In the morning Nexus and Billy breakfasted, dissolved their plastic shelter, and resumed the trek along the mountain pass. The howl of the wind increased to a steady roar. As they pushed through the blinding, choking snow Billy made out another sound: a mechanical, repetitious thump like the spinning rotor of a helicopter. Billy tugged at Nexus sleeve and shouted a question into his ear.
Nexus pointed straight up. Billy eyes followed but at first could make out nothing through the swirling snow. Grabbing his power wand and concentrating on enhancing his vision, Billy was surprised to see that there was indeed a huge rotor spinning above their heads. The blades were easily forty feet long, and the shaft was over a foot thick. Both were of shining metal. The exposed portion of the shaft was short, only a couple feet protruding from a cube-like structure about seven foot in each dimension. Metal beams and guy lines that were anchored securely to the bedrock of both mountains supported the cube.
A hundred feet above the box, there was another; it was also sporting a rotor and huge rotating blades. Above that one, there was another, and still others – a dozen sets of whirling fan blades stretching up through the cleft of the twin mountains.
“Anro Power Station,” Nexus shouted over the wind and rotor noise. “Only twenty megawatt, but extremely reliable.”
They had pushed on less than a hundred yards when Nexus suddenly thrust out an arm to stop Billy. Nexus abruptly faded from sight, just as he had in Aloria. Billy heard Crow bark out a hoarse warning. “Spell coming. Spell coming. Keep your mind closed!”
Billy nodded and started to walk forward after a prod by the invisible Nexus. In a few seconds he stopped, shocked by the sight of a floating eye approaching rapidly from the east. The eye was about a foot in diameter, an unmarked white globe except for a blue iris about five inches across. The eye stopped and hovered a few feet from Billy’s head. The pupil dilated as the lens focused on him without any hint of expression. It stared at him for only a few seconds, then passed behind him to stare at the rock wall.
A voice issued out from the eye, clearly audible even in the noise of the power station and the attendant wind.
“Nexus! This is no time to play hiding games! I have urgent need of you and Billy at my castle!”
Billy felt the invisibility spell dissipate, and Nexus appeared directly in front of the staring eye. “Including infrared in your search spectrum, Kratia? A waste of energy for little gain.”
“Merely prudent if I was to have any chance of catching you. And of course, the waste is greater for you. Trying to hide behind that invisibility spell. Really, Nexus! The energy expenditure alone gives you away.”
“Touché, Kratia. What is so urgent that you track down an old man and a half trained apprentice, especially when we were already on our way to you?”
“There has been a serious Rep attack at Hornblower. Hundreds are dead. Hundreds! The Reps appeared to be highly organized and the attack was very effective.”
“When was the attack?”
“Last night. I have been extremely busy dealing with the resultant emergencies. The wounded are all being tended now, and cleanup is beginning in town. But I fear that another attack may come. I want you and Billy here to help. Please, come at once. I will supply a portal.”
“Very well, Kratia.”
Almost immediately, the eye flattened into a disk. The blue of the iris and the white of the ball changed into eddies of shifting colors. The diameter of the disk increased and the depth decreased until the disk was a broad flat swirl of many colors.
Billy sensed huge expenditures of energy broadcast from hundreds of miles away yet manipulated with extreme precision at this target location. Focusing his attention, Billy tried to interpret the spells, watching and feeling their power and subtlety as they distorted the fabric of space and forced the points of the disk to become intimately close to both Kratia’s castle and the twin peaks.
Billy also picked up spells of sensory distortion and deprivation, which worried him because he saw no reason for it. Billy also sensed that Nexus was doing some extremely detailed verification of the spell that was being cast by his fellow master.
Nexus shook his head. “Must be pretty damn important, Billy. Kratia may be a bit extravagant at times but never to the tune of seven hundred megs. The spell is safe. Untie the horses and leave them behind. They will find their way back to the Guild.”
“But there’s a sensory spell overlaid! I don’t like it, Nexus!”
