Chapter 27 of Quest for the Blue Crystal

Billy reined up on his horse, suddenly uneasy. He looked around, eyes wide, ears sensitive, nose sniffing. Every one of his ninja trained senses was alert for danger.

The forest of dead trees gave little opportunities for concealment. There were no leaves on the trees, and no brush or high grass on the ground. Nothing green grew here, only some brownish weeds that clung tenaciously to life along the unkempt road. Enemies might be hiding behind the few trunks still standing, but Billy sensed nothing other than the barren forest. Still, he could not deny the growing anxiety.

Nexus came up on his right, apparently sleeping as his head drooping and bobbing up and down with the horses stride. Crow stood on his master’s shoulder and regarded Billy with quiet scrutiny.

“This is the ancient home of untold generations of Elves,” Nexus stated without raising his head. “Their spirits still dwell here, on some plane that we can’t detect with our senses. It is those spirits that you make you uncomfortable.”

“The dead are dead and Aloria is only a place. I feel something more.”

“Aloria was more than a place,” said Nexus. His voice turned harsh. “The Elves weren’t human. How do you know what becomes of their spirits after death? Or even if they die at all.”

“Don’t get riled up, Nexus.”

Nexus muttered something unintelligible. They continued along the road, rounding a small bend and the ruins of a small town emerged from the concealing deadwood.  Billy knew from Nexus that elfin towns were quite a spectacle in their day; but the cracked marble pillars and collapsed roofs looked pathetic.

Billy turned his horse off the road to avoid a building wall that had fallen across the road. Billy didn’t know the substance it was made of, nor what it was supposed to look like when it was new, but what it looked like now was a huge lump of gray clay that was turning to powder at the edges and covered with white mold in the middle. He didn’t want his horse to touch it, and gave it a wide berth.

The rim of the sun kissed the horizon. Billy found the idea of sleeping here distinctly unpleasant, but there was no way they could make Anro Pass before dark, and he agreed with Nexus that traversing a mountain pass at night was a foolish risk. Still, the idea seemed appealing compared to this place. He urged his horse back onto the debris strewn road, careful to avoid a few other patches of the mold. He was hoping to find a relatively nice spot to set up camp near the road once they got through the town.

He shot a glance back at Nexus and was surprised to see him dismounting at the fallen wall.

“Nexus! Are you crazy as well as blind? We don’t want to stop in this dead city. Let’s move on and find a good place to set up camp. It’ll be dark soon!”

Nexus ignored him and bent over to scoop up some of the powder at the edge of the wall. He let it run through his fingers and shook his head slowly. “This just isn’t right, Billy. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. How could Murgorath have done this? The atrocity.”

Billy reluctantly turned around and made his way back. He dismounted and touched the old Lord on the shoulder.

“It happened a long time ago, Nexus. It’s over. Just a sad, bitter memory. Let it go.”

Nexus straightened abruptly, shaking off Billy’s hand. “The Elves aren’t even dead!” he shouted. “Don’t you understand? They still exist, but they are prisoners, slaves. All of them. At least, the handful of them that aren’t really dead. And whether zombie or dead, a part of all their spirits are here; that’s what you and I sense. Helpless and hopeless; slaves of the Crystal, bound by its power.”

“That was a long time ago, Nexus. There’s nothing you can do to help them now.”

Nexus turned and aimed his featureless white eyes at Billy. The lines of his face were harsh. “I will show you a small fraction of the wonder of the Elves,” he said. “Break off a stout staff from one of the dead trees and bring it to me.”

Billy shrugged and complied, returning in a moment with a seven foot staff, about two inches in diameter. He warned Nexus that the wood had been dead a long time and was probably not too strong.

“It doesn’t matter. This will work well, if it works at all.” Nexus turned around and began walking towards the center of the town, where the crumbled base of an arch stood like two broken upstretched arms.

Billy reluctantly followed.

“I was a friend to the Elves, and knew them better than any man alive. They were masters of the mind, and of magic. Pure telepaths! Every one of them in constant contact with everyone else. A mass mind of sublime grace, power, intelligence, beauty. Imagine, every spell at a level of hundreds, thousands! The wonders they could do, and did.”

“I would rather be an individual than a prisoner of a community standard,” said Billy. “Ah, but they were hardly prisoners, Billy. Each was still an individual, with personal likes and dislikes, talents and foibles. The mass mind was like having beloved friends with you, whenever and to whatever extent you felt comfortable.”

