Billy shivered as the cold wind rushed through Anro Pass and pressed against him like the hand of an invisible giant. A few feet ahead Nexus stood unmoving, oblivious to the cold; blind eyes staring out into the blowing dirt and snow. It was too cold for Crow who had long since moved from the man’s shoulder and burrowed into the cowl of the wizard’s robe, to nestle a bit more warmly next to Nexus’s ear.
The pass was little more than a goat path that wound its way between the highest peaks of the Jastic Mountains. The twin peaks, Mt. Silineus and Mt. Preakner, commonly called the Needles, were so close and steep that the valley between them lay forever in a shadowy twilight. The mighty vertical flank of Silineus was within an arm’s reach on their left; the pass was just a narrow ledge that ran across its face. Preakner was on their right, only a few yards away, though it might as well be miles. A chasm several thousand feet deep cut between the Needles, lined with jagged boulders like the teeth of a crocodile, ready to seize and swallow unwary travelers that fell from the narrow ledge.
The sheer cliffs reached upwards another twelve thousand feet, nearly parallel, separated at the top by only a dozen yards, as though a single mountain had been cleaved in two by a giant’s ax. The massive girth of the mountains gathered the slightest breezes from miles around, funneled them into this narrow trough and amplified it to hurricane force. On the calmest day the wind might whip through at a mere forty or fifty miles per hour. Today it was howling at eighty, too fierce for riding the horses on the narrow path. Billy held tight to the ropes as he led the reluctant horses into the wind. Fortunately, the wind scoured away the snow, leaving this section of the pass navigable almost year round.
“Nexus,” Billy said, shouting loud enough to be heard against the wind. But the old wizard gave no indication that he had heard. Billy tugged again on the rope and the horses trudged forward as Billy edged slowly forward against the hurricane.
“Nexus,” he said again, louder, as moved close behind the wizard. “Why are you stopping here? Let’s press on!”
Nexus pointed down into the chasm. “It was here, Billy. Here that I lost him, the most precious being in all the cosmos.”
Billy remained silent. Even shouting, something in the old man’s voice was infinitely sad.
“I had a son, Billy,” Nexus continued. “He was only eleven. Five days shy of his twelfth birthday. We were coming through this pass with a party of warriors and a few other magicians. We were on the trail of Murgorath, the renegade wizard. Murgorath was clever, vengeful, and exceedingly capable. He had vowed death for me and my son. I felt, in my vanity as the Center of the Circle, that the safest place for my son was by my side.”
Nexus was silent for several seconds as if reliving the events of that day. Billy shivered with the biting cold wind, but remained silent. Nexus shivered too; or rather, he seemed to shudder; and a gust of wind pushed him towards the drop off. Billy reached out with lightning fast arms to pull the old man back.
Nexus cursed mildly and withdrew a wand. He clutched it as if to begin a spell, then seemed to think better of it. Nexus handed the wand to Billy who stared at it dumbly.
“Well, young wizard, do something about this weather!”
Billy started to protest, but Nexus shook his head. “You have sufficient skills now for a simple spell to protect us from the elements. Utilize what you have learned! Improvise and build upon it. Experiment.”
Billy gripped the wand and formed the simple spells, which linked its stored energy to his mind. He thought for a moment on the nature of the wind and the environmental conditions that made it so fierce. He couldn’t negate the pressure differential across the mountain range; a spell of that magnitude was definitely beyond him. And he couldn’t figure out how to block off the eastern opening of the pass efficiently; it was just too wide and high. Billy knew the nature of the wind itself and willed it to flow around them; leaving them in an island of calm. But the spell required constant attention by Billy, and a constant low level drain on the energy wand.
Nexus smiled at Billy. “Not too bad, but a bit of a drain on your mind and energy, isn’t it? And you haven’t protected the horses. Want some advice?”
Billy nodded, and felt Nexus move his mind into Billy’s. ‘Go for the simplest, most stable solution you can,’ the voice whispered. ‘Don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it has to be a fancy solution.’
Billy followed the new thought patterns as it formed an invisible but solid dome around them and the horses. The spell faded in seconds, yet the dome remained and the wind stayed off of them.
Nexus reached up and rapped his fingers against the invisible surface with an audible click. “Plastic,” he said. “Works the same as glass but doesn’t crack as easily, and that’s a concern in these mountains.”
