He knew he was dreaming because it was dark and he felt the wonderful warm lazy feeling of semiconscious slumber within him. Somewhere in his mind it registered that his legs were moving. That didn’t feel right so he believed at first that he was dreaming. But the sensations were too real, each step jarring on the hard surface, and the sound of sandals clacking.
He opened his eyes and saw an endless gray wall. And nothing else. He tried to cry out but found his mouth refused to utter a sound; he tried to stop walking but his legs refused to obey his will. He started to move his arms but felt the resistance of an arm on his. He cried out mentally for Kratia. Suddenly she was there, in his mind with him.
“Rest, my darling,” her mental voice whispered. “Sleep, Nexus. You are still exhausted from the throes of ultimate of physical pleasure; you must rest before your next treat. I will let you experience the thrill of ultimate power. To feel the basic forces of the universe bend to your will as you shape reality into your desires. But your body is not yet ready. So sleep, as I prepare and restore you to your former greatness.”
There was a moment’s confusion, then a nod of acceptance. “Yes, I am Nexus, wizard and Lord of the Circle.” It really was coming back to him now. He still felt his legs moving, but now he could sense that it was Kratia moving them. She was in him: guiding, directing, controlling. He trusted her and drifted off again to oblivion.
Kratia sighed with relief. He very nearly had come out of the trance too soon. That could have been fatal to her plans now that they were inside the Guild and nearly to the Circle chamber itself. But she had had no choice, since she needed to be sure that all the hypnotic blocks and suggestions were in place and ready to trip once they entered the chamber. Once they were inside she dared not maintain the magic telepathic link; it was too easy a spell to detect, and his slavish behavior could not be disguised.
She smiled as the two guards snapped to attention and smartly pulled open the double doors to the chamber. She had Nexus pause there a moment, as if deep in thought. She nudged him in the ribs, and spoke the trigger phrase. “Wake up, Nexus! The Circle is waiting.”
Nikademos gave a small start, as if returning from a daydream. He looked about in agitation, and gripped Kratia’s hand. “Kratia! I can’t see!” he hissed. She patted his hand in comfort. “I know how much you miss Crow, Nexus, but these things happen. Later we will see about getting you a new seeing eye bird but for now let me be your guide.”
He shook his head. He was Nexus? That’s right. Shit, what was he thinking of? Was he getting senile in his old age? “Thank you, Kratia. I don’t know what happened to Crow. I’ve had him so long that I am nearly useless without it. For now, please be my guide.”
They were the last of the Circle to arrive and as they entered the doors were swung shut and bolted securely by the two guards on the inside. The random bits of conversation died and several eyebrows raised as the assembled wizards watched the pair walk arm in arm to Nexus’s position.
Kratia then walked quickly over to hers, oblivious to their stares. Rankor leaned over to whisper in Nexus’s ear. “I see you’ve traded in bird for a more attractive partner, eh, Nexus?”
Nikademos stopped scowling and smiled slightly. “Crow flew off to be in the company of its own kind. The call of natural instincts was stronger than the kinship it may have felt towards me. But I bear it no ill will, for perhaps there is a lesson to be learned. Too long have I neglected my own race and suppressed my own instincts. Kratia may afford me the opportunity to correct that.”
Rankor slapped him on the back. “That’s the spirit!” he said with a wink. “A wizard is never too old for a little fun, right?”
Kratia looked down at the floor and forced a bright red blush to her cheeks.
Meanwhile, Icon cut short his conversation with Feindre and approached Kratia. “I am pleased to see that the two of you have reconciled your differences. There are matters that must be dealt with by the Circle, and we cannot afford to be divided.”
“You have Nexus to thank for that, Icon. He seems to have changed his attitude considerably since we last met. It was he who approached me with his offer of friendship.” Kratia paused, noticing the look of worry on Icon’s face. She replaced the smile on her face with look of equal concern. “Icon, what fills you with such consternation?”
“Now that we are all assembled, I will tell all of the Circle of the grave events that threaten to undermine the stability of our entire civilization,” he stated gravely. Then raising his voice he called out, “Attention, members of the Circle! We have a crisis that must be resolved.”
As the attention of the gathering fell upon him, he concentrated upon a simple visual spell that displayed the huge banks of energy wands stored in the vaults at the base of the Circle tower. Nothing seemed amiss: the wands were all there, and about half glowed with the faint blue light of a fully charged energy source. Those remaining were dark, or glowed feebly red.
“The energy resources of the Guild. Apparently vast, but as you know, a single massive spell by the full Circle is capable of expending nearly all of it. In fact, just two days ago we spent nearly half of our vault on building a palace for the Esaf Condeu. Normally, we don’t worry too much about that – we keep about 500 Gigs on deposit in various banks of the realm. But look at those holdings now!”
