As Billy and Nexus scanned the village they agreed that the damage was indeed extensive. Kratia pointed out the burned-out husk of what had been the town council building; the adjoining building that had been the temporary command post for the Esaf’s field commander had also caught and burned nearly to the ground. The commander had escaped harm, as he was in the temporary command tent in the fields outside the town, helping to get the newly arrived troops squared away.
“I was so pleased at finally getting real troops here that I put on a public concert to celebrate. In a way,” Kratia’s voice cracked and her eyes moistened. “In a way I am responsible for the number of casualties. If I had not held the concert, people would have been in their houses, not out in the open. Or if I had waited until the troops were fully set up, maybe things would have been different.
“Unfortunately, the troops had only just arrived and were not set up to provide defense against an attack. They knew nothing about the town’s layout. They didn’t even have all their barracks set up. They were still getting organized and oriented when the attack hit; very few of them had a chance to get into the town and mount a resistance to the beasts. In fact, the attack was already well underway when they got word of it. If only they had gotten here a day earlier!”
“Then the soldiers suffered very few casualties?” queried Nexus.
“Almost none,” agreed Kratia. “From that standpoint at least, we’ll be ready if another attack comes here.”
Kratia pointed out the charred aftermath of a separate fire that had started in the residential section and destroyed four homes, including one of the council members. A team of workers were busy digging at the ruins. Billy moved closer to watch. They were removing bodies.
The fire had left the bodies as blackened, brittle stick figures; the team handled them gingerly, carrying them out and placing them carefully in the back of a wagon. Billy looked into the wagon. The damage caused by the fire was easier for Billy to accept than what the Reps must have done before hand. The trunks of the bodies were severely shrunken, leaving only grotesque arms and legs that pin wheeled out from torn, scorched clothing. The faces of the dead were even worse. Wide‑eyed, lips pulled back, mouths open wide in soundless screams.
Perhaps not soundless. Billy seemed to hear its echoes as he stared at lips pulled back taut to reveal teeth clotted with blood, and a mouth strained so far open that the man’s jaw must have come unhinged during his final screams.
Nexus studied only two of the bodies before moving off. Billy saw him touch the bodies and their clothing, occasionally fingering his wands; but if the old man was spelling, Billy couldn’t detect it. Nexus walked to the building, often stopping to poke at embers or to pick up something that caught his attention. Or Crow’s attention, since the bird was keeping a sharp eye on the ruins and kept an almost constant chatter in Nexus’s ear.
Nexus asked questions of the people working in and near the rubble, listening with deep intensity. Crow stared at their faces and said nothing while they were near. Nexus began to frown and it grew steadily deeper as the two hours wore on. Billy didn’t like the look.
Billy glanced over at Kratia, saw her staring intently back towards the castle. He looked too, just in time to see a young man and woman standing on a high balcony. She kissed him and they moved inside out of sight. Billy turned back to Kratia and for an instant a look of anger crossed her face. She turned to Billy, saw him staring. Her face went instantly neutral.
“I feel guilty for myself and my staff, safe within the castle while out here there was only pain, death and destruction,” she said. “I wonder when it will all end, when we will find peace.”
Billy had no answer but something in her expression and tone made him uncomfortable so he hurried off to be closer to Nexus. The rest of the tour produced little of surprise to Billy. Kratia was right. There was a lot of destruction done here.
At the town meeting Billy let his eyes go around the room, fixing names to as many faces as possible. At the back of the room stood Kratia. Beside her stood Sarral, her chief attendant. General Messick had taken a seat on one of the long benches that ran across the middle of the room. The commander of the Esaf’s 2nd Battalion sat beside him; they were engaged in serious conversation. On the bench ahead of them sat the mercenary Billy had met briefly before: Michael Drake. He was listening carefully to what the military men were saying without being obvious about it.
There were several people Billy didn’t recognize; Nexus told him they were people of no consequence, and Billy nodded. It was normally easy to determine who were the powerful people in a room: those around them treated them deferentially. And the weaker people inevitably quieted and strained to listen whenever the powerful spoke. It was these little things, probably not even consciously noticed by anyone else, that told Billy the pecking order in a meeting. So it should have been easy to determine the power base here.
It wasn’t. Most people moved without clear motivation, drifting through the hall or sitting in small whispering groups. Only Kratia and Sarral seemed to generate the subconscious deferential treatment Billy expected. The commander of the garrison, the Palatine of Hornblower, even Nexus, a Lord of the Circle, didn’t generate the behavior Billy expected. It made him uneasy.
Jed Nalton, the Palatine of Hornblower, sat in the front of the room. He stood and turned to the rest of the room, which quickly hushed. That was normal and Billy relaxed slightly. Perhaps the oddness of people’s behavior was just an aftermath of shock.