Nexus sat down and dangled his legs over the abyss. Billy sat with him. Nexus grew somber again.
“I was the foolish one, but it was my son Takair that paid for it. There was a wicked storm blowing through here that day, a blizzard of snow so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your nose and a wind gusting so hard it could lift you off your feet. We had been traveling under the stealth of magic spells and were reluctant to quiet the storm through magic, for Murgorath had surely sent the storm and would be monitoring it closely for any aberrant behavior.
“We needn’t have been so frugal with our powers. Murgorath knew where we were and attacked us savagely at this very spot. He had several ex-Rauders in his band, and a few first class magicians. The rogue wizards served to divert our attention while those ex-Rauders went about their gruesome tasks. I pulled out a wand and mentally entered the battle, and found that Icon was having a tough time of it. He was a Lord, newly elected to the Circle, near the peak of his power. But he was facing a foe far above his skill, or mine.
“I entered the duel he was having with Murgorath, or more precisely, the duel he was having with a small circle of Elf zombies centered by Murgorath. It got… intense, but we finally broke the enemy circle and Murgorath pulled back. In the meantime, eight of our people had been killed, including the other two wizards. Another four warriors were wounded. But all of the attackers were killed.”
Nexus took a long deep breath before continuing. “During the skirmish, Takair was kidnapped. By magic or Rauders I don’t know. I was enraged…”
Billy empathized with Nexus, and suddenly was inside his mentor’s mind, reliving the memories. He/Nexus, young, strong, cocky and filled with adrenaline, desperate to find his son. Physical and magical searches yield nothing, so he weaves the spell of prophecy, against the protests of his friend Icon. “I will find my son!” he shouts defiantly, the thunder booming even louder than the wind. Nexus’ eyes – (bright blue!) unfocused, searching desperately through magical veils for clues to his son. Face turning red, then purple. Not breathing. Dying. Choking out in bitter frustration, the words “But I will never see him alive again.”
A bolt of lightning strikes him but does not kill him; Crow caws in panic at the explosion; young Nexus opens his eyes, but they are the milk-white and quite blind. The prophecy is over, but he has no clear memory of it, or why he uttered those chilling last words. Icon contacts the guild library and confirms that there was a prophesy recorded in the matrix of the Crystal. It gives faint hope that Takair is still alive, but all their spells of searching can find no trace of the boy.
The next day they find Takair’s body, gutted and left to bleed and freeze in the snow between some boulders at the base of ravine beneath Silinius’s slopes. Nexus crying, cursing the Gods, the Crystal and Murgorath, yet in truth blaming only himself for bringing his son on such a dangerous journey.
Nexus screamed, and Billy shook himself, clearing away the vision of the past.
“I killed him, Billy! Me. I killed him with my damn prophesy! ‘I will never see him alive again’. I made sure the Crystal would kill him!” Nexus was shaking and there were tears welling from the old eyes. His fists were balled up in rage and frustration. Slowly Nexus opened his hands. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a brown flask, uncorked it and took a long swallow. Billy smelled the alcohol.
“He was just a boy, Billy. Just an innocent little boy.” Nexus took another swig then put the bottle back into his pocket.
“Damn, it still hurts!” Nexus started crying again. He used his sleeve to wipe at the tears.
“I tried to bring him back, but the body was cold and the brain had already begun to deteriorate. There was nothing left to do. Except find Murgorath and snuff out his miserable life.”
“You did find him?”
Nexus fixed Billy with an intense stare. “Took four years. Four damn long years. I never laughed or smiled in all that time.”
“Why didn’t you use magic to heal yourself?” Billy asked.
Nexus gave a hoarse chuckle as he dabbed his eyes dry. “I tried, Billy. But the Crystal had burned out the whole optic nerve and a piece of the brain with it. To tamper with it might have cost me my magical abilities. Even so, I tried to heal myself. But the Crystal nullified my spells. It wanted me to stay blind.”
Nexus shrugged. “Something in my words tripped the wrong spot on the Crystal’s matrix, and got stuck there, maybe. Lucky it didn’t just kill me right there and then; most prophesies end that way. And the frame of mind I was in then I wouldn’t have cared. My son was lost and I would have risked anything to get him back.”