The image shifted and for a moment refused to focus, until Icon pushed aside the bank’s spells of concealment and illusion. Abruptly a huge vault appeared which dwarfed by many times the Guild’s. “The Royal Bank of Milieu,” stated Icon. “The second largest bank in all Salmineria, and easily worth a dozen times our reserves.” The vault was more than half empty. The wands still present were at various states of discharge. “The bank is normally kept at ninety percent of capacity,” said Icon. “It is now at about thirty percent”.
The image shifted again, and as it focused, Icon stated flatly, “The Free Trade Bank.” The image showed a seemingly endless array of racks holding nearly empty wands. “Nearly wiped out. Less than one percent of capacity. Together these two banks held half of our total external reserves. The other half is with the Royal Bank of Condeu.”
“What is the status of their reserves?” asked Osiri.
“I cannot answer,” said Icon. “The situation with the Esaf Condeu is in some ways even more disturbing that the other two banks. The Esaf has frozen our assets, and given no reason why.”
“How much energy is missing? Where did it go?” asked Findre, his normally jolly countenance clouded by worry.
“The two banks that we can access held over one year’s worth of the total energy generation on the planet. It seems incredible that so much wealth could be expended so quickly. But in the case of the Free Trade Bank, a very large loan was recently made. We are checking to see who it was to. In the case of the Mileu bank, there were several large depositors that demanded full withdrawal,” said Icon.
“So this could be a normal market fluctuation?” asked Nasan.
“No. The timing alone makes it unlikely. But three other events have totally convinced me that there was deliberate intent.”
“What are those events, Icon?” asked Kratia.
“One, John Anaso, vice-president of the Free Trade Bank, committed suicide yesterday. Two, the power station at Bors Pass was destroyed yesterday as well. Three, the Gliss power station near Retil is shutdown – the muckers have caught some disease that is proving difficult to cure, so there’s no way to securely transfer the energy into wands.”
“Hey Nexus,” said Nasan. “Weren’t you and Billy up by Retil? Did you stop at the plant?”
“I, I don’t think,” began Nikademos, responding as Nexus.
“Wow!” said Feindre. “What a coincidence. Did you see anything unusual? Were the muckers sick when you were there?”
“Icon, there is something else you should know, too,” interrupted Kratia. “This morning there was a theft of over 100 Gigs from the Bank of Condeu.”
Several voices spoke out at once, urgently demanding recognition.
“How much was the Guild’s share?”
“How soon can energy production make up the loss?”
“What is the impact on the general economy?”
“Hell with the economy! What’s the impact on us?”
“What happened to the energy? Surely so massive a loss or transfer would be traceable?”
“Yes! Where did it go? Who is responsible?”
Icon raised his arms for silence, and the murmuring died down. “I don’t know where all the energy went, but these events point to deliberate and well calculated actions. I also knew of the theft, but learned of it only a few hours ago. That’s when I decided to call this emergency meeting. The theft was discovered this morning by the banks’ staffs, and when consultations among themselves revealed a common plight, the directors contacted me for assistance. The assistance is two fold: Both the Esafs want emergency loans totally four hundred Gigs, which is nearly all our local reserves. Secondly, they want our help in recovering the stolen energy, and in bringing the guilty party to justice.”
Tanas spoke up, “Before we grant such a loan, we must assess how the loss of reserves will affect us.”
Nasan shook his head and stated, “I don’t see the need to give them a loan at all. Let the banks handle their own problems. Especially the Esaf Condeu. Freezing our assets! And hiding his vault from us! He needs to come clean!” A few murmured assent before Icon raised his arms again.
“No my friends. We must help the banks. The entire economy of our world could come crashing down around us if we don’t. The banks have lost the energy that was deposited by businesses and governments that will be needed to pay wages, and to provide essential services. Some purchases and some services can be stalled for a while, but if wages are not paid, then strikes and shutdowns are inevitable. Soon thereafter, farmers will realize there is no payment available for their crops, and will hoard them, or auction them to the highest bidders. Famine will rage through the cities, in turn bringing riots and violence as people fight to survive.” Icon shook his head sadly. “Far better for us to curtail our use of energy for a time, then to cast our civilization into chaos!”
Kratia nodded in agreement with Icon and said, “I think it is important that the general populace be kept ignorant of the state of these affairs, for a panic could ensue in which the many small depositors try to withdraw their funds, thereby intensifying the shortage, and initiating the very collapse and subsequent violence we want to avoid.”
“Just so, Kratia,” replied Icon.