Crow whispered something in Nexus ear as they reached the base of a small building, long since collapsed. Nexus paused, then climbed up the crumbling steps of the building. He made his way past broken walls and pushed inside.

Billy followed, and found Nexus kneeling over a circular pool of mud in the center of the single room of the building. A statue of what must have once been a young Elfin maiden lay in the mud. Its arms were broken, the face cracked and pitted by exposure to the sun, rain, and wind.

Nexus moaned.

Billy knelt beside the old man.

“This was the fountain of hope, Billy. ‘Ektele en Estela’ in the short form of the old tongue. It could show bits of the future, those bits that held happiness for the person staring into the water. Look at it, Billy! Look at it now. Mud! Shit, it makes me so mad!”

Nexus stood and spoke to Crow in a language unknown to Billy. Crow stared around, bobbing its neck, then answered in the same secret language. Nexus nodded.

“Now I will show you something, Billy; or perhaps the Crystal will kill me. There was magic before the Crystal, before the Strictures. The Crystal won’t let that magic function anymore, at least not directly. But I think I can skirt the limits of the Strictures by setting up a buffer zone. I will establish limits on the extent of the alternate magic; limits in space and duration and energy output. If this works, we’ll be in a bubble, surrounded and limited by the magic of the Crystal on the outside, yet free of its influence within the bubble.”

Billy gave a puzzled look, relayed by Crow to Nexus.

“Watch and learn.”

“Right,” Billy answered noncommittally.

Nexus pushed the bottom of the staff into the mud of the fountain, swirled it around to coat the lower few inches with mud, pulled it out again. He gripped one of his power wands and his eyebrows knitted together in concentration. The mud on the staff glowed with soft blue iridescence.

He walked a few feet behind the fountain, and let the end of the staff touch he ground. He started walking, dragging the staff along the ground. A clear line of glowing mud formed on the ground behind him, like a giant pencil mark.

Nexus handled the staff to Billy, and instructed him to walk around the perimeter of the main part of the town, the staff always dragging on the ground. This would form a closed loop, roughly 200 yards in diameter.

In a few minutes Billy had completed the task, and handed the staff back to Nexus. Billy was mildly surprised that the staff seemed to have as much mud on it as when he started. Nexus placed the staff on the ground, stepped outside of the circle and told Billy to do likewise. He then gripped one of his wands, the high capacity one, and closed his eyes. Billy felt the spell weaving around them, and tried to follow its intricacies. It was drawing huge amounts of energy, yet seemed to be weaving with subtlety in and out of another spell; one of such immense power that it dwarfed anything Billy had ever seen from Nexus.

Billy jumped with surprise at the sudden thunderclap that exploded above them. Then he couldn’t follow the spell at all, it was too subtle and quick. The blue glow of the mud circle grew brighter, and seemed to form small wall several inches high. Nexus poured more energy into the spell, his power wand glowing brightly. The blue wall rose higher, higher, higher, and curved gently inward to form an inverted bowl, at least a three hundred feet high in the center. Nexus poured still more energy into the spell; the smell of burnt flesh wafted up from the hand that gripped the fiercely shining wand.

The blue bowl of light shimmered and Billy felt something that reminded him of a breeze blowing out from inside the glowing dome; but it was no physical wind and did not disturb a single hair on either of their heads. The blue color began to turn lighter, whiter, and Billy guessed what was happening. The magic force that permeated all the planet was somehow being sucked out of this little piece of the world.

Nexus sighed, then placed the now dark and expended energy wand into a deep pocket in his robe. Billy stared. “Nexus, you just spent an entire G on that spell?”

Nexus nodded. He pulled out a second wand and cast a far more gentle spell, which healed the burnt flesh of his hand.

When finished he said, “Okay, Billy. That was the easy spell. Now we go inside and see if I’m good enough to cast the truly difficult spell.”

They walked through the softly glowing white wall; Billy felt like something was tearing inside him. “What is that!” he cried. “Something’s wrong!”

“Relax,” Nexus touched him on the shoulder. “What you feel, or to be more precise, what you no longer feel is the presence of magic. This is what wizards experience when they go inside a room paneled with white crystal. We have in essence created an artificial white crystal room where the power and presence of the Blue Crystal do not reach, and normal magic no longer works. At least until dawn tomorrow when the spell expires, or one of the Elves tries to leave the bubble, or the energy level within the bubble exceeds one G, or any of the Elves attempts to communicate in any way any information about the world outside of this bubble.”

“Why? What is this all for, Nexus?”

