Billy watched Loellen climb down from her perch on the tall rocks half way up the cliff. He caught the end the message spell being sent by Loellen. Their magic had returned once Drake and his men were a hundred yards away, and Loellen had been busy spelling ever since.
“Why the message?” he asked. “It was as though you were trying to summon help for the garrison at the very time you had Drake trying to wipe it out!”
Loellen waited until the spell was finished before replying. “You missed a heck of a show, Billy. Short, but oh, so sweet. Of course, at this distance you would have needed magically enhanced vision.”
“Let us proceed to the power station, Billy,” she replied, ignoring the question. “It is almost time for you and Drake to begin the next phase of your quest.”
They rode over to the garrison and through it, seeing dozens of dead bodies lying in the street. Just on the other side of the fort was the wind power station of Bors Pass. Small compared to the Anro Pass power station but still impressive, its six twenty meter long blades sweeping in majestic circles. When they caught up to Drake, he looked pissed.
“Kratia, the damn power station is made of metal,” he said. “Can’t torch it. Too big to push or pull down with just a few men and horses. We have no explosives. So how the hell am I supposed to destroy this thing?”
“I thought you’d be more creative,” Loellen replied. “But don’t worry, I’m here. And there is no staff magician to oppose me.”
Loellen/Kratia began to spell, but the magic lines of force were too diffuse.
“Drake!” she shouted. “Get your scared little troop out of here. Move them away. A hundred yards in any direction. Now!”
“Men, let’s scout ahead. Make sure the way is clear,” Drake ordered. “But not you, Paul.”
Paul looked up at Drake.
Drake pulled the trigger on his MP-5 and squeezed off one shot. Paul, a sixteen year old farmhand until he had gone to Hornblower rock concert, was jerked backward and fell face up to the ground. Blood oozed from the bullet hole in his forehead.
“Too bad, kid,” Drake said. “Life sucks and then you die.” Drake climbed up onto his horse, and rode off with his men.
Loellen was smiling, and Billy wanted to slap her. No, he wanted to slap Kratia. Loellen was just a puppet.
Billy felt the spell begin again, and watched as the metal supports of the power station sagged, then buckled completely. As the blades hit the ground they tore off with the screech of twisting, tearing metal. They shattered, and several long shards whipped by them like spears.
Loellen was laughing, her eyes feverishly bright.
A few hours later the garrison and the power station were many miles behind them. Loellen was slumped over in her saddle, barely conscious. Her face and body seemed empty now, but early in the ride Billy and Drake had seen her contort in ways disturbingly like a person in the throes of sexual intercourse.
They had seen other things more disturbing. Half-formed images of anguish and pain that danced fleetingly across her face, unable to take full expression. To Billy it seemed that the soul trapped inside Loellen’s body was being raped and was trying to cry out for help. Whenever the pain seemed on the verge of forming a definite expression, the unseen puppet master pulled the strings that erased the emotions.
Later in the ride those glimpses of inner torment grew less frequent and finally stopped altogether. It was then that Billy had noticed the tears that slid slowly down her cheeks, in sharp contrast to the rhythmic passionate jerking that made her body dance in echo to someone’s distant ecstasy.
Now even the tears had stopped, as well as the miming of Kratia’s fun. Loellen merely existed as an empty vessel; a zombie, riding slowly with two companions across the vast plains of the Rauder lands.
The three of them had left Drake’s squad to hold the outpost and control the town of Cumao until more of Kratia’s troops could be dispatched. They had ridden northwest for six hours, pausing only to rest the horses. They reached the northern branch of the Mauser, and were following it west to its headwaters. The Mauser was deep, fast and treacherous this far up; and during the several miles they had covered no fordable places had presented themselves.
Drake stopped and consulted a map, which he pulled from his saddlebags. Billy reined in next to Drake, and Loellen’s horse stopped as well. Drake pointed downstream.
“According to the map there’s a ford about ten miles from here. Abandoned Purgatorian outpost camp on the north shore as well. We can bed down there for the night.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Drake,” said Billy. “The ford is the only one for twenty miles; it will be a natural congregation point for the Rauders.”
