Billy entered through the door opened by Sarral, who remained outside. Kratia sat behind a massive wooden desk, its surface clear of all objects and polished to a luster so perfect that he could see Kratia’s face reflected in it. To her left. Drake leaned against the wall, holding an MP-5. Billy noted the safety was off.
“Billy, please have a seat,” said Kratia.
“I prefer to stand, Lord Kratia.”
She shrugged. “As you wish. The time has come, Mr. Takashema, to reveal to you the true nature of your quest on Salmineria. It is not, as you may have guessed, to wipe out the Reps. Although they are certainly dangerous enough.”
Billy said nothing, and after a few seconds, Kratia continued. “You are to journey to the north polar region, and enter the cusp of the Blue Crystal. Once there, you are to make certain corrections to the matrix of the crystal. These corrections will ease the limitations under which wizards have had to labor for the past three centuries.”
“You want me to change the Strictures!” said Billy.
“You are quick, Takashema. Yes, you will need to adjust some of the Strictures. You will need to… “
“The Strictures can’t be changed, Kratia. You know that. A 50th level spell renders them immutable.”
“I have a solution to that problem, which you will implement.”
“Do it yourself, Kratia. I’ll have nothing to do with it.”
Kratia stared at him coldly. “I should like nothing better than to do this myself, but if I were to go on this quest the Circle would notice. And they would then oppose me. So I will keep the Circle and other prying eyes distracted while you accomplish the mission for me.”
“You played us all as suckers. Me, Drake, Nexus, the whole Circle!”
Kratia smiled. “It was necessary. There are many on the Circle who support the Strictures as they are. They lack the vision to see what they can be; indeed, what they once were, in the days of old. The times before the Crystal was built to suppress our might.”
Billy had a horrible thought. “Where is Nexus, Kratia?”
“He is one of those who lack vision.” She smiled at her pun. “I have found it necessary to temporarily incarcerate him. He will not be harmed if you do as I command.”
Billy hurled a smoke bomb to the floor. It failed to go off, but by then he was already leaping across the desk, dagger in hand, intent on taking Kratia hostage.
Billy rammed into an invisible wall, the pain a white light through his brain. He slumped to the desk top. He knew Drake would be coming, and tried to roll off the desk, but stunned he was too slow. Billy grunted as the butt of the gun slammed into his back. With speed and efficiency the mercenary grabbed Billy’s dagger, slid Billy off the desk and onto the floor. Billy felt Drake’s boot planted against his back, and the barrel of the submachine gun pressed against his skull.
Kratia’s voice was icy. “Don’t ever, ever, think of hurting me, Billy Takashema. I am faster than you, smarter than you, more powerful than you. My survival is always my top priority. Do you think I would leave myself open to your attack? I’ve studied you for months on your home world. I know how you move, when you move. Give it up, Billy. Give it up now. You are mine to command.”
“Tell your goon to get off of me.”
Billy felt the boot and gun pull back. He rose slowly and turned to face Drake. The mercenary had backed up just out of Billy’s striking range. The barrel of Drake’s gun was centered on Billy’s face. Billy saw Drake’s excited eyes, the ruthless grin. Here was a man who enjoyed to kill, and was eager for the scent of Billy’s blood.
“This gun works, punk. It works real good. Not like your el cheapo bombs. Want a demonstration?” The voice taunted. The mercenary wanted a fight.
“Drake, ease up,” ordered Kratia. The light in Drake’s eyes was slowly replaced by simple hostility. Billy stared back, smiling, teasing Drake. Then he turned to Kratia, dismissing Drake as unimportant, just a puppet.
“I want to see Nexus,” Billy said.
“I thought you would. Drake and Sarral will take you to him. You are not to tell him of your quest, or the consequences would be unfortunate for Nexus. After your visit you will return here to complete your briefing. You are dismissed.”
Any hopes Billy may have had of freeing Nexus were soon dashed. The corridors were a maze of turns and junctions, climbs and descents deliberately designed to confuse and disorient anyone not familiar with the pattern. Sarral mentioned that several of the walls could be easily and quickly moved to alter the maze; and that this was done frequently according to a pattern known only to Kratia, Sarral and the guards. At almost every junction, there were two heavily armed sentries. It was inconceivable how a rescue could be effected.
When Billy was finally led into the white crystal chamber, he found Nexus chained securely, and a massive guard stood behind with a dagger pressed to the old master’s throat. Billy was not permitted within striking distance of the guard.
“Nexus! Are you alright?”
“Billy! Are you a prisoner, too?”
“Not exactly. Kratia wants me to go on some sort of quest. Are you alright? There are cuts and bruises on your head and arms.”
“They’re nothing,” Nexus said. “Well, that’s obviously a lie, but in any case I am not in immediate danger of death. Kratia must have need of me.”
“Sparing your life is the reward I obtain for going on the quest.”
“What is it she wants you to do?”
“I am not at liberty to explain.”
“Whatever it is, don’t. Kratia is mad, but she’s no fool. She’s smart and very dangerous. Don’t help her. I’m old. Let me die.”
“Enough talk,” Sarral said. Drake poked Billy with the gun, and they left the cell.
Billy reflected on his mentor’s words. Regardless of what Nexus said, Billy could not let the man die. He owed Nexus his life, and his code of honor required repayment of that debt. Besides, and perhaps more importantly, Nexus had become a friend. Billy would not permit a friend to be left in such dire straits. Sadly, without a solution to the situation, Billy returned with Sarral and Drake to Kratia’s office.
“You will leave at dawn,” said Kratia. “Drake will accompany you. You will take with you these two objects.” Kratia pointed to a white box and a small clear sphere.
“A miniature sensiball?” asked Billy. “For transmitting special instructions? Top secret orders maybe?”
“You are observant, Takashema. Yes, it is a sensiball. A special, direct link for communication should you have need to contact me or I you. The box holds a scroll; it is not to be opened or used other than in strict accordance with my instructions to you. Deviation from this instruction will result not only in your death, but in a most unpleasant and painful death for Nexus. Is my point clearly understood?”
“Sarral will provide you with appropriate supplies and clothing for the northern trip. He also has a map of the way most likely to avoid most of the Rauder tribes. Should you encounter them, however, I suggest you show more of your resourcefulness than you did tonight. Or let Drake demonstrate his new toys.
“But don’t let anything delay or disrupt the mission, or all will suffer!” This last word hissed out like a snake, making Billy pull back in disgust.
“I said I understand, Kratia. I’m sure your goon does, too.”
Drake smiled. “I see it’s gonna be a long happy trip, Billy boy. Can’t wait to see how it ends.” Drake’s smile showed a lot of teeth, and Billy was reminded again of how much a predator Drake was. But Kratia pulled his strings, and until he could figure out how to cut them, he had to play along.
“Right, Drake. Just stay out of my way so I won’t have to dirty my hands killing something as slimy as you.”
Drake glared at Billy and started to move towards him when Sarral’s arm intervened.
“Best you both get your supplies packed. Dawn arrives in the hour, and your departure must be punctual,” stated the man. Drake shook off Sarral’s arm but made no further move to Billy.
Billy shrugged and picked up the crystal ball and the white box. “Meet you at the gate, Drake.”