Billy was despondent over the incident at Aloria, and the subsequent silence of Nexus since then only served to deepen it. Wrapped up in these feelings he nearly missed the subliminal warnings of his ninja training. He reined up on his horse and turned back to Nexus.
Before he could mouth a warning, Nexus held a finger to his lips, then grasped a wand and tossed it to Billy. Nexus lifted another wand and Billy sensed the web of magic dance around the old man. Billy identified optics, something akin to moving holograms, and intertwined with that the spell he recognized for silence.
Within seconds Nexus and his horse had faded from sight and sound. A whisper of thought that he recognized as Nexus entered Billy’s mind. ‘Proceed with caution, apprentice. I am near.’
Billy did so, all his senses now finely attuned to the forest on both sides of the overgrown dirt road. He almost wished they were back in Aloria. The forests there couldn’t hide much. But these woods were dense with lush vegetation.
He smelled horses and old sweat. He felt the eyes of riders upon him. He heard them moving parallel with him, still invisible and nearly silent as the wind.
Billy stopped his horse and called aloud, “Come out, skulkers in the wood! You make noise enough that I wonder if you were trying to frighten me away! Or perhaps you are afraid of me and I hear your knees shaking? No matter. Come out and reveal yourselves.”
All attempt at silence forgotten, six horsemen burst from the woods with speed and agility. Four leaped ahead to bar Billy’s path, two moved behind to cut off retreat. The six wore the skins of various animals, claws dangling and mouths propped open to reveal vicious teeth. The skins were fastened with straps of leather studded with inch long thorns. From belts of the same leather hung swords, maces, axes, and an array of daggers.
While most men would be weighed down with such arsenals, these weren’t. Each of the Rauders were at least seven feet tall and of massive girth. Billy guessed that the lightest of them must weigh over 300 pounds. Their horses were proportionally as large and were covered in long shaggy hair. Billy thought they looked like a cross between Clydesdales and woolly mammoths.
The men on their horses towered above Billy, their expressions cold and cruel as they stared down on him. One of the four in front advanced until his horse touched Billy’s. The man wore a thin leather skin over his shoulders; with a start Billy recognized it as the hide of a Rep. The wings were folded and pressed so that they rose like fins on the shoulders of the man. The Rep’s claws were strapped to the man’s arms, just above his wrists, and faced outward. A backhand swipe with those arms, thought Billy, could nearly take off a man’s head.
“Why have you entered the Rauder lands?” asked a man with a voice like gravel passing through a meat grinder.
Billy forced himself to remember what he knew about the Rauder habits and traditions. They had a kind of code of honor. They would not attack a stranger unfairly. That they would challenge him to a duel. As a warrior or a wizard.
He could run, but cowards were held in disdain and often dispatched to their fate without regard to their preferred method. Although sometimes the Rauders let them go. No matter. He had business here and he would make Nexus proud of him.
“I am on my way to Hornblower, a town in Condeu. I am going by way of Anro Pass, since I first had business with the Elves in Aloria.”
Billy saw the man’s eyes widen slightly, and heard the other horsemen shift uncomfortably. The man spoke again, “Are you a wizard or a warrior?”
Billy looked around at the size of the men and their implements of death. All physical weapons. Deadly, and wielded by powerful men. He could probably take them by force, but it would be touchy. So why bother? He didn’t see any power wands, and this band was clearly not sophisticated enough for subtle magic. If it came down to a fight, he’d be better off using magic against these goons. Especially since he’d been practicing spells the entire day, focusing on spells involving the senses and motor controls.
“Are you a Rauder or a fool,” Billy snapped back. “I told you I have business to attend to. Stand aside.”
“The Rauder lands are not open to liars. The Elves are gone. No one speaks to their spirits anymore.”
There was mutterings from some of the Rauders, but it quieted at a glare from the one facing Billy. “I ask again, for the last time: are you a wizard or a warrior?”
