Icon sat down, his body sinking into the deep padding of his favorite chair. He wanted to relax, to escape from the constant stress. That’s why he had slipped away from his apartment in Minas Nimgul to here, his little cottage in Guildtown. But relaxation eluded him. His mind insisted on churning through the details of the crisis that Salmineria was entering.
He reached for his pipe, filled it with a flagrant blend of tobacco and dried Juberry leaves, ignited the mixture. The aroma filled his study as he allowed a carefully measured portion of the intoxicants and sedatives into his system. He then directed each chemical to a different portion of his brain, enhancing his deductive and intuitive centers. He was indifferent to the damage the substances were doing to his lungs; it could be corrected easily later.
The economic underpinnings of civilization were collapsing. The vast but normally unfocused power of the common people had been herded by fear into a run on the major and minor banks, leaving them virtually empty but for the Esafs’ private reserves. The Esafs, fearful of losing their energy base, refused to lend out any of these reserves. The common people, in similar fear hoarded their own wands.
Thus the currency of energy that lubricated the functioning of civilization was quickly drying up; most shopkeepers had already stopped all credit to their customers, but were caught themselves as suppliers demanded payment in direct energy. Spot shortages of various goods were beginning to appear and would soon start additional rumors of doom and disaster. The natural growth of the viscous circle was obvious. How to stop it was not.
Icon drew a deep breath from the pipe. Why had Nexus done it? Nexus was smart enough to know the Circle would discover such a plan. Then the outburst at the meeting; it made no sense. Nexus had never been a fool. He always had a plan even if it was too subtle to see at first. What then was his plan? What had he hoped to accomplish? Icon brooded over the question but no insight came. Nexus was dead and whatever his intentions were had probably died with him. He would forget the matter and concentrate on solutions to the current crisis.
Icon reviewed the political and economic situation again, but his mind kept coming back to Nexus. There had to be a reason, a plan, a motive, which would give meaning to the crisis. If he could figure out the motive then he might have a chance at restoring order and confidence. What did Nexus have to gain? How would he have benefited?
No obvious answer came. Perhaps Nexus was insane. Madmen need no reason for there actions. But madness usually robbed the victim of magical ability. Nexus was a Lord of the Circle. Just last week he had joined in the full Circle with Kratia in the Center; any hint of insanity would have made that joining impossible. Even more recently Nexus had talked to Nasan and Feindre. Neither had noticed any problem. Nor had Kratia detected any instability. So Nexus was not mad.
A mind clever enough to engineer this economic catastrophe would certainly have taken care to stay alive; in fact, it would have taken great pains never to have been found out at all. Nexus had never been sloppy; this wasn’t like him at all. Like his final outburst, it just wasn’t like him at all.
And where was Crow? Nexus never went anywhere without the bird. That nonsense about Crow abandoning Nexus, not likely, not likely at all. Crow had been with Nexus over 50 years. Another fact that just didn’t fit in this bizarre puzzle.
What did that leave? That Nexus was not Nexus? An impostor perhaps? Also impossible. The spells that guarded the entrance to the chamber were tenth level. They prevented anyone from entering the chamber if their genetic code did not match one of those on file in the archive of the guild library. Those files were guarded constantly. And another tenth level spell made it impossible to alter the DNA of anyone else. Simple logic then made it clear that Nexus was indeed Nexus.
Reaching another dead end, Icon selected a different anomaly to consider: the strange situation of Nexus entering the chamber with Kratia. Arm in arm; in fact, he had appeared initially to be quite amicable with her. Icon had been skilled in reading human emotions for decades; he was sure that a genuine affection, perhaps even love, was being felt by Nexus towards Kratia. Most unusual. And then the way he had turned on her! So much worse than the normal irritation he had often expressed towards her in previous meetings. It was more like the blind rage sometimes felt by a jilted lover. But Nexus would never have been Kratia’s lover.
Could Kratia have somehow lured Nexus into a duel; forcing him to like her? Until he had somehow managed to break free? Then of course his emotion would be that of rage; he would have just fought his way to freedom and wanting revenge. But even in rage Nexus would know that the Circle guards would act to stop aggression against another member of the Circle. Nexus would know that all he had to do is reveal Kratia’s treachery and the Circle would have seen to her punishment. No, just didn’t act at all like Nexus.
Icon exhaled the smoke slowly into concentric rings. Rings within rings, circles within circles. He had also read Kratia’s emotions at the meeting, and these were contradictory. At the end, Kratia certainly felt pain, real pain. Fear, too. Or at least excitement. Her adrenaline level had surged and her heart rate was extremely rapid. Her struggles seemed more calculated than instinctive, but that was not unusual for a Lord. And there was no denying that she had nearly been killed. It was impossible to fake the knife wounds; she would have died had he not cast the healing spells himself. It was a near thing, forcing the pain pills into mouth, and the adrenaline pill, and the stimulant to bring her to consciousness so she could open her mind to the healing. Yes, a very near thing.
Icon frowned. Yet Kratia certainly knew him well enough to predict his actions in a crisis. She had played him often enough in Circle meetings. Had she foreseen and counted on his actions to save her after the attack? Why?