Nexus stared out with his blind eyes, remembering with perfect clarity the events of that day, with one exception. “I soon learned that the Crystal has a cruel streak, as well.”
Billy raised an eyebrow and waited for further explanation.
“The Crystal took my words more than literally. Not only am I blind, I can not see Takair’s face at all even in my mind. All my memories of his looks are gone. I can’t remember his smile, the color of his hair, the color of his eyes.”
Tears began to well up again from the blind eyes. “From the instant of Takair’s birth through the moment of his death, all memory of my son is like an empty silhouette.”
He tried again, desperately, to remember; until Crow grew restless and asked for a drink. Nexus gave the bird a gentle smack on the head.
In a few minutes they began to move on, and as they drew farther from the narrow portion of the pass the old man’s mood seemed to brighten. Billy decided to risk a question.
“Nexus, if prophecy is so dangerous, why doesn’t the Circle change the Strictures to eliminate it?”
Nexus choked and sputtered. “Change the Strictures? Nobody can change the Strictures. They are immutable.”
“Then how were they established initially?”
Nexus sighed. “To understand that you have to go back over two thousand years ago, to the creation of the Blue Crystal itself. The Strictures were formed with the Crystal, and are part of it. Imagine, Billy: fifty of the world’s greatest wizards, working in perfect harmony on the most important project of all time. Each putting a copy of their personal codes of ethics, their structured decision making processes, their lifetime memories, virtually their entire personality – into specially designed sensiballs. Then linking the sensiballs together, forcing them to always work together, to synthesize the best of its fifty parts into a coherent matrix. Hoping that it has the ability to learn and to act; finding that it does. Testing the matrix, to see if it can wield magic; finding that it can. Giving it access to the nearly limitless geothermal energy of the planet. Sealing the whole project together under a fiftieth level spell.”
“So the Crystal was made by wizards. Why?”
“Before the Crystal, magic was dangerous and chaotic. There were scattered outcroppings of both blue and white crystals everywhere, so there was no central source of the magic force. Spells were limited only by the willpower of the wizard and the size of the energy source. Spells of death, disease, mutation, mind reading, resurrecting the dead, a thousand perversions and atrocities were not only possible but actively practiced by jaded and unscrupulous wizards. Nonmagicians (it’s not polite to call them plebes) grew to distrust and fear all wizards, but were essentially powerless to do anything about it.
“Some of the more responsible wizards saw what was happening, and chose to do something about it. They formed the Society of the Crystal, united by a vision that all magic could be channeled through a single source – with certain restrictions built in to prevent abuse of magic. These venerable mages were the ones who ultimately designed and built the Blue Crystal. One of the first things they did was to change all the existing outcroppings of blue crystals into a pseudo-white phase. That by itself was quite an undertaking, but it succeeded in limiting the source of all magic fields to the single Blue Crystal.”
“So the Blue Crystal is really a sort of enforcer of the rules. And the rules, the Strictures, were established by those mages.”
“But it still seems to me that the Strictures could be modified.”
“Only in theory. Remember, the Crystal and its Strictures are rendered immutable by a fiftieth level spell. There are barely ten wizards that can form a harmonious circle today, let alone fifty. It took weeks of searching before we found someone that was able to fill Oreada’s position. Besides, the circle would need to be formed there, in the cusp of the Crystal. And there are physical barriers and guardians in place to prevent anyone from getting there.”
“So no one can change the Crystal.”
“Correct. Murgorath thought it could be done, but he failed. And he was probably the most skilled wizard, in knowledge and pure technical ability, in all history. In fact, he was one of the architects of the Crystal.”
Billy was quiet as they moved along the narrow path. There was only one other little, unrelated thing that occurred to him. Crow.
“Nexus, when you were sharing your memories back there, I thought I saw Crow in your pocket. Have you had him forever?”
“Crow and I do go back a long way, but hardly forever. Tome Qam recognized Crow.”
“Yes, he did. So you had Crow when you knew the Elves. So when did you get him?”
Nexus laughed. “I picked him up as a constant companion shortly after my stay with the Firehorse tribe of the Rauders. More convenient than talking to a horse.”
Nexus laughed again. His laughter was infectious and Billy joined in, although he wasn’t sure exactly why.