Drake’s left hand shielded his eyes from the glare of the bright afternoon sun as he looked at Billy. “The action will be starting soon,” he said as he studied Billy’s face. “My men are highly trained, and they’ve killed before, but this will be their first real taste of combat. I’ll be interested in your comments of the battle; one professional to another, so to speak.”
Billy stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge Drake’s presence. Drake’s frown grew deeper. “Listen, punk. In a battle there’s often a lot of noise and confusion. Some people might figure it a perfect time to make an escape attempt. If you’re one of those people, better get that nonsense out of your mind right now. Oh, you might get clean away all right. But Kratia’s still got Nexus, and that poor old man would be dead before nightfall. And you’ve got no one else to turn to on this world, Mr. Takashema. And you’d have one badass motherfucker on your trail.” Drake’s frown broke into a grin, seeming almost to shatter his face in doing so. For emphasis, he patted his MP-5, then reined in his horse to fall a few paces behind Billy.
Billy felt the mercenary’s eyes focused on his back, and could feel the cold calculations of the man’s mind as he planned the contingencies of battle against a ninja.
Drake rode to the front, then raised his hand to bring the band to a quick and silent halt. He dismounted and signaled the others to follow suit. Drake strolled back to Billy and waited while he dismounted. Drake tapped the bags on Billy’s horse.
“Call Kratia,” he ordered.
Billy shrugged, got out the sensiball and concentrated on Kratia. Almost immediately he saw the wizard’s face staring out at him.
“Hello, Billy,” spoke the honey sweet voice. “I’m sure the trip has thus far been uneventful. That is about to change. I wish to observe the battle personally, but that would be…” Kratia paused, seeming to think of the most appropriate word. “Impossible given the environment that I expect to develop before and during the battle. So I am going to need your assistance.”
“How the hell am I going to help you from here?” Billy snapped.
“My, my. So testy, and I haven’t even told you what it is that I want.”
“What ever it is, I’m not going to like it.”
“Nonsense! You aspire to be a wizard, and I am about to give you a chance at using spells that tap the Blue Crystal itself.” Kratia smiled. “Yes, I have your attention now, don’t I Billy? Get the white box that I gave you. Quickly!”
Billy set down the sphere and retrieved the box from his bag. He squatted on the ground beside the sphere, box in hand.
“O.K., I’ve got the box. Now what?”
“Open it, and remove the scroll from within. Do not utter a word until I tell you to. Not a word!” Kratia’s voice had an anxious edge to them, accentuated by the shadow of Drake that loomed before Billy.
Drake held the index finger of his left hand to his smiling lips to emphasize Kratia’s words. The fingers of his right hand, which held the machine gun casually towards Billy’s chest, more emphatically emphasized them.
Billy opened the box and found two slender rods of crystal, one blue one white, with thin gold parchment stretched between them. He lifted out the scroll carefully and saw that there were names etched into the gold. The names seemed to be written in fire; the letters glowed and shimmered with barely subdued energy.
“Billy, this is a scroll of servitude. More precisely, it is the Scroll of the Elves. Those are the names of the last surviving Elves, and each one is doomed to serve the holder of the scroll until their promise to help Murgorath is kept – or they die trying.
“Do you realize, Billy, how much I trust you, to have given you such a wonder as this? What an honor! For it shall be you that releases these poor souls from their bondage. But to do it properly – without harm to yourself, the Elves, or Nexus – you must summon them only as necessary and only as authorized by me. Nod if you understand me, Takashema. Nod. Do not speak.”
Billy nodded, still staring at the scroll. With a start he noted the name of Tome Qam among the fifty‑one names on the scroll.
“Good! In a moment you will recite the first name on the list, and only the first name. If there were need for more, you would also speak their names. But the others will be needed later in your quest, and only one is needed now. After you speak the name, say ‘I summon you to fulfill your oath!’. Nod if you understand.”
Billy again nodded, this time noticing how Drake’s hands neither shook nor sweated as he kept the short barrel centered on his heart. Drake lips were smiling but his eyes were cold.
“Good! You may now speak the name and the summons; say nothing else till I tell you!” Billy looked down at the scroll. His breath caught as he recognized the first name on the scroll.
“Loellen!” he said. The first name flared in a blaze of flashing colors so intense he turned his head away. “I summon you to fulfill your oath!”
The ground trembled and the rumble of distant thunder echoed as the burning letters flew out from the scroll; they fluttered and grew into a pulsing, glowing aura a few feet away. Billy tried to follow the nature of the spells, but they surged with such speed and complexity that he was soon lost. He heard Drake mutter a curse and stumble back out of the way.
The aura began to elongate and solidify. The pulsing slowed as the aura grew a head, arms, legs. In seconds the glow had faded, along with the rush of magic. A naked female Elf stood before Billy.
“I am Loellen,” the slender Elf said softly. “I come to fulfill my oath to serve Murgorath and his followers.” She looked sadly at Billy. “What is my master’s command?”
Her speech was understandable, but the tone was hollow and infinitely sad. The putrid smell of something long dead swirled around her; her pale skin was dry and cracked in the few places that were not covered by oozing, puss-filled sores. With a start, Billy realized that Kratia had been talking to him.
“Billy! I said to order the Elf to open its own mind fully to my complete control. Do you understand? Then do it! Now!”
