Mandus led the procession into the Rauder village, followed by Billy and Drake, then the remainder of the Rauder party. The village caught both Earthers by surprise. They had been expecting some sort of permanent settlement, but found instead a collection of temporary canvas huts reminiscent of the teepees of some of the early plains Indians of the western United States. Billy estimated that the village could be packed and on the move with an hour’s notice.
Mandus led them along a well worn path of bare dirt that wove between huts and gardens towards the center of the encampment. They rode slowly, giving ample time for curious Rauders to line the path. Warriors, women and children were present in nearly equal numbers. The ages of the warriors and women appeared to range from teens to ancients, but all of them appeared strong and healthy. Billy was impressed with their silent watchful stares. Even the babies were silent. The only sound was the muffled clop of their horses’ hooves on the hard dirt.
The path ended in an open circle of bare ground about twenty feet wide in front of a lone hut. Mandus signaled for them to dismount. Several young boys raced into the circle and quickly led the horses away, though Drake made them wait until he had removed his weapons from the saddle bag. Billy similarly retrieved the ivory box with the scroll.
A flap of Rep hide that served as a door on the center hut was brushed aside and a older man, tall and muscular even by Rauder standards, emerged. Mandus placed his fist over his heart in salute.
The man nodded to Mandus then eyed Billy and Drake closely. Billy sensed a minor spell forming; a mental probe, deftly constructed. Billy refrained from magic defenses, instead pressing his fingernails into his palm and concentrating on the pain.
Billy glanced over to Drake whose eyes were beginning to turn glassy. He palmed a small shuriken from his belt, leaned over and casually jabbed a point into Drake’s back.
Billy smiled as Drake cursed aloud and shook his head. “You Goddamn heathen witchdoctors!” Drake yelled. “I’ll reach you to get into my head!” He reached for his MP-5, but Billy pushed down the barrel.
“No need for that, Drake. Not yet, anyway,” Billy said calmly. Drake jerked the gun from Billy’s hand, but made no move to point it at anyone.
The Rauder regarded them impassively for another few seconds, then stated solemnly, “I am Rangee, Chief of the Snow Wind tribe. My lieutenant, Mandus, has deemed you important enough to bring to our village directly. His judgment has not been found wanting before, and I doubt that it will be now. But I must hear for myself. Tell me your names and why your business takes you through Rauder lands.”
Billy stared directly into the chief’s eyes. “I am Billy Takashema. I seek the Blue Crystal, and must pass through your lands to reach it.”
Drake added, “I’m Michael Drake, commander of Special Forces for the New World Army. I’m here to make sure that Takashema succeeds in his mission.”
Several Rauder voices whispered “Taka Shema” in hushed, reverent tones. Rangee lifted his hand and the crowd became silent. A smile played briefly across the chief’s lips. “Why do you seek the Crystal, Billy Takashema?”
Billy considered his answer for a few seconds, then answered, “To save a friend.”
“My chief,” said Mandus urgently. “I have seen him command and banish an Elf with his words alone! I am sure it was no illusion; I am not easily fooled in such matters. And he fights like a Rauder!” Mandus dropped his eyes. “Better, in truth. The Taka Shema moves with a speed and precision I have not seen before; I myself was unable to best him in fair fighting.”
The chief nodded, still staring at Billy. “Come. You and I have much to discuss. Alone.” The chief turned and reentered his hut.
Billy and Drake stared at each other for a moment. Then Drake shrugged, and Billy followed the chief into the hut as Drake stared at the surrounding Rauders. They stared back.
Rangee squatted cross-legged beside a small open fire burning in a recessed pit a few inches square. Billy sat similarly across the fire from the man, and waited.
“You have questions, traveler. So do I. Whether the two of us have the required answers is not known, but will be determined shortly. Each of us will ask our questions of the other, and each will answer with full truth and candor. Is this agreed?”
Billy nodded. “I agree.”
Rangee opened a small leather pouch and sprinkled some dust over the flames. An aroma like rye and peppermint filled the hut as pale green smoke rose from the sparkling particles. “The smoke contains a chemical with an affinity to a certain hormone released by the brain when a person lies. When the chemical binds to the hormone, it becomes poisonous, producing great pain and eventual death. Magic healing is not possible due to the pain. So it is clear that we must now abide by our agreement, at least for the next few minutes until the chemical breaks down naturally.
“You are my guest, Billy. You may ask your questions first.”
Billy considered his possible questions; most were trivial, and not worth the asking at this type of ceremony. The really important ones dealt with how to free Nexus, and he really doubted that the Rauders would be able to help much there. Best then to explore the unknown, in hopes of discovering something useful.
“What does the word Takashema mean in your language?” he asked.
The chief waved his hands and shook his head. “It comes from a Rauder legend. It would have no meaning for outsiders.”
“Nevertheless, it is my question,” Billy persisted. “I have heard it whispered several times by Rauders in my presence and I would know its meaning.”
The chief dropped his hands and grew somber. “As you will,” he said, staring into the flames and gathering his thoughts.