“We have suffered a severe loss, both in loss of lives, and in the loss of our sense of security. The Reps hit us and hit us hard. We knew there was a danger; they had attacked towns only a hundred miles away. We knew they could attack here. They did. And we did a pitiful job defending ourselves.”
Not much sympathy in his approach, thought Billy.
“There is nothing to prevent the Reps from coming here again. If they do, we must be ready. We must destroy them before they destroy us. The question I pose to you is simply, can we do it?”
The battalion commander stood up. “I am general Shabner, commander of the 2nd battalion of the Condeu army.” He turned his head to Jed. “Palatine, the Esaf has sent me here with three platoons to defend Hornblower against future Rep attacks. My forces are assembled and are ready to mount an aggressive defense. I only regret that we were not in place in time to ward off last night’s attack.”
Kratia stood up in the back of the room and the battalion commander promptly sat down.
“I’m concerned about the failure of the forces that were in place to mount any defense at all,” said Kratia. “I had a hundred security guards that should have been capable of doing something!”
Messick closed his eyes for a moment as if deciding what to say; he stood up and turned to face Kratia. “My Lord, I regret that your palace guards were unable to mount any significant defense to the surprise Rep attack last night. If we had had more warning, we could have effected a better…”
Kratia cut him off. “I am not concerned with excuses, Messick. What good is a security force if it needs a week’s notice to respond?”
The general met her eyes for a brief moment, then bowed his head and sat down. Billy thought the general’s look of embarrassment was rather short lived. There was a hint of a smile on Messick’s face as the conversation moved past him. That behavior was not consistent with what Nexus had told him about Kratia’s treatment of her staff. Messick should have been sweating bullets. Or maybe Nexus had an unwarranted grudge against Kratia that darkened his perception of her, as Nasan had hinted.
“Sarral, what have you to report?” Kratia asked.
“Lord Kratia, Lord Nexus, Palatine,” Sarral began, nodding to the individuals. “Final reports indicate that two hundred forty-six villagers were killed in the attack. Of these, one hundred ninety-two were killed directly by the Reps. The remainder were killed either by accident during the panic, or inadvertently by the security force during the unsuccessful defense operation.”
Sarral spoke in crisp sentences devoid of feeling. Billy whispered to Nexus that Sarral must still be in shock from the attack, but Nexus shook his head.
Sarral paused as if waiting for a response. He stared pointed at Messick. Two very long seconds went by.
The general was still smiling to himself, then his eyes suddenly went wide and he jumped up as if stung. “That’s a lie! My soldiers were extremely careful not to harm any civilians. None of the deaths could have been by my men. None!”
Messick actually looked nervous now, and Billy quickly turned his head to catch a look of annoyance on Kratia’s face. Messick sat back down, his gaze nervously shifting between Kratia and Sarral. Kratia seemed to get more annoyed.
“Another fifty-two were wounded,” continued Sarral. “But they have been healed by the staff magicians. There were three buildings destroyed by fire. These have not been rebuilt, as the expense of energy does not seem warranted at this crisis point.” Kratia nodded and Sarral sat down.
Nexus cleared his throat and spoke. “Lord Kratia, if I may ask a question of Sarral?” Kratia raised an eyebrow, then nodded for Nexus to proceed.
“Sarral, which buildings were destroyed?”
“The largest was the government building, which contained the offices of the village council and the Palatine. The building also served as the local branch of the Esaf bank. The fire was not intense enough to destroy the wands, but all records concerning the accounts have been lost, and an auditor from the Esaf will need to come in to reconstitute the accounts to the extent possible.”
Nexus nodded. “And the other two buildings?”
“Two houses, residences of village officials. Councilman Gliton. Councilman Morassan. Both perished with their wives in the fires.”
“How old were the councilmen, Sarral?”
Sarral hesitated. “I am not sure, Lord Nexus.”
“An approximation would be satisfactory. As Kratia’s administrator I’m sure you met with the council on various matters fairly often. You remember the councilmen?”
“Yes, Lord. I believe that the councilmen were in their later years. Perhaps in their seventies or eighties.”
“One more question, Sarral; what was the extent of nonhuman casualties?”
“Unfortunately, we were unable to kill or capture any of the Reps during the attack.”
Nexus shook his head. “No, no, I didn’t mean Reps. I mean how many deaths of dogs, rats, livestock, that sort of thing.”
Sarral was silent for a moment, and Kratia interrupted. “Nexus, I really don’t see the relevance of your question. The loss of pets and livestock is hardly important –”
“If the diet of the Reps has suddenly changed, it could provide a clue to other behavioral changes that most certainly could bear on this and future attacks.”
Kratia pursed her lips, then nodded. Sarral responded, “Some confirmatory surveys may need to be taken, but I am not aware of any loss of nonhuman life in the events of last night.”