Billy stared at Loellen for a moment before speaking. She was so different from the beautiful girl Nexus had summoned in Aloria that he briefly wondered if she was truly Elfin at all. But the eyes were the same emerald eyes, same golden hair. Same body size and shape. More than anything else, the quiet nobility of the sad, nearly dead thing forced him to conclude she was genuine.
He gave the command and noticed how she winced and shuddered at the words. He felt as though he had ordered her to do something disgusting and obscene; and perhaps he had. He had never been inside Kratia’s mind and had no desire ever to be there.
There was a look of resigned anguish as he finished the command, then her eyes closed and she began to sway.
Billy sensed a spell begin then falter. Loellen’s eyes opened and her lips moved in perfect synchronicity with the image of Kratia as she hissed, “Bring me a wand!”
Billy stood, went to his horse and brought back a power wand. Loellen snatched it greedily. The spells began again, and Billy followed these easily enough: beauty, strength, health. With incredible speed and precision, a complete diagnostic analysis was performed, appropriate healing provided, and a full-body beauty makeover applied.
In seconds Loellen stood before him in the full glory and splendor of a high Elf of Aloria. Subtle, compelling beauty, penetrating eyes of discerning intelligence, slender limbs that hinted at grace and speed. Even naked she radiated such grace and power that the faces of Drake and his men showed awe rather than lust.
Loellen spelled again; a robe of white silk appeared around her body. “Thank you, Billy Takashema,” she said in a voice of haunting beauty. “You may return the scroll to its case.”
Loellen turned to Drake. “Have your men proceed, Drake.”
Billy repacked the scroll. Noting that Kratia’s image had faded from the sensiball, he repacked it as well. When finished, he found Drake and his twelve squad members had pulled out new clothing from their packs and were changing into them. Loellen was standing nearby, still gripping the energy wand, a look of intense concentration of her face as she maintained a spell.
Billy walked nearer trying to make out the spell and was surprised to find that he could. It was a spell of concealment, although much more subtle and detailed than the spell Nexus had cast when they had met the Rauders.
Turning back to the men Billy recognized that the men had donned uniforms of the Mileu army! “What the hell’s going on, Drake?”
“Shut up and listen to the briefing like everybody else!” Drake shot back. Drake turned to the men, and stared at them like they were so many maggots on a piece of bad meat. “Men, I consider you to be the finest trained fighting force this world has ever seen. Now you are going to have a chance to prove it. Our objective is to take control of the wind power station at Bors Pass. Some pretty tough soldiers from a tiny country called Purgatorius guard it. They have a garrison of three hundred men. Seasoned fighters, all of them. They’ve seen action with the Rauders in skirmishes all along the northern border. Accounted themselves well, from what I’ve heard from General Messick.” Drake paused, taking time to meet each of their eyes one at a time.
“But we’re better. A hell of a lot better! And I don’t see why a baker’s dozen of us can’t waste three hundred of them.” Drake spat on the ground. “I don’t want any prisoners. Too many damn problems. You don’t have to horde the bullets. We have five thousand rounds. But make your shots count! The element of surprise is vital and it doesn’t last long. We need to score every kill we can during the confusion of our initial attack. In that period we will penetrate each building within the base in two man teams. No more than one minute per building. After the initial strike we’ll go through again, all thirteen of us, for the mop up. Here’s a drawing of the base layout. Memorize it!”
Drake tossed the paper on the ground and the squad surged in to review it. Drake looked up at Loellen, who nodded at him. She had finished spelling.
“Just one more detail, men,” Drake barked out. “But it’s goddamn important. They have a magician in there and he or she could be a real pain in the ass to our plans. But we all know that magic can’t work if people near the spell are in pain or afraid, right? Now I don’t want my men in pain, no sir. Makes it hard to think straight and that’s dangerous. But fear; well, that can make a man think a little faster, move a little faster. And that’s good! So we go in scared, see. Real scared.”
Drake paused, the eyes of all his men on him, none of them yet guessing what was coming. Drake grinned, though it seemed forced. Billy sensed the tension building.
“It’s easy for a soldier to get pumped up by the excitement of a battle; and lose any fear that he might have,” Drake said. “I have to prevent that from happening. I know we can take the enemy but only if all of you can stay scared to death while we’re doing it. So to keep you guys scared, I’m promising to shoot the one of you with the fewest kills racked up in the battle. That’s right; I’m going to shoot and kill one of you dead. One. Only one. The one that slacks off and don’t do his fair share of the fighting.”
Silence from the men. Nervous stares from one to another; fitful, fearful glances. Billy felt the invisible lines of magic force weaken around him. The fear was growing rapidly, and already affecting magic. Drake had made sure that his men knew he was the meanest badass motherfucker on the planet. So they believed him now. One of them was going to die and it wasn’t going to be at the hands of the enemy.
Drake turned to Billy, a wide grin plastered on his face. “But you don’t have to worry, Billy boy! You and the Elf are staying here. Although you can climb up on those rocks and watch if you want. Just stay out of sight.”
“I have no desire to watch,” said Billy.
“I can understand if you’d rather make time with the chick. She is a hottie.”
Billy glared at Drake, who just grinned wider.
“Stop it, you two,” said Loellen. “There’s work to do.”
“Mount up!” Drake shouted to his men. The smile still on his face, he nodded to Billy. “Maybe later, Jap boy.” Drake turned his back on Billy and climbed up on his high horse.