“Taka Shema,” he began at last, “means Warrior Mage. The words are given special meaning due to an ancient prophesy made by a Rauder king centuries ago. ‘Ya Taka-Shema wu ven job, Ven Gar-Sa kalla be zir stob’. Two lines from the prophesy spoken in the original Rauder tongue. Translated, it says ‘If Warrior Mage goes on the quest, the Dark One faces one last test.’”
“Rangee, does the prophesy say if I will succeed?”
“No. Only that there is a test.”
“Then I am pre-ordained to go on this quest,” said Billy.
“Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Your name could be nothing more than a coincidence.”
The chief’s eyes reflected the blaze of the fire, seeming to burn within the chief’s head. “In the days of my father, before my birth, there came to our tribe the last living Elf. He was on a quest to free his people from the bondage of the Crystal. The Elf had the semblance of a human, necessary to avoid the curse of the crystal. I was told by my father that the Elf could neither take his true form, nor even open his mind to magic, least the crystal learn of him and snatch him into the netherworld where his kin were already in thrall.
“The Elf’s name was Desna, and he traveled with a young wizard named Nexus.”
Billy stiffened with surprise, causing the chief to pause and regard him inquisitively. Billy swallowed, and stammered, “Go on.”
“Desna thought himself the Taka-Shema, and sought the entrance to the Blue Crystal, hidden since the days of its creation, its location known and guarded only by the twelve tribes of the Rauders.” Rangee smiled proudly. “We fulfill our ancient duty well. In over two thousand years no hostile force has ever penetrated our lands. Of those that tried, few lived to tell of the attempt. So Desna and his wizard knew that they must enlist our aid if they were to succeed.” Rangee laughed. “Father said they talked quite well!”
Rangee seemed irritated that Billy did not join in the laughter. “You think me an old and foolish man, Billy Takashema? That I ramble wastefully around the answer to your simple question?” Rangee grunted. “The truth needs to be told in its own manner! Forget history, and you have lost the perspective which gives depth and meaning to mere facts!”
Billy stared impassively at the chief, until the man continued.
“Binus, first chief of the Snow Wind tribe, was thrown from his horse and fractured his skull over ten thousand years ago. Binas lay in a coma for three days, his body burning with fever, his skull swelling to the bursting point. Preparations were made for his funeral pyre, for he was beyond healing. At dawn on the third day Binas awakened and called for Caras, his lieutenant, and ordered that his last words be written down. He recited the prophesy, a poem which at the time made no sense to Caras or to anyone else.
“Binas commanded that the prophesy be given to the chiefs of the twelve tribes, and that they be told to pass it down to each generation, verbatim, until the events it foretold should come to pass or until the Rauders were no more.
“With that command Binas died. Caras delivered the prophesy to each of the chiefs. Out of respect for Binas, it was remembered and passed down for hundreds of generations. It came to be regarded as a fairy tale for children with no truth or relevance to the world. After all, it predated the creation of the Crystal and there was no way to tell actual prophesy from wishful thinking. But then, 42 years ago, the Elves were suddenly swallowed up by the Crystal, which was foretold by the prophesy. Since then, many of the chiefs have regarded the prophesy in a new light, myself included.
“We thought that Desna was the Taka Shema. We took him to the cusp of the crystal. He entered, but never returned. That was thirty-two years ago. Now there is you.”
“I am the Taka Shema of the prophesy,” Billy said.
“Perhaps you are, perhaps not,” Rangee answered. “A name is a powerful totem, but is not always a reliable guide to what is in the owner’s heart.”
“Ask me your question, Rangee,” said Billy. “Perhaps it will guide you to the truth in my heart.”
Billy locked eyes with Rangee; felt the chief’s eyes bore into him.
“What will you do once you reach the Blue Crystal?” asked Rangee.
“I don’t know,” Billy answered slowly. “But I hope it’s the right thing.”
A sudden onset of shouting voices outside the hut interrupted the conversation, and Rangee rose and pealed back the entry flap to investigate. He motioned to Billy to join him.
“It’s a fight, and shaping up to be a good one!”
Billy was surprised at the excitement and anticipation in the chief’s voice, but the cries coming from the growing circle of Rauders held the same feelings. Billy was reminded of fans at a boxing match. Billy winced and muttered a short prayer after they had pushed through the crowd and saw who was fighting.
Drake was staggering backwards, nose broken and bleeding, as a Rauder pummeled down more blows.
“That’s Thomas,” Rangee said proudly to Billy. “He’s a powerful fighter, though he tends to be belligerent to strangers.”
“They won’t be strangers after this,” answered Billy.
Drake lashed out with a vicious kick to the chest, sending Thomas reeling into the spectators. He lost his balance and took two other Rauders down with him. With a roar he leaped up and charged at Drake.
Drake smiled; Billy realized Drake was really enjoying this. Ignoring the blood that streamed from his nose, Drake dropped into a perfect foot sweep, dropping the Rauder. Drake dropped beside the man, putting all his weight into an elbow that sank into the Rauder’s solar plexus. He followed up with precise hand chops to the man’s exposed throat as he lay temporarily stunned.