“Because I think I can call the Elves back at least for a little while,” He answered grimly. “And those are the best terms I could arrange with the Crystal.”

Nexus walked slowly back to the ruined fountain. Billy followed. Nexus began whispering something very softly, over and over. Billy suddenly realized Nexus wasn’t whispering – he was singing. The song was so very quiet, but was gradually getting louder. Billy was surprised that the old man had a clear voice, which dipped and rose and deepened and lightened and slowed and sped in a pattern of harmonies that held Billy spellbound. He heard the word ‘vista’ repeated several times, and watched Nexus wave his arms in a great sweep.

He was speaking in the Elfin tongue, the language that Nexus said was perhaps the first language of the universe. Billy knew from his studies at the library that no one knew how old the race of Elves had existed, but it was long enough that they gave the first names to the natural objects in the world. Amazingly, those objects remembered their names. Given enough skill, it was said that a wizard could awaken the spirit within each thing by calling it forth with its true name. The power of the high tongue could not be denied.

“Yala onna en’ vilya!” said Nexus. “Sii’! Enyala Quendelie!”

Crow had joined in, its raspy voice somehow appropriate. Billy did not understand the words, and trying to cast a spell of understanding proved to be impossible within the bubble.

“Yala onna en’ vilya! Sii’! Enyala Quendelie!” repeated Nexus.

Billy felt a rush of air swirl around him, touching him, teasing him, kissing him on the face, tugging on his tunic. The breeze kicked up dust, formed a small wind devil and  rushed off into the barren trees, whistling. Nexus laughed.

The song slowed, its music haunting, sad. Nexus leaned over the ancient fountain, singing to the tiny puddle of water that had formed above the mud. He wept, and a tear fell from his face and splashed into the water.

“Yala onna en’ alu!” said Nexus. “Sii’! Enyala Quendelie!”

Again Crow joined in and Nexus repeated the phrase, louder. The fountain gurgled, dripped; a small stream gushed out of a crack into the pool. Billy thought that the gurgle of the water and the whistle of wind fitted nicely into the rhythm of the song, though he still had no idea what the words were.

Nexus stood, his voice deepened. He stamped his staff upon the ground and called out loudly, “Yala onna en’ kemen! Sii’! Enyala Quendelie!”

The ground shuddered beneath their feet and a deep bass rumble of shifting rock and earth joined the song. “Tulka en ataqim!” Nexus sang, and the ground rippled as though something alive moved within.

Billy jumped as the fallen wall a few feet away suddenly groaned and stood upright. A moment later its twin joined it across the road. Throughout all the town Billy saw ruins of ancient buildings lurch and struggle then stand proudly again.

Nexus changed the song again, pointing to a fallen tower. “Amu mindon,” he shouted over the cacophony of the shifting buildings, the howling wind and the gurgling water. He bent down, picked up the wooden staff, held it next to Crow who whispered some words to it. Then Nexus hurled the staff like a javelin towards the tower.

Too far, thought Billy. The tower was a hundred yards away. The staff can’t go that far. But the wind swept by them, following the staff, and seemed to lift it to the tower, which had already begun to reform and rise.

The fallen tower rose quickly, the rumble of its grinding, shifting stones growing higher in pitch the higher it stood. In seconds, it sang soprano. Soaring and majestic the tower stretched three hundred feet into the sky. The tower parapet caught the last rays of the sun and blazed like fire.

“Yala onna en’ naur!” said Nexus. “Sii’! Enyala Quendelie!” The staff, stuck in the top of the tower, burst into flame. Whipped and fanned by a circular wind the flames quickly spread, forming a great crown of fire atop the high tower. Billy could hear the fire’s crackling voice join the song. Its light blazed fiercely, banishing the dimming twilight with noon-like brightness.

“Sii’ Koita en’ Quessir! Yala onna Tel’Quessir! Tula sinome!” Nexus sang over the roar of his accompaniment. The song changed once again, and though still deafening the melody was more gripping, more powerful, filled with grace and beauty. A curtain of shimmering light appeared in the sky beside the flaming tower, a small aurora that grew rapidly, expanding until it covered all the space within the bubble. Billy and Nexus stood awash in the glow of shifting colors.

Crow had begun laughing and his black eyes sparkled in rainbow hues with the reflections of the lights that glimmered throughout the elfin town. Billy saw Nexus’ brows knit together in concentration, then the old man drew in a deep breath and shouted out the words of command once again. Billy covered his ears; the sound had become a terrible mighty roar.