“So what?” Drake sneered. “You afraid of a few wild men on horseback?”
“I’ve encountered Rauders before. I’d rather not do it again. Let’s scout around the ford, sneak over when we know it’s clear, and set up camp a few miles away. Wherever we can find good cover. We want to be able to see them before they see us.”
“Drake, there are no trees and hardly any other cover up here; we’ll be spotted easily. Let’s at least wait for dark.”
“No.” Drake spit. “Goddamn coward.”
“Drake, don’t be an idiot! It makes sense to.. “
Drake’s right hand flashed down to his side and came up with his gun aimed at Billy’s face. “I said we’re making camp at the ford! I’m in charge of this jaunt, and we ain’t no fucking democracy!”
Billy stared into the black round hole at the end of the barrel. The man was a fool. Fast, dangerous, but still a fool. Billy considered for a few seconds the relative merits of taking him out now; but there was no immediate benefit to be derived. Quite the contrary, there was a considerable amount of risk with Kratia surrogate eyes nearby.
Billy sighed. Patience. “You’re the boss, Drake. At least until Kratia comes back from her nap and yanks your chain.”
Drake only glared as he put down his gun and rolled up the map. “Make sure the lady don’t fall off her horse. And you neither, for that matter.” Drake dug his boot heels into the horse’s flanks and it leaped off along the grassy banks.
The bottom arc of the sun was just above the western foothills of the Jastic Mountains when they reached the ford. Drake took a quick scan up and down the river, and stared at the opposite bank for a moment before plunging his horse into the cold rushing water. The river wasn’t more than a foot or two deep over most of this stretch, but made up for it by widening to nearly a quarter mile across.
Billy helped get Loellen’s horse into the water beside his, and the beasts picked their way carefully along, close behind Drake. They were nearly across when Billy felt his senses tingle.
He carefully scanned the shore ahead and saw nothing but the shadows of the bushes swaying gently. Some of the shadows weren’t swaying. And there was no breeze to explain the bushes that were. Billy shouted a warning to Drake and turned his horse around to the other shore.
Three Rauders waited in plain sight on the shore behind them. Drake cursed, and Billy turned back to face him. Drake was staring ahead, where five Rauders had come out to stand on the shore ahead. The setting sun glinted off their teeth, letting Billy and Drake make out their smiles from a hundred yards away.
“Damn it, Drake! Now see what we have to deal with?”
Drake smiled, and patted his gun. “No problem! I got more than enough clips to clean house.”
“Listen, moron. The Rauders won’t attack until they talk to us; they’ll give us a chance to convince them not to fight. Even if we do fight, we’ll get some choices. I’ve dealt with this ritual before! So hold your fire and let me do the talking!”
Drake didn’t respond, but did lower the gun. He spurred his horse on to the north shore, and Billy struggled to catch up to him while dragging Loellen’s horse with him. As they neared, Billy saw the Rauders exchange nervous glances with each other.
One even began to speak, but was cut off with a grunt from the Rauder in the center. When the three were within fifty feet, the nervousness became even more apparent. All the Rauders were shifting nervously about except for the largest of the Rauders, who remained expressionless.
Finally he stepped forward and called out, “You are on Rauder land. Why?”
Drake laughed. “We are on a mission for Lord Kratia. You and your men must stand down or die.” Drake lifted the MP-5 and casually pointed it at one of the Rauders. The speaker for the Rauders did not move, nor did his men.
“You travel with one that looks like an Elf. The Rauders were allies with the Elves in the elder days. Now all the Elves are dead; even their ghosts decline to speak. We take offense at impostors who mock our dead friends.”
Billy slid up next to Drake and spoke. “Loellen is real. I have summoned her to aid us in our quest. We ask you to honor your old friendship with the Elves through her, and to us, her companions.”
“Billy, stay out of this. I got it covered fine!” Drake muttered. He yelled out at the Rauders, “I don’t have time for stupid interruptions! Get out of my way or die!”
The Rauder motioned to his men, and they moved up next to him. A quiet but intense discussion followed, as Drake became steadily more tense. After a few seconds, the Rauders spread out again, this time with hands on their weapons. “Are you wizard or warrior?” called out the leader of the Rauders.