“I am a wizard,” Billy answered.
“Then your horse is fortunate,” laughed the man. “For you will not cover him with blood as he carries your body home.”
“I am Billy Takashema. I am a stranger here and I have no quarrel with you or your tribe. Why do you seek to battle?”
The man’s eyes had widened at Billy’s name, and the muttering of the other Rauders resumed until the raised his arm. He glared at Billy. “What more reason do I need than to dispatch a liar to his just fate?”
“If I were a liar then you wouldn’t care whether I was a wizard. But I have told no lies. It is my code of honor that I may never speak falsely.”
“The Elves are dead, and their ghosts no longer speak to the living.” The man smiled again, more broadly, to reveal a broken front tooth. “I will help you keep your code of honor, and send you to join the Elves.”
Billy felt the big man’s mind send tendrils out towards his.
“Tell me your name, Rauder. I have no desire to destroy a nameless foe.”
The tendrils hesitated, faded.
“I am Eriador.” Scarcely had the words faded when the mental tendrils licked again at Billy’s mind. They were clumsy, blunt prods, and Billy swept them aside easily. The Rauder was clearly no mental or magical genius. With these givens, a wizard’s duel didn’t seem dangerous at all and Billy gripped his wand and enjoined battle with the Rauder’s mind.
A few more clumsy thrusts by the Rauder and Billy decided to end the duel quickly. He lunged into the other mind and moved towards the motor control neurons to induce quick paralysis.
To Billy’s surprise the man offered no resistance and his body became rigid in the saddle. Billy had a thrill of triumph at the ease at which the battle had been won.
Too late he realized that in this type of duel the body is relatively unimportant; by then the Rauder’s mind was intricately tangled with his own; Billy found he could not even withdraw from the battle.
The alien mind raced along Billy’s fleeting thoughts of panic and dove deep into the core of subconscious fears. Forgotten and half remembered nightmares and equally hideous memories of actual events were grabbed and thrown into Billy’s consciousness. The invader paused at the memory of the dream from the night before; and at the memories of the time in Aloria. But the battle was now fully joined and Billy focused on defending his mind.
Billy controlled the urge to scream and panic, and tried pushing the invader out. The push was easily diverted into the sensory lobes and Billy was plunged into blindness, deafness, and lack of tactile sensation. Billy retreated into a hard tiny core trying desperately to concentrate on how to survive the duel. He sensed the Rauder hammering at his inner mind, seeking to crush it; but Billy’s inner strength held against the blatant attack.
Suddenly the barrage ceased and Billy began to relink his senses. Vision first; he blinked and looked around. The Rauders were gone. A single figure remained on the road. The man was on foot, dressed in a cheap business suit. His right eye was an empty bleeding socket.
“Hello, Billy. I’m Steve. Remember me? You murdered me a few days ago.” The corpse laughed. “Never knew what hit me. You’re pretty fast, kid. And speaking of kids, I had one. A little girl. Six weeks old, and cute as a button. Too bad she’s never gonna see her dad. You ever think about things like that when you waste people, kid?”
Blood gushed from the empty hole, and the man cursed. “Hey, Billy. Got a handkerchief?”
Billy pulled back out of the sensory web. The Rauder obviously had firm control of them and a grab bag of graphic memories to replay through them. Billy eased back into his core and began his ninja meditations; becoming aware of all the activities in his mind without seeking to control or direct them. The Rauder presence came easily into focus; it was rooting through the subconscious, seeking to conjure up an apparition based on primeval fears.
In addition to the senses, the Rauder controlled several of Billy’s voluntary muscles; in a few minutes Billy’s body would be a puppet. Billy eased his mind outward, avoiding direct confrontation while he took inventory of what he had left to work with. Aside from his core of consciousness, only one strand of mental activity seemed free of the Rauder’s control. From that area came a barely sensed feeling of watchful amusement.
Billy focused on the feeling, followed it to a third mind subtlety linked to both him and the Rauder.