Billy looked back at Kratia but there was no look of anger or annoyance. Her face was blank, though he thought that her face twitched once. Nothing major. A ripple across otherwise impassive features. In fact, as he stared she seemed to soften, to grow thoughtful. Then she spoke.
“Nexus, I think you may have found something significant. Have you attempted reconstruction of the past events?”
“I have, but the results are inconclusive. The pain and fear generated at the event prevent a close examination of that section of space-time. The view from further away lacks the detail I desire, but it is consistent with what we’ve heard today.”
“Not surprising about the pain and fear. It left me and my staff impotent as we tried to stave off the attack, and save lives and property.”
Nexus nodded. “What of Drake? Does he have an assessment of the Reps now that he’s seen what they can do? Did his new weapons have any deterrent effect?”
No doubt now. Before looking at Drake, Billy saw a definite look of nervousness in Kratia’s face. She was being pushed into areas she didn’t want to be. But the look was over so quickly that almost no one would have had the time or ability to notice. Billy noticed that her fists were clenched on the table top, knuckles white beneath the taut skin. Yet her voice belied those signs of tension; her tone was moderate, her pace was measured.
“Nexus! What makes you think that Drake has any weapons that would work against the Reps? You know as well as I the Circle’s prohibition on projectile devices such as his.”
Nexus snorted. “And I know you, Kratia. Drake is a soldier: his effectiveness flows from weapons. The Circle edict existed long before you found Drake, yet you still wanted him. Ergo, you have some other weapon that is similar to Drake’s guns. Similar enough for Drake to use effectively, yet with a principle of operation that differs sufficiently from that banned by the Circle’s spells.”
“Do you see any weapons?” asked Drake, jumping up and shouting. “Do I look like I have any fucking weapons? If I did, would I have let these shit balls rip up this town?” Drake sat down without waiting for a reply.
Nexus smiled thinly. “Well, I have not tried to divine their existence through magic.” He turned towards Kratia. “Tell me, Kratia, would I have found any if I had looked?”
Kratia closed her eyes and sighed. “No, Nexus. You would have seen my embarrassment. I have a working prototype, but it has a low accuracy, short range, and high failure rate. Worse of all, the projectile velocity is relatively slow. Drake tried the gun last night, and the Reps were able to avoid the shots.”
Kratia banged her fist on the table. “But I am not going to give up! We will perfect the weapons, and wipe out every one of those stinking, bloody, beasts! They hit my town Nexus! My town. Not once, but twice! You were in the town; you felt the bodies. Your bird and your apprentice told you what it looked like. It was ugly, Nexus. It smelled of death. It still does.”
Kratia looked around the hall. All eyes were on her. “I am not going to let it happen again!”
Nexus held up his hands. “Kratia, please; calm yourself. There is a more important fact that you may have overlooked.”
Kratia looked down at her fists. “I know. It is clear from your observations, and it makes our task all the more difficult.”
Nexus nodded, but Billy was puzzled. Looking around, everyone else but the mages were as lost as he.
“Nexus, I don’t understand.”
Nexus turned to Billy, but Kratia spoke first. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Reps only went after the people, not animals. So it wasn’t just food they were after. And the buildings they destroyed represent locations of power and authority; strategic locations. Obvious. And so, so dangerous the implications.” Kratia’s voice trailed off.
Billy turned to Nexus. The mage looked every bit as old as he felt; even his words sounded old and tired. “The Reps are intelligent. And they are at war with us!”
The room erupted in a confusion of dozens of voices speaking at once, to no one in particular and everyone in general. The talking escalated to shouting almost immediately; the din became unbearable. Nexus pushed his way to the door and Billy followed. Kratia nodded to them as they passed. Billy was sure she was smiling.
They made their way back to the castle. Billy invited Nexus into his room. Although tired, he was anxious to hear his mentor’s assessment of the day’s events.
“Your deductions about the Reps were brilliant, Nexus,” Billy said. “Important, too. Going after an intelligent enemy is quite different from going after some dumb animals.”
“If they are intelligent.”
“But you said.”
“I know what I said, Billy. But what I said does not exhaust the entire range of possible truths. Nor does it fit all the facts.”
Billy shut up, thinking. What other conclusions could be drawn? If the Reps acted as if they were intelligent, but were not… then some external intelligence was directing their behavior. Who or what could that intelligence be? What was the extent of its powers? Was it even corporeal?
Billy was nervous. How could you fight an enemy you couldn’t see?
“What facts don’t fit?” asked Billy.
“The garrison wasn’t attacked.”
“So? The Reps probably didn’t even know it was there.”
“The Reps knew. They see in the infrared, and they have a keen sense of smell. A collection of potential prey as large as three platoons of soldiers within a mile of the town would not have escaped their attention. Ergo, they decided not to attack the troops, and to concentrate on the town.”
“Maybe they were afraid of the troops,” offered Billy.