The music grew dissonant, jarring; then it faltered. Nexus continued singing, his tone soothing, yet insistent. He repeated the words again, but the voices of the air, water, earth and fire remained harsh, clashing. Nexus looked worried and tired. Billy wondered what the words were saying. Was something going wrong?

Nexus slumped over the pool and began to weep as his voice began a last sad refrain, a dirge for his lost friends. The song quieted. The wind became still. The ground stopped trembling. The crown of fire sputtered and died, leaving them in the twilight. Only the aurora remained, its shifting lights casting multi-colored shadows, which marched around them.

Billy stared at the pool. Colored ripples now spread with neon iridescence across the water, seeming to dance in cadence with the memories of the great song that still echoed in Billy’s head.

Billy became aware of small rustling noises and popping sounds. He looked around and saw the trees trembling. Fallen trunks had gotten up and taken root again. Buds were appearing on branches, and quickly growing into leaves, or even into new branches. He thought he heard voices, too; faint whispers carried on the breeze. Then stronger. Melodious voices, like chimes and bells. Billy looked for their sources and saw only shadows. No, not shadows. Ghosts.

The ghosts walked and danced and sang. The aurora faded as they grew more substantial; then the glow was gone and the ghosts were solid and real. Lithe and tall and filled with grace of movement.

Elves.

“Billy,” croaked Nexus. Billy turned and scrambled to his feet when he saw the old man stagger. Nexus was pale and sweating. Billy reached out, felt his mentor’s body tremble violently and collapse into his arms. “Billy!” he said again. “This is important. When you talk to the Elves be careful.”

“Don’t try to talk, Nexus. You’re too weak.”

“Important. Don’t ask the Elves any questions.”

“Here Nexus. Sit down on the edge of the fountain for a minute. Then we can go talk to the Elves.”

“Take my lead. We must not ask them anything that would impart new knowledge to us. We are limited in what we can talk about.”

“We won’t even have to wait, Nexus! There’s a small group of them coming up here!”

Nexus groaned and sat up. “And don’t let them into your mind! You might pick something up that you shouldn’t know. We must remain ignorant of the details of their true state. The Crystal can monitor things, even in here!”

Billy stared down at Nexus’ gnarled hands. They trembled. “Good god, Nexus! That spell was a monster, wasn’t it! How in blazes did you do it without a wand? What was the power source?”

“Billy!” crackled the Crow, alighting on Billy’s shoulder. “Help Nexus!” Crow pecked at his head. “Heal him!”

Billy shooed off Crow and took the wands from Nexus. One of them still had a bit of warmth to it. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the healing spell that Nexus had taught him during the trip.

Nothing.

Damn. Normal magic wouldn’t work in the bubble. He helped Nexus up, walked a few feet to the bubble wall and pushed through. Bill was vaguely aware of the tingling in his nerves as the invisible force field of magic washed through his body. He was acutely aware of the weight of Nexus in his arms as the old wizard collapsed. Billy laid the man down as gently as he could, then concentrated on the healing spell. He felt the spell form and the energy flow into Nexus. The color returned to the old man’s face and Billy smiled at the almost pleasant sight of Nexus opening his blind eyes to stare up at him. The wand was now cold to the touch, completely discharged.

“Wasted perfectly good energy on what a few minutes rest would have accomplished. Not very thrifty, my boy!” Nexus smiled. “But well spelled, nonetheless. And appropriate, so that we might properly and quickly meet our hosts! Here! Help me up!”

Seconds later they were back inside the bubble, and joined by three Elves who had hustled towards them from the pavilion a few hundred yards ahead. Each was richly dressed,  the one in the center more so. But what Billy noticed most was a feeling of deep sadness that seemed to radiate from all of them.

“Nae saian luume’, Nexus,” said the center Elf. “Mankoi naa lye sinome?”

“Vendui’, Tome Qam,” answered Nexus. He glanced at Billy, then turned back to the Elf. “Amin dele ten’ ho, Billy Takashema. May we speak Mileu?”

“Of course,” said Qam. “We would not want to leave your apprentice out of our conversation.”

“You’re Tome Qam?” said Billy. “Leader of the Elves? But I thought you were -” Billy bit off the rest as Nexus delivered a swift kick to his shin. For additional emphasis, Crow hopped over to Billy’s shoulder and pecked him once on the head.

Tome Qam reached out to touch the bird’s head. “I see you haven’t forgotten your stay with the Rauders, or the skills we shared with you.”