“Had enough, Billy?”
“God yes! Get me out of here! He’s killing me!”
“I don’t think he’s going to kill you. He has been remarkably gentle with you.”
“Then he’s going to wipe out my mind! Do something!”
“And you without even a horse to talk to.”
“Nexus, stop joking and please help me!”
“But it’s all in your head, isn’t it? Besides, he’s slow and stupid. Isn’t that what you were thinking a bit ago?”
“Have you developed a healthy respect for wizard’s duels?”
“Yes! YES! YES! Nexus, he’s in my head!”
“Trust me Billy. This is going to hurt a bit, but you mustn’t resist.”
Billy felt Nexus grow just a bit stronger and then it seemed to fill Billy’s mind like it was putting on a glove. At the same time Billy felt his own essence being nudged out and away from the protected center; his consciousness diffusing along the nerves of the body. Billy did not resist. He felt fear but was more afraid of the possible alternative.
He became so diffuse that it was difficult to remain conscious; he was barely cohesive, barely detectable as a separate mind. Nexus, meanwhile, had taken total occupancy of Billy’s now empty ‘core’.
Nexus made a few alterations to that core. To Billy it seemed to become more than empty; it became a well of blackness that hungered for all thoughts and feelings and memories. A black hole of the mind, eager to seize and swallow all mental energies down to its nearly infinite depths.
The beast Nexus made was hungry, and Billy was afraid for both himself and his mentor. What was the old man doing? But then the Rauder completed his own preparations for the final assault. Nexus let it come.
A spasm racked Billy’s body and a scream ripped from the throat he no longer controlled. Billy’s mind was jerked from the far corners of his body as each tendril of thought was pulled towards the black abyss of his mind. It felt like falling, though no physical movement occurred. But he knew he was heading for the mouth of that hungry void. Just as he reached the lip of the abyss, the hole was yanked away, out of his mind and body, and into that of the Rauder. A barrier slammed down as Billy felt a clinging sensation, growing rapidly to a desperate clawing. Then it was gone, snatched away, and he was alone in his head.
The scream that had begun in Billy’s body was taken over by the Rauder; but faded to silence in a few seconds.
Billy blinked, and shook his head as the connections to senses and motor nerves came snapping back into place. The Rauder sat slumped in his saddle, deep lines of intense stress beginning to go slack, and a vacant look glazing over the eyes.
Billy flexed his fingers, verifying he also had motor control back. Then he turned to look at the other Rauders. They stared back unsure of the next move to make.
“Yo! Billy!” called a raspy old voice behind Billy. Billy and the Rauders in the rear turned in surprise to see a old blind man riding quickly towards them. Crow clung desperately to Nexus shoulder. “Billy; what have you done now?”
Nexus rode up to next to Billy. The Rauders moved their hands down to their weapons.
“Mighty Rauders of the Tree Mist tribe, greetings! I am Nexus, Lord of the Circle and friend to the Rauder tribes. Has my student been of any inconvenience to you?”
One of the Rauders behind Billy rode forward and turned to face Billy and Nexus.
“I am Staggar, lieutenant of the Tree Mist clan. You have defeated our chief, Eriador. As is our custom, you may go in peace. For now.” The other Rauders shifted uncomfortably on their mounts.
“Staggar, I apologize on behalf of my apprentice. Allow me to undo the damage he caused.” Nexus gestured dramatically, weaving intricate designs in the air.
The defeated Rauder chief moaned softly and fell against his horse. Staggar nodded to the Rauder on his left, who rode forward and took the reins of the semiconscious man. Staggar barked out a command and the other Rauders disappeared into the forest. The lieutenant remained, staring hard at Billy.
“You fight with honor,” he said. “It will be remembered. But it will take more than a simple duel to prove you are the Taka Shema.” Staggar pulled back sharply on his reins, and with a single leap of the horse vanished into the forest after the others.