Nexus smiled and said enigmatically, “Reduces the temptations of the sirens. I’ll explain after we arrive. Be quick lad.” Nexus stepped into the swirling circle and vanished.
Billy hesitated a moment. There had been something about Kratia’s voice that had sounded his internal alarms. Nothing blatant, nothing immediate. But something suspicious. Perhaps dangerous.
Well, he’d been in that situation often enough. And Nexus said that the transport was safe. He had accepted that he really was in an alien world where magic worked; and he had accepted Nexus as trustworthy. In fact, Billy reflected that he probably owed his life to Nexus, after that incident with the Rauders. He untied the horses, then stepped through the circle, which immediately collapsed into a tiny point and vanished.
Billy had thought that the transport would be instantaneous but from within the null dimension there was no clear and consistent perception of time. The trip could have taken a few seconds or a few years. To him it seemed to take forever. Fortunately one of the intended effects of the sensory deprivations was to minimize the fear and discomfort caused by the time dilation. Another intended effect was to keep the human mind from being overwhelmed by the experience of reality dissolving around him.
He could see his body; it appeared fine but was suspended in a vast emptiness. There was nothing else here. He was in a void of complete and utter darkness. Yet there was an incongruous feeling of massiveness to the void. Instead of pure nothingness the void here clung to the essence of reality, the vague underpinning left when all physical objects are stripped away. It was like the glue that normally holds things together, now observed directly without the clutter of the ‘things’ it was gluing together. Time and space existed (maybe) but only as concepts, for there was no objects or sensory experiences by which to measure them.
No; that wasn’t exactly right. There were things here. Dangerous things. Billy’s ninja training and instinct told him that. He trusted the feelings and fought desperately to gain some clarity of thought. Training had drilled into him that survival hinged on the sharpness of the senses, so he struggled against the deprivation spells, ferreting out their nature, and casting counter spells. His mind was sluggish; the first attempt seemed to take years of preparation. It failed, but the second attempt succeeded, speeding and clarifying his thoughts and bringing awareness of himself and his alien environment.
His mind, body, and spirit were enclosed in an invisible bubble of energy and magic. The bubble was connected to a tether of similar energy and magic, and being pulled towards a distant speck of light where a fistula had been created between reality and this null space. He knew that tiny hole of light was Kratia’s castle.
A few feet/miles/light-years ahead, a similar bubble held Nexus, and a similar energy thread was towing him towards the same destination.
There were other entities in the void, entities that did not have bubbles. They had very little energy and may or may not have physical bodies. The entities were alive though. Billy was sure of it, because they were calling to him.
“Come to us,” they said soundlessly. “Join us and we will show you how to shake the foundations of reality!”
Billy found their invitation tempting. Null space seemed to be filled with unlimited potential, unlimited possibilities. Just add enough energy, and you could bring any of those potentialities into existence. So easy. So alluring. His every desire, instantly granted. All he had to do was dissolve the bubble and join the sirens. He thought about it but his ninja senses again warned him of danger and deceit.
Other voices from other entities clamored for his attention. “Help us, help us. We are trapped here. Take us with you, please, please, we don’t want to be here, this is a curse, a curse. Help us…”
Billy felt their anguish, but felt the danger even more keenly. He wanted the trip to be over. He was considering restoring the spells of mental sluggishness and amnesia to himself when a tendril of energy suddenly streaked by and touched some of the unknown entities. It came from a distant bright light, but not the one that led to Kratia. And while Kratia’s energy tendril was a gentle towing force, the new tendril jerked around violently, dumping huge amounts of energy into the null space near Billy.
Billy could feel the alien entities sucking on the energy, feeding, growing stronger and more substantial. He did not like the feeling.
A large red humanoid shape with wings approached. Its eyes glowed and its mouth opened to reveal several rows of fangs, and a forked tongue that whipped back and forth. The demon landed on his bubble, and began tearing at it with his talons. Billy stared at it in shock, unsure if he would need to defend himself. Or how.