The Rauder shook it off and leaped up even more enraged. Drake rolled out of the way and stood up just as the Rauder reached him with outstretched arms. Drake grabbed the right arm and stepped into the charge, neatly rolling the Rauder over his hip and onto the ground again. This time, he delivered a heavy kick to the groin. As the Rauder began to double up, Drake followed through with a kick to the face.
Thomas yelled, spitting out blood and fragments of at least two teeth. He reached out and caught Drake’s foot before it could deliver a third kick, and the snap of Drake’s ankle bones were clearly audible to the crowd as the Rauder twisted the foot through almost 180 degrees.
Drake let out a short yelp of pain, then dove into the Rauder. For several seconds they wrestled on the dusty ground, until Drake managed to get his legs around Thomas’s head and neck. Drake locked his legs and applied pressure to cut off Thomas’s air supply.
Thomas bit deeply into Drake’s thigh, and Drake screamed as the new pain joined in the chorus of the other multiple breaks and cuts. But he did not release his hold; in fact, he tightened it further as the pain pushed a new surge of adrenaline into his system.
After more than a minute of ineffectual struggling, including several hard blows to Drakes legs, one of which shattered a kneecap, Thomas’s movements grew slower and less coordinated. At last, the Rauder slapped his hand on the ground three times.
Rangee leaned over to Billy. “Thomas has yielded! Your friend fights well!”
Drake showed no signs of releasing the hold, unaware of the Rauder’s sign of surrender. Billy shouted out to Drake, letting Drake know that the fight was over. After a few more tense seconds, the information seemed to filter through to Drake and he released Thomas.
The blue‑faced Rauder gulped air frantically as his friends laughed uproariously. When Thomas had finally caught his breath, he stood and held out his hand to Drake. Drake took it, tried to stand, but fell screaming as the broken ankle and knee scraped along bruised muscles and tendons. Thomas scooped him up amid renewed laughter from the crowd.
Rangee stopped laughing long enough to tell Billy, “This bodes well for your quest. I shall order a feast prepared and we will decide how best to aid you. Meanwhile, as a special honor, I shall attend to the healing of your friend’s wounds personally!”
As Billy shook his head, wondering where all this was going to lead, the Rauder chief walked off pulling some red berries out of his pocket. These he offered to a moaning Drake, who swallowed them after a few words of explanation from Rangee. They obviously had powerful tranquilizing properties; for in seconds Drake’s pain offered no hindrance to the chief’s healing spells.
Billy was led to a hut and told that it was his for the night. His saddle bag had been placed on a mat in the middle of the floor. He checked it quickly, verifying everything was present. He then practiced his magic, changing his ninja uniform into a comfortable yet formal black silk kimono. He had just finished when the a muffled whining drone of the sensiball began emanating form the saddle bag, reminding Billy uncomfortably of his mission. As he lifted the white crystal ball from the bag, the whine stopped and the interior swirled and cleared to reveal Kratia.
“Good evening, Billy. I thought this might be a good time to chat; but I see you are dressed for some sort of festivity.”
“The Rauder chief is preparing a feast in my honor,” Billy said. “Kratia, I really don’t feel like talking now.”
“Billy, you don’t have to like me. You only have to obey me,” Kratia answered coolly. “Or do you need a reminder of what I could do to a certain helpless blind man?”
“I don’t need reminders.”
“Good! Then I won’t need to delay you for long. Give me a quick status check on your progress.”
Billy sighed. “The Rauders have agreed to help us reach the entrance to the Crystal. We will feast tonight and move out by noon tomorrow. Rangee, the chief, says it should take us about two days to reach the entrance to the cusp. Apparently there is some sort of test I’ll need to pass through at that point, but he doesn’t know the nature of it.”
“How is Drake?”
“Your puppet is holding up quite nicely. Multiple concussions, fractured nose, ankle and knee bones, deep bite wounds on the left thigh; but other than that, he feels great.”
Kratia’s eyes widened. “How did it happen! Tell me at once!”
“Relax,” (you bitch) Billy answered. “Drake decided to take on a Rauder in a friendly fight. Drake even won, though he was surprised by the intensity at which these guys pursue their fun.”
“He will need to be healed. Drake must be in good physical condition to accompany you on the trip to the crystal!”
Billy sighed, then tilted his head and looked down at the wizard’s face. “Kratia, the whole world doesn’t wait for you to bless its every move. Even a world as dicked up as Salmineria. The Rauders healed Drake. He’s fine. Except in the head. There he’s almost as sick as you.”
“Nexus will pay for your insolence, Takashema. Remember that for our future conversations.”
Billy raised the sensiball close to his eyes. He spoke in a black toneless voice. “If you harm Nexus I will rip out your heart with my bare hands.”
Kratia laughed. “I am glad to see your fighting spirit is intact! Just remember to apply it towards completing your mission. Any foolish attempts to sabotage it will mean punishment or death for your mentor. Not to mention what it would mean for you!”
Kratia’s image faded with the sound of her laughter, leaving Billy staring at the empty sensiball. He thrust it back into the saddle bag, kicked the bag across the hut. He sat down cross-legged, breathing deeply and slowly until he had restored most of his inner calm.
Full peace eluded him, and would continue to elude him until he could find a way to free his friend and stop the bitch’s manipulations.