“I’m one badass mother of a warrior!” Drake called out as he opened fire on the Rauder to the speaker’s left. The man yelled out in unexpected pain, and fell from his horse in a spray of blood. Drake calmly took aim at the next man.
Billy leaned over and pushed the barrel down as he screamed into Drake’s ear, “You total fucking maniac! What the hell did you do that for! Now there’s going to be all hell to pay!”
Drake smiled at Billy and pointed to the Rauders. They were backing away from the shore, forming a clear passage. “I got results didn’t I?”
The leader spoke again. “You gave fair warning. We challenged your conditions and you dealt death as promised. We stand aside.”
Drake, smiling broadly, directed his horse up the bank followed by Billy and Loellen. As they passed through the Rauder ranks, Billy’s senses tingled with danger. Drake may have felt similar danger, for he kept the gun ready. They were nearly past them when the Rauder spoke again.
“We stand aside; but if you pass us now, the Rauders of every tribe will see in you an enemy and seek your death. You will find no peace in our lands, only strife and death.”
Billy stopped his horse. “Is there no way to avoid this strife?”
“Who the fuck cares?” muttered Drake.
“The measure of a man is best tested in unarmed battle; whether it be of brawn for warriors or of brain for wizards. We cannot face the power of your death stick, but we sneer upon the man too weak to trust in his own personal ability!”
“I am not afraid,” Billy answered. “I have trusted in my own abilities as a wizard in battle with Eriador, chief of the Tree Mist tribe. Yet I am also a warrior, and I trust in my ability to best you, speaker!”
Astonished murmuring went through the Rauder ranks, and Billy thought he heard the word ‘Taka Shema’ whispered just before the speaker rose his hand for silence.
“I have heard of the one who bested Eriador. Perhaps a mighty wizard you are, for the skill of a wizard is hidden from casual view. But all can plainly see that you are no warrior! But the man with the death stick – he is taller, stronger than you. Perhaps he could be a challenge!”
“Looks are often deceiving,” Billy retorted before Drake could pick up on the challenge. “Are you afraid to face me, speaker? Afraid to face Takashema?”
The Rauder stiffened in anger and leaped from his horse to land gracefully on his feet. Billy dismounted as well, and found himself beginning to reconsider fighting the man. The Rauder was at least seven feet tall, weighed over three hundred pounds, and had less than an ounce of fat on his entire body. A regular goddamn Conan! Oh, well. The bigger they are…
Drake had dismounted as well and said to Billy, “You don’t need to hog all the fun. I know enough hand‑to‑hand to turn this guy into a tootsie roll.”
Billy stared at Drake. “Don’t make this worse. If done with proper finesse, we might be able to turn the Rauders into allies.”
Drake grinned and shrugged. “Suit yourself kid. Just don’t get killed. Kratia wants you alive, and if moose here looks like he’s gonna pull your plug, I’m gonna have to take him out.”
“That’s right, Billy,” said Loellen.
Billy stared with surprise at the Elf. Her eyes were bright as candles, and she sat alert in the saddle. “Kratia?” he asked.
She nodded. “Your guardian angel returns!”
Billy’s gaze hardened. “Don’t mess up my fight, Kratia.”
“I have no intention of doing so; unless you make a fool of yourself.”
Billy ignored her remark and moved towards the big warrior.
He stood in a patch of grass and mud several feet across, and as Billy approached the man crouched low and began to circle slowly around the perimeter of the clearing, keeping straight across from Billy.
Billy stepped lightly and quickly, getting the feel of the ground through his soft boots, and observing closely the movements of his adversary. Neither was eager to make the first contact, but Billy was sure he could outwait a man raised since birth to seek out physical challenges.
He was right. The Rauder lunged with surprising speed, but Billy’s reflexes responded even faster, changing a potentially crushing blow to the head into an almost comical grasping at air. Billy came up under the big arm and delivered a stiff finger thrust at the exposed ribs.
It was like hitting a tree trunk, and Billy rubbed his bruised fingers as the man laughed. The Rauder lunged again, both arms outstretched. Billy dodged to the left, but the Rauder shifted with him. Billy ducked as a massive right came swinging around, but realized too late that the obvious arms were a diversion for the knee that came ramming into his groin.