“Forgive my apprentice, Qam,” Nexus said. “He is young and excitable and his words do not yet carry the wisdom of age.”

Tome Qam arched an eyebrow. “It isn’t age but experience that gives depth to words, Nexus. I see some fair amount of depth in him.” He looked at Billy and smiled. “Do you know what your name means in the Rauder tongue, Takashema?” Qam asked.

Billy shook his head.

“Perhaps your mentor will tell you some day, then.” Qam turned back to Nexus. “How long do we have?”

Nexus cleared his throat, then said gently, “Until dawn.”

“You resurrect us on a holiday, Nexus. The summer solstice. We shall prepare a feast, and you and your apprentice shall sit at my table.” Tome Qam didn’t wait for a reply, but turned to lead them into the city of Elves.

Billy had thought that perhaps this was an illusion of some kind created by Nexus. But he quickly came to believe that somehow Nexus had really brought back the Elves. The sights of dozens of moving people, the sounds of the Elfin singers, the smells of a hundred different types of food and drink, the solidness of the tables and chairs and walls was compelling. The eerie sensation of the Elves minds as they brushed against his was a clincher. All this was too real to be illusion. As he drank from the continually refilled goblet before him, the question of how Nexus had accomplished the feat puzzled him more and more.

“Nexus,” he interjected in one of the few lulls in the buzzing conversation. “I thought that the spells of the Crystal couldn’t be overridden.”

“Billy!” Nexus shot back tersely. “Enjoy your wine and keep quiet. There will be no talk of magic tonight. It is a celebration of one of the Elves most revered holidays; shop talk is most inappropriate.”

“Yes indeed, apprentice Takashema,” chimed in Tome Qam. “Let us relax the rigors of your studies and instead indulge ourselves in the pleasures of the celebration. I see you have a fondness for our Juberry wine. The Rauders also make a drink from the Juberry, but it is harsh and burns the throat and insults the palate.”

Billy smiled sheepishly. The wine was good; smooth and sweet. It didn’t even have the aroma of alcohol, and he’d downed several goblets of the stuff before he’d realized that it was in fact an intoxicant. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“There is no need for apologies, Billy,” said Tome Qam. “In fact, there is a question or two that I would like Nexus to answer.” He turned to stare at the old man. “When we last met you were a man of younger years, and possessed all your senses. Now you are practically one of the ancients, and are blind. Obviously we have been isolated from your world for a long time. How much can you tell us of your adventures and of the state of the world?”

Nexus squirmed uneasily in his seat. “The tale is one of misfortune and pain, Qam. I beg leave not spoil your feast with it.”

Qam put his long arm around Nexus. “My friend, you know that pain is lessened with its sharing; and as I am your friend, so are all the Elves. We share our joy freely, and our pain also. That is our strength. Join with us.”

“The spell which brought you here, which gives you temporary freedom, is fragile,” said Nexus. “It may or may not let me share some of my knowledge with you, but it certainly will not let you share any of your knowledge with us. Be content I beg you, with discussing memories of long ago or the trivialities of weather, food, and poetry.”

“We are dogs on a short leash,” Qam said, his eyes infinitely sad. “But tonight we will try to forget that. Tonight we will pretend that we are free, and that we wish only to celebrate with our friends.” He took a long drink from his cup. “And yet the fact remains that you are old and blind. We will risk cutting our freedom short to hear this tale from you, Nexus.”

Nexus waited a long time before responding. At last he sighed.

“My tale is a sad one, Tome. There is much pain and treachery in the human world.”

Many of the Elves nodded sagely at this and the elfin songs dwindled softly away as the Elves concentrated on their guest’s words.

“You remember my son, Takair?” Nexus asked. Tome Qam nodded. “He was murdered by the Dark Lord; I will not offend you by mentioning his name here.” He closed his eyes and clenched his fists. “In my grief and anger I swore an oath while spells swirled around me. I was struck blind by the Crystal.” He opened his sightless eyes. “That was many years ago. Long enough for my hair to turn white and my wrinkles to grow into canyons. I will not say more than that. The grief is my own, and I am not ready to share its bitter dregs. Perhaps when we meet again I will be ready to share more.”

Tome Qam put his arm around Nexus. “We will respect your privacy in this tragic loss, my friend. There will be no more spoken of it this night. In the human tradition, we will drive out the pain with pleasurable diversions.”