Nexus shook his head. “The Reps would have had the element of surprise. And the troops were not even fully set up yet. The attack would have been decimated the troops.”
“So why didn’t they attack?”
“Exactly my question. But I haven’t got an answer.”
“Is there any apparent motive, Nexus? A larger pattern to the attacks?”
Nexus shook his head. At length he answered, “I see none. Yet.”
“Do you think there will be another attack tonight?”
“With two Lords here and hundreds of veteran troops on full alert? I doubt it. The Reps act as with some intelligence, and some motive that we haven’t figured out. An attack now would be suicidal, which is not particularly intelligent behavior. I believe we are safe tonight.”
There was something else bothering Billy. “Nexus, what about the transport spell that brought us here? What went wrong?”
Nexus gave a start, causing Crow to squawk indignantly. “I’ve been so deep in the other puzzle I’d nearly forgotten that, Billy.” He stroked his beard. “But it’s also an important puzzle. Maybe even a piece of this one.”
“You know something?” Billy asked, excited.
“No. I don’t know anything. But I distrust coincidences. And concurrent mysteries. Like how those demons got the energy to affect us.”
“I remember something like a huge electric spark that was feeding energy to the demons,” said Billy.
“Yes, I saw it too. Demons are usually harmless; a tenth level spell bars them from entering our physical universe, and they lack any means of accumulating energy in null space.”
“So they had some ally in the real world. Someone that wants me dead or out of the way.”
“Obviously,” agreed Nexus. “So we have an unknown enemy at work, quite possibly connected with the Reps.”
“Why do you think they are connected?”
“Hardy anyone knows who you are or why you are here. Those who do know that you’re here to destroy the Reps. Stopping you protects the Reps, providing the only motive I can think of,” said Nexus.
“But who is allied with the Reps? Who benefits from their attacks?” asked Billy. They pondered that one for a while without reaching resolution.
“Nexus, when Kratia told me it wasn’t her that saved me, you said that you understood how I was saved. What did you mean?”
Nexus stroked his beard. “Near as I can tell, the Crystal saved you.” Billy stared at Nexus and Crow. Crow stared back. “There is a prophecy which concerns you,” continued Nexus. “Essentially it says that you and Drake will succeed in wiping out the threat of the Reps.”
“A ninja and a mercenary shall come from earth bringing skills and tactics that will end the scourge of the Reps,” said Billy.
Nexus stopped stoking his beard, glaring at Billy. “How did you know the exact words?” demanded Nexus. Then he shook his head. “Never mind, I know it was that blabbermouth, Nasan.”
“He showed me the archives one night,” said Billy. “Where the prophesies are recorded. But I don’t understand how that bears on what happened today during the transport.”
“The Crystal must have seen your danger and acted to ensure your safety. It will always act to ensure a prophecy comes to pass. No matter how much energy it takes or what resources it needs to commandeer.”
“Then nothing can hurt me?” Billy asked. “I’m invulnerable! Like superman!”
Nexus shrugged. “I wouldn’t say that. It is probable that the Crystal would act to save you from many dangers, but it is also possible that in certain situations your death might serve as the catalyst which stops the Rep attacks.”
“Thanks,” said Billy, the excitement fading from his face. “You fill me with optimism.”
“I’m trying to fill you with realism. The prophecy had no details; no restrictive conditions or caveats. You could be maimed, blinded, deafened, or deformed and still fulfill the words. You could lose a wizard’s duel and still go on to stop the Reps.”
“So what you’re saying is that the prophecy is a sort of wild card, and we don’t know how or when it’s going to be played.”
“Close enough. But in general it will tend to be played in your favor.”
“Like it was today.”
Nexus nodded. “Very fortunate that is was played to protect you from the unknown player who is trying to stop you.”
“If I could find and kill that person, it may stop the Rep attacks.”
“Perhaps. But you have too little data to go on. We don’t know who is responsible, or what there connection is to he Reps. Or the motivation for the attacks in the first place.”
“Then let’s spend some time getting that data.”
“I agree. And I think we should include Kratia in our plans. I am not particularly fond of her, but she is sharp. More importantly, she saved my life today, and had faith in the prophecy to save you. I may have misjudged her.”
“Yes, she acted to save our lives. But something bothers me about her, Nexus. At the town meeting today I was getting some bad vibes. I can’t pin down the cause exactly, but Kratia’s in the middle of it.”
“Wizards are usually in the middle of problems and controversy, but it doesn’t mean we are the cause.”
“Still, be careful.” Billy tried to stifle a yawn; Crow noticed and whispered it in Nexus’s ear.
“Get some rest now. We will talk further of this in the morning.” Nexus turned and moved to the door. “Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
Billy was tired, drained by the long and overly eventful day. But as he was falling asleep, a nagging thought drifted through his brain.
Why had the Crystal waited until after Nexus had left before it saved Billy?