Billy hit the ground, rolled and came up on his feet, the noise of his movement masking the low groan of pain that oozed from his lips. He breathed deeply, acknowledging the pain but refusing to let it cloud his mind or hinder his movement.
Billy circled even more warily, feigning intense pain and keeping slightly doubled up. The Rauder was grinning, seeing an easy victory, but too much of a seasoned warrior to underestimate wounded prey. He feinted to the left, and as Billy reacted with a shift to the right, he dove right as well, intending to lock up with Billy and crush him.
The Rauder was stunned when Billy abruptly straightened with a leap high into the air; too stunned to dodge the foot that slammed into his head and knocked him to the ground. He did see how Billy landed on his feet, perfectly balanced, ready for more action.
The Rauder roared with anger as he leaped to his feet and charged at Billy. Billy did not move aside, but caught the Rauder full on, even pulling him in as he backed up then rolled onto his back. Billy completed the maneuver by lifting his legs up and against the Rauder, who was sent sailing overhead by the force of his own redirected momentum.
The Rauder went over the bank and hit the water with a tremendous splash. Billy heard Drake cheering, but the Rauder band was silent. Billy walked over to the water and stared at the man getting slowly up to his feet. The warrior was covered with mud and his long hair was plastered damply to his face. The man spat out some blood and river water, then held out a hand to Billy.
Billy regarded the proffered hand uncertainly. Should he accept, and risk falling for such an obvious trick? If not, was he in danger of offending Rauder customs? Billy reached out his own hand – and was promptly pulled into the water.
The Rauder fell upon him, managing to get his arms around the ninja and began applying pressure in a vice‑like bear hug. Billy involuntarily cried out as the pain and pressure hit the internal organs. Drawing a breath quickly became a real effort, as he tried to collect and control his thoughts again.
Billy suddenly became aware of a spell forming, and twisted his head enough to see Loellen grasping a wand and smiling maliciously. He couldn’t make out the nature of the spell, but it didn’t matter. If he didn’t win this fight on his own, they were going to have some serious problems later on.
“Kratia!” he cried out hoarsely. “This is my fight!”
The Rauder tightened his hold and grunted out, “The fight is nearly over, little warrior. You fight well, but I am a Rauder.”
Billy felt the tendrils of magic growing stronger, but only at a distance. The spell avoided him and his pain, as it continued to grow. Billy kicked steadily and intensely at the Rauder’s shins; diverting the man’s attention long enough to free his arms. Billy brought his hands slapping down hard over the man’s ears, shattering the eardrums.
Billy rolled free as the Rauder howled. Billy jumped to his feet and turned to Loellen.
“Stop your spell! I don’t need your help! Leave me alone!”
The transformation was instantaneous and astounding. The spell was arrested immediately, but what captured everyone’s attention was the aura of soft blue light that surrounded the Elf. Her features had also altered, though subtly. She appeared more peaceful, more beautiful, more wise than she had just seconds before.
She spoke, and the voice echoed with a musical cadence that Kratia could never have matched, even using the same vocal cords. “I have answered the summons and fulfilled the oath. My Lord bids me leave, and so my long nightmare ends. I surrender my soul unto the mercy of my ancestors.” She looked at Billy, tears in her eyes; but whether of joy or sadness, Billy did not know. “Good bye, Billy Takashema.”
The blue glow faded, and Loellen with it. A lingering perfume of roses remained. There was profound silence, even from the Rauder fighter, who sat wide‑eyed in the water.
After a few seconds, Drake muttered, “Goddamn!”
Several Rauders began chanting, “Taka-Shema; Taka-Shema; Taka-Shema.”
Billy turned to the Rauder beside him, and offered his hand. After a moment the man took it, and hoisted himself up. He stared hard at Billy.
“I am Mandus, lieutenant of the Snow Wind tribe. Rangee, our chief, said you would come but many doubted. You are welcome, Takashema, and your companion. Come with us to our village. We have much to discuss, if you are indeed the one foretold by our legends.”