Billy noticed several Elves had resumed singing. He heard a particularly lovely contralto and let his eyes sweep across the group of Elves that were singing, the ones gathered a few yards away. There she was. Thin, stunningly beautiful, long blond hair braided with flowers, a flowing white dress caressing her skin. Her eyes caught his and she smiled.

Noting that everyone at the table was conversing with Nexus, Billy slipped away and walked to the female Elf.

The wine was buzzing in his head, and probably shorting out the center of the brain that governed better judgment, Billy stood before her and bowed. “You have a lovely voice.” He stared at her, unsure how to continue.

Her smile broadened, easing his nervousness and erasing most of the sadness that seemed to permeate all of the Elves.

“My name is Loellen.” She extended her hand.

“I am Billy. Billy Takashema.” He took her hand. It was soft warm and made his skin tingle. Her hair was the color of polished gold. She smelled of roses. He felt dizzy.

“Welcome to Aloria, Billy Takashema.”

“You feel so real,” he said.

“I am real!” she said, jerking her hand back.

“I’m sorry. I just meant that you weren’t here then you are here. Magic brought you here, but I guess it’s temporary. So you don’t seem real to me.”

“I can’t control what happens to me!” Tears pooled in her emerald green eyes and began a hesitant run down her pale cheeks. “None of us can.”

“I don’t understand. Explain it to me.”

“It is not allowed,” she said.

A sudden crash of thunder shook the ground and everyone looked up in sudden panic. An eerie voice echoed through the air, “Evandi… Sinatuil… Legassi…” The voice spoke the name of ten Elves, and after each one there was a scream, abruptly cut off. Billy saw one of the Elves scream as his clothes turned to rags and sores appeared on his face, just before he vanished and the scream was silenced.

“We are slaves to the Crystal!” Loellen said to Billy, grabbing his vest. “Doomed to obey the holder of the scroll. Doomed to obey Lord—”

Billy jumped as a bolt of lightning struck the pavilion. The crash of thunder shook the pillars, knocking them to the ground. Loellen and the other Elves shouted and ran helter skelter, screaming. Billy thought for a moment that Loellen had suffered some sort of cardiac arrest; her face contorted, and she gasped in pain. He grabbed her, but his hand sunk through he dress and partly into her body. She was growing insubstantial. He turned around, looking to Nexus for help.

Nexus was standing beside Tome Qam, a look of pain and anguish filling his face. Billy noticed that the face of Tome Qam had turned gray and haggard, filled with the same pain as Nexus and Loellen.

Then it hit him as well; Billy screamed and closed his eyes as his mind exploded with the mental screams of the Elves. He tried to shield his mind, but there was no respite as pain, anger, rage and more pain ripped through him. He screamed again as it intensified. He felt as if his soul was being ripped away from his body by a thousand hungry demons.

Billy collapsed to the ground. He heard crashes that shook the ground, felt the walls of the city collapsing. Flashes of lightning seared his retinas through closed lids; peals of thunder exploded around him; he covered his ears just as the noise abruptly stopped. His eardrums had burst.

Nexus was beside him, pushing a pill into his mouth. It was bitter, but he forced himself to swallow; felt the pain quickly subside. He opened his eyes to see Nexus tightly gripping a wand and casting some spell of physical protection about them. But that should not have been possible inside the bubble.

Then it was dark and silent. Nexus huddled on the ground, arms wrapped around his legs, weeping. The Elvin city again lay in ruin. The Elves had utterly vanished; not a trace of evidence remained to mark their brief return. The water had ceased flowing from the fountain, though the ground remained muddy. At least the fungus had been washed away, Billy observed morosely. He gazed wearily up at the night sky and the too-large moon stared balefully down upon them from a cobalt blue sky.

Billy slept.

Billy dreamt, huddled in a sleeping bag next to a sullen Nexus. In the dream a tall muscular woman spoke to him, her face blurred. “You are not the Taka Shema,” she said. “You are only a human. You are a pretender and a threat to be dealt with.” The woman pulled out a short dagger, pressed it against his neck. Its edge was keen, incredible sharp. Billy didn’t feel the cut, only the warmth of the drop of blood forming on his neck. He thought of Ginovinchi, the man he had killed on his last assignment. He had pressed the blade against that man’s neck in precisely the same way.

Billy felt the blade follow the bloody drop as it trailed down his neck. Then the knife proceeded along his chest, leaving a thin red line.

“Fair warning to you, utaka ushema. Death stalks you,” said the woman.

The dagger plunged into his heart and he woke up gasping.

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