Drake clutched at the MP-5 as he paused to catch his breath. It had been more difficult avoiding the patrols than he had anticipated, and his butt was sore after riding his horse at full gallop all the way from the Rauder village, taking as few breaks for water and rest as the beast could tolerate. He had let the horse go at the edge of Guildtown, and was trying to find Icon’s house, following the directions that had gotten from a few of the locals.
It was night now, and shadows made him jumpy, as well as making the landmarks and streets in the directions harder to identify. Plus it was raining, a light soaking drizzle that left him cold and squishy. He hated it. Not to mention the armed patrols he had seen moving around, some in the uniform of the Esaf Condeu. Which made no sense. What were those guys doing over here? Probably more of Kratia’s tricks. She had so many layers of subterfuge he doubted that even Kratia knew what was true any more.
Drake spit into the street. Damn thing was he didn’t know for sure who the good guys were. He had passed Esaf Mileu troops, Esaf Condeu troops, some of Kratia’s elite forces (that he had trained himself). Worse of all, he had just spotted Sarral skulking around the town holding an MP-5. He was like Kratia’s shadow, so the bitch was probably in town somewhere.
He preferred a good fight and wanted to take on Sarral and the Kratian troops, wanted to kill Kratia himself. But she might be too much for him. He hated to admit it, but prudence dictated that he get reinforcements first. Powerful ones that understood magic. So the situation demanded that he avoid all fighting, avoid all contact until after he reached Icon. Otherwise word might get back to Kratia and there would be hell to pay by Billy and Nexus. He was a soldier and knew that the mission came before personal preferences. Didn’t like it, but knew it.
Ah, that must be it. The house across the street. Drake saw two men standing outside armed with swords. Not a good sign. House arrest? Bodyguards? Drake ducked into the doorway of the nearest house, grateful to be out of the cold drizzle. He needed to get in Icon’s house, but did not want to tip off those guys or kill them unnecessarily.
Drake slipped away in shadows, thinking he was probably acting like the damn ninja; but you had to do what was necessary for the mission. He made his way to the back of Icon’s house. Small two-story. Large trees on the lawn. Ah, there was a window open a crack on the second floor. Stupid wizard gonna have a wet floor with all this rain. He shimmied up the tree, moved out onto a branch and dropped lightly onto the roof. He lost traction on the wet roof and began sliding. Dropping prone, lying on his stomach, Drake grabbed the gutter as he went over.
It held. He cursed silently even as he let out his breath in a grateful sigh. Ninja my ass. He’d rather be in a fox hole. He hand-walked over to the window. Holding himself up by one hand, he reached over and pulled the window open further. He swung his feet inside, spread his legs till they pressed hard against the sides of the window frame, then let go of the gutter. He hung suspended for a moment, then grunted as he muscled out a sit-up that let him grab the window with his hands. He wormed his way in.
The room was totally dark. Not knowing who was downstairs and not wanting to face unknown spells, Drake bit down hard on his left hand, felt the sharp pain and the salty coppery taste of his blood. There! Nothing to fear from magicians, either. After all, he didn’t want to be changed into a toad.
Drake strained to hear whatever sounds existed in the house. Hearing only the patter of rain on the roof, he moved carefully out of the room into the hallway. The stairs were next to him and he could hear quiet voices from the first floor. He couldn’t make out the words but it didn’t sound like an argument.
He crept down the stairs. The voices were coming from the room on the right. Two people talking. One sounded like Icon, but hell, he’d only heard the guy once and that was weeks ago. The other voice was male, identity unknown.
“Kratia, yes. But I would not have suspected Nexus,” the unknown voice said.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said Icon. “We know he was behind the fall of the Free Trade Bank. Then he went berserk in the Circle chambers, and was killed. I think he may have had a change of heart, and was about to expose Kratia. And the others. I’m sure several of the Lords are involved in this plot.”
“And they are all at the guild now?”
“Yes. Kratia is recuperating from the shock of being nearly killed. Although I think she may have faked it. Now she is taking the opportunity to meet with her co-conspirators.”
“So that’s why you wanted me to bring the army. Surround the guild building and arrest all the traitors.”
“It’s the only way,” said Icon.
“The tower will be difficult to storm. Your people have an excellent defensive location.”
“Yes, but I have something here that will make all the difference, Esaf ,” said Icon.
Drake heard the sound of something sliding across a table, and risked looking into the room. A white box was in front of the Esaf Mileu. The Esaf reached down and opened the lid.