His thoughts turned to the rejuvenation spell that Nexus had cast. Why? Magic had no need of youth. Yes, he was angry at Kratia, but a physical attack? It wasn’t his style, and Nexus would have known it would be ineffective. So it wasn’t Nexus. But then, how did he get into the chamber?
Icon set down his pipe and leaned over to his sensiball. He summoned the duty mage at the Guild.
“Master Icon! What can I do for you at this late hour, sir?” asked the figure inside the glass sphere.
Icon recognized the wizard as Minserio, a promising young master wizard, newly hired. He would have preferred Dacsinj, head of the library, but Icon did not want to wait. “I want a complete data dump to this sensiball of the genetic codes of all those with access to the Circle Chamber. And flag all those that were in the chamber on the day Nexus was killed.”
“I’ll need to establish a feed first from your sensiball to the archives, and you’ll need to insert your own code in as authorization.” Icon sent the code; Minserio promised to prepare the report and call back within a minute or two.
Icon fumed and paced for several minutes, as the sensiball stayed dim. He called Minserio again. “Where is the information I asked for?”
“Sir, we have had a bit of a problem here,” replied the young mage hesitantly.
“What kind of problem?”
“There seems to be an inconsistency between some of the data in the sensiballs and the source scrolls in the archives.”
Icon started to interrupt but the young magician hurried on with his explanation. “I discovered it almost by accident, sir. You see, I take my job seriously. Part of my responsibility is to verify that the data on the sensiball is an accurate copy of the information on the official scrolls. But when I went to verify the data you requested, I found some of the scrolls had been tampered with.”
“What?” cried Icon. “How can you know they were tampered with? They are impregnated with white crystal and kept in a secure vault. Only the Lords and the library staff have access.”
The library clerk magician looked nervous. “I do a bit more than is customary, Center. Since the purpose of most visits to the archive is to verify that the data in the sensiballs is in an accurate copy of the source scrolls, I thought it would be convenient to make an extra copy of the source data and put it on my personal sensiball. Once I verified it was correct, I could use it to verify other sensiballs instead of always going back to the scrolls in the vault. I would update and verify my personal copy every couple days.”
“What is your point, Minserio?”
“Well, while I was pulling up the information you wanted, I noted that some of the information that you requested had been accessed two days ago, so I still had a verified copy in my sensiball. But when I compared the current information for your sensiball with my sensiball, it didn’t match. And my information didn’t match with the scroll, either.”
“Did the new information match with the scrolls in the archive?”
“Yes, Lord Icon.”
“Isn’t it more likely that the information on the scrolls is correct and that your personal and unauthorized copy has somehow been corrupted?”
The young mage looked embarrassed. “Yes, Lord. I jumped to an incorrect conclusion.”
“You don’t know that your conclusion is incorrect, Minserio. You only know that there is a discrepancy, and that data sets that should be identical are not. While unlikely, it is possible that your initial conclusion is correct.” Icon paused, thinking. “Send me both sets of data. Clearly labeled, of course.”
In minutes the information was there, and Icon began sorting out more pieces of the puzzle. The official data from the scrolls revealed that the genetic code of the late Nexus was a match with the data on file with the Guild. The data from Minserio’s unofficial copy showed that the Nexus on file was not the same person that was killed in the chamber.
Was it possible that someone had actually altered an official record in the archive? Why? And what was more likely: that this was just a chance occurrence of data corruption, or that there was a major conspiracy within the wizard’s guild?
Icon decided to take a closer look at the corrupted data. The only significant difference in the data involved the genetic pattern of Nexus. Unlikely that corruption would be so specific and so limited. And there was something oddly familiar about that genetic pattern. A hundred billion possible gene combinations; that was what science said was available to the gene pool on Salmineria. So the odds of two unrelated people having similar patterns was nearly impossible.
So why did Minserio’s data indicate that Kratia and Nexus had a pattern that was almost fifty percent identical? Siblings, parents and children often had correlation this close, but no one else.
Icon didn’t know much about Kratia’s lineage, but he knew a great deal about Nexus’s. He was an only child of an only child. No chance of another sibling; he had helped Nexus map out his family tree years ago, so that he’d be able to show it to Takair.
But Takair had died at Anro Pass. Stupid to take the boy with us on a hunt for the foul Murgorath. Too crafty, too dangerous. Everyone so busy fighting for their own life to notice the boy was in trouble. Too late to save him. Icon was with Nexus when he had foolishly tried prophecy to find Takair. He was with Nexus when they later found his body. And Nexus’s overwhelming grief and disappointment. And the cruel permanence of the curse of blindness, even after the prophecy had been fulfilled…
“By the Desolation!” cried Icon as the pieces flew into a suddenly stark picture.
Icon began casting another spell over his sensiball. He needed help, and knew exactly where to get it. He would contact the Esaf Mileu.
Before he could finish the spell, someone started knocking loudly on the door and a voice cried out, “Icon! Icon! An emergency at the guild building!”
Icon stopped his spelling so that he could answer safely. “One moment,” he said, walking across the room. Damn! Things were happening too fast. He opened the door.