For a few seconds, Billy and Nexus faced each other in silence. Billy opened his mouth but Nexus held up his hand.
“Don’t thank me, Billy. This was a lesson that had to be learned and I made sure that you learned it. I could have spared you much of the pain but there is no other way to gain a true appreciation of a wizards duel.”
“What about their chief?”
“Oh, he’ll be fine in a few hours. Physically at least. A bit longer for the emotional scars to heal, though the mind is very good at blocking out the sort of terror that I put him through. He won’t even have to talk to his horse.”
“You have go to explain about that horse talking, Nexus. It’s bugging the hell out of me.”
“I will, Billy. But not now.”
“And what about that comment on my name. That was weird. Just like the dream I had.”
Billy explained the dream, and Nexus looked thoughtful, but stated that he needed to think more about it before sharing his thoughts with Billy.
“Nexus, is there some secret to winning, or even just surviving a wizard’s duel?”
“A good question, often debated among the Lords. Everyone had there own opinions and techniques.”
“A not so good question. It’s poor manners to ask a wizard about their personal technique for dueling. A better question, especially for an apprentice, is ‘what technique would you recommend for me?’”.
“Okay, what technique do you recommend for me?”
“Remapping your mind.”
“Remapping my mind? What is that?”
“Some wizards call it translation. Same thing. Information can take various but equivalent forms. For example, information can be written on parchment. The same information can be expressed in sound. Now, if I needed to edit that information, and it concerned a history lesson, I might want it to be in written form for me to work with. But if the information was a musical tune, I might want it in auditory form. In either case the underlying information can be expressed in different formats, but we choose one over the other for convenience. If it is in a format other than what we want, it can be remapped or translated into the most convenient format.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with wizard duels.”
“In a duel, another mind is trying to tamper with yours. You need to monitor your sensory inputs, your memories, your personality, your connections to voluntary and involuntary muscles, and so on. Lots of information to track. And then you need to interpret that information and act on it.”
“So? That has nothing to do with remapping.”
“Your mind is a conscious display of information processed by your brain. But the data coming in is normally processed in the native format of the data stream. A memory seems like reliving the event. A sensory attack might seem like blindness, or deafening noise. An attack on your motor control center might give you cramps.”
Billy shook his head. “I still don’t get it.”
“What if you created a scenario in your mind where these inputs are interpreted in a different way? Remapped to fit together into a cohesive pattern that you are already familiar with? And your outputs from this remapped scenario are also remapped, so that the actions you take in your mind actually have quite different yet appropriate and consistent external effects. Let me get specific. As a ninja you have highly attuned senses and extremely fast reflexes. What if your mind interpreted an attack on your memories as someone lunging at you with a knife? What if your parry of the knife was remapped so that your brain pumped out a bit of neuro-chemicals that protected that memory? Get the idea?”
Billy was wide eyed. “Is that possible?”
“More than possible. It is highly effective if you get the patterns properly and completely remapped.”
“What makes it so effective? I would think that it would be more cumbersome having an artificial construct between you and reality.”
Nexus laughed. “Oh, so now you understand the nature of reality? Our minds are incapable of directly perceiving reality. We all live in our own mental constructs. The advantage of consciously creating one for use in a duel is that you can pick one in which you already have years of practice and proficiency. There are few who could best you in one on one physical combat. Create that same scenario in your mind and there will be very few who could defeat you in a wizard’s duel.”
“I had no idea,” Billy said. “I will practice, and if I ever am forced into another duel I’ll try not to embarrass myself. Or you.”
Nexus laughed again. “Actually, I think you did rather well for your first time. In fact I think you have earned a gift; a badge of courage.” He rummaged through his saddle bag. “Ah yes, here it is!” he muttered, pulling out a leather case several inches long. “This is mighty gift, worthy of a Lord or an Esaf. Care for it well.”
Billy took the case and opened it. An Elfin dagger glittered inside.