There was a shriek and a blur of red as something leaped out of the box and plunged into the Esaf’s chest. A sudden blast of thunder sounded; the Esaf and the red quivering sword-thing vanished.
“What the hell was that?” asked Drake.
Icon spun around, clutching a wand. His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open as he gaped at Drake.
“Michael Drake, sir,” said Drake. “We need to talk. I overhead some of what you were talking about, but I have the inside knowledge that you will need against Kratia. But what just happened to the Esaf?”
“The Esaf Mileu was working with Kratia to take over Condeu,” said Icon. “I discovered that recently, and set up a trap for the Esaf. He is now a prisoner where he won’t be able to aid Kratia.”
Icon walked over to Drake, looked him over, discovered the bloody hand. “That must hurt,” the wizard said dryly. “Come into my study,” he said and motioned Drake into the room where the Esaf had just vanished. Icon strode over to the large desk and sat down in the cushioned chair behind it. He motioned for Drake to take one of the chairs in front.
“What information do you have, offworlder? I already know about the economic chaos she is causing. And she is behind the murder of the Esaf Condeu and the corruption of the Esaf Mileu. Is there more?”
Drake frowned. “Sir, the situation is much more serious and the threat quite imminent. Kratia doesn’t want just Condeu. She wants the whole world, and wants the Blue Crystal reprogrammed to support her takeover.”
Icon uttered a short derisive laugh. “No one can even get to the Crystal, let alone reprogram it,” he said. “What proof do you have?”
“I was with her, sir. I am part of her inner circle. I trained her damn troops. You can trust me on this.”
“Drake, you have been on our world less than a month; have you mastered all our social, economic, governmental, and magical secrets in that time? To the extent necessary to make conclusions and predictions on the most fundamental magical artifact of this entire world?” Icon rummaged around in the drawers, throwing things to the floor. Then smiled and pulled out a bottle of yellow pills.
Drake slammed the MP-5 down on the desk top, sending a flurry of papers into the air. “Listen old man! Kratia’s got your friend Nexus locked up in her castle. She has a private army of about three thousand troops; she has ordered commando raids on various outposts to stir up civil unrest. I know that because I led one of the raids – we wiped out the Purgatorian garrison at Bors Pass. Literally wiped out; we left no survivors.”
Icon grew more attentive. “Take these” he said, handing Drake two pills. “Your pain is distracting me.” He watched as Drake swallowed the pills dry. “If you led the raid, and were in a position of such high trust in Kratia’s council, then why have you suddenly turned traitor to her cause? Perhaps you are still working for her and are here only to stir up more trouble.”
“No Sir!” he shouted. “Kratia has some sort of spell that makes people follow her wishes. Her troops are under that spell, and until recently, so was I.”
“Mind control spells just don’t work, Drake. A person does not willingly give up conscious control of their lives. People resist. They fight. It causes pain or fear or both. And then the magic doesn’t work and the crystal collapses the spell.”
“I don’t know how she does it, damn it! She just does!” Drake was exasperated. How was he to get this old geezer to help them? “Maybe she uses music. There was a big concert, and a lot of the troops appeared right afterward.” Drake paused for a moment. “Yes, that’s how she does it. There as a smaller concert earlier, and that’s when I started being her lap dog.”
“Hmmm.” Icon stroked his chin. “You have not explained how you broke your conditioning. Did you stop hearing the music?” Icon smiled sardonically, infuriating Drake.
“I didn’t hear any damn music! That’s just how it gets started! Then the conditioning just stays in place; I don’t know how. I’m no magician. I don’t even know how I broke free of it. Maybe I just got so F-ing mad that the spell must have got shaken off.”
Icon had stopped smiling, but was still stroking his chin. “More likely some unusual chemicals in the Rauder food broke down the neuro-chemical barriers established by the spell, allowing emotions to flow in their normal neural pathways. Essentially, your brain was reset to its normal pre-spell conditions.” Icon nodded. “Explains a lot.”
“Then you believe me?” Drake asked, head tilted and lips tight.
“Oh, of course I do, Drake! Never doubted you for a second, though I do like to poke and probe a bit. But tell me, what has become of Takashema? Does he also resist Kratia?”
“Billy continues to follow Kratia’s orders. He isn’t brainwashed, but he is afraid of what she’ll do to Nexus if he disobeys her. He’s soft on the old wizard.”
“Then he continues on to the polar cusp?”