The demon was joined by a second, then a third. The enemy energy tendril was still pumping out power, feeding the demons.
Billy focused on contacting Nexus and broadcast a cry for help. He saw the old man begin to move, slowly at first, stretching an arm, twisting a head. Nexus turned towards Billy’s bubble, saw the demons, and began moving faster.
Two demons floated between the bubbles blocking Nexus’s approach. Billy saw the old wizard move his bubble, trying to get around the demons, but they moved easily to continue blocking his way.
Meanwhile other demons continued to approach Billy’s energy bubble. There were now four demons clawing at it. Billy felt the energy draining from the bubble. He grabbed his wand and began feeding energy into it. He knew this would be a temporary solution; the rogue energy tendril continually strengthened the demons, while the energy in his wand was rapidly dwindling. What would happen to the bubble when he ran out of energy? What would happen to him when the demons broke through? Would he even be able to exist without the bubble, let alone fight?
A flash of light drew Billy’s attention back to Nexus. The wizard had created a small explosion in null space, scattering the demons. His bubble touched Billy’s and merged.
“Are you alright?” asked Nexus.
“Yes. I think so. What’s happening?”
“Someone or something is feeding the demons and convincing them to attack you.”
“I have no idea.”
“What do we do?”
“Defend ourselves, and make our way to Kratia. Or try to poke our own hole to reality and escape that way.”
There was a jolt, and their shared energy bubble dimmed. Billy stared outside. The tendril that was pulling them to Kratia was gone. The distant light that was the opening to her castle was gone. The unknown enemy light was there, and the energy that poured from it. And the demons.
The demons attacked. Six of them swarmed over the bubble, clawing and gnashing at its surface. Nexus set off another explosion; only two demons were dislodged and they quickly came back.
Billy noticed that all of the demons were on his side of the bubble. He moved closer to Nexus, then slid by him. The demons crawled over the bubble, following Billy.
“Why are they after only me?”
“I don’t know. But it gives me an idea. I’m going to make you invisible.”
Billy felt the spell begin, and saw himself begin to fade. “Stay calm. Stay quiet,” said Nexus.
The fury of the demons’ attack intensified. They rammed at the bubble from all sides, hitting, biting, clawing. More demons joined in.
Nexus ended the invisibility spell. “It’s not working. They are not acting at all like normal demons. Whoever or whatever is directing them wants you dead or captured. Probably dead.”
“I don’t have enough energy to form a portal, Billy. The drain of maintaining this bubble is enormous. I’m going to contact Icon; let’s hope he can get to us before the demons break through.”
“Wait! Something’s happening!” said Billy.
Another energy tendril appeared, connected to the light that was Kratia’s castle. Much more powerful than before, it seized their bubble and began pulling it towards the light.
The demons howled. They too seized the bubble, and pulled against the tendril. More demons appeared and began attacking the tendril itself, biting, ripping at it. Sparks flew from the tendril. The bubble stopped moving.
The tendril released the bubble. It formed a loop, encircled the bubble, and began to tighten like a belt. The bubble narrowed rapidly, then split in two. One held Billy, the other Nexus. With Nexus screaming “No, No”, the tendril seized the Nexus bubble and yanked it at high speed towards the light. The demons did not hinder its passing.
Billy watched it fade from sight, disappearing into the Kratia light.
Billy knew he was down to his last few Megs. The demons seemed to know it, too. They surrounded Billy, chattering. Then they pounced on the bubble and it began to dissolve.
A flash of blue white light blinded him temporarily. He thought it was the bubble bursting and drew out his short sword, ready to battle the monsters.
They did not come.
His vision cleared and he saw the blue light was sweeping back and forth, occasionally illuminating a fully formed demon. When it did, the demon evaporated with a choked off howl. Soon there were no more demons in the vicinity. The enemy energy tendril was gone as well. The blue light touched his bubble, and it shot off towards Kratia’s portal at what seemed like warp speed.