Before he could talk further, Tanas interrupted him. “I fear we may be too late to prevent the knowledge from spreading. Just on my way here I passed a group of people listening to a talking bird. I thought perhaps it was part of some traveling show, though I did not see any advertisements, nor did I see its master. But the bird was saying to the people, ‘Go to the bank! Get your money! Before it’s too late!’ And many of the listeners I think were inclined to follow the advice. The bird appeared to be a crow.”
Tanas stared at Nexus, as did Icon and then all the members of the Circle. The blind man ignored the stares.
“A loan may be necessary, Icon,” Kratia said loudly so that all eyes turned to her. “But do we have enough energy to first form the Circle; and with our united powers seek out the place where the energy is hidden. Perhaps even return it?”
Several members readily nodded their agreement; all but Nexus, whose body jerked and stiffened suddenly at Kratia’s words.
Icon nodded assent. “Form the Circle!” he commanded.
Everyone was moving towards their point on the enneagon when Nexus cried out, “No!” His body began shaking and mouth was clenching spasmodically. “No!” the old man shouted again, spittle flying from his mouth.
Kratia sensed that no one was attempting a telepathic link, and with a quickly suppressed smile plunged into his mind to enjoy the confusion, pain, and anguish that her post hypnotic suggestions were creating. She wasn’t worried about anyone detecting the nature of her spell; it would fit well into her explanation that she was trying to understand what Nexus was up to.
It was a whirlwind nightmare inside the mind of Nikademos. Kratia reveled in the vivid clarity of his realization that he was NOT Nexus; in his discovery of the memories that she had planted of things he should not have known; such as the punishment for impersonating a member of the Circle (death by torture, followed by the body being turned to stone as an everlasting reminder and deterrent); the memory of the deaths he had helped cause in Hornblower; the bizarre fact that she had somehow altered his mind so that he could actually use magic, and worse of all the brutally clear understanding of the depth and intensity of Kratia’s complete contempt for him.
Kratia felt the rage fill him, burning into every cell of his body. Then her mind was abruptly and completely expelled from Nikademos as he shattered all remnants of their former kinship. She gave him a cold contemptuous smile, which grew broader as Nikademos tried to cast a spell to restore his eyesight, and add strength and speed to his body.
The eyesight spell failed due to the mental blocks she had put into place, but the speed and effortless manner by which he cast the rejuvenation spells filled her with pride. No one but Murgorath had ever been able to alter a plebe’s mind into one that could wield magic. But Kratia had done it, and implanted the memories of how to use certain spells as well.
The apparently youthful Nexus called out in a roaring baritone, “I am not – “ and gagged as his throat and jaw muscles contracted in a painful spasm.
“I am not –” he gasped out again, before the cramps stopped him. “It’s her!” he screamed. “She did this to me! She has to be stopped!”
Icon called out, “Nexus! Stop this display at once and leave the chamber! I will not have you disrupt the Circle. And you already have much to answer to us very soon, I think.”
Nikademos was blind, but Kratia felt him deftly form a spell to let him know who was around him and what their expressions were. He found no allies. His new awareness found Kratia’s mocking smile; his face contorted in another burst of rage. He bent down, snatched a dagger from its hidden sheath in his boot. Screaming, he ran across the room to Kratia, swinging the knife in a deadly arc.
Kratia screamed and was very careful to put into the scream all the fear and intensity it deserved. But most of her attention was focused on calculating the exact trajectory of the blade. She jerked three inches left at the last moment and felt the blade stab with vicious power into her right lung. She felt it rip and puncture as she suppressed the pain; her next scream ended in a hoarse gurgle of spraying blood.
She let her eyes go wide in feigned terror as Nikademos pulled out the dagger and began another thrust. ‘Where are the damn guards’, she thought as she twisted again to avoid another immediately fatal wound, feeling the knife now slice deep into her liver and intestines.
There was a hiss and a tickle of air by her cheek, followed by a sudden “thump!”
Kratia could see the feathered tail of an arrow protruding from the chest of Nikademos. His blind eyes went wide in shock and disbelief. Kratia leaned further to the left, where she had a clear view of one of the guards taking aim for another crossbow shot. Excellent.
Kratia kept her mind cool, calculating the expected trajectory of the next shot. Damn! It would hit his chest again, and probably not be immediately fatal. She reached out as if to beat back her attacker, but instead grabbed securely at his vest and jerked him down and closer to her.
There was another thump, louder than the first and powerful enough that Nikademos was jerked out of her grasp. She watched as he convulsed violently on the floor. Then he lay still, an arrow protruding from his skull, his brain and his life destroyed.
Kratia quickly removed the mental blocks she had placed on her own pain. Her body surrendered to a massive wave of shock and excruciating pain, which faded with surprising suddenness into black unconsciousness.