Drake nodded. “Yes, we set up a scam where…” Drake froze, snapped his mouth shut and stared at Icon. Alarms ringing loudly in his head, he casually reached for the gun.
Icon’s smile was back but it was grim and deadly. His eyes gleamed with a reddish glow that soon spread to the rest of his body. “Oh dear, I suppose I should not have let slip that bit about the cusp.” Icon seemed to shimmer before his eyes. “You didn’t tell me that part yet, did you, Drake?” The voice was pitched higher now, and distinctly feminine.
The MP-5 was in Drake’s arms. Safety off. Bolt back. Icon’s face dissolving, melting, reforming into a young, beautiful woman’s features.
Drake pointed the gun and squeezed the trigger just as the light went out. The rapid pop-pop-pop of the air gun echoed through the darkness. Drake longed for the strobe like flashes of real bullets, but the air powered shells gave no flicker. The “cracks!” as the shells slammed into the walls were not reassuring. Drake knew he had missed. He fired in a wider pattern.
“It’s a simple spell to see in the dark, Drake. Infrared vision, built‑in, so to speak. Pity you don’t have your night vision.”
Drake spun to the sound of her words, cut loose with another volley. He cursed himself for taking the pills. His ears must be ringing from the noise; he thought he heard gunfire pops even after he stopped firing. But not as loud. Outside the house? What the hell was happening?
“Wizards make excellent ventriloquists, as well. Care to try again?” Drake pivoted in a 360 degree turn, the “pops” and the crashes blurring into a constant roar that went on and on until the chamber emptied.
A ringing silence took the place of the roar. Drake backed towards the door, but stopped when he heard a moan from his left. Wizards could heal themselves; Kratia could not be allowed that opportunity. He pulled a butane lighter from his pocket. With his other hand he slid his survival knife from its sheath.
In the flickering glow of the lighter Drake saw Icon’s body leaning out from the wall of his study. He was slumped forward and down, held up only by the short lengths of chains that bound his manacled wrists to the iron circles set into the wall. His white robe was coated thickly with matted dried blood; his head lay on a table beside the body, still oozing blood from the stump of the neck and from a smashed spot on his head.
The room was suddenly ablaze with light, and Drake spun around with his knife ready. No one was there.
“You trained my troops well, Drake. But Icon was just too good for them. He was on his guard, and their weapons were no match for a master magician. Fortunately I decided to personally oversee the operation, something Icon was not prepared for. I blocked enough of his spells for my men to subdue him. A little interrogation, and I learned he was about to contact the Esaf Mileu for assistance. Personally, I thought that was an excellent idea so I followed through on his behalf. That’s why the Esaf was here, allowing me to knock down two major obstacles in a single night!
“But your arrival really surprised me, Drake! You really tricked me, an accomplishment that no one else alive in this world can boast of! Be proud of yourself! And if you had been just a few hours earlier who knows? The information you would have given Icon, and your physical presence here could have stalled, possibly even defeated my plans. But fortunately I arrived here first, Drake. Before you. Before Icon could warn the Esaf. I arrived right on time to make this all come together with absolute perfection. The Crystal protects me, Drake!”
Drake had given up moving for the door, but was thinking furiously. He hoped the bitch would keep talking. He needed time. The gun had worked properly, but the shells hadn’t hit Kratia. He didn’t think she could become immaterial and still talk and cast spells; he’d heard something about talking being dangerous. So how did he miss her? Simple invisibility was out. He had shot up the whole room, and would have hit her no matter where she stood. There wasn’t enough time for her to go anywhere, anyway. Unless she just flew away. Flew away. Up up and away. Up. Up?
Drake looked up at the ceiling, but saw nothing. What the hell! He ran towards the desk, leaped on it with a screaming battle cry and slashed his knife through the air. It stopped suddenly in the midst of empty air with a jolt that nearly dislodged his grip. There was a scream of pain. He jerked the knife back as the room went dark again. He heard a thump of someone falling to the floor.
He felt the blade, found it slick with blood. He licked it from his finger, and dove to the floor to finish the job.
“Sarral!” screamed Kratia. The door burst open. Drake spun around, saw Sarral taking aim. Drake raised his arm to throw the knife, knowing there wouldn’t be enough time. He never heard the sound of the “pop-pop-pop” of the gun; his mind was focused only on the slugs ramming into his chest. He saw Sarral move into the room. Drake’s mind stopped working before it could register anything else.