jastic Mountains. Nexus led a band of the bravest warriors to search him out, with Icon as his second in command. Nexus brought Takair with him, believing that his skills as a wizard was his son’s best protection, for many bands of free lance soldiers and criminals were roaming the countryside, looting and pillaging nearly at will while the soldiers and wizards were in distracted by the war.
“Well, Nexus’s band of heroes was ambushed in a narrow pass, and in the melee Takair was knocked or thrown over a ledge and into a deep ravine. After the battle, Nexus was crazed with grief and rage; he muttered something about not seeing his son alive – and that was his undoing, since he was in the midst of casting some spell at the time. Instantly the Crystal struck him blind, for it takes all words literally that are spoken during a spell, and will make them come true, or kill the person that speaks them. Such is the nature of prophecy that was imprinted in the Crystal in its creation.
“Murgorath was ultimately overthrown and killed a few years later, but Nexus was never the same. He mourns, he rages. No spell of healing can touch his eyes, for the Crystal itself made them blind. He is still a skilled wizard, perhaps even the best. But he will never again be the Center, for his moods are dark and he has little ability to compromise.”
For a long time Billy and Nasan sat in the library, silently watching the wisps of smoke wind their